Unplugged But Electric: Bikes Power Concerts
BOSTON — A local band is making music “off-the-grid” — totally unplugged — with the help of something called Sustainable Sound. It’s a “clean” audio and lighting system powered by humans peddling away on bikes. I recently had the chance to speak with musicians and the young inventor who dreamed the thing up.
A demo concert, organized for a video shoot, took place at a thematically appropriate venue: Landry’s Bicycles in Boston. The whirring and clicking of bike cranks blended with the sounds of electric guitars and a keyboard warming up.
Inventor Sean Stevens leaned over to set up and tweak his people-powered system. He wore a lab coat covered in colorful flowers and gladly told me how his modular contraption works. This configuration is made up of three pieces. It helps to picture a recumbent bicycle.
“There’s one bench that has three bikes mounted to it,” he explained, “and three people sit on it and pedal. Then there’s two individual benches that each have one pedaling station on it, and that will be wired into a central box that manages and stores the power and things like that.”
The pedal-power is harnessed by small generators attached to each bolted-down bike frame.
“Instead of the back wheel you have one of these generators,” Stevens said, rotating a pedal with his hand, “and it’s like a hybrid car has electric motors and if you use them to slow down they generate electricity, which you can then use later.”
Stevens said one person can sustain about 100 watts without breaking too much of a sweat. Five people can amass enough wattage to power a small live show, like this demo.
Now I have to say Stevens’ rig is pretty scrappy-looking. Utterly DIY and somehow cruder than I expected, even after checking out his extensive blog covering the system’s evolution over time. He said he’s been cobbling together variations on this theme, chopping up old bikes, audio equipment and pieces of plywood.
“Most of this stuff came from Home Depot or Radio Shack or the Internet or something like that,” he said. “None of it is esoteric but it’s just about the combination of things becoming something new.”
Also something alternative, which is critical to Stevens. He’s been obsessed with energy sources since the days when he played with battery-powered Erector Sets and motorized Lego kits.
“And it would cost $8 or $10 to run this toy for half an hour,” he recalled quite vividly, “and then you have this like half-a-pound of gross toxic stuff that you have to throw out. You know, even as a kid I was like, ‘This is kind of lame.’ ”
Now the 32-year-old says he makes toys for adults that can run forever — like his Sustainable Sound system. He’s brought pedal-power to dance parties, arts festivals like Burning Man in California, even into the deep woods of Vermont.
“You can plug it into an iPod and leave it on loop and as soon as somebody starts pedaling there’s music,” he said almost wistfully.
Greg Reinauer, bassist for the Boston band Melodeego, remembers the first time he experienced Steven’s sound system — at a backyard benefit for the Northeast Climate Confluence.
“Just the feeling of pedaling and having that direct response of making the music that you’re listening to was just so powerful and I instantly knew we had to get together,” Reinauer said.
The bike-powered sound system spoke to Reinauer and his bandmates because they’re also on a mission to get off fossil fuels. Since they met the musicians and the inventor have staged bike-powered shows at colleges, environmental rallies, even the State House. They’ve raised funds, too — more than $14,000, they say — toward the development of a slick, 10-bike system that’s independently mobile.
“Cause there’s a lot of people who believe or want to have you believe that clean energy is too hard or impractical or impossible,” Reinauer told me, “but you can’t look at all the lights flashing, you can’t hear Melodeego’s music blasting out of the speakers and be dancing or singing along and say that this isn’t possible, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
But “the sell” isn’t always an easy one, especially to people who rely on high-quality sound at music clubs. Take Dana Westover, for instance.
“I have to confess I was quite skeptical when I first heard about this,” he said. Westover books bands and engineers the sound system at Johnny D’s, a venue in Somerville.
“I tune the room pretty carefully so the PA is installed and it’s here all the time and it does exactly what I want it to,” he explained, “so adding something to that is always a bit of a concern, you know?”
But he took a leap and booked the band. They played there a few months ago. Westover admits he was shocked to see what the Franken-system looked like. But he was satisfied with the way it sounded, and combined Johnny D’s robust equipment with the band’s bike-powered rig.
“I think the primary thing that they’re thinking about, and we’re all thinking about, is conservation of energy,” he said. Then he added with a laugh: “Also, to be honest, people enjoy cranking away. Oh they were standing in line to get on, you know, so why not?”
The band, and the bikes, will take the stage again at Johnny D’s Friday night. Melodeego and Sustainable Sound inventor Sean Stevens are planning a bunch of shows this spring in as many communities as possible. They’re also hoping to use their full 10-bike system that they say will actually travel from gig to gig.