SONIC REDUCER What's 40 feet long and 13 feet, 9 inches tall and fun all over? Sounding like a potentially lame "you've gotta be kidding me" joke and accelerating in Bay Area underground rockers' imagination as a real alternative to your average bad show experience, John Benson's converted Muni veggie-biodiesel bus is the latest in a bohemian nation's short parade of party starters on wheels driven by motorvators like the Merry Pranksters and Friends Forever in order to cavort, make art and sometimes community, and blow minds. Le difference is that this art 'n' good times vehicle is huge able to fit an audience of 50 and despite its whitewashed exterior, green.
Just join the scattered, happy misfits and in-the-knowsters wandering in from off the street on this particularly deserted stretch of the Mission-Potrero area Jan. 21. The bus is peacefully parked and perfectly inaudible beneath a pretzel of elevated freeway off-ramps, like the sweet overgrown offspring of Miss Open Road USA. Take a look under the hood as Benson once in A Minor Forest and Hale Zukas and now with Evil Wikkid Warrior opens up the works in the butt end of the bus with the cool little lookout tower on top. Two tanks hold the vegetable oil that primarily propels the bus and the diesel or biodiesel fuel that heats the radiator fluid, which keeps the vegetable oil liquid enough to course through the pipes. With a lot of help from friends, Benson spent only $300 to veggify the bus. And the beautiful part especially to those in perpetually touring poverty-stricken bands who know what it's like to spend all the money from a show on gas is that he gets his fuel free from the pits of used grease behind truck stops and fast-food joints, which ordinarily pay people to take it away.
This is just the latest in a handful of vehicles Benson has vegged out (give or take a few fires caused to keep the vegetable oil flowing), including a Twin Towers dustsaturated ambulance retired after 9/11 service. In 2005, Hale Zukas ended up touring the country in the EMT vehicle alongside the mobile Friends Forever. "I really liked the whole paradigm shift of everything. People didn't know what to expect," Benson recalls fondly. "We'd come in an ambulance, and everyone would say, 'Someone got hurt!' I was excited by the whole chaos and confusion and trickery, and you don't have to rely on clubs or booking agents or soundmen." And of course there was that added sense of poetic justice, he adds, "driving it around on vegetable oil, the whole statement against the war for oil going on."
Inside the bus, far from maddened neighbors, the music goes on. Slight, skinny-mustached Carlos of Hepatitis C in town from Bloomington, Ind., where Benson drove him around on his world-record bid to play the most shows in one day is throwing the party. Living Hell, Ex-Pets, He-War, Noozzz, Erin Allen, and Russian Tsarlag are on the free-to-all, free-for-all bill, and Carlos runs down the street to the opposite street corner the unofficial green room, where the bands and friends are milling to tell them the first artist is starting. Backed by crunchy minimal beats, Sewn Leather is flailing around the small stage inside the bus, shouting, "Noise is dying, punk's been dead, the only rock 'n' roll is in your head!" through a PA fed by a battery fueled by the bus's solar panels. At one of Benson's biggest events, which included Warhammer and Rubber-O-Cement among 13 bands, the overflow turned into a double Dutch jump-rope contest in the middle of the street.