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Magic Bus

Bands like Guster and Hot Buttered Rum run on biodiesel to make touring more friendly to the environment

By Melissa Mansfield


How to live our lives without dam aging the Earth is pretty hard for anyone to figure out. Combine that desire with that of playing music for thousands of fans around the country, and it becomes even more complicated. Regardless, musicians have been finding ways to give back to Mother Earth.

Pearl Jam helped create a protected area in the rainforest of Makira, Madagascar, to make up for 5,700 tons of carbon estimated to have been released due to their touring. Willie Nelson is a managing owner of a biodiesel plant in Texas. Jack Johnson insisted that venues on his summer tour last year switch to florescent lighting and create composting.

And two environmentally conscious bands who are trying to spread their music without contributing to the destruction of the environment will perform in the Capital Region next week: Hot Buttered Rum at Revolution Hall, and Guster at Siena College.

“We share the ethos of backpacking, leave only footprints,” explains Zachary Matthews, the mandolin player in Hot Buttered Rum, a rock-bluegrass band from California. As the band started touring, they realized their van was using up a lot of gas. Bryan Horne (the band’s bass player) and Matthews heard about a workshop called “How to run your vehicle for free on grease from restaurant dumpsters.”

Since the band were just getting started and funds were low, the idea of free fuel was compelling. They also had a strong desire to get off the “fossil-fuel cycle,” so the two converted their van to run on used vegetable oil. When the van died, Matthews bought a biodiesel school bus off eBay. The bus had been converted by students at Middlebury College, and driven across the country on “refined french-fry grease.”

Now Hot Buttered Rum play more than 200 shows a year, and use a more advanced fuel system than the school bus’ 55-gallon drum of hot vegetable oil situated behind the driver. The oil, which Matthews describes as smelling “a little like burnt popcorn,” is now beneath the bus, which can use heated filtered leftover restaurant oil, biodiesel, or regular diesel, if necessary.

Filtering the oil of water, grease and leftover food bits isn’t convenient while touring, so they usually use biodiesel, a clean-burning fuel made from any fat or oil (the first diesel engine ran on peanut oil!) after the glycerin is removed. Biodiesel can be found across the country, with the help of an online database at Matthews admits that biodiesel isn’t perfect—in cold weather it gels and has to be mixed with petroleum-based fuel.

“When you’re burning vegetable oil, you are still releasing carbon,” Matthews says. “It’s renewable, because you are growing a plant crop that uses the carbon, pulling it back out of the air, making (the system) carbon-neutral.”

As companies begin to catch on and do their part to protect the environment (the Clif Bar energy-bar company plans to offset the cost of shows in California by paying for tree planting and wind harvesting to make up for the carbon produced by attendees), the band are pushing their environmental agenda however possible.

Hot Buttered Rum

“We all share this passion about trying to make a real different in the world of sustainable fuel and sustainable lifestyle,” Matthews says, noting that that desire comes out in the songwriting. With songs like “Guns or Butter,” which addresses national priorities, their music (rock played on traditionally bluegrass instruments) evokes the same desire to change the world. In “Well Oiled Machine,” which is about their tour bus, guitarist Nat Keefe writes, “It feels like everywhere I step and everything I buy/ Results in imbalance or pain/Well I just need a way to get home/What the rest aurant kitchens dump/I want to pump/To fill the tank of my well-oiled machine.”

Unlike Hot Buttered Rum, alterative pop band Guster do not bring politics into their music.

“Our music is our music, and our personal passions about the environment. . . . We keep that separate,” says guitarist Adam Gardner. “I think you get in a hazy territory if you start writing songs about saving the whales. It’s something that we’re not necessarily interested in doing.”

Instead, Gardner and his wife, Lauren Sullivan, started an environmental nonprofit, called Reverb, which hosts the Campus Consciousness Tour. The band visit colleges, and set up a “village” of sorts, where visitors can learn about new technologies and talk about how to use their power—specifically the university’s power as investors—to pressure corporations to be eco-friendly.

On their current tour, Guster are riding in a biodiesel bus, drinking out of corn-based tableware, and selling organic-cotton goods. To offset the environmental cost of the shows and of making their new EP, Satellite, the band have been purchasing energy credits through a renewable energy company called Native Energy. The EP, which features their title radio hit and eight other songs, is packaged in biodegradable cardboard decorated with soy-based inks.

Gardner points out that the little changes in life add up to make huge differences. The band now use recycled paper products on tour, and nontoxic cleaning products. “Even if you start with purchasing a non-petroleum-based lip balm instead of a petroleum-based lip balm, you’re making a difference.”

Hot Buttered Rum will perform at Revolution Hall (425 River St., Troy) on April 28 at 8 PM. Tickets are $15, $13 advance. For more information, call 274-0553.


Got Rough Mix items? Contact Kathryn Lurie at or 463-2500 ext. 143.

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