Everest Ascending: Ambition, self-doubt, and on the road with Neil Young

TVD took to the road with Everest last November and December as they opened for Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Patti Smith. They were as welcoming as they are talented—and more than a bit introspective. —Ed.

“It’s an impossible way of life. No doubt about it.”
Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz

Eli Thomson drew the short straw in Brooklyn. He would sleep in the van instead of a warm apartment with friends. Someone had to. The occupants of the apartment told Everest that their cars had been broken into multiple times.

“But it’s right outside your door.”

Their friends winced. It was decided. The temperature was already in the 20s. Eli grabbed a samurai sword hanging up in the apartment and took it with him. He waited for his moment to hear someone trying to pop the lock. The unfortunate thief would be met by a wild-eyed, bearded bass guitarist bursting out the side door, dragging pillows and blankets behind him, swinging a samurai sword over his head.

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But nothing happened except a very cold night under dirty blankets on a bench seat. The text came at 6am—the apartment had flooded. Laptops, ruined; shoes, floating by; no hot showers for anyone. There’s nothing to do except wring out what they can and eat a greasy breakfast. Within a few hours, the band are in a cushy Atlantic City casino dressing room. Their previous tour of bars, clubs, and street fairs in support of their latest album, Ownerless, feels like a distant memory.

Joel Graves, guitarist and de facto tour manager quipped, “I don’t think of us as having really a career because we’re doing this solely for the passion.

“We love doing it. Our families think we’re crazy, probably, at this point.”

Bands like Everest the world over have stories about being crammed in a van, driving until the wheels (sometimes literally) fall off, powering through good and bad gigs, late nights and ringing ears. It’s what bonds you or it’s what repels you. However, not many bands like Everest open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

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PHILADELPHIA

General admission is a boon to opening bands. People jockeying for a place at the foot of the stage pack in a sizable crowd early and they don’t wander away.

Joel greets me outside of the Wells Fargo Center in Philly and brings me backstage to see the rest of band. Less than forty-eight hours earlier, Everest were onstage at Madison Square Garden. When I arrive, they’re punchy and still riding the energy of playing in one of the most legendary venues in the world. Playing these shows is a plush honor that can also feel tenuous. Everest has no legend, although their talent is immense. They seem to feel as much confidence as awe.

“I know this,” says Russ Pollard, lead singer and principal songwriter for the band. “When we go onstage and play three-and-a-half songs in Madison Square Garden, it’s the most empowering thing I can ever feel in my life.” Russ is tall, thin, intense. His eyes project both kindness and circumspection.

“[Neil Young and Crazy Horse] have seen everything for the last forty years. They’ve seen it all and done it all, so the fact that we’re even sharing a stage with them is an accolade. Sometimes you’ve gotta remind yourself of that. Any band would put themselves in this position to open for them.”

“What’s there to complain about?” Eli asks. He laughs and excuses himself for a smoke before they take the stage.

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The backdrop for Everest are the iconic Rust Never Sleeps oversized amplifier cabinets. It is both striking and symbolic to see them play in front of these towering props. Everest is not an “easy” band to get into, but people seldom realize it when they hear them live. While Everest’s music merits an investment in time from the listener—they’re not concerned with being radio-friendly—it doesn’t matter whether they’re playing cavernous arenas or tiny clubs, they love shattering the opening act stereotype. Their songs are full of this kinetic energy that builds and builds on itself as they play. The gathering crowd at the Wells Fargo Arena is fixed on them; heads are bobbing, hands are going up, peace signs are (predictably) flashed. This goes on at every show. They absolutely kill it in their allotted twenty-five minutes of rock and roll.

But who are Everest, really? What makes them stand out so that Neil Young has asked them out on tour on four different occasions?

“I think it’s the songs,” Elliot Roberts tells me. Elliot is Neil Young’s long-time manager and the person responsible for signing Everest initially. He is known for being the only person who could manage Neil Young’s career which, in fact, is pretty much all he does. He’s well-dressed, white-haired, and has absolutely zero time for bullshit.

“Ultimately, the songs are what drive a band and touch an audience.” Elliot continues, “I think eventually, if they just keep hanging tough and stay in it, ultimately their songs and their sound will be recognized. It’s very hard—there’s so much out there. You really have to be very patient.”

When you get into your 30s, life starts to crystallize. It doesn’t feel like it’s happening at first, but then a friend has a kid. Then another. Someone else buys a house. Crossing your fingers is fine for a while, then a relative passes away early. You get a bad report from the doctor. You consider life more seriously. Should you get that job? Should you have a 401k?

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“We’re slugging it out, and we’re all having the best and worst year of our lives at the same time. We’re learning how to deal with that,” Joel says. “It’s like things are so good, but things suck so bad. I’m so stressed out about so much; it’s not smooth and easy sailing, but nothing that’s worthwhile is not worth some patience and some effort and more.”

Life presents a series of traps. To be a success, you evade the traps and live according to your dreams. It’s deceptively simple. Maybe you’ve been playing an instrument so long you can’t imagine doing anything else. You remember being twenty, and then you wake up on the other side of thirty and music is all you can do anymore. It’s all you want.

“It’s like a drug. It really is,” says Russ. “There’s nothing in life like it. Maybe sex. But that’s a totally different thing, but it’s something inherent in us that we need.”

“It’s a quasi-out-of-body experience when it’s right,” says Eli.

Russ nods. “I just feel very lucky to get to do it and I hope I can find ways to continue to do it. We’re here right now. We’re in an arena tonight. We’re here, so I think it’s all good.”

As of this writing, Jason Soda, lead guitarist, turned forty. Everyone else except for Kyle Crane, their drummer, is on the long side of thirty-five. Most don’t have health insurance. But they are optimistic at this point. What else can they be?

Mingling around after the show, I hear more than a few people say they liked Everest’s set more than Neil’s. None of the guys in the band quite believe me.

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FAIRFAX

There are at least twenty people either crammed in or just outside the dressing room at the Patriot Center, the home of the George Mason University basketball and hockey teams. In June, Everest did a residency in the Annapolis area thanks to Corona (yes, the beer) and WRNR 103.1FM and that’s why everyone is here. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were family, because that’s how the band treats them and it’s how they treat the band. Like kid brothers come home.

“Man, I wish I could explain it,” says Chelsea Hughes whose father is the general manager at WRNR. “It is just the family factor. We felt like we had known them forever and they treated us like we were just another friend.”

Ryan Cullen, who worked sound for the band on their most recent tour, took a pay cut to go on the road with Everest. “They are all just true, honest-to-God rock and roller rock stars, dedicated to the lifestyle… I instantly had so much admiration for what they were about. In a moment it hits ya—you’re almost swept off your feet in a weird sort of way.”

“And then you’re like… how doesn’t everyone know about these guys?” asks Ryan’s wife, Erin, who has become close with the band as well.

“I would not consider myself as someone with an unseasoned opinion,” Ryan continues. “I’ve done hundreds of national acts, but with them… it’s a feeling I haven’t gotten since I was a kid.”

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The Patriot Center echoes with the whoops from Everest’s “hometown” cheering section. The crowd on the floor seems genuinely perplexed. A few guys lingering in the back with $9 beers rush forward when they hear people calling out the band members’ actual names. They look at each other as if to say, “You know this band? Who are these guys? Should we know them?”

After the set, Patti Smith, who is also booked on the tour, pokes her head into the dressing room to congratulate the guys on another great set. Kyle, Eli, and Jason scatter soon after for cigarettes or beers or food and catching up with their cheery mob of local pals. Russ, Joel and I remain in the dressing room, listening to Neil Young’s guitar feedback rattling the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. They’ve seen this show several times, so they are content to just sit and sip beer with me.

And then we hear a few familiar notes. Joel perks up, “Is he doing ‘Cortez the Killer’?” He was. We run out and stand among the crowd. The audience is delirious. Neil is giddy. Russ shakes his head. Joel grins broadly.

Here’s how the next four days will go for them:

December 2: Fly to Chicago for a show at the Chicago Theater with Alabama Shakes and Band of Horses.

December 3: Fly back to New York to open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.

December 4: Play live on the Artie Lange Show (a late-night sports and entertainment radio talk show out of New York).

December 5: Finish the Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour with a benefit show for Hurricane Sandy victims. Trey Anastasio of Phish is a late addition to the program.

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“The one thing I can say is we’re able to sustain what we’re doing,” Joel tells me. He has an easy smile and is one of the most affable people I’ve ever met. “Doing it at the pace we’ve done it, step-by-step, if it’s gonna work… you hope it will last. We have a chemistry that sustains us.”

Back in the dressing room, Russ writes FORWARD! in big letters on a chalkboard that’s normally used to devise full-court presses and zone defenses.

“I’ve been thinking about it all night and the only word I can think of for all this is, ‘forward’.”


Part 2 continues right here.
Photos: ©2012 Media Fine Imaging, LTD/Clayton A. Sweeney, Jr.

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