Seeking the Messy Soul of Rock ‘n Roll in a Ford Transit.
Can a touring band still exist in a van?
The Rolling Stones made about $500 million on their last tour. The three members of Brooklyn’s avant indie prog-funk band Big Neck Police had slightly lower expectations for their summer 2015 road dates.
“We want to try to spend no money and expect to make no money,” said Paco Cathcart, the group’s guitarist, at lunch prior to their departure. Bassist Mac Kelly corrected slightly. “We could at least get enough to get to the next show.” Drummer Hugo Stanley added: “Some of our friends’ bands even make enough to buy food.”
With the proliferation of free music streaming services and the death of royalties, bands like the Stones tour because it’s the only way to make the gobs of money needed to perpetuate their lavish lifestyles and thousand-person organizations. The 23-year-old Bard College grads in Big Neck Police—the name deriving from a Lee “Scratch” Perry song—have different needs fulfilled by playing live. “You feel like you have no idea where you are, but you’re connected to the people there by a common interest, hitting it off with people you’ve never met, every night,” Hugo explained, almost rhapsodically. “We don’t tour with some notion of upward mobility, but to hang out with these people.”
That used to be called human interaction. But in an era where this kind of contact is often mediated or subsumed by the digital, it makes sense that obtaining it has become fetishized. (Analog analogue: The band often releases its music on cassettes.) To get out there and access those physical connections, a band needs a means of physically transporting itself from place to place. “A car is one thing no one will ever let you borrow,” Paco said. “And we’re all New Yorkers. None of us owns a car.”
Two thirds of the members of Big Neck Police are in possession of a valid New York State license. (Hugo confessed to having failed his driver’s test “fewer than six times.”) The band had weeks of dates lined up in an odd parallelogram formed by New York, Atlanta and Toronto. They had online fans who were eager meet them.
If we gave them a van, they could go on their tour. What could go wrong?
Plenty. Starting with the van. Our friends at Ford were generous enough to provide the wheels, but their delivery was a bit of an over-share. Instead of the short-wheelbase, diesel-powered Transit wagon originally requested, our three scrawny rockers received a twin-turbo, 12-seat, 350-T behemoth. “Never in a million years,” Paco says, “could we have used half of the available space in that thing.”
Their first issue flowed out from—almost, into—this gift horse, when the boys attempted to fill it with diesel fuel at their initial pit stop. “Luckily, the pump didn’t fit,” Paco said. “Though there was this teensy funnel in the glove box. We thought maybe we were supposed to use that?”
Then, when they were about to go on stage during their very first gig, they realized that they’d lost their keys. “We looked everywhere on the ground, on the path from the van to the venue, like, 10 times,” said Mac, who admitted that he was in possession when the fob went missing. “We had to play our set,” Hugo added. “But we made an announcement to the crowd to look for the key. So we had, like, 40 people crawling around the floor. Which, come to think of it, was a pretty good crowd for a basement show.”
The van’s theft-prevention software was so new that the local locksmith couldn’t get it to recognize a replacement key. (“The whole world of dongles opened up to us that day,” Paco said wryly, referring to the electronic equipment used to read and apply automotive security codes.)
Fortunately, the locksmith was also a musician, and was thus sympathetic enough to devote eight or nine hours to the mission. Or perhaps he was simply networking. “I think he thought we were a big deal because of the van,” Paco said.
After a series of literal false starts—wherein the van would turn over once but thereafter decline to recognize the key—and a vow by the locksmith to “go home and smoke weed,” two successful replacements were finally created. This joyous occasion catalyzed in Hugo “a bizarre animal catharsis,” and he ran at Mac and headbutted him in the face. Mac fell backward onto the pavement and nearly cracked his skull. A shiner rose around his left eye.
Another, more extreme headbutt arrived a few days later, en route from Knoxville to Nashville. Accelerating in the left lane of a two-lane highway just after a torrential downpour, caught between a tractor-trailer on the right, a line of vehicles ahead and a steep embankment on the left, Mac suddenly came upon a clutch of traffic backed up behind a fresh wreck. Following the vehicle in front of him, he attempted to thread the needle between the lanes. Sadly, he ended up like a camel in the eye, deep in the trunk of an old lady’s Infiniti.
The boys were cleared of all culpability, perhaps in part because the baby-faced cop on the scene was another music fan. He talked to the boys about his old band. He talked to them about his friends’ band in Nashville. Then he asked the name of their band. “Big Neck,” Mac interjected, before anyone else could answer. “We’re called Big Neck.”
They did a walk-around of the vehicle. The front bumper was slightly dented, and the oval Ford logo in the grille was cracked, but still in place. Nothing else was damaged. No one was hurt. The clouds parted and hundreds of sunbeams appeared in the sky. “That van is amazing,” Hugo said.
Additional major incidents were avoided for the rest of the tour, but the van never ceased to act as the band’s refuge—among other functions. Their moms had given them pallets of drinks and snacks, and with all the spare room, they dedicated individual seats to various items, like in a pantry. During an, ahem, rendez-vous between Paco and a member of another touring band, Mac spent the night in the van, so it played the role of bedroom. With its large tank and decent fuel economy, the van allowed the band to drive 500 miles between fill-ups. Given the Transit’s high roof and expansive cargo hold, and the band’s collection of empty water bottles, they were able to take advantage of the vehicle in a novel way. “You could stand up in there. So we took to calling the back right corner of the van ‘the bathroom.’ Because we never had to stop, we’d just go into a bottle,” Paco said. “I never spilled a drop,” Hugo added. Then he looked at Mac. “Actually, I did dribble on your backpack once.”
With its commanding seating position, the van even afforded unanticipated voyeuristic opportunities. “We actually saw road dome,” Mac said, shaking his head. “I never knew that was really a real thing.”
The shows in their DIY circuit all took place at non-traditional venues. In Richmond, they played in an art gallery. In Knoxville, they played at a community center. In Toronto, they were in a bike shop. In Cleveland, they performed at a rural backyard party, the centerpiece of which was two pickup trucks parked bed-to-bed, tarped and filled with water to create a pool. In Atlanta, they played at a dry cleaner, filled with decommissioned racks and presses like a museum of medieval torture equipment. In Macon, they played at Fresh Produce, an experimental music record store-cum-grocery.
All of these sites were in the youthful, not-quite-gentrified districts of their respective cities: The United Bushwicks of America. “We were parked in pretty sketchy neighborhoods every night,” Mac says. “And this van attracts more attention than a touring van probably should. Like, someone out on the town not looking to break into a van might come out of retirement if they saw it.” Shockingly, nothing was stolen.
Like any patrons, as Big Neck Police’s official Medicis, we insisted on accountability, and had the boys keep careful record of their intake and expenses throughout their trip. (Toll: -$.75, Tonic & Lime: -$3, Weed: -$25, Guy on Street: -$7.) At the end, they’d somehow netted over $1,000, far more money than they’d ever made on tour.
“Credit goes to the van for sure,” Paco says. “Gas is our number-one expense on tour. And it was so efficient. And comfortable. Everything worked so well—the A/C, the Bluetooth stereo, the navigation, the back-up camera. I don’t want to say we played better because of the van, but…”
Mac, who did 90 percent of the driving and was at the helm, and heart, of the major mishaps, had a slightly different summary. “I wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “But if I could go back in time and do it again for the first time, I would.”
Hugo moved to Philly after the tour. “I was walking by the staging area for the Made in America Music Festival there,” he said. “It’s curated by Jay-Z, so all the performers are hugely famous. And I notice that there are these vans sort of like ours everywhere, as like, trailers for the musicians. And I was looking in trying to see who was inside—was it Earl Sweatshirt, was it Future? And I thought, whoever is in there, whatever hugely famous person, we still had the bigger, newer version of the Ford Transit.”