In three days time we would reach the eastern most destination of our trip — the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Speculation as to what awaited us there was one of two conversational topics that dominated our car rides. None of us had ever been or really knew very much about the place and the mystique of it cast an apprehensive and somewhat ominous shadow over the days leading up to our arrival. The second topic was a fantasy in which the promoter of an upcoming show, enraged by the some might say ‘difficult’ computer-music stylings of Rene Hell, experiences a violent meltdown resulting in a variety of unspeakable horrors, ultimately ending in Jeff’s murder. Other than this we kept it pretty quiet.
The night before Serbia we rung up an impressive bar tab drinking frozen cocktails on the roof of a ship in Budapest and in the morning we traversed the Great Hungarian Plain in a frenzy of hungover anxiety as the highway signs guided us gently towards Belgrade. The armed border patrolmen did little to soothe our nerves, staring abhorrently at our American passports and surveying the car’s interior clutter with an eye of revulsion before eventually waving us through. Immediately the TomTom GPS unit that had escorted us thus far ceased to operate — Serbian highway data had not been part of its programming and we hurtled along through the countryside desperate for guidance. Stopping at a gas station on the outskirts of the city we took photos of a road map and zooming in on these managed to locate the name of the street the venue was on and clumsily navigated our way to that general area where we proceeded on foot.
Mosquitoes were a problem this time of year as was apparent the moment we stepped out of the car when a large flatbed truck came noisily shambling up the road spitting thick streams of toxic insecticide out of various tubes that protruded from a large Soviet-style contraption strapped to the back. Imitating the locals, we covered our faces with our shirts and ducked into the nearest shop as it ambled by, enveloping the street in a pale orange haze. We had arrived.
The addresses weren’t always labeled so clearly and the numerical system by which they increased or decreased wasn’t based on a logic that any of us could discern, therefore we weren’t certain if the building which we gazed upon was in fact the venue for that night’s show, but we feared that it was. Down an overgrown path sat a two story concrete structure that had quite some years ago fallen into a state of disrepair, any doors or windowpanes were long gone, and the place was now in the process of going back to nature. I’d been paid a decent amount from the Donau Festival — twice what we’d agreed upon to my pleasant surprise, and in cash — so for safety reasons I took the opportunity before entering to roll up the wad and lodge it deep within my sock. Inside it was how you’d imagine an abandoned building that’s been exposed to the elements for years and is now hosting gigs would be; wet, cold, sprouting vegetation, every inch covered in ridiculous graffiti. Power was provided by a chain of extension cables that ran secretively from the closest neighboring building through one of the windows.
We could hear the backstage spreads and hotel rooms of previous days calling us, welcoming us with open arms, and we began discussing the possibility of a retreat. We hadn’t met anyone yet so if we just drove away it would be as if we’d never shown up. Jonathan (1/2 of Laser Poodle), Jeff, and I all liked the idea of getting back in the car, driving towards our next show, getting a hotel along the way and having a nice relaxing night. Comfort however was not of much interest or importance to my friend Johann (the other 1/2 of Laser Poodle) and he repeatedly shot the idea down each time we suggested it, leaving us to reluctantly pull up the car and begin loading in.
We sat around a small bonfire outside taking swigs of some type of sweet but extremely potent Serbian liquor I didn’t catch the name of. The offeror of the booze watched us closely as we drank it, waiting for our lips to make contact with the bottle before his mouth would contort into a devilish smirk, the expression made even more disconcerting by the light of the fire. A respectable amount of people had turned up for the gig at this point, but they didn’t necessarily seem like your typical abstract computer music fans, and Jeff began feeling hesitant about his set.
“These people don’t need to see me do that, Schofield.”, he would say. I couldn’t help but agree and I wasn’t in the mood for doing my usual thing either, so we decided to do an improv ‘hard-style’ collaboration in which I’d mess around with unused beats I’d already programmed while Jeff scattered a layer of weird sounds from whatever software program he was using at the time over top. It went alright, the audience seemed to dig it sort of, and our moods began to improve.
Back at the bonfire, someone who was apparently in charge of the gig came to pay us for the night. Our eyes surged with delight, pleased with ourselves for not having fled the country when we so foolishly wanted to, as they exposed a plump cylinder of rolled Serbian bills and handed it in our direction. They then chose the words, “This converts to about 30 Euros”, to deflate our sudden swelling of joy. We continued drinking around the fire until it was deemed acceptable to sleep, at which point we were shown to a room on the second floor which identically resembled the rest of the building, except with a pile of thin mattresses and some sheets of foam in one corner which we distributed amongst ourselves. I hopped on one, pulled my coat up over my head and let sleep take its course.
I awoke in the morning horrifically thirsty, my tongue bone dry and pasted to the roof of my mouth. My eyelids flickered and as I adjusted to the sunlight I began to notice the intricacy of the stain on the mattress next to my face, radiating out from the center in increasingly sicklier shades of yellow. A surplus of stagnant mucus, having lost its viscosity, came rushing from my nostrils as I sat up. I sopped the translucent ooze up with my sleeve and took a couple good deep sniffs to try and suck any that lingered back inside.
The first thing I noticed as I assessed the room in my state of morning decrepitude, was that during the night a pack of eight to ten stray dogs had come inside (there was after all, nothing to stop them from coming in) and they now laid about the room interspersed between my sleeping friends. They seemed unwell, mangy and breathing shallowly — but unthreatening, which led me to believe they may be diseased. I then realized that with this backdrop, most living things would appear to be diseased and that I at that moment most certainly fit the part as well.
A morning dew had blanketed the room and my shoes squeaked in the moisture as I tiptoed around the dog carcasses, not wanting to rouse the beasts. I found Jonathan outside smoking a cigarette around the remnants of the fire and he said something along the lines of, “We should get the fuck out of here, right?”. It only took one good shake and a quick gesture towards the dogs to get Jeff up on his feet, but Johann, who does like a good snooze, proved harder. It turns out that even in a wet concrete room in an abandoned building filled with sick dogs, curled up on a filthy sheet of absorbent foam, that getting a solid night’s sleep was still his top priority.
Once we crossed the border into Croatia the GPS started working again and Jane, the British woman we’d chosen as our navigational voice, directed us without issue to the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. This evening’s show was at a more traditional club/venue within an arts commune that we were told many times was like the ‘Slovenian Christiania’. The promoters seemed nice enough and were very excited about the show, busying themselves posting up a schedule on various poles and doors around the room.
After soundcheck we hit the town in search of a cocktail bar where we could hopefully sit outside, unwind with a stiff drink, and maybe have a laugh about our Serbian excursion. Before too long we found just that, except the menu at our chosen establishment was rather untraditional and I didn’t recognize a single drink on it. Our waiter stood by slowly losing patience as we hemmed and hawed, shooting looks of confusion across the table at each other, until I decided I’d end the insufferable limbo and order us a round of drinks named “The Killer”. Objections were voiced all around, but I insisted upon it and the waiter eagerly scurried off.
They were aquamarine in color, heavily iced, and in tall glasses with one of those curly rollercoaster-esque party straws. After a few sips I guessed it to be a combination of vodka, gin, and blue curaçao. It tasted awful but went down easy and ended up packing more of a punch than expected.
The first DJ opened the night up to a small audience who mostly lingered in the back of the room and Rene Hell went up next. The crowd moved closer as he took the stage and then changed their minds shortly after he started — I got a great Vine that starts with him beginning the set and cuts to a group of girls rushing out of the room. As I headed backstage once he’d finished, I began to hear the cries.
“Schofield! Schofield!”, he shouted, “It’s going down! It’s going down!”. I caught a glimpse of his panicked face darting up and down where the three promoters had him cornered and pushed up against a wall. They were genuinely irate and their fingers poked and prodded Jeff’s chest forcefully as his eyes begged for me to intervene.
With some persuasion I managed to coax them away from him to talk to me in the next room. I couldn’t quite believe my ears as they began to explain what — from their perspective — had just happened as it was taken verbatim from the fictional tales we’d spun in the car. They believed that Jeff, angry he was made to play first out of the live acts, had decided to retaliate by playing what they called ‘very bad music’. This next bit perplexed me, but they seemed even more angry not about the fact that his music was ‘bad’, but that he played it for such a short amount of time — 22 minutes, they repeated. He had done this, in their minds, in an attempt to sabotage the evening and sully the name of their DJ and party promotion crew. I assured them that Jeff had in fact played this exact same set every night for the last week and half in every city we went to and that not only did he intend for it to sound the way it did, but people often liked it. This information managed to derail their anger somewhat and replace it with confusion, but a hostile vibe now lingered in the air.
One of them grabbed a timetable (they’d put up so many that one was always within arm's reach) and showed me that Rene Hell was scheduled to play from exactly 10 until exactly 11 pm — one solid hour, and in fact each of the live acts and DJ’s in-between them were to do the same. This presented two additional problems as far as I could tell: we had a long night ahead of us, and I was going to need to double my set length somehow.
In the meantime, while all this bedlam had been unfolding, The Killer — unlike any other cocktail I’ve had before or since — was managing to increase in strength as time went on, as if it was regenerating or giving birth to little Killers inside of me. Everyone agreed they were at an unusual level of drunkenness for what had been consumed and wondered if the drink didn’t perhaps contain a variety of illicit pills.
A couple of hours later its gestation period had been completed and I took to the stage in a frightful state of inebriation. I began, intentionally, to play each part of all my songs for twice as long as I normally would, thinking that this would stretch my 25 minute set out to a more locally acceptable length of 50 and hopefully help to avoid any additional conflict — but boy it wasn’t easy! My vision rattled and trailed erratically, each button press or knob twiddle required utmost focus and concentration to ensure that the correct one was being depressed or tweaked. One arm had to be used to steady the other one as I hunched over the array of blinking electronics squinting through one eye. I had a hard time ‘losing myself in the music’ if you know what I mean, and the set slogged forth at an alarmingly sluggish pace.
“It was like being in a time-warp.”, remarked Johann, his glasses skewed at a steep incline across his face as I watched The Killer work away at him from within.
Jeff was catching a train back to the Donau Festival in the morning, and Jonathan and I walked him back to where we were staying, which unfortunately was the promoter’s apartment. I scarfed down a cheese burek from a late night food stand along the way which I drunkenly praised in great detail for the remainder of the walk and still have flashbacks to the succulence of to this day. After tucking Jeff in, advising he stay awake in case the promoters came back feeling vengeful, and saying our farewells, we headed back to the venue to pack up and get Johann.
What we were hoping to see when we walked up was Johann standing out front of the venue, which was now closed, with all the gear packed up, eagerly awaiting us. To our dismay what we arrived to was a party that had nearly doubled in size and showed no signs of stopping. We squeezed though dancing Slovenian club goers in a frantic search for our friend, wanting nothing more than to be free from this situation, when my eyes caught sight of him as they scanned the room. He was on stage, behind the decks, in the middle of an unscheduled DJ set, responsible for the continuation of the party. The Killer’s transformation had been achieved and the glasses were fully off now as he bopped around behind the turntables looking possessed. Our groans were audible even over the roar of the PA, as Jonathan and I both knew well that even a trained FBI hostage negotiator with thirty plus years experience would have no luck in getting DJ Cosmo Knex off of that stage. A hopeless feeling of inescapable monotony began to take over, a feeling that I would become very familiar with in the years that followed, a feeling known as ‘Techno Hell’. Due to my brain’s safety mechanism, in which it enters a stand-by mode when exposed to Techno Hell, the remainder of the evening goes blank and is wiped clean from my memory.
The Poodle Boys and I drove to Italy in the morning and explored towns along the Gulf of Trieste before landing at a Best Western in Gorizia. We had our first showers in several days, watched Italian television, and ate prosciutto pizzas in the square — a necessary and restorative night of relaxation after several in a row that offered none.
In 2018, back in Budapest for the UH Festival, I met a guy from Belgrade who had driven up for the show.
“You played there before right?”, he asked.
“Well…”, I paused. “Sort of.”
“At kind of a strange place?”, I nodded slowly, watching him search for a more appropriate word. “At a kind of very sketchy place?” The pace of my nodding increased. He went on to say that although he knew about the gig, he hadn’t gone as he had a hard time imagining it could be real, finding it unfathomable we would’ve been playing such a ‘venue’. In the time that had passed I always wondered if my imagination had embellished my memories so it was good to meet someone, a Belgrade native, who could reaffirm the way I’d preserved the experience. How, he wondered, had we ended up there? Who had led us astray? There were no sensible justifications that would satisfy his questions and I stood silently before him with my hands in the air. Before we parted ways he suggested I come back for an actual gig sometime, which I would love and hope can happen, although I’m not confident on being able to get a Ljubljana show secured for the following day.