Photographs by Thomas Prior
At noon on a sunny Friday in February, an orderly procession of vacationers is streaming through the cavernous, carpeted lobby of the Carnival cruise line’s docking area in the Port of Miami. Included are the sort of people you’d expect on a three-day trek to the Bahamas and back: neat groups of slow-moving retirees, a mother and daughter in matching pink visors, giddy Hispanic college kids. And then there are those you might not expect: a line of what look like refugees from Williamsburg—pale, tattooed twentysomethings in skimpy vintage dresses and skinny jeans.
A few are carrying guitar cases, including the Black Lips, a garage-rock band from Atlanta. Once onboard, they settle at a back table in the cafeteria, where the three-day nonstop buffet has already begun. It’s week one of the epic Charlie Sheen media blitz, and drummer Joe Bradley is discussing the particulars: “People are just haters,” he says. “He’s partying, having a great time, writing $30,000 checks. God bless him.” “They could have kept the show going if they wanted,” adds guitarist Cole Alexander. “The show was doing great.” The conversation meanders, then settles on women. “I see hipsters all the time,” says bassist Jared Swilley. “I wanna hook up with a normal girl.” Two attractive possibilities hover near the table. A waiter comes by, pushing the day’s tropical-drink special. No takers. Cassie Ramone, the guitarist for the Brooklyn band Vivian Girls—in a pair of notably snug black jean cutoffs—intently piles fruit onto her tray. The Bruise Cruise, the world’s first-ever indie-rock cruise, is setting sail.
That the words indie rock and cruise would be contained in one sentence might strike music purists as the height of incongruity, even hilarity. Cheesy hair-metal bands, classic rock, jam bands—sure. But independent music was born as an alternative to all that; it came built with snooty elitism. Yet consider the recent Grammy Awards, where Arcade Fire—which records on the long-running North Carolina independent label Merge—won Album of the Year. Along with peers like Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses, they regularly shift as many units, and play the same coveted spacious venues and late-night talk-show spots, as their major-label peers. The division between indie rock and rock crumbles a little more every day. “Fifteen years ago, a lot of bands would have scoffed at this,” says Michelle Cable of Panache Booking, an organizer of the cruise along with Jonas Stein, front man for the band Turbo Fruits. But “every band we asked said yes.”
The idea came from Stein. “My pops used to work with Vince Neil’s Motley Cruise,” he says. “I went on a few when I was younger. I thought it would be cool to do a music cruise with bands that I was friends with and liked.” Cable, a dedicated booster of small bands, is thrilled to be giving them exposure and income as the music industry combusts.
Only 375 of the 2,000 passengers onboard the Imagination—a sort of floating Atlantic City decked in neon—are Bruisers. Everyone gets the same food (college-cafeteria quality), but entertainment for the majority of the passengers is traditional cruise fare, like hip-hop dance classes and hairy-chest contests. For the Bruisers, each of whom paid $615, the draw was nine indie bands—including the Lips, Vivian Girls, and Surfer Blood (the relatively big names) and up-and-comers like Jacuzzi Boys, Ty Segall, and the Strange Boys.
The first show begins at 5:30 in the Xanadu Lounge (the Punchline Cellar, a comedy club, between sets). The cavernous room dwarfs the 100 or so people huddled by the stage, gamely shimmying with Thee Oh Sees’ manic noise-pop. One of the bartenders—Nurbetty from the Philippines, according to her name tag—pogos between orders. Mariah and Jeremy, a Michigan couple in their thirties, are here on a belated honeymoon. The couple consider the Bruise Cruise concept “pretty genius,” despite some sticker shock over the $7 beers: “I could get, like, seven shots of Jameson for that in Detroit,” says Mariah.
Another passenger, a young woman, has a theory regarding her fellow Bruisers. “Counterintuitively, it’s a hipster’s wet dream,” she says. “Hipsters live a self-conscious life. Going on a fucking embarrassing indie-rock cruise? It’s like being perpetually aroused. It’s like walking down Bedford Avenue, strutting, for three days straight. In the Caribbean.”
Later, in the Pride Dining Room, there’s notable excitement over the free bottles of twist-off red wine. The guys in Turbo Fruits play a drinking game; Marcos from Surfer Blood already has his shirt off. At one point, in a ritual that will be repeated throughout the trip, someone on the intercom leads the 40 or so Southeast Asian waiters in a dispirited dance routine, this time to Flo Rida’s “Low.”