pedaling against poverty

by jack diablo
It’s a great time of year to get outside and ride your bike. Even though we are forced to suffer through blistering hot summers, we are fortunate to have such mild early-Winter weather. So don’t be surprised if you happen to see a bike with a cello strapped to the back, it’s just Ben Sollee riding into town on his pedal-powered tour.
EU spoke to Ben about why he’s taking his cello on the road with two wheels instead of four and the causes he is championing along the way.

EU: Ben, you are riding into Jacksonville on your bicycle as a part of your Southeast tour. What possessed you to undertake such a mission?
Ben Sollee: It’s really a craving to get out of the vicious, not vicious, but the human flurry of flight from one side of the country to the other and driving down the coast to play a gig to fly back across the country the next day. By introducing the bicycle, I had this beautiful limitation. People could not ask me as an artist to drive through the night to do media the next morning in the next town… It also comes from this desire: I was going through these towns playing a show hoping people would show up and really not playing any role in the community other than being a place for people to gather. I wanted to do more, be more a part of the community as I drove through. So in doing this I’ve been able to connect with different bicycle groups, alternative venues and a different promotion style. We’ve been able to cross-promote with sports outfitter companies, different companies like Oxfam America. It’s been a real treat to use bicycle touring as an opportunity to exploit media that musicians don’t usually get to exploit.

EU: What kind of whip are you riding and what all are you carrying with you?
BS: We’re riding extended frame bicycles. This tour we’ve got Surly bicycles onboard. They make beautiful steel frame bicycles. We’re riding these bikes called the Big Dummy which is a solid steel frame, long tail bike. You can haul up to 250 pounds on your bike with these beasts. I’m going to be hauling my cello, my electronic on-stage stuff, merchandise, clothes and probably a little bit of camera equipment. So I’ll be hauling 60- 70 pounds on my bike.

EU: I imagine there are some challenges to touring by bike. What are they and how do you plan to keep on schedule?
BS: It has a lot to do with changing the philosophy of how you book shows not just going and hitting major markets but actually creating a route through a region and you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s the next town that’s really got to be enough people and media set up to make some money but also all the different towns in between. So you just have to plan time. We have two to three days in between each town to get there and really it’s just about steady riding. It’s got a beautiful pattern to it, you just get up early in the morning, have breakfast, ride 50- 60 miles and then call it quits. Depending on what we have to do on the other end, we may leave early or we may leave later in the day. Some of the major challenges though have to do with weather. That can really slow you down a lot. So you have to leave time for that. The other challenge is making sure you have the right pack on your bicycle because otherwise you just ride really unbalanced the whole time. It takes usually three to four packs to get the right one down where you’ve got things balanced front to back or side to side. It gives you a really good cruising. It’s really less about cycling and more about trucking. Up and down the hills and using your momentum and all that stuff. It’s definitely different.

EU: There’s a social/political angle to this tour. What is the goal of Peddling Against Poverty?
BS: Oxfam is an international relief and development agency and their main campaign right now is that poverty is an invention of mankind and as such we should be able to dissolve it. Our small part in that for this tour is promoting something called Oxfam Unwrapped which is an online venue where you can order things that people in developing countries really need. Things like manure to fertilize the ground. Things like a can of worms. Things like a pack of seeds to help filter water. But one of the things they offer is a bicycle and here in America we think of bicycles as sort of a novelty, something we use for outdoor recreation but there a bicycle can mean the difference between an entrepreneur just selling a few things to people in town or being able to take your goods to other towns in the region and being able to make a lot more money. It’s this micro-entrepreneurial world so through Oxfam Unwrapped we’re going to be buying one bicycle per show and challenging other parts of the community to also buy bicycles. We hope to be able to provide some people in towns in Central America and Africa who could really use those tools through Oxfam.

EU: Being from Kentucky, I’m sure there was plenty of inspiration to be found for someone playing Bluegrass music. Has that kind of music always been a part of your life?
BS: It has. My grandfather was an Appalachian fiddler, banjo, guitar, whatever was laying around and so it’s definitely been a big part of my musical vernacular growing up. My father was also an R&B guitarist and my mom sang. I was also studying the cello and the conventional music that’s taught on cello is classical music. So in studying Bach and Brahms and the stuff that’s more part of the institution of the cello through college, I always had all this other music going on when I’d sit down to play with my family and friends. It was never classical. So all those sort of informed each other. But I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in the bluegrass world.

EU: Tell us about the Dear Companion record you are working on with some of your fellow Kentuckians.
BS: I’m working with this fellow Daniel Martin Moore and collaborated to do a record and the interest was to raise awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining which is a particularly destructive type of coal mining that removes the tops of mountains to be able to dig out the coal with large heavy machinery. The real destruction come from all that overburden, all the soil they dig off from the tops of the mountains being rolled over into the valley and blocking the headwaters and the watersheds that really provide a lot of the East Coast with clean freshwater. Anyhow, we created the album with the help of Jim James from My Morning Jacket. He produced the project and Sub Pop is putting it out and it’s going to come out in February. All the artists’ royalties and proceeds are going to go to Appalachian Voices to help fight the cause.

Be sure to catch Ben Sollee at Jack Rabbits on December 13th. Feel free to ride your bike to the show. To find out more information about Peddling Against Poverty visit and for more about the Oxfam America Unwrapped program