Every band who tours frequently has an unspoken member who doesn’t play on any records, yet is instrumental in reaching fans’ ears in far away places. I’m talking about the vehicle responsible for getting the band to their next show, and hopefully, the show after that. If you want to go on tour you have a few transportation options: renting a vehicle, borrowing a friend’s vehicle, or buying your own vehicle. I personally believe buying your own tour van is the best investment for a band whose intent is to tour often. I have found two semi-reliable used vehicles within my budget (less than $6000) that we have put 60,000 miles of touring in the past 3 years. There’s Patrick, a 1995 Dodge Caravan, and Abby “The Abyss,” a 2007 Ford 11-passenger Econoline E-150.
First, the important stuff: how does a band van get its name?
Sometimes it’s obvious. I found my first minivan at a mechanic in New Jersey for $1500. It was given to the mechanic because the owner had passed away. The previous owner’s address and name, Patrick, were still on the van key chain. There was a bottle of wine in the trunk and a little handwritten notebook of the dates of every oil change the van had ever gotten in the glove box.
The bottle of wine exploded in the trunk before I had a chance to open it and the radio/cassette tape player worked very erratically, leading us to believe that Patrick’s spirit was still with us. The van had relatively low millage for a 20+ year old vehicle (under 100,000) and the mechanic told us Patrick didn’t leave NJ much, so it made sense that his spirit would want to go on adventures with a three piece girl rock band.
Sometimes it takes a tour. The next vehicle I purchased was an 11 passenger Econoline in January 2017 for $5,500. Chris Yaniack from Little Dickman Records spotted it at a used car dealership in Asbury Park, NJ. Ex-Girlfriends did tri-state area gigs in the minivan, but it was a tight squeeze for 5 fully grown women. The first tour we did in the Econoline was a double Sharkmuffin/Ex-Girlfriends tour in March 2017 to SXSW and back, and naturally everyone’s belongings kept disappearing. For this reason, it was lovingly dubbed “The Abyss” or “Abby” for short.
In February 2017, before we took Abby on the road, Ex-Girlfriends did a cross country tour with Brooklyn surf-noir babes Fruit & Flowers in their 1994 party bus turned band bus. We made it from Brooklyn to San Diego in four days with stops in Carborro, NC, Nashville TN, and Armallio, TX, then toured up the west coast to Seattle and after our last date together Fruit & Flowers drove it straight from Seattle, WA to Austin, TX for SXSW.
Here is their bus origin story…
Starring Caroline & Ana (role of Ana is played by Caro’s friend Nikki)
We chatted with Ana of Fruit & Flowers about Sylvia the bus.
AF: How did Sylvia get her name? How did Sylvia get so much graffiti?
Ana: Sylvia got her name from her former owner, Dave Lotito, who sold her to us. The naming process kind of reminded me of my old pet cat, Herman (RIP). We adopted Herman thinking the name was goofy and we’d think of another one – “Hermes” was one suggestion that I liked. But at the end of the day, Herman was just a Herman. Nothing else really worked. Same went for Sylvia.
Sylvia got the graffiti over time – the first big piece got added in Chicago. 1-UP. After that, it was like the floodgates opened. Now there are layers on layers of graffiti pieces. The big 1-UP on the side is covered up now, but I liked that one a lot. The big skull with a watermelon hat that currently graces the side is my favorite piece to date. Caro says that piece is by Kool AD. It’s really pushed me to embrace transience. You can’t get attached to any of the art, because it may be gone tomorrow.
AF: What’s the craziest story involving Sylvia that has happened on tour?
Ana: The absolute craziest Sylvia experience we ever had wasn’t actually while we were on tour. We were coming back from a show in Manhattan, and giving a bunch of friends a ride back with us. Caroline was driving, and we realized we were dangerously low on gas as we approached the Williamsburg Bridge. “There’s always a reserve gallon, just go for it,” one of the acquaintances yelled from the back.
The rest of that story goes about as wildly wrong as you might imagine. I won’t go into the details because it’s mildly traumatic, but you can ask Micah or Bill from Grim Streaker. I’m sure they’d gladly relate the tale.
The craziest tour story is from when she broke down in Canada, two hours from the Michigan border. We had to cancel two shows, because Sylvia flatly refused to leave Canada. But it all worked out because we met our Canadian mom and dad who let us stay in their lovely home, in a serenely beautiful place, and took care of us. Tour angels for sure.
AF: What’s happens on a good bus day? What happens on a bad bus day? If you could change one thing about Sylvia what would it be?
Ana: On a good bus day, she carries us safely and comfortably from city to city. The bank seating is really nice because there’s room for the passengers to lay down and nap. Sylvia also gets a lot of compliments and admiration, and we wind up meeting and talking to a lot of rad people who are curious about the bus.
On a bad bus day she is very temperamental and expensive. My least favorite is when we have to cancel shows – I find that super upsetting. At least so far though she’s kept us safe, which I’m very grateful for. But I also have a $700 bill for repairs sitting on my credit card that I have no idea how the band is going to pay off.
AF: What advice do you have for bands looking into buying a tour van or bus?
Ana: First, I would say to have a clear idea of which band member(s) will take care of the vehicle, especially if you live in the city. It’s a pain to deal with. Caroline has really done the lion’s share of taking care of Sylvia, for which I am super grateful, considering I am somewhat clueless when it comes to cars.
I’m kind of a wet blanket on this one – I love Sylvia but I wish we had a vehicle that was more designed for this kind of long-distance use. Sylvia has had a ton of battery and electrical problems, and it seems like she always has to go to the shop for something or another. The repairs have really added up. I’m also not very knowledgeable about cars, so maybe that’s just the way it always is — but it doesn’t seem right.
I would make sure the gas mileage is good, and that AAA services the vehicle. We found out in one unfortunate moment that our bus is too big to be towed by regular AAA, and that’s left us in the lurch, and many hundreds of dollars lighter.
I would also recommend finding a really good auto shop that you trust. I think we’ve probably wasted a lot of time and money taking Sylvia to a sub-par shop for the first year or so that we had her.
I’d probably forego the fancy stuff, and prioritize a vehicle that will do what you need it to do— get you from point A to point B as reliably and safely as possible. Then maybe get someone awesome to spraypaint some badass art on it!
Below are some practical tips for buying, driving, & taking care of your tour van:
- Expect the Unexpected. The main disadvantage to buying a used van is that they are unpredictable and it can be expensive to fix them. But there’s something romantic about being stranded on the side of the road peering into the engine, possibly not making it to your next gig, right? No, of course it’s not. Get AAA and always have a van repair emergency fund or credit card!
- Be reasonable. Gas efficiency and space are main concerns in choosing your vehicle. Ask yourself: how many band members and gear can you comfortably fit in the most fuel efficient & reliable vehicle? Three and four piece bands can generally squeeze into a mini-van, but if you have a crew (tour manager/merch person/roadie/friend craving adventure), consider purchasing a full-size van.
- Buy a Cargo Carrier. Great for luggage, air beds, extra band merch and a perfect place to hide your weed.
- Make at least 10 copies of that van key. One of my biggest tour breakdown triggers is when someone loses one of the only van keys. Make sure each band member has two copies of the key and keep two spares with reliable friends or family.
- Get an EZ Pass. You save so much on tolls, especially around NYC. A lot of the bridges in NYC now have “cashless tolling” where they send you a bill in the mail if you don’t have an EZ Pass. These tickets can pile up and if you don’t respond they tack on $50 late fees to each ticket. If you have a few of these these bills & fines, once you register to EZ Pass, they will charge the tolls to your account and waive the late fees.
- Avoid parking tickets & losing your vehicle. Parking restrictions can be confusing in bigger cities, and it is more common than you think to totally forget where you parked after your show. The easiest way to avoid this is to always take photos of the parking and street signs that are next to your vehicle and text the pictures to your band group chat. That way, everyone can be responsible and helpful keeping track of the tour van.