Small Black Rolls Incognito.
Behind every great band is a great van. And when these former church vans, daycare buses and plumber's work vehicles have racked up enough miles on the road, they eventually start being thought of by the band as another member of the team. Hey, we get it: It's hard to spend so many hours with bandmates (both human and machine) without a few things getting broken, a few good fights taking place and lots of great memories being made. We hope that, by exploring these stories, we might get to know some bands from both North Texas and beyond on a more personal level. Check out this feature's archives here.
Small Black has been going rather strong since breaking out of the blogosphere nearly five years ago with a mound of music released through Jagjaguwar Records. Three full-lengths released in the last five years is no joke, folks. It's also plenty to support, meaning that touring is something the band's done plenty of, too.
And for most of that time — since its first trip to SXSW — the Brooklyn-based, don't-call-them-chillwave outfit has been driving the same van, one that's become something of the band's lifeblood on the road.
A couple weeks back, just a day after releasing its latest LP, called Best Blues, the band found itself headlining a gig here in Dallas at Dada. It was there that we caught up with guitarist Ryan Heyner and frontman Josh Kolenik to talk about their tricks of the trade, like how to lay low and not get your shit stolen on the road.
Band Name: Small Black.
Van Name: n/a.
Year/Make/Model: 2004 Ford E-350.
Mileage: “About 120,000.”
Do you guys have a name for well-traveled tour van?
Josh Kolenik (Vocals/ Guitar): “We were talking about this yesterday when we heard about this interview — and, no, we don't. We like to keep it very inconspicuous. Our main goal with the van is that no one thinks we're a band, so we won't get robbed.”
Ryan Heyner (Keyboards/ Guitar): “It's kind of like the smaller vans, like a 15-passenger, is sort of the quintessential, 'Yeah, those are band vans.'”
Josh: “Nothing on the outside that would make it look like it's a band. No van stickers. It's just like a license for somebody to steal your stuff.”
Has that sort of thing happened to you guys before?
Josh: “No, but it's happened to everybody else. We've been trying for years to avoid it.”
Ryan: “We wanted to paint the name of a fake church on our van. We figured that would throw people off the stink of the van even more.”
Well, what can you tell us about the van?
Josh: “It's Olive Green. It's got that metallic green tint.”
How long have you had it?
Ryan: “I think since '09.”
Josh: “No, no. Five years. Since 2010.”
Ryan: “See, this is our second van. This is a good story. Our first van we got before we went on our first tour ever down to SXSW with Small Black, Washed Out and Pictureplane.”
Josh: “It was a pretty wild tour.”
Ryan: “Definitely the most fun, wild and insane tour we've ever done.”
Josh: “We bought a van on Long Island, kind of where my family is, and it was just a lemon. It broke right as we pulled into Austin for SXSW. We literally rumbled up to these girls' house we were staying at.”
Ryan: “The wheel was about to fall off and everything. Actually, though, when we first got the van, when we tried to put gas in the van — I think it was the first time — it wouldn't even fill up. You know when you're getting gas, how it'll automatically stop? Guess what happened the second you put it in there?! There was some sort of pressure issue.”
Josh: “We'd be stopping and filling it up all the time. I'm convinced that van had been in a terrible wreck.”
Ryan: “Cosmetically, they fixed it — and then they didn't know what they were doing.”
Josh: “So we got this nice Australian guy in Austin to fix it for us. I wish I knew his name.”
Ryan: “It was really good name. It was like Patch or something.”
Josh: “He was, like, Zigort or something. I don't know. He was amazing.”
Ryan: “He was Australian and kind of like a wizard mechanic. Everybody that we knew that gave us advice, they all told us to go to this one guy.”
Josh: “I wish I had the name. He was really cool guy. He was this super renegade type of guy.”
Ryan: “Yeah, so we didn't have a van the entire week of SXSW. We were kind of lugging our stuff 15 blocks to get to shows.”
Josh: “We just had too many shows and not enough transportation. To walk the far west side to get to the Fader stage, it's really far. We have a lot of stuff. So it was OK. We drove it to California. And we're driving up the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara, and Ryan was the driver…”
Ryan: “I had the unfortunate task of driving.”
Josh: “He was driving with Travis from Pictureplane, and Travis is like, 'Man, this van is running great man.'”
Ryan: “I mean, literally, he was like, 'It's been running great today!' And we didn't know, but Jeff, our drummer, was in another car — because his girlfriend was with us, and she had rented a car and were travelling separately — and they were behind us, and they were beeping the horn, trying to get in touch, trying to get our attention. [There was] oil and smoke.”
Josh: “The van was smoking.”
Ryan: “And then we're like, 'What?'”
Josh: “We hear a huge thud and Ryan, luckily, pulls us onto the shoulder very quickly, and we look and the drive train has just fallen out of the bottom of the car.”
Ryan: “It was just hanging, like just dangling. The drive train — correct me if I'm wrong — but it spins the back tires and had that fallen off the opposite way. It would have pole-vaulted the van and we would have probably had a horrible car accident. So, thank god, it broke in the right direction.”
Josh: “We had also kind of slowed down at that point, too.”
Ryan: “It was the scariest sound a car could make.”
Josh: “So we just went and took it to a mechanic or something.”
Ryan: “Kind of like a gas station.”
Josh: “And we never saw it again. We had one of our friends try and sell it. So we ended doing part of the tour in a U-Haul and then rented minivan to get home.”
Ryan: “Which is a whole other story. But this van…”
Yeah, tell me about this van.
Josh: “This van is our best friend. We've probably put about 120,000 miles on it. Our drummer Jeff is kind of a car maintenance maniac. It's very important. You don't want a bunch of derelicts trying to take care of a car. I watched Beach Fossils try to take care of a van, and they're horrible. They've killed like three of them.”
Ryan: “That's why we don't lend our van out to other bands. We've gotten lots of offers and we're like, 'Nope, sorry.' You can't trust anyone.”
Josh: “It's saved our ass a lot of times and let us do a lot of touring.”
Ryan: “We keep it nice and lubed up. We try to keep all the parts clean.”
So, in the time you've had it, it hasn't broken down?
Josh: “Nothing major. I mean, we had some electrical problems.”
Ryan: “We were trying to run one of those power strips. Some of the instrument cluster lights don't work anymore.”
Josh: “That was a bad move by us.”
Ryan: “We can get it fixed, but the whole front instrument panel has to be taken apart. It's a crazy job. It's more expensive.”
Josh: “Yeah, man, it's been holding true.”
That's good, have you done anything weird or special to it, decorative or otherwise?
Ryan: “We put these magical racks in it.”
Josh: “Well, because the van is kind of smaller than your average band van, we have an extra storage compartment in that little bubble on top. So we have these beautiful heavy racks to hold additional shit so we have more space in the van.”
Is it better than having trailer you think?
Ryan: “Much better. Trailers are very dangerous. Every emo or metal band always has trailer. They got some big amps. We keep it small.”
Josh: “It's also difficult to park, and you have find more space for parking.”
Ryan: “Our bass player's a real bad driver.”
Josh: “So he would never be allowed to drive if we had a trailer.”
Ryan: “We're able to split the driving duties into fourths without it.”
Speaking of driving, it sounds like you all take turns.
Ryan: “We all drive.”
Josh: “We all do, but there's definitely a hierarchy. Ryan and Jeff are the best. I'm in the three-hole. Juan is a distant fourth. He drives when the three of us are little bit burnt and we just kind of pass the torch to him.”
Ryan: “But it doesn't really give us any relief because it's so herky-jerky you don't even get to rest. It's actually worse.”
Josh: “You sort of fear for your life the entire time.”
Anything else you'd like to say about your secret van?
Josh: “Yeah, it's the secret van. I mean, it's the thing that lets us survive as an artist because it's how we make most of our money. Without this thing, we'd be really poor. So we love it.”
Ryan: “We have to do a lot of corner-cutting to be able to do this as much we do it. So just maintaining this and kind being responsible, it's pretty anti-rock 'n' roll.”
Josh: “It's the new rock 'n' roll.”
Ryan: “You can't be reckless.”