Despite the long flight from Seattle to Warsaw, Poland, a serious lack of sleep and the daunting task of translating their 2005 summer tour in unfamiliar territory overseas (they’d already played two weeks across the western U.S.), local rockers Ass-End Offend were nothing but excited to escape to Eastern Europe for their first international tour.
“As soon as we stepped off the plane in Poland it was the best feeling,” says guitarist/vocalist Matt Svendsen, “because I think that’s the first time any of us had been out of the United States before. It really felt like I’d been cured of a lifelong disease.”
Members of Ass-End Offend are veterans of the Missoula punk scene, having performed in various bands, including The Anti-DiFrancos, Disgruntled Nation and Venal I.V. Since forming in 1999, the band has toured the States four times, released several vinyl EPs (including the new Unchecked Aggression), and last summer released a full-length CD (and vinyl LP) titled Character Assassins. But in February 2005 they angled to break new ground and, with the help of Josh Vanek, owner of local record label Wäntage USA, raised $2,400 to fund a tour of Eastern Europe. Vanek, having been to the area on several occasions—including serving in Latvia with the Peace Corps and later traveling with locals Volumen on their European tour—locked down venues and hired a van service for the band’s transportation, and then decided to tag along.
The trip was an adventure from the get-go, starting even before they left the Warsaw airport. Nervous that their punk-style clothes might spark unwanted interest from airport security, the foursome donned Hawaiian shirts and what drummer Dan Lawlor calls “straight clothes” to quickly move their equipment and band merchandise through the airport free of hassles. Once out of the airport, band members had their first meeting with their Polish van driver, Wojtek, and his girlfriend Maja, to whom they paid a cheap fee of 30 euros a day, or $37 (plus gas) to drive them through Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Bassist Tom Elston says that starting with their first show in Ciechanowiec (a town they drove to from Warsaw), he was struck by the enormous enthusiasm of the audience—which gave the band its first experience signing autographs.
“That show was really cool,” says Svendsen. “It’s a small town of 5,000 people—it was 20,000 people before the Nazis came…and the town never really gained back its population. All the kids there were really excited just to have a show. Everybody over there, every night we were over there, was just so nice—not just to us but to each other. There were no fights...people don’t treat each other like shit over there.”
The contrast might have seemed glaring because a few weeks before the group’s tour to Europe, Svendsen had a gun pulled on him after a show in Pocatello, Idaho—a confrontation stemming from political differences between Svendsen and an audience member over the war in Iraq and other U.S. policies, subjects Ass-End Offend frequently address. The night ended safely, but the incident was a strange precursor to the more rational (and numerous) political debates they encountered in Eastern Europe.
“Nobody gave us a shitty attitude for being from America,” insists Svendsen. “Of course a lot of people over there really hate what the American government is doing, but they don’t hold you personally responsible.”
In addition to the people, the venues proved to be an eye-opening experience. In Alytus, Lithuania, the band played the Kolonija Midsummer Camp, a do-it-yourself festival in a field outside of town—they didn’t find the field until a local villager hopped in their van and gave directions, albeit drunken and belligerent ones, to Wojtek.
In Valga, Estonia, a border town where kids with guitars frequently cross over from Latvia, Ass-End played the second floor of an old public sauna building called Rockiklubi.
“It was kind of like Jay’s in a lot of ways,” says Vanek, referring to now-defunct Missoula rock bar Jay’s Upstairs. “It was just worn in, nothing really new except for the PAs.”
As is the case on any tour, there were even stranger, more awkward moments. After the DIY camp, for instance, the band was approached to play a second show that very night in a ritzy Lithuanian resort town called Druskininkai for 100 euros. In their less than ritzy punk rock threads, they played to a bunch of vacationers who, just moments before, had been tapping their feet to a classy flamenco band.
In the end, what the band says was most heartening was the grassroots organization of the Eastern-European music scene and the generosity of the families they stayed with—which usually included not only show-goers but the show-goers’ parents and grandparents who cooked them meals.
“The hospitality is what always gets me,” says Vanek. “They roll out the red carpet, even if it’s not a lot they have to offer.
“People are kind of more positive and resourceful with fewer resources,” Vanek continues. “They make little money and don’t really have big governments throwing money at the arts scene or anything like that. They just go for it with what they have.”
Ass-End Offend is welcomed home with a show Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Union Hall. The show starts at 8 PM with openers Caustic Christ and Stockyard Stoics, and marks the release of Ass-End Offend’s latest vinyl EP, Unchecked Aggression. $5.