I spot my first Bruisers at the Port of Miami. Some are already wearing pink Bruise Cruise bracelets from the previous night’s pre-party at Grand Central in Miami. (It was awful, I hear, on account of the $8 PBRs.)
There’s more to the Bruiser costume than a pink bracelet: There are sleeveless tees that show off tats, there are kitschy captain’s hats, there are Ray-Bans or imitation Ray-Bans (the Bruise Cruise gift bag even provides a pair). Onboard, the Bruiser boys have jorts (I’ve brought my own) and Morrissey haircuts. The girls have vee-necks, bangs, and onesies and finicky dresses and waist-high shorts. There are three Bruisers who look exactly like Katy Perry. Nautical semi-prep is permitted; I’m safe in boat shoes.
William, a documentarian and “independent entrepreneur” in line behind me at the port, has done it all one better: His shorts are leopard-print. He’s singing The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” He asks me if I’m excited. I am. He mentions something about filming Calvin Johnson recently. I head up an escalator, decline to be photographed by a Carnival employee, and snake through several planks toward the Imagination. The sun is high. As I approach the portal, all I see is a pair of interlocking sine waves—the neon trimming, it turns out, that surrounds the bar at the center of a garish shipboard atrium. A pianist plays the Cheers theme. Actually, it might be “Captain Jack.”
I drop my luggage in my room, and go to collect my bracelet. Now I’m a Bruiser, too.
Some shipboard geography: Xanadu, where the bracelets and gift bags are doled out, serves as Bruiser Central. Most of the performances take place there, on a stage where the drum kit and a banner both read “Bruise Cruise.” “I do feel a little bit like we’re in the Bruise ghetto. We’re all sort of being kept aft,” Norris tells me later.
The bar outside Xanadu, which opens into the main promenade, serves as a sort of DMZ between Bruiser and Cruiser. When there’s down time, the Bruisers migrate to the Lido Deck for poolside debauchery, occupying the area closest to the bar. The cheapest beer per ounce is the Foster’s Oil Can, and so it becomes the Bruise Cruise’s PBR.
Bruisers come in several varieties. There are members of bands. There are the organizers and their friends. There are the people who make up the infrastructure of indie rock: Custodians of festivals and labels and DIY spaces with names like Glenn Danzig’s House. Of course, there is media: Spin, BlackBook, New York, Miami New Times, Brooklyn Vegan, Vice magazine’s VBS.tv. Several documentaries are being shot.
The other people on the Bruise Cruise—the 50 percent of the group who paid the full $615—are fans. Of course, that’s what we all are.
The performances start Friday afternoon. Following the opening act by Ty Segall—in which a Bruiser proposes to his girlfriend with musical accompaniment from Segall’s band—San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees unleash the weekend’s best set, all brown-acid, echo-chamber garage rock that hinges on the axes of noisy-to-mechanical and soulful-to-scary.
But as soon as the rock ’n’ roll portion of the evening finishes, a Carnival staffer asks the Bruisers to clear out of Xanadu. It’s time for the Cruisers to have their fun; Xanadu is transformed into the Punchliner Comedy Club. Panels painted to resemble a brick wall are wheeled out, blocking the view of the Bruise Cruise amps. Even at sea, you apparently can’t have a comedy club without a brick wall.
Around this time, I run into Svenonius for the first time since we set sail. He’s wearing the orange suit from his performances with Chain & the Gang. “How’s the story going?,” he asks. “What’s it going to say?”
There are all sorts of themed cruises out there on the high seas: right-wing cruises, left-wing cruises, alumni cruises, jazz cruises. This December there’s a Rock Legends Cruise, featuring George Thorogood and ZZ Top. Last month, Carnival hosted a Boyz II Men “love cruise.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise took place in January. Kid Rock does cruises through Carnival, too; the next one starts April 7.
The Bruise Cruise, in fact, owes its inspiration to the Mötley Crüise. Jonas Stein, one of the Bruise Cruise’s principal organizers, went on that excursion back in 2007. His father, a Nashville-based manager, was working with Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil at the time. “I assumed it would be all old people,” says Stein, 23, who is the frontman of Turbo Fruits. But he had a good time, and did the Crüise again in 2008.
About 10 months ago, Cable, now 28, came to Miami for the finale of a Surfer Blood/Turbo Fruits tour—she was booking both bands at the time. “It was like fate,” Stein says. “We drove by the port and saw the ships.” They reserved 200 rooms—putting themselves on the hook for more than $100,000.
Cable and Stein almost didn’t make their deadline for filling those rooms. In the months before the Imagination set sail, they offered discounted tickets to friends. That’s one reason why Nashville, Stein’s hometown, seems to have the best turnout among all the regional music scenes represented. They eventually sold out, Stein notes, thereby outdrawing Boys II Men’s cruise. Then more people contacted them about getting on the boat. “With this demographic, people aren’t used to paying for something in advance,” Cable says. “They just think, I’ll just show up at the boat and pay for it there.”
In other words: We’re all on punk-rock time.
Svenonius isn’t so sure. “Maybe this is the first step of indie rock going Vegas,” he muses before we set sail.
Svenonius, clad in an exquisitely tailored suit, takes the mic at the beginning of his lecture Friday night. He’s got a message for the Bruisers. Sort of. “Forty-four years ago today, the Beatles embarked on something that they called a mystery tour, the Magical Mystery Tour,” he says in his punk-preacher deadpan. “It was reviled by the critics, it was widely hated. Some say it was sabotaged by the industry because it was a new, subversive presentation of the rock ’n’ roll group journey.”
He goes on: “The Beatles retreated from pretty much the boldest statement ever made in rock ’n’ roll and since then, nobody ever has attempted a mystery tour, a magical mystery tour, a trip into magic—until now. With the Bruise Cruise.”
This is a new beginning, he says. Year zero.