The eternal tourist: what touring with Wild Beasts taught me about cities

Wild Beasts bassist Tom Fleming examines the strange experience of visiting cities on tour, from Tokyo to Dallas to São Paulo – and gives us his picks for most chaotic, most welcoming, most impressive and strangest cities

I have something of an obsession with cities – how they work, how they came to be the way they are, and how people handle life in them. As a small-town teenager who had very little opportunity to travel, and is now part of a band which tours the world, I remember to pay attention to the places I visit.

The sense of not having a working routine is, of course, one of the attractions of the job, and it affords a view of places that is unusual to say the least. The combination of antisocial hours, quick turnarounds and sudden changes in situation can be jarring. It is not much of an exaggeration to say I have seen the world – in a partial, warped, quite privileged way, but seen it nonetheless.

In terms of distance travelled v time spent, I am losing: 19 hours in Singapore; 23 in Bucharest; 17 in Los Angeles. I see Istanbul by night and only by night. I’ve seen Hong Kong airport countless times, but never once the city. The inside of every concert venue, dressing room and music festival almost always looks exactly the same, and will rarely tell you much about the place you’re in. Our time is always too short to get beneath the skin of anywhere. You remain an eternal tourist, collecting first impressions and getting a partial understanding. Nevertheless, my collection of fleeting snapshots of cities grows every year.

Most chaotic city: São Paulo, Brazil

Skyline of Sao Paulo
São Paulo: ‘a concrete chaos in the middle of the forest’. Photograph: Alamy

A local once said to me: “There are no postcards in São Paulo.” And itʼs true; there are no beaches, no dramatic mountains, no ocean, no Christ the Redeemer. Rioʼs larger, uglier, more pragmatic neighbour is a place that comes with a reputation for working, not for partying. This is a concrete chaos in the middle of the forest – and I loved it.

The city is famous for rubbing the very poor and the obscenely rich against each other. In this regard, the place sets its stall out early; opposite Guarulhos international airport is an enormous favela, only partially obscured by huge walls and advertising hoardings.

Playing in the city is a joy, though it is impossible not to notice the high ticket prices and remember that gig-going is a rich manʼs game here. I was told that the wealthy of São Paulo get around by helicopter, to avoid the snarled traffic and apparently dangerous streets. And as such, it has the largest fleet of helicopters in the world, with an average of 700 flights a day. The bulk of the population contend with the daily traffic chaos and heat, while its richest residents float serenely between the skyscrapers.

Favourite thing: Insane, forward-thinking architecture

Least favourite thing: The frightening contrast between rich and poor

Strangest city: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo street scene
Tokyo is home to nearly 38 million people. Photograph: Yuya Shino/EPA

The first impression I got of Japan’s capital, stepping out of the labyrinth of Tokyo station, is that everything I heard about it is true. Constant destruction and rebirth here is not just cliche; it is impossible to miss. The old treasures, perhaps with the exception of the Imperial Palace, are almost entirely gone, or more accurately, so swamped by the new stuff that they go unnoticed.

Tokyo is home to nearly 38 million people: this is roughly equal to, say, 38 Birminghams. Yet amid the obvious chaos that 38 million people moving around causes, there is a sense of almost overbearing order. Metro stations have one-way systems, and people wait for crossings to change even when the roads are clear. The civility and quiet consideration people show to each other makes London seem like the angriest place in the world. I attended what was ostensibly a punk rock concert run by a whisky company, where costumed moshers had been hired to help persuade people to dance. Perhaps this is the flipside of so much consideration and self-control, where even the loss of control has to have a format and a menu.

Favourite thing: The tiny bars that seat four people, like sitting in someone’s living room

Least favourite thing: The heat and humidity in the summer

Most welcoming city: Dallas, US

Dallas Interstate 35E
‘Expressways on top of expressways’: Dallas Interstate 35E. Photograph: Alamy

We recently recorded a record in Dallas, Texas. A lot of the central US has passed by at great speed from a van window, so any expectations were way off. We stayed and worked in a part of town called Oak Cliff, an area that is rapidly gentrifying.

A lot of US cities look like sedate suburbs to an outsider – bungalows, garages, lawns – and so does Oak Cliff. Downtown however, Dallas shouts a lot louder: highways firing past gleaming skyscrapers, expressways on top of expressways, connecting the many smaller cities that make up greater Dallas/Fort Worth.

Like almost all US cities, the car is king: a walk anywhere simply resulted in a long, straight line past barking guard dogs, unused to seeing pedestrians. To European eyes, the low-density sprawl here seems very strange, and for me it was a constant reminder that we were in the centre of a huge continent. The scale is hard to describe, but there is a sense of space in Texas that is simply unavailable in Europe.

Favourite thing: The spectacular roads into the city, especially at night

Least favourite thing: Not being able to walk anywhere

Most impressive city: Moscow, Russia

Red Square Moscow
‘Designed to impress’: Moscow. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The first thing I noticed about Moscow was the new money. Half-finished construction work is everywhere. We arrived in the middle of winter, a comparatively mild -5C, and, being tourists, headed straight for Red Square. Opposite Lenin’s (closed for refurbishment) tomb was a large Winter Wonderland style fair, across the road was a shopping centre selling Cartier, Bulgari, Chanel. Not to say that Moscow is really like any Western European capital, at all. A huge city, the monumental buildings and sprawling streets are probably designed to impress – a reminder that you are in the capital of an empire.

It certainly has a glamorous side, which, as an entertainer, you see as a temporary guest, one who is invited in and swiftly outstays their welcome. We were invited to a champagne reception with Moscow’s beautiful and rich. It was nice to be a welcome guest for the evening, but had we tried to walk in there at any other point, the warm treatment would likely turn wintry very quickly. London has the same feeling for artists – all doors are temporarily opened to you, then quickly slammed shut. Accepting this with a smile on your face is, of course, the right way to proceed. Simply walk through the doors while they are open, and enjoy being a person of interest.

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Tom Fleming

The GuardianTramp

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