We Do It For The Love: Shapeshifting

I love music.

From the gym, to the shower, then in my car.  To relax, to energize, to deal with issues, to trigger memories, to relate to others dealing with similar emotions; I find solace in tunes.

As I watch the music industry struggle to evolve and save itself from itself, I find it increasingly difficult to find music I’m truly passionate about. In many ways the music industry is a reflection of what’s happening in our society. There’s a few at the top, an ever shrinking middle class, and a wealth of talent struggling to make ends meet/meat. Career musicians are meeting the teachings of Darwin in what has become an ‘adapt or die’ industry.

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As the casualties continue to mount, Lorie Beth and I were set to see a band at the pinnacle of the music food chain. We were on the VIP list for a sold out TOOL show at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and we were part of a Q & A with Adam Jones. It turned out that this topic weighed heavily on Adam’s mind as well, at least that evening. As the event unfolded, it was fascinating and chilling to hear Adam talk about how the industry is on life support. His band was in the middle of a sold out arena tour generating huge dollars. However, even at their level he mentioned funding issues for several projects, and talked about distribution and production woes. The Q & A wasn’t all doom and gloom. He talked about a wide range of topics, but the industry stuff really hit home for me. As he was talking, quotes from his bandmate Maynard James Keenan and recollections of my personal experiences with J Loren played like an 8mm film in my head. Quotes like:

“There’s a disconnect between people not buying music and not understanding why [bands] go away. There are people who are like monkeys in a cage just hitting the coke button. They don’t really get that for [musicians and artists] to do these things, they have to fund them. They have to have something to pay the rent.” -Maynard James Keenan from Nobody’s Tool interview.

Tool at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville TN

Tool at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville TN

Exactly three weeks later, I was enjoying shooting toothpicks from a straw into the ceiling of a popular burger joint in Memphis with my kids, when the phone rang. It was none other than J Loren. He was on the “Music with Friends” tour with Sean Danielsen from Smile Empty Soul. They were set to play a gig in Texas that night, but the venue closed down in the days leading up to the show. Another industry casualty. J told me he was looking to do Sean ‘a solid’ for doing this tour with him, and he knew I’d be just the guy to call.

No tour bus is complete without a cup holder full of sharpies for autographs.

No tour bus is complete without a cup holder full of sharpies for autographs.

Their tour bus was essentially running 24 hours a day. The guys were living out of it, but it didn’t have sure power. Sure power allows the electronics in the living space of the bus to be used without the engine running. Sure power conserves fuel and prolongs engine life by preventing excessive wear and tear to the engine and other vehicle components by alleviating the need to constantly run. It’s simply more economical. I told the guys to give me a few days and I’d get back to them.

I sent Brandon Wheeler, owner of Hotwired Car Audio, a text to see if he’d be interested in doing this project. “Hell yeah we will do it!” was the text I received back. Things were in motion before dinner was done. Over the next week, Brandon, Lorie Beth, and I went back and forth with J and Sean to hash out the details of our plan. Finally, Lorie Beth and I set up a date to meet up with J and Sean on the bookends of their Johnson City Show to talk about the project face to face and to get our first look at Sean’s current set up.

Ironically, in traditional rock and roll tour fashion, there’s a predictable level of unpredictability that accompanies tours. This tour proved to be no different. At 2:00 am, the morning of the show, J called. A couple of phone calls later, a grocery list of sorts was made. The guys needed:

This was J playing Lorie's violin in a parking lot near the Johnson City Venue.

This was J playing Lorie’s violin in a parking lot near the Johnson City Venue.

  • a headlight for the tour bus
  • a violin [so J could play ‘Fighting Tao’ for me without having to tune his violin differently from what the rest of his set required]
  • the name and phone number for the Programming Director at the Johnson City rock station
  • some healthy greens for Sean [if you follow him, or Smile, you know that eating REAL food even while touring is important to him]
  • a straight razor or dog groomer

Over the course of the day we rounded up the needed items, minus the razor, and drove to the show.

Upon arriving, Sean welcomed us into their home. It was clear, this was no ambulance. It is much better equipped for tour life. His 3500 Mercedes Sprinter is a scaled down version of much larger tour buses. It has all the essentials covered and it’s nice, but to call it anything other than cramped for a full band on tour would be a mistake.

The stage was set for Sean to put on a great show.

The stage was set for Sean to put on a great show.

Sean explained to us that he wanted to be taught everything from general maintenance to electrical wiring. Over the course of the evening the conversation shifted to a wide range of stories and topics including the state of music. Sean talked about how the industry had evolved from the days of MTV, and bands having handlers that would prop musicians up on stage so they could perform, to bands like his constantly fighting to find ways to continue to make a living doing what they love.

It was a fascinating discussion that would have felt at home in a college level economics or business course. This is a man who has evolved and adapted to the environmental changes around him. He’s found ways to succeed where many others have failed for that reason. He’s willing to listen, learn, be humble, and develop new skill sets to continue to produce music for a living. Over the years, he and his bandmates have learned to do much of their own marketing and management. They’ve shifted from record deals to producing the albums they want to make and taking the finished product to the labels for distribution deals. Along with that, the guys from Smile Empty Soul are just really good people. I’ve hung out with them several times in the past during HURT tours. They never really had any clue who I was, but they were always incredibly nice to me… the random guy hanging out on their bus or back stage at venues. This is the kind of band I want to support in any way I can.

Lorie Beth and I came away from that night with a game plan. The next day I contacted Austin Kelley, one of the diesel mechanics who helped us with the ambulance. Austin was excited and willing to be part of this, but scheduling conflicts wouldn’t allow it.  So I contacted Jeff Stevens next. I met Jeff several years ago when I was recruiting for an automotive technical college. He graduated at the top of his class and does vehicle maintenance and mechanical work for a large municipal government.

Jeff quickly joined, and our team was set for this project.

This was going to happen quickly. We had Saturday afternoon, March 5th, at Hotwired Car Audio in Jonesboro Arkansas to install sure power, repair a torn seat, service the vehicle for the next Smile Empty Soul tour, take care of a few other small issues, and teach Sean how to do all of it in the process.

Over the next two weeks, we hammered a plan, gathered parts, and developed a timeline for how the day would flow.

Then, in the words of our buddy J Loren, “everything just fell apart.”

Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but even the best laid plans are still just plans.

Hotwired Car Audio specializes in custom car audio installations, but they also work on a wide range of other projects as well. On the day we were there they had projects ranging from an RV to a boat, and of course, the Smile Empty Soul Sprinter Van. With each job being different, it’s tough to predict exactly how long a job will take, and what exactly will be needed until it’s time to start doing the work.

Sean, Brandon, and Justin going over the plan.

Sean, Brandon, and Justin going over the plan.

Shortly after Sean arrived, our team sprang to action.

The view under the driver's seat.

The view under the driver’s seat.

Lorie Beth grabbed the couch cushion, stripped it, and began prep for her repair work.

Brandon and Justin Letson got their first look at the Sprinter van.

Jeff popped the hood to give everything a quick look.

I did what I do best: I took pictures with my phone, and made sure everyone was going to be able to complete their part of the project.

Justin and Brandon quickly realized that this appeared to be a much simpler job than they had anticipated. However, that meant gathering a different set of supplies than they had planned on. Our team split up. Brandon and Justin went on an electrical parts run, while Lorie Beth, Sean, Jeff and I went on a lunch and mechanical parts and tool run.

Jeff teaching Sean how to change oil.

Jeff teaching Sean how to change oil.

Jeff’s goal was to set Sean up with a list of tools he would need to do routine maintenance on his van and then teach him how to do basic maintenance. Jeff was able to walk him through changing the oil and filters and give him a quick crash course on diesel maintenance. Jeff and I were able to give him several pointers on how to save money on maintenance while touring.

Next up was Lorie Beth’s sewing work. Sean and I walked to our hotel room so Lorie Beth could talk to him about the material used for his seats. Once she finished the seat we walked back to the shop so we could say goodbye to Jeff, who had driven a couple of hours to spend the afternoon helping us.

A seat that smells like gig ass is nothing compared to the smells that lurk in a 25 year old ambulance.

A seat that smells like gig ass is nothing compared to the smells that lurk in a 25 year old ambulance.

With the mechanical and cosmetic aspects of the project completed and the rest of our team still hunting down parts, it was play time for Lorie’s dog, Willow.

Sean and Willow taking a break.

Sean and Willow taking a break.

Once the guys arrived, they quickly installed the sure power, and ran the line to a switch they installed beside the inverter. It was time to test the set up…

After installing the sure power, a switch was added to toggle between power sources.

After installing the sure power, a switch was added to toggle between power sources.

What first looked like a simple job quickly turned into ghost chasing, reminiscent of the final hours of J’s ambulance. For some reason, even with everything installed correctly, the electronics weren’t receiving power like they should. I could see Sean getting a little nervous. This was his baby, his source of income, his home. It simply had to function properly.

What we planned on taking an afternoon turned into a night. As the guys ran through a process of elimination, they decided it could be a faulty battery isolator. Once it was suspected, Sean confirmed that he’d been having issues with the controls for the rear power not working at times. The battery isolator was going to fail on them and it needed to be replaced. Failing on the road could leave the band without any amenities, including air flow or lighting. With living space already tight and the interior an almost exclusively black color scheme with blacked out windows, it didn’t need to fail on them while touring. There wasn’t a replacement to be found after business hours on a Saturday. Keeping the van until the following Monday wasn’t a practical option. With a Smile Empty Soul tour set to start in just a few weeks, we needed to quickly find a solution.

This was the ghost we were chasing.

This was the ghost we were chasing.

Once again, Brandon and Justin found a way. They removed the electronic battery isolator and installed a manual switch. Taking out the mechanical battery isolator leaves one less part to fail on these guys. Everything worked properly! The van was quickly reassembled and Sean presented the crew with signed copies of all of his music. It was time for a group photo and to send the rock star on his way home.

The manual switch the guys installed in place of the battery isolator.

The manual switch the guys installed in place of the battery isolator.

This was a great success. For less than the price Sean had been paying for an oil change, we were able to teach him how to service his vehicle and give his band a set up that will save them money and prolong the life of their vehicle and hopefully career. Ultimately, as this industry evolves and the people in it struggle to find their footing, those that become Shapeshifters will eventually find away to thrive once again.

To quote Maynard James Keenan:

“It’s going to default back to people who want to do this and are willing to do this. Once people find their own way and find their own audience, they might kind of peek their head up over the crowd long enough to see that there’s an entire movement happening, and we did it individually. It’s critical mass; it all disseminates in a way that you go, ‘Oh, this is the new thing now.’ People just did it naturally, and people just did it in their own ways, in their lines and their mediums and surroundings. They’ll all step back and realize they’ve all come to the same place.” –Nobody’s Tool

As always, and until our next project… Thank you for reading.

Smile Empty Soul, Shapeshifter pre-order page!

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