In 2009, a press release was sent out to media outlets that was a little different from your typical video and single releases. In it, experimental electronic composer Dan Deacon stated that his souped-up tour school bus would be fueled entirely by veggie oil rather than gas. He pleas for help, stating, "if anyone can bring at least 5 gallons of waste veggie oil to one of the shows we will put you on the guest list. it is easily found behind almost all restaurants."
Not only that, but those who brought "CLEAN" filtered oil got a +1. Bring 30 gallons and the band promised to cook dinner for you on the bus. All you had to do was email some guy named Geoff. It's been working ever since.
KEXP spoke to Deacon about what inspired the idea, how it's changed over the past 11 years and the importance of climate change.
KEXP: What spurred you to start using vegetable oil to fuel your tour bus?
Dan Deacon: Early in my career, before I found any level of success, like most bands I would do shows just hoping to make "gas money.” My shows were mostly in basements, warehouses, and various DIY spaces that took donations at the door or passed around a hat. At one of these shows I heard someone talking about donating to the bands because they needed money for gas, and it just made me so depressed. Not only was I already totally broke, but I was basically doing grassroots fundraising for fucking oil companies. Then I started thinking about how much fuel it took to travel and how there needed to be ways to lessen my footprint as a touring musician.
After that, I started touring by public or mass transit as much as possible. I never had a driver's license until last year, so public transportation was normally my best—and sometimes only—option. But the shameful state of public transit in much of the U.S. and how astoundingly expensive our train system is also sometimes made traveling this way impossible.
My tour schedule was picking up and I wanted to transition from touring as a solo performer to touring with a large ensemble of drummers, mallet players, and synth players. Around this time two friends from college told me about some school buses in good shape that were for sale in rural Maine. They told me about how they could be converted to run off waste cooking oil. With the bus, I could achieve two dreams: touring with a large ensemble, and not directly supporting the oil industry on a daily basis.
You've previously asked fans to bring veggie oil to your shows in exchange for a guest list spot +1, was it difficult to get people to participate in contributing?
This was actually really successful. So many news outlets picked up on the story that restaurants would contact us asking us to take their oil. Fans would bring it to the shows in buckets or barrels, sometimes just to see the bus and learn about how it worked.
You still tour in the same veggie-fueled bus. Have you made any changes or improvements since you started driving it over a decade ago? What are the pros/cons of touring this way?
There have been endless changes in the 12 years I've been using the bus. When we started, we had 20 people piled inside and it was total chaos. Now we have bunks for 12, a kitchen, a living room, an office, and a storage zone. It really feels like a second home.
We also used to have no efficient waste-oil filtration system. The old system would be for two people to gather oil, and then filter it through an old pair of jeans hung to a tree with the legs tied in knots. The oil would slowly drip out of the jeans into buckets overnight, while inside the jeans was a hellscape of fried grizzle. This evolved over time to an internal filtration system that didn't need pants.
The main pro of a veggie-oil fuel system is how it underscored a lot of the ethos I try to continue touring with. To me, it just creates a more holistic community atmosphere for the entire touring crew that helps to inform other choices that we make collectively. Like we cook nearly every meal ourselves on the bus each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The main con is that it's nearly impossible to get waste oil any more—which is actually a good thing. Now, it’s reused, repurposed, and recycled much more often than 10 years ago. Most places that were once throwing it away now partner with a company that collects the oil for future uses.
Has climate change always been an important issue to you?
When I was a kid the main environmental issues were saving the whales, saving the rainforests, and acid rain. I can vaguely remember when "Global Warming" entered the game, but of course there was such a disinformation campaign surrounding it by the corporate interests against change (like all progressive issues tend to have). It never really felt real until the early-to-mid 00's when I could go online and really start to read about it, and hear more and more people talking about it at shows all over the world.
Besides using veggie oil as fuel, are there any other green touring habits you've picked up over time and recommend to other touring artists?
It’s always a goal to reduce waste as much as possible, so besides cooking our food and buying our groceries locally each day, we try to compost what food we don't eat. Having a large reusable multi-gallon water jug rather than water bottles always feels like the right choice.
We sleep on the bus rather than hotels as often as we possibly can. Whenever possible, we camp in national or state parks and go camping on days off. Some of my fondest memories are of days off in state parks of the Southwest U.S. Years of touring without any heat or AC remind me of just how wasteful these things can be, and the excess in which they are used, both on the road and while at home.
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