Artist Spotlight: The Grownup Noise Part II – Touring, With a Side of Fries

It has been about two months since Boston based musicians The Grownup Noise completed a veggie oil fuel conversion on their superfly 1980’s van. The band became committed to make a positive impact on the planet during their cross country tour this past summer and their veggie fuel conversion was a giant, carbon reducing step in the right direction. As a frequent visitor to the band’s Myspace page, I had been keeping up with the progress of the van and the band through terrific blogs and photos they were able to post along the way. It was enjoyable to read how people reacted to the van.

My main contact in the band, bass player Adam Sankowski, also kept me up to date through emails detailing some of the challenges they faced on the road as well as funny success stories related to their ability to acquire veggie oil. One of my favorite quotes came from a blog written by Katie Franich (Cellist) when she referred to their fuel collection efforts as “death-defying grease missions”. Luckily, all four band members (also including Paul Hansen, vocal and Attis Clopton, drums) were able to thwart an early demise in order to share their travel journal with us, greasy thumb prints and all.

Feel free to read back over the first two installments of this tantalizing saga; Part I is here and the mid point story here.

After touring on both gas and veggie oil, tell us a little about how they compare.

Well, first off there are the obvious differences like paying for gas versus not paying for gas. There is a lot more work that goes into running on grease including the collection of it and the learning curve that goes with the whole system. For example, there is a system of three filters that need to be changed, but there is no exact rule to follow for when to do such. If you find “dirty” grease then its about 2,000 miles, but cleaner grease can go to 4,000 miles. And we learned that you want to change all the filters at the same time cause nothing stinks more then no knowing what filter is dirty and changing a filter and still not having it work.

The funniest thing/ scariest thing is that there is no sensor or alarm that goes off when you need to change a filter. The engine just cuts off and stops working… so suddenly you have to pilot the van to the side of the road while going 80mph and, of course, you then have no power steering when the engine cuts out. After a while we got really good at preemptively changing filters, but there was a BIG learning curve for us.

The other main thing is that a part of your day is taken up with finding grease. Eventually we got our system down, but it does take up some time. But… it’s nothing that is so time consuming or tough that I would discourage people. In larger cities it can be hard to find grease, but in the suburbs and rural areas it is still very easy to “score” grease.

Do you feel that the band saved money overall on travel expense as compared to prior tours?

Oh my god, it’s not even comparable. We ended up spending about $400- 500 on fuel for the ENTIRE tour. That includes starting in Boston, then going to NYC then back to Boston and then traveling on the most random zigzag trip across the country. From Ohio to Minneapolis to Denver to Seattle to LA then back up to San Fran… and we ended up actually buying pre filtered veggie oil twice. So about $300 was on veggie oil and $200 on diesel fuel. We ended up buying veggie oil because in LA and Austin Texas we found it very difficult to find veggie fuel.

Do you feel you reduced your carbon footprint?

Without a doubt. At first I thought that it was zero, but we started to hear conflicting reports. Here is the direct quote from [Grease Not Gas] (the BEST website on running on veggie oil ever, Mike who runs it is our hero, and the main person responsible for us doing this)

This testimony is the best scientific proof I have that running on veggie oil is environmentally sound, although I was shocked to hear that its not a zero emission’s vehicle:

Mike is quoted as saying:

“When I purchased the Winnebago Lesharo (nicknamed Soy George) for the Grease Brother’s project, I got a trip permit for the shoot and then actually got it registered with the state, after the conversion. When I pulled into the DEQ (Department of Emissions Quality) I told them, “This vehicle can run on either diesel fuel or vegetable oil” They were intrigued and asked me, “Well what do you primarily drive on?” I told them I planned on running it on vegetable oil as much as possible, to save money. They said, “Alright, go through on vegetable oil and we’ll how it goes”. The results were amazing. They said that it was by far the cleanest diesel they’d EVER seen. In the curiosity they asked if I’d drive it through again, this time on diesel. I picked up my “pass” certificate, purged out the veggie on a short drive and went through again, this time on diesel. They said these results were more what they would expect from a junky old motor home. I would have barely passed on diesel, whereas with veggie I made it with flying colors. It was a very interesting experiment; I wish I still had the results. Maybe one of these days I’ll replicate the experiment.” – Mike Parziale,

Being that our van is already cleaner burning than a motor home when running just on diesel, I think that we saved a ton of emissions!

Was it easy to acquire fuel on the road? Is this something all four-band members took part in doing?

The ease of acquiring grease was completely dependant on the area of the country. The west coast was difficult and the rest of the country was easy. We found that every third restaurant or so (non-west coast) was receptive and totally cool with us taking their grease, or that had clean enough grease for us to take. We definitely got our grease routine down after a while… and it did take all four of us. First we would scope out their grease trap, and then if it looked clean, Katie and I would go in and ask if we could grab some. That’s when the language barrier adventure began, trying to explain that we had a car that ran on their used waste. We heard “like the back to the future car?” more than once!

I’m going to be honest and admit that we did have to grab it sometimes without asking, and after a while we developed our “grease ethics”. We always asked first but exceptions were if the restaurant was closed or if it was Taco Bell. Sometimes though, there would be a grease trap in the middle of a parking lot that no restaurant would claim, so we would just take it from there. We starting calling these “blockbuster’s” grease trap, as there were several Blockbuster video stores that had grease traps near them for no apparent reason. Very weird. We started hypothesizing that they have an underground Chinese buffet that they are running.

The actual “grease getting” included one person with a “dirty bucket” in the trap and then transferring it to a “clean bucket” that put it into the filtration system. That way were weren’t dripping grease everywhere. We tried to be “grease boy scouts”, not leaving a trace… especially at the restaurants that were really nice to us. Nothing would be worse to piss them off and make them think that people who burn grease are slobs. We learned all of our “greasing” techniques from Aaron Stuart from Angel City Motor works… he’s the one who used to be in Piebald and who installed our system and who took us out “greasing” all around Boston and taught us the ropes.

What was the most common type of place you acquired your veggie oil?

There really wasn’t a formula. We usually would start by checking out all of the Asian restaurants in our area, because that was the advice given to us. But we soon found that Mexican restaurants were good, and even some chain ones. Asian restaurants are good (especially Japanese and Thai) because tempura has to be a golden hue; therefore they can’t get away with dirty oil and must change it more often. The more they change it, the better it is, and often times the better the restaurant is. You can tell a lot about a restaurant from their grease trap! Props go out to the Olive Garden, Taco Bell, and Denny’s. Shame goes to IHOP, and Ruby Tuesdays…

We also started calling ahead to the venues that also served food and they would save their oil for us. That worked Portland, Oregon and in Washington D.C.

Did anyone flat out tell you no?

Yes, and some meant it and some didn’t. There were a few Chinese buffets that had no idea what we were asking for, and they thought that we were trying to sell them something.

In some major cities and the west coast there are “bio diesel” companies springing up that are starting to pay restaurants to take it (although they are totally being ripped off) so they said no to us. The reason that they said “no” was that they were already “under contract” from these companies, even though they were paying them next to nothing for their oil. The silly thing is how some wouldn’t negotiate with us, even when we offered to eat at their restaurant in exchange, i.e. paying them much more than the grease companies were. We felt that the “contract” was a sticking point… especially if maybe the restaurant had some workers who weren’t legal… they might have felt like they couldn’t break a contract. One restaurant in Minneapolis totally was cool with us eating there in exchange for like 80 gallons of grease. I love that this allowed us to “barter” our way around the country. There is a whole industry that is springing up around used veggie oil, and its part beautiful American enterprising and part sleazy bottom feeding… taking advantage of people who don’t know the worth of what they have. Often times bio diesel companies are paying the restaurants 5-20 cents a gallon for their grease and then reselling it for 3 dollars. I’m sure that an owner of such a company would debate me on this, but it feels sleazy to me… or at least they should lower the price for broke bands! This kind of business is fine if the restaurant just doesn’t care and doesn’t want the oil, but many of them didn’t even know that it was returning such a profit. We found that part of our job was then educating the restaurant owners to the fact that they have a gas station in behind their place. A restaurant in Asheville, NC is actually now going to convert their delivery vehicle as well as a Mexican restaurant in Bakersfield, CA.

Somewhere between the restaurants and the bio diesel companies are where we exist; Bands that are simply trying to be able to afford to create art and play music. It makes me want to start a used veggie oil collection company that makes a profit but that also gives it away to any bands on tour… I have actually already been talking to some other grease car users around Boston to create a veggie oil collective so that we can survive when things get weird around here like they already have on the west coast.

I actually talked a lot about bio diesel companies and us competing with them in a blog that I wrote on the tour. Here is an excerpt of it here:

“As far as the veggie oil goes it is amazing what we are witnessing out here. I feel like I am first hand seeing an industry taking shape. Seeing the “American dream” in action. It is impossible to score grease in L.A. because all of the restaurants have already contracted out to bio-diesel companies, where as just a hour and a half east in Bakersfield no one has heard of running your car on veggie oil and the manager of the Mexican restaurant we stopped at was amazed and excited to watch us take 50 gallons of his grease and load it into our van. It’s becoming harder and harder for bands to score grease in larger areas, like in Austin it were impossible, and every grease trap was locked. Its really cool that this is becoming an industry but I just hope that the restaurant owners realize what a profit is coming from their waste. One of the companies that we met pays their restaurant owners 20 cents a gallon and then re-sells it for 3 dollars a gallon. I mean, don’t get me wrong, one of the main reasons we converted was for the environmental reason, but it’s also the only way that a band like us can afford to tour. I just wish that these companies would make acceptations for broke touring bands, because we are both competing for the same grease. And in the end, we’ve become very sneaky and good at “grabbing” it from grease traps. I just wish that restaurant owners would realize that they are basically sitting on a gas station and that they should at least convert their delivery vehicle before they sign their rights to their veggie oil away to some “bottom feeding” grease collection company. But I guess that this is all capitalism and the way that things work… also; I understand that not paying for gas was too much of a good thing to be true. At least we have made it this far, from Boston to Cali and back to Nashville at this point on only about $200 of diesel fuel. And I can sleep well on the fact that I haven’t ruined the planet too, too much in the process.”

How long of a process is it to gather the oil (from locating to filtering to installation)?

It’s actually pretty fast once you have found some decent oil. That’s what really takes the time. But that’s why our conversion cost us so much too… you can get “do it yourself” kits for next to nothing to convert your diesel car, but then you have to be able to filter veggie oil at your house. Aaron, who installed our system, put in a custom build 90-gallon tank with a built in filtration system, so we literally just pour the grease in and its filtered. But you have to be very vigilant on changing filters… that’s where the learning curve comes in. It really doesn’t take too long to get the oil though, and when we were just taking the oil or being “grease ninjas” we could grab it really quick!

As touring musicians how easy did you find it was to run this kind of fuel source?

I mean, it has its issues, and you have to work more time into your tour (kinda), but I can’t imagine any other way to tour now. Paying for gas? Destroy the planet to play music? Nope! At least right now, it’s not that hard to do.

Although it did take a bit of time to do, I feel like it really helped the band to connect on a different level. Nothing bonds a band together like all donning aprons and headlamps and getting totally dirty. I would recommend it to any band! It really made us feel like a family. Also, it actually helped cut down on stress levels in relation to finances. Its not like we made money (we took on a lot of debt to convert the van and other tour things) but it definitely was calming to go and get grease rather then stress out every time you had to put gas on a credit card.

Did you have any issues with breaking down or running out of fuel? How did you learn from those experiences and change to accommodate for them?

Like I said, it took us some time to realize how to budget time to change filters. The other problem was that none of us were mechanically inclined at all so we had to go to a Jiffy Lube every time we wanted to change the stock fuel filter/ water separator. Now I know how to change that, so it shouldn’t be so much of an issue. You become mechanical really quick when you run on grease!

As far as running out of fuel, it doesn’t happen because you can always switch back to diesel fuel. We had to do that a few times in order to make it to a show on time, but then after the show we would find veggie oil and would be good to go!

What is your most hilarious experience with gathering oil?

Outside NYC we found a diner that ha d a beautifully full grease trap. We pulled up and the owner was outside in the back. There was a language/ mental health barrier though and he thought that we were trying to sell them cabbage. He just kept screaming at us that he didn’t want any more cabbage and that we should go away. Finally his son came outside and explained what we wanted. He then started laughing and told us to take whatever we wanted… we ended up fueling our drive from NYC to D.C. on their grease.

Do you think this type of conversion would be practical for people who drive far less miles?

Maybe… if you are driving from say Framingham to Boston everyday, yes. If you are just driving around Boston, maybe not. For us, parking is an issue being that we have the largest van ever made, so sometimes I’ll take me car (don’t tell anyone) because I know that I can’t park downtown. Although I just parked last night during a Red Sox game in the Back Bay! Basically if you are going to drive anywhere on a regular basis for a half hour or more at a time then it’s worth it.

Did it surprise you to learn what areas of the country had and had not heard of such a thing?

Not really! With the political climate right now, I’m not surprised in the least bit that people are either not informed or unaware of anything. Sorry, I’ve been freaking out about political things recently and their inevitable environmental impact.

Did your fans take interest in learning more about your conversion?

The fans did to some degree, but the other bands that we played with were the most interested. Many of them were amazed that they would be able to tour again without going into extreme debt. Many were so excited!

What is the most important thing you learned about using alternative fuel sources?

That it is still an inexact science at best, but that you’ll learn a lot about yourself while doing it.

Now that you are back home, do you plan to continue to drive the van or will it be reserved for long distance touring only?

Well, we are definitely going to use it for all of our regional touring. I am writing this at my girlfriend’s house right now, and I got here in the van. I have no money for gas, so I’m going to be using the van a bunch as long as the weather is warm because you can run it much more on veggie oil in warmer weather (you have to run it for longer in cold weather to heat up the engine and before you can switch to veggie fuel). I am looking forward to eventually selling my car and buying an old diesel car and converting it. I can’t say enough about running on veggie oil. The weirdest thing is when you switch it from diesel to veggie when the van is going 80mph and you notice no difference at all. Diesel engines really like running on the oil and if anything we noticed an increase in performance. Also, when we were desperate, we put some gross and dirty grease in there, food particles and all, and although we would go through filters faster, the van ate it up and we didn’t notice any chance in the way it drove. Diesel engines can put up with a lot! And nothing beats driving for 10 hours and having the fuel needle stay in the same spot the whole time.

Smart Energy Technology:

6 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight: The Grownup Noise Part II – Touring, With a Side of Fries

  1. Moxie

    Great interview! I love the idea of this. So many great bands aren’t touring because of the gas prices, I’m forwarding this to all my musician friends.

  2. Jennifer Shon

    Yes by all means PLEASE spread the word! There are links to the company who does the conversion installs in one of the first two parts to this series and I strongly encourage not just bands but anyone who drives a long distance (think sales people, appraisers, etc) for their job to consider going in this direction. It is a giant step in the right direction! So glad you all enjoyed the interview!

  3. Judi FitzPatrick

    Thanks for the final segment on this van conversion – something that can be done right now without waiting for “new technology”.
    The image of the underground Chinese buffet is too funny.
    Great interview! Peace, Judi


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