On Thursday night I blinked back tears as I absorbed the thousand of phone lights twinkling in the crowd like stars in the sky.
Thursday was the last major event we were putting on at work before I step down to become a professional musician.
Head back to January 2019 and I'm walking through the woods with George, both wrapped in big coats with chilly hands poking through padded sleeves, loosely gripping cold cans of Polish lager. We're reflecting on a run of awful January gigs.
"Last year for me, this, genuinely", I sigh. "I get more from work than I do playing Cambridge to eight people on a Tuesday."
A year or so previously I'd talked my way into a job putting on big events at a Students' Union. As time went on I began to get more from work in terms of creative accomplishment than I did from the band. There were so many parallels - the opportunity to be innovative and excited about ideas, work as a team to build something huge then DELIVER. And to be honest, putting on parties for thousands of people was scratching the itch more than gigging to a handful of disinterested punters who weren't expecting music on a Tuesday.
George didn't believe me for a second.
"So, then what? I do a different band and you do... Spoken work? Acoustic stuff?"
"I'll just do events."
"So, how will you perform?"
"I won't. I'll do events."
George couldn't envisage a world where he and I weren't performing in some way. I thought at the time that I didn't need to. Turns out George was right all along.
When lockdown happened we were both furloughed and all gigs were cancelled. Suddenly, without anything in the diary, we were both absolutely lost. Over a decade of gigging in countless bands together and apart - who were we if not creatives? And how could we be creative without performance?
The sheer panic of losing time drove us to throw every penny of our minimal band fund and every waking moment of our furloughed existence into writing and recording an album called Fractured Party Music.
Fast forward 18 months to last Thursday's Fireworks Night at Essex Students' Union. I'm exhausted, freezing and accomplished. I used to think that putting on events gave you the same feeling as gigging, but have since realised there is a stark difference. Thursday wasn't about me. It was about an incredible team pulling together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. It's awesome, overwhelming and something I'm massively proud to be a part of. But it's definitely different.
Essex SU has been the making of me. I'm much more confident in who I am and the person I aspire to be. And y'know what? It's weird leaving a job I'm not ready to leave.
But I am leaving. At Christmas. To be a musician.
This is incredibly exciting and absolutely terrifying at the same time. We're aiming to fund our whole lives by selling records and t-shirts at shows! Suddenly our sales pitch isn't saying, "by buying a t-shirt you're putting fuel in the van", more so, "by buying a t-shirt you're paying our rent. Thank you so, SO much."
We're ready to be cash poor and experience rich and are going to do all we can to make this work. It's absolutely a risk. But we'd rather try and see what happens then never try at all.
I'm now off work for three weeks, in which we record album 2. Then I'm back for three weeks. Then I'm off to do music. I'm trying to wangle a deal that if I need cash between tours they will allow me back to do something, anything for a few weeks. We'll see if that happens or indeed if I'll need it.
Either way, 2022 is a tangent in our lives we were never expecting. And we're so ready.
It was our first "dry" gig yesterday.
Not a drop of alcohol between us.
Usually we have a "driving levels" rule: you can have *one* drink before you go on, then hit the beers afterwards. I sometimes push this a little further than the other lads and have a sneaky second can as I'm warming up. Maybe even a third to walk on with. It adds up.
The problem ("problem". Jesus, listen to me) is that as the band has grown in size, free alcohol is everywhere. As soon as we rock up to the dressing room there's a crate of lager and a bottle of spirit, along with, at our request, salt and vinegar crisps and "healthy vegetarian food", so we can kid ourselves that we're in some way health conscious despite the units we are about to consume.
I don't think a little beer before stage massively impacts our performance on the first night. If anything I feel looser. It definitely impacts the second night, though, as I spend all day warming up, drinking ginger tea and downing water, trying to free my voice from the hoarse shackels of a hangover and shake the foggy pressure surrounding my head.
We can get through a second gig after a night on the beers. But is "getting through" really what we're aiming for?
We're leaving work at Christmas to do music full time, starting with 28 dates round the UK with Frank Turner. In stark contrast to the rock n roll fantasy, hitting the beers every night is going to screw us up, physically and mentally.
If we have a "rest day" the next day, then sure. We will have four days of riders saved up! But if we don't, we need to make a plan.
So, yesterday at The Hunter Club in Bury St. Edmunds, we road-tested our first "dry gig".
Wandering round the venue, bumping into old friends and catching new bands (side note - @fleasband, who are playing with us next Saturday, are incredible), I didn't massively fancy a pint. I could smell it everywhere, and if I was there as a punter my first thought would be to hit the bar. But I was here for a purpose and I'm very used to not drinking at this stage of the day.
Warming up was interesting, especially because we were sharing a dressing room with Fightmilk who were mid way through throwing on their Addams Family costumes. When the nights get a little weirder, it's always fun to crack a can and watch the chaos unfold, or even better, be spearheading said chaos. Without a drink I was broadly fine, sharing stories with the other bands between straw phonation and tongue stretches (always an awkward first encounter when you can't properly speak as a result of warming up, but important!)
My big challenge was how to get the pre-gig adrenaline pumping. Our dressing room was an office with a very low ceiling, so star jumps were out of the question. As it happened, our stage was running late by about half an hour, so we had to do the world's quickest changeover. Literally ten minutes, including building a full drum kit. As we frantically rushed amps on stage, threw cymbals to Jack and ran around looking for the set lists my heart started pumping; I started to sweat. And I began to giggle at the panic in the rest of the band.
We had no soundcheck. No time. God, this felt like the old days.
We tore into our set in a little room in front of a handful of dedicated people. We were headlining the small room that had been pretty quiet all day. In this venue, the default is for people to stay in the main room, which meant everyone watching us had made a conscious choice to be there.
The stage was tiny. So small that Jack was sitting at the front and the back of it simultaneously. The sound was challenging for first couple of songs. But, y'know what? It felt kind of punk and nostalgic. I'd missed it.
It was weird, initially, standing there sober whilst throwing my mic stand about and dancing like an idiot, on the floor with the rest of the band on the stage. Usually at a gig this size I would have had a couple more beers to lose myself in the music a little more. As the set went on I grew in confidence, especially when introducing new tunes. I remembered to sing properly, too! All the tricks I had been learning in lessons were consciously applied and even standing on the floor without monitors, I felt confident. Strong.
We quickly became best friends with the people in the room and albeit the quietest gig numbers-wise we've played all year, the energy was high. It felt like a house show.
The set finished with it's usually recipe of chaos, then it was merch time. I enjoyed catching up with a family who had first seen us on a big stage in Margate and a group of friends who had made the round trip from Brighton just for the show. Usually I'd be diving head first into the rider now to celebrate, or doing shots at the bar with our new friends. However, it wasn't massively missed; I was engrossed in conversation on the merch desk.
About 30 minutes later we started packing up. It all felt weirdly civil. As we stood outside our packed cars completing our stock check, we congratulated each other on a good show. It felt like we were one step away from shaking hands! As Rich said post-gig: "So, what are we meant to do now? Talk to each other?!"
Jack and I headed home to the soundtrack of the new Dream Theatre album. As I walked (without stumbling) down the alley to my house and unlocked the door (without one eye closed), I felt at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. I fed the cat. Looked for some food. Found an alcohol-free beer in the fridge, then headed to bed and put on a podcast.
It took a while to get to sleep, but I did. And here I am now, Sunday morning, fresh with decent(ish!) mental health, ready for the day. I could definitely gig again tonight.
Moral of the story? I love drinking and the chaos it brings. I WILL drink on tour when we have a day off the next day. But I can gig dry. WE can gig dry. And, in my opinion, we were all the better for it.
Cheers to the Washing Machine team for having us back and to those who partied with us. What great fun. Steamboat Ipswich next week!