Charitable Musicians: Ben Sollee Travels Via Bike For His Ditch The Van Tour

In 2009, Ben Sollee, with some help from Oxfam America, rode from his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, to Bonnaroo Festival, playing shows in small towns along the way. Later that year, Sollee embarked on a 500-mile, 16-day tour along the East Coast Greenway during the frigid winter months.

In 2010, as bands are increasingly partnering up with environmental and social justice organizations to bring attention causes they believe in, Sollee and crew have partnered up with Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe on a tour with a much more personal meaning. Their “Ditch The Van Tour” might have a name that implies an environmentally-motivated inspiration, but that is merely a perk. The main message Sollee and crew are hoping to spread is one of community-building and simply taking a slow breath in our hectic lives. Additionally, Sollee and crew are embarking on this journey with the idea that this could, in fact, be a viable touring option for bands. “Ditch The Van” is just as much business-minded as it is substance-minded.

When we caught up with Sollee on the telephone, he was riding an Amtrak train from Santa Barbara to Salinas, California. It was a brief respite for the group, so that they could continue the Northern California leg of their bike tour freshly recouped.


How does the tour feel so far?
It feels great. The first three or four days are always kind of tough; your body is in shock. You’re out during the day, all day, just riding and pulling this gear. Then on the fourth day, it’s a not-so-gradual change where it just gets easier. Your body senses that you’re not going to stop doing this.

By the end of the tour, you’re not going to want to stop at all. You’re just going to keep going.
Oh yeah, it’s a total Forrest Gump.

I saw a gnarly picture of someone’s sunburn.
Yeah, Jordan, on one of the first days got a pretty intense sunburn, and as it was peeling one of the end days we were out, he was really sweating pretty hard, and the sweat got underneath.

That’s really gross.
Yeah, it’s really gross, but I figure it was kind of good to see. I hadn’t seen anything like that.

Marvels of the human bodies; it’s great.
Yeah. Nice. Modern marvels.

Are there any huge lessons you learned from doing your previous tours that you’re applying this time around?
Um, well, the biggest lesson that we learned is that you have to really turn around your ideas about how you book a tour. These tours are all about grabbing a good city. You have to grab areas that sort of have a density and convenient towns you can play in. So, places like Southern California, places like the Northeast — places where you can ride forty or fifty miles a day and really get good, good shows in. Not just a coffee shop here and there, but proper shows, where you can make money. Because we don’t want this to be, “Hey, let’s get on our bicycles because it looks like fun.” We want this to be a business idea where people can incorporate bicycles into their business.

How are you transferring all your gear?
We carry it all on our bicycles. Obviously, we’re on a train, so all the bicycles are in the cargo car right now, but I use an Xtracycle, which is an extended frame bicycle, so I just put the cello on the side of that… We did a weigh-in, and I’m at about 124 pounds of rolling baggage, bike, and equipment, and Jordan, our drummer, uses a trailer. He’s at about 161 pounds rolling baggage.

How do people generally react to you as you’re biking through their towns?
Just warmly. They assume immediately that we might need something — a shower, or food, or coffee, or something like that. Whereas at a normal tour, no one really cares; it’s just a van. If you don’t have something, well, you should’ve had it — that kind of situation. I think that’s the biggest difference… they care… The community sort of appreciates it and they want to see us get through it. And they sort of see that we need, and we sort of get to identify certain needs of the community, especially from an infrastucture standpoints.

INTERVIEW CONTINUED BELOW

Are you working with groups and communities in places you’re touring to make changes that will last beyond the tour?
Absolutely. We’re trying really, really hard. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the groups on board because it’s such a different idea, because we are actually just coming through; we’re not around and around and around… we have people take a fifty-mile challenge, so that they go riding fifty miles a week on bicycle. And of course, 40% of the commute that people do in the United States are within two miles of their house, and 90% of it is done by car. So we’re trying to inspire them with what we’re doing, saying, “Hey, if we can haul all our gear to go to a show, you can get on your beach cruiser and go to the grocery store.” At the same time, we’re also trying to empower them a little bit, by doing interviews when we come through with people that’re involved with transportation, and encouraging them, or maybe even pushing to improve infrastructure in the area…

Are there cities you’ve found with really good bikeable facilities?
Yeah, there are a lot of cities that do very well and are bicycle-friendly… I think that’s good. All in all, if you go over to Europe, like to Stockholm or Copenhagen, you’re going to see what bicycle infrastructure really means: dedicated pathways. Our cities are built differently, so they need a different concept. Riding through places like Long Beach, California, had a lot of really good infrastructure. In L.A., we had a dedicated bikeway along the river that was super safe and super clean, and we were able to ride with all of our gear at over 16 miles per hour because we had a clean, dedicated bikeway, as opposed to our normal 8 miles per hour. It helps with speed and efficiency by having good infrastructure.

I like the idea that the tour isn’t necessarily an environmental thing, but a lot of it is about the idea of limitations and getting back to simplicity. Are you finding you’re building more meaningful relationships because of doing touring this way?
Yeah, really good point. For me, with the more traditional-style touring, playing with automobiles, you just find that it’s almost like a slingshot; you’re just being thrown through these cities. You put on a show, you set up the band, unload the van, sound-check, put on a show, load the van up, watch people go. In my mind, I can’t really remember what all of those shows are like. But with a bicycle, we’re not externalizing; we’re there… we’re making super meaningful connections. We’re still talking a lot with people from the last tour, and they’re still encouraging us, wondering if they can help. There are people in Florida, in Georgia, offering, because they had such a good time on the last tour. For sure. For us, it’s not about “going green”; there’s just nothing green about traveling and putting on shows, when you’re thinking about the audience coming to shows, the power to put it on at the venues… it’s just not really green. It’s a perk, but it’s really about pacing life and being more community-oriented through shows.

Please visit their Tumblr website at ditchthevan.tumblr.com to see videos and journal entries from the show.

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Vivian Hua is the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE magazine, as well as a master of globetrotting for free and evading traditional 9-to-5 work schedules. She enjoys observing human idiosyncrasies perhaps more than anything and is a magnet for homeless people (a joy) and bug bites of all types (absolutely terrible). Marshmallows – while not really food – are one of her favorite foods, especially if they are freezered, stale, or fire-toasted. She doesn’t want to space travel, really, which is an unpopular view these days. Her design work, astrological chart, and other crap can be seen at www.inallthings-patterns.net.