There is nothing more unsettling than the hidden mysteries of the open road. For touring musicians, these mysteries can be all too common: Late night drives through unearthly sceneries with unexpected turns that lead to spooky strangers; long stretches of highways where technology is as foreign as the van’s plates; creaky tow trailers that slowly unhitch over a snowy mountain pass.
We went in search of the scariest tour stories we could find. Grant Mickelson (Taylor Swift) writes about getting mentally scarred for life at Universal Haunted Horror Nights with Taylor and the band. Icarus the Owl shares their story of the “Phantom Turkey.” You’ll hear about evil renegade tires, possible cult audiences, disappearing highway walkers, demented motel rooms and much more.
For this first volume, we present 17 true, artist-written vignettes from Grant Mickelson, Icarus the Owl, Teen Daze, Donora, Muskets, Sink In, Jeremy & the Harlequins, M. Rivers, Spirit Award, Shine Bright, the Holy Dark, j and the 9s, Chin Up, Kid, Coldfront, Gatherers, Father Mountain and the Spook School. Don’t forget to subscribe to our Spotify playlist: SPOOKIEST TOUR STORIES.
Grant Mickelson (Taylor Swift guitarist, 2007-2015)
This was in October 2010. Taylor [Swift] was about to release her record Speak Now, and we had been doing promo for a couple of weeks. We had gone to L.A. to shoot the video for the song “Haunted” in the house where they shot scenes for the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho—already pretty creepy. For a TV special, NBC wanted us to get some B-roll footage of us going through Universal’s [Halloween Horror Nights].
So we go through this back alleyway and stop in front of this gate. Mind you, the film crew has lights on our faces, filming this entire thing. And in front of this gate to get into the haunted neighborhood, there are 15 zombies. Their backs were facing us, and you can tell they’re all holding chainsaws. After several minutes of figuring out how we’re supposed to [get through] without getting killed or scared out of our minds, we link arms and decide to walk past the zombies to see what would happen, even though we all kind of knew what was going to happen.
Of course, as soon as we did, their chainsaws turned on and they started chasing us. So we’re all trying to link arms: Taylor, myself, Liz [Huett], Caitlin [Evanson], Paul [Sidoti], Amos [Lee], Mike [Meadows], Al [Wilson]—the whole band. And we’re falling all over each other, trampling each other, screaming, flipping out. We were all tired at that point, because we’d been traveling a lot and doing all this promo stuff, and that definitely woke us up, getting chased with these chainsaws.
Finally, the chainsaws backed off. The scariest thing, at least for me, wasn’t the dead people coming after me, or the spirit world or any of that. It was the unknown. The psychological aspect of things. Like, who’s around that corner that could stab me with a knife? And that’s what happened for what seemed like forever. You never knew when it was going to end.
It’s funny, because playing for Taylor, you got used to having cameras around and trying to be cordial whenever they were rolling, because you never knew what it would be used for later. So with your conversations, you didn’t want to cuss too much or whatever, but I feel like the gloves totally came off in the haunted house. If you watch the video, it probably seems to most people like we overreacted. But it scared the shit out of me, and I’m pretty sure it did for everyone else, too.
Moral of the story: haunted houses, naaaaahhh. You don’t want to “feel the steel,” and by “steel” I mean chainsaws. That’s a no-go. Growing up or just in life there are certain events that you remember. Like your first car. Your first kiss. Your first beer. You remember certain things. And up until this point, and even since then, that was my only haunted house experience. That’s probably the one and only time I’m ever going to go to a haunted house. But hey, at least it’s on TV for my kids some day to watch.
Find Mickelson on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat @grantmickelson. Mickelson also teaches guitar lessons locally in Nashville and via Skype. For inquiries about lessons or session work via the web, email GrantsGuitarPlayers@gmail.com.
Icarus the Owl
We played a show in Redding, California, and our next show was in Los Angeles. We had a day off to drive, but we decided to head out after the show and get a head start overnight. We were in the middle of nowhere with big empty fields on each side of the highway and no cars around. Tim was driving and Jake was sitting shotgun on his phone. Suddenly, a large white spherical object flew up out of the field to the right and completely smashed our windshield. It was loud as hell. Tim and Jake both screamed, wondering what had happened. Neither of them got a clear view of what it was, because it happened so fast. Their best description was, “It looked like a frozen turkey.”
The experience was super weird because there were no other vehicles on the road, no trees nearby, and no one on the side of the road. It appeared as though a frozen turkey had literally appeared out of nowhere and vanished as soon as it had done its damage. We call it the “Phantom Turkey.” With a smashed windshield and our hearts racing, we pulled the van over for the night at the next exit and slept in a super sketchy parking lot.
Follow Icarus the Owl on Facebook. Their new album, Rearm Circuits, is due December 1. Story by Joey Rubenstein. Photo by Aaron Ziesemer.
Touring can get pretty weird. There are lots of long, extended sections of deep boredom, and then there are these flashes of totally absurd moments. I’ve had a couple weather related scares (getting stuck in snowstorms, avoiding hurricanes), a couple run-ins with the law (was pulled over for “driving too slow through a construction zone” and held in a French customs “jail” for not having the correct paperwork), and a couple strange fan encounters (sleeping on a stranger’s floor with the band I was traveling with, like sardines, while listening to him muse about the genius of John Maus and the simplicity of creating your own synthetic drugs).
But amongst all the weirdness, one situation stands out, and it also happens to be the creepiest story. We were driving through the New Mexico desert on our way to spend the night in Roswell, of course. The fuel gauge was dropping lower and lower until finally the guy driving said, “Um, this might be a real problem.” Everyone in the van spent the next 30 minutes searching gas stations on their phones, and also trying to come to terms with the fact that we might be sleeping in the van… in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Thankfully, we happened upon a gas station that I swear was the inspiration for the convenience store in the latest season of Twin Peaks.
We pulled in. I still don’t know how it happened, how these pumps were able to work (they looked 50 years old), but we managed to get $20 worth of gas out of them. I’ve never felt more anxious filling up a tank of gas. It felt exactly like living through a horror film. Nevertheless, we made it out alive. But the feeling of being at this creepy gas station, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, was one of the most unsettling feelings ever.
Teen Daze will release Themes for a New Earth on November 10 via FLORA. Story by Jamison Isaak. Photo by Cameron Ballensky.
This is a ghost story that involves bacon! Back in 2009, we played a show at the Crofoot in Pontiac, Michigan. It was a fun show, and afterwards we got to talking with the bartenders about the history of the venue. As it turns out, the place is haunted. I love a good ghost story, so when one of the bartenders offered to give us a tour of the “haunted” part of the building at 2 a.m., we jumped at the chance.
Here is how the story goes. Many decades ago, when the Crofoot was a popular theater, there were living quarters in the building that housed some of the performers. One night, someone was cooking bacon and started a grease fire in the kitchen. It quickly spread, and a number of people lost their lives in the fire.
Fast forward to the present and it is apparently common to hear the sound of sizzling bacon in that section of the building. We didn’t see or hear anything strange during our tour of the building, so maybe it was all made up by an imaginative bartender. But I like to think that there are ghosts out there in Pontiac, Michigan, haunting and taunting people with the sound of sizzling bacon.
So this isn’t a particularly terrifying story, more unsettling, and to this day, confusing. Last October, whilst we were on a UK tour, we were driving from the venue we had played earlier that evening to the next town we were playing. We decided to drive through the night and get the journey out of the way, as it was quite a long trip. I imagine we were in the midlands somewhere, because the road was really long and straight and there was nothing around at all—no lights or towns or even other vehicles.
After a long period of driving through pitch black in the early hours of the morning, we saw something in the distance in the middle of the road. As we slowed down and approached the part of the road which was blocked off, we released it was a huge herd of deer standing still like statues, staring at us. This wasn’t exactly scary, more surreal, as we were all pretty high on sleep deprivation. We honked the horn and they all moved out of the way.
After driving for another hour, still on what seems to be the same road with literally nothing surrounding, we drove past two people slowly walking the same direction as us on the side of the road. From the clothes they were wearing, they looked like an elderly couple. I know what you’re thinking, you probably drive past people most days and it’s not exactly traumatic, but when you’ve been driving in pitch black in the middle of nowhere, it gives you the creeps.
This definitely changed the vibes in the van. One moment, everyone’s on the verge of falling asleep in silence, and the next, everyone’s sat upright exclaiming over one another. After a few minutes of discussing what the hell we just saw, we decided to turn around to see if the two people were OK. But after driving in the opposite direction for 10 minutes, we came to the realization that we would have definitely overtaken/spotted them if they were still walking.
It’s not really something I think about often, but it always confuses me when I do. People see shit that’s not actually there all the time, especially when they’re tired. But when six people see the same thing, it’s usually real… And then everyone turned into bats with wings made of flames and flew into the moon.
In the summer of 2016, we were on a LONG drive from Pennsylvania to Kennewick, Washington, to play Creation Festival Northwest. Somewhere in Montana, our trailer axel seized up and snapped while we were going 70 mph. The trailer dropped to the ground, and sparks shot up everywhere. We were able to get the van pulled over to the side of the road, but not before the wheels on the trailer went flying.
The sparks started a little brush fire. It seemed small enough to stomp out, but the flames immediately took off. I looked up the hill and saw one of the trailer tires flying back down the hill towards me. It was like a scene from that weird cult movie, Rubber. The tire darted straight towards me, and I jumped back into the van for safety as it smashed into the side door. The fire took out half a mile of brush before it was stopped by the fire department. So remember, on this Halloween, don’t get chased by evil flaming tires. They are faster than zombies.
Follow Sink In on Facebook. Story by Tighe Eshleman.
Jeremy & the Harlequins
It was not long ago when on tour throughout the United States one particular show brought us to Atlanta, Georgia. Tired from weeks on the road, malnourishment and sleep deprivation, we stopped at the nearest motel. We didn’t have much money, so we knew our accommodations wouldn’t be luxurious. We could only afford one room for the entire band and two friends we had on the road helping us out. Even with our acceptance of the meager state of our upcoming stay, nothing could prepare us with the fright that was to come.
We parked our van and trailer neatly in the lot, paid for a room, and began taking our well-worn luggage inside. It was dark and dank upon entering and smelled stale of cigarettes once chain-smoked in the room, ashes still ground into the stained gray carpet. Dropping our bags hesitantly onto the floor, we began taking a closer look at our filthy sty of a lodging. What appeared to be boogers were spotted on one wall, dark red blood spattered on another. “What the hell happened in here?” we asked each other. We couldn’t, nor didn’t, want to imagine. As one could figure, we questioned leaving immediately, but exhaustion is powerful. We hoped that if we could just close our eyes for a few hours, we could get the much-needed rest and leave this wretched place, never to return again.
“I need to take a shower,” exclaimed Wes, one of the friends on the road with us, in a tone filled with lassitude and revulsion. As he walked to the bathroom, he noticed the lock was on the outside of the door. You could be locked into the bathroom with no way out! Wes pressed on. He turned on the water and began to shower. “At least the water is hot,” he thought, the one positive aspect of the situation.
But just then the shower bar, meant to aid in stability while showering, released, causing the metal tubing to open at one end. Out fell a dirty, used syringe, dripping fluids as it tumbled onto the wet shower floor. “Ahhh!” Wes screamed, the sharp end nearly piercing the thin skin on the top of his right foot. He leaped from the shower and rushed into the room. We ran straight to the front office and began berating the manager. After taking all of the punishment we could give him, he ominously said, “You won’t be safer anywhere else.” We demanded our money back and went on our way, lucky to be unscathed and without hepatitis or HIV.
One of the actual scariest moments happened during a snowstorm on a route through Wisconsin. We were traveling in Big Blue—our 15 passenger with an inclosed 14 foot trailer outback—doing a casual 40-50 mph (too fast for the weather), when she got loose and I lost control of the vehicle. She slid out sideways. I guess we had entered onto a level bridge and it was completely black ice. I stayed pretty calm. Growing up in Canada, I was experienced in vehicles sliding out.
I counter steered and adjusted for the trailer, lightly tapping the brakes every chance I could to scrub speed, but we were so heavy we weren’t slowing down. It only made it worse, so I kept counter steering and getting back on the gas to straighten out. At this point, two of the band members were woken up, and everyone had time to get their seat belts on. We were sliding for what felt like forever. Everyone thought we were going in the ditch for sure, which by the way was a nice drop, but I kept fighting it. Eventually we slowed down to a controllable pace. There was a long pause, then someone said, “Holy fuck, that was close.” I was like, “Ya, it’s good we’re not dead.”
We were playing a festival in Missoula, MT. We took my dog, Arrow, along since it was only a couple one-off shows. I brought some “calming treats” (mostly melatonin) for him because he sometimes gets anxious.
We got to Missoula, ran around, ate some food, and he was tired. I left him in the van 30 minutes before our set time. After about five minutes, I went back to the van to grab something. He had a guilty look on his face. I looked at his treats and he had eaten them all. After reading the package, it became evident I needed to make him throw up to save his life.
I jumped in the van and rushed to the nearest grocery store. I read before if you give a dog a little hydrogen peroxide, they will vomit. So I grabbed a bottle and stood in the dark parking lot of the store, force feeding him the peroxide. I tried shaking him around a little to jostle his stomach. Tried sticking some fingers down his throat. All the while, I have people walking by, staring, probably thinking I’m abusing him. (Not sure why no one said anything?) Nothing was working.
I rushed back to the venue, since our set was now in 10 minutes. I ran around the block with him three times. We got right in front of the venue when he vomited all over the sidewalk. I gave him water, took him back to the van, and went and played our show.
One night we stayed at our friend’s recording studio in South Dakota while on tour. Apparently, the studio used to be a morgue, which in itself was already creepy. Our old guitarist slept alone in the control room that night. At one point, he started sleepwalking and ended up in a different room. The next morning, he couldn’t move his shoulder. He had blue and purple bruising all over his arm. It looked as if he had been dragged around the complex all night. Super creepy!
The Holy Dark
This was very late in Eugene, Oregon after a show. I decided to sleep in my car in what looked like a safe residential part of town. I was driving to California the next day and wasn’t feeling well, so I found a house that was under construction, parked in front of it and slid into the backseat/trunk area of my two-door sedan.
I woke up in a panic around 3:00AM to the sound of two men directly outside of my car arguing in a language I couldn’t recognize. The vibe was so intense I thought for sure they were going to get into a physical altercation. I almost got up to reveal my presence and leave when one of them acted like he was going to murder the other.
Too scared to willingly be noticed, I lay in silence and cold sweet and waited it out until they finally left (no one was murdered as far as I know). I quickly got dressed and drove to California sick and horrified. Three days and two shows later, I was finally back to my good old self.
The Holy Dark will release their debut album, Pretty Little Bird, on Halloween via Dodgeball Records. Story by John Miller.
j and the 9s
We were driving down the road somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico on one of those two-lane desert roads. It was in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the afternoon, so there’s lines of cars piled up. Our truck goes pretty slow, so there’s always a line of cars behind us, and then there was a line of cars on the other side.
This guy starts barreling towards me on the other side, with a long line of cars he had to pass with a small gap (and getting closer) to get in. And he came all the way down to the wire. I had to pull off right before he hit us. We were basically playing chicken in the middle of the road. The truck went into a ditch with our trailer and the whole RV and everything. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories of bands flipping over in those kinds of situations, so we lucked out. We only broke the valve for the toilet. But he almost hit us head on.
Follow j and the 9s on Facebook. Story by Beatz.
Chin Up, Kid
On our last tour we had a date in Hobbs, NM, which is on the border of Texas and New Mexico. It was a house show inside of a gated junkyard. Everyone was super stoked to see us and we played a great, but very hot, set. We had a really good response and a lot of people were buying merch. When people started leaving and we were packing up, the vibe totally changed. Everyone just had an overwhelming sense of dread. Some people had this weird lifeless, sinister look in their eyes. The best way to describe it is it felt like we were in the middle of a cult.
We hurried up to get out of there as everyone freaked out. We got to a Planet Fitness to shower. We quickly realized how many people we’d told we were going there, so we headed up to Roswell to try and see some aliens. It turns out our license plate had been cut right off in Hobbs! We drove for two-and-a-half more weeks out west and home somehow without getting pulled over with no license plate.
We were a few hours outside of Nashville, staying with a friend at a cabin in the mountains. This detour into the woods is responsible for the scariest drive of our lives. Cell service is almost non-existent where we are, so we’re relying on this terrible little GPS that hasn’t been updated in years. Somewhere along the line we must have missed a turn or something, because instead of taking us back to the highway, we ended up on a route that took us straight through two hours of single lane roads up and down the mountains.
Hair pin turns that would have been tough in a Civic, we were taking in a 30-foot long van and trailer. At one point, the GPS actually told us to drive off a cliff! I think maybe it knew how tough the road ahead was better than we did. Turning around was impossible for a vehicle our size, so we rolled on forward until we hit a sign that said “Paved road ends 100 meters ahead.” With no option to turn around, we kept moving.
Thankfully after a couple miles of tough terrain, we found a park ranger who assured us we would make it out eventually. After another 10 miles of unpaved roads down the mountain, we made it back to the freeway in the end. And just like that, the worst drive of our lives was over. On to the next show.
We were on tour at the time with our former guitarist Austin and some friends in a Canadian band called Storyteller. At some point, both our bands decided to share a hotel room for the night. Austin and our singer, Rich, got to split one of the beds, while the rest of the group spread across the floor in sleeping bags. It was a pretty congested arrangement, being that the room was small and 10 of us were crammed into it. Fast forward to 4 a.m. All the lights are out and the room is completely pitch black. Suddenly, Austin wakes up screaming at the top of his lungs and jumps out of bed.
Everyone wakes up, freaking out and tripping over each other. The entire room is in disarray and nobody knows what the fuck is happening. By the time someone managed to find a light switch, we see Austin still freaking out, pushing his weight against the door to the room as if he was trying to keep someone (or something) from getting in.
Once everyone calmed down, Austin explained that at some point in his half-asleep stupor he had felt what he could only describe to us as a “hairy snake” crawling in the bed. (Presumably, it was only Rich’s leg.) Austin then revealed he wasn’t trying to keep the door shut, but was trying to find a way to open it and leave us all for dead. To this day, we still have no real answers.
During our first year of touring, we were seeing a ton of new cities and just getting comfortable with the idea of staying with complete strangers. One night we played Denton, TX, and got a generous offer to stay with one of the local band members. He’s now a good friend, but at the time I remember thinking he was a little eccentric. Without much in the way of introductions, we followed him to a completely unfurnished home in a neighborhood away from downtown.
There was what appeared to be either a huge ditch or freshly dug grave covering most of the front yard. We sat for a few minutes on the floor in the living room while our host downed vodka and explained that he was in between houses. We made ourselves at home on the floors of untouched bedrooms. I fell asleep quickly but later woke up to the sound of a violent fight in the other room, which turned out to be Orange Is the New Black playing through Zane’s headphones. Later still, I was woken up by aggressively cheerful yells in a foreign language right outside the window.
Everything was fine, and we all lived to tour another day. In fact, our host that night played bass with us on a tour this year. Maybe he’s just been playing the long game.
Follow Father Mountain on Facebook. Their new album, Apartment Living, is out November 10. Photo by David OD.
The Spook School
Although our name might sound scary, the Spook School is probably the most scared band in the world. Jumping out from behind a door, or simply a loud unexpected noise, has been enough to turn our world upside down. Last time we toured in America, we found ourselves booked to play the Garden Centre in Pittsburgh. Little did we know it was actually a garden centre and not a wittily named venue that simply had some greenery.
We arrived in a van full of drums, amps and all the magic that makes shows special/loud. We were warmly welcomed and guided to stairs leading to a very dark and dingy basement. We were a little scared at this point. We found a small room at the bottom of the stairs full of young punks playing acoustic guitars and, in one case, a metal washboard. Looking at the stairs, we realized there was no way amps and drums were making it down, and it dawned on us that we were going to have to…duh duh duuuuuh….play an acoustic set!
We were given two acoustic guitars and minutes to plan how to play our songs without pedals and fuzz. Adam and Nye set to poking at these alien instruments. “Where’s the distortion button?” Anna practiced some vocal harmonies and Niall, well… Niall just clapped his hands in the corner and danced. Hearts pounding, we got into our first song and tried our best. The young punks gave us their approval in the form of handing us the sacred metal washboard to play. This resulted in drummer Niall slicing his knuckles open, bringing some much needed gore to the story in the form of his lack of washboard training.
Covered in a very small and trivial amount of blood, we exited the basement and breathed in the fresh Pittsburgh air. We looked each other in the eyes, jumped in the air, freeze-framed and shouted “WE SURVIVED!” as the credits rolled and “Simple Minds” rang out. The world may be scary, but sometimes you just need the Spook School in the basement of an actual garden centre to put it all into perspective.
Follow the Spook School on Facebook. Their new album, Could It Be Different?, comes out January 26 via Slumberland/Alcopop! Story by Niall McCamley.