A few years back, a group of Calgary friends had just bought an old school bus for private use, when they realized they could make it into something bigger. And so BassBus was born, a collective of artists, musicians and like-minded people with a vision to create a rapidly deployable art platform to support arts and alternative culture initiatives in Calgary and beyond.
CBC Music spoke to BassBus about the origin of the project, what it takes to convert a school bus into a mobile party system and what happens when the bus rolls into town.
Q: What exactly is BassBus? What's its mission?
A: BassBus is a school bus converted to serve as a self-contained mobile stage and arts promotion platform – complete with onboard power. The bus features an external stage, dedicated walls inside the bus to showcase visual art, a DJ booth, hookups for guitars and microphones and a projection screen we occasionally set up for movie screenings. Our mission is to support emerging artists and community initiatives. How we do that varies, but we operate on a model where we use our redesigned art bus to earn capital, which we then use to organize and promote alternative arts events in Calgary.
In varying degrees, BassBus is a transportation service, a special events and production company, a talent agency and an art reseller. We are trying to position BassBus into a resource for the community to use, regardless of the degree to which you want to be involved. There is one pillar of BassBus that everyone involved is committed to, it’s the idea of openness and inclusion. BassBus is not interested in tying artists down or demanding commitment from them. We operate on mutually beneficial terms, where involvement is day to day.
Q: How did the idea for BassBus come about?
A: The idea for BassBus came about when three of the core members were sitting on the roof of a truck, waiting in line at a music festival. Looking out at the people, and having recently purchased a school bus for private use, the idea to add a simple stage and sound rig to the bus came up. We figured if we had mobile entertainment, everyone also waiting in line might have something to do.
Obviously BassBus has come some way from a simple soundstage beside a bus, but it was agreed early on that the project would steer itself. Opportunities came up, friends came and went, things happened that shifted what was, and is, possible, and now we have this community project going on pretty much full time.
Q: Tell us a bit about the bus itself? Where did it come from? How long did it take to convert, and if you don't mind sharing, how much did it cost?
A: Well the bus is a 72-passenger, 1993 International school bus. We purchased the bus used from a school service in October 2010. The bus was in use as a school bus right until the day before we bought it. Once we drove it back to the house, we called all our pals and invited everyone over for a sanding party. With a team of about 15 people, we hit the bus with orbital sanders and sandpaper. After two weeks, it became obvious that this project was going to be much more of a challenge than previously expected.
We ended up renting shop space in Linden, Alta., and spent the better part of three months prepping the exterior for paint. Once the bus was ready we hired Shane Haltman, a local airbrush artist from Calgary to paint it. Shane spent three months painting the exterior in the same shop in Linden. Painting in Linden was a challenge, because Linden is a small town an hour and 15 minutes from Calgary; no hotel, no restaurant open past 8, and corner stores all close very early. We were driving Shane up supplies every two or three days, and Shane would do four- to seven-day stints in Linden before needing to come back to "reality."
We finished the exterior, including paint, in April of 2011. We drove the bus back to Calgary and found a much smaller shop in SE Calgary. Mark Faber was the project manager and brains behind the construction of the interior. Mark sat down with the core members of BassBus, and together designed and built the inside. After four months and a lot of late nights, BassBus was finished. The bus has been appraised for around $100,000.
Q: What sorts of events have you guys run out of BassBus?
A: The best thing about BassBus is its versatility. We can literally do anything with the bus.
We have the capability of setting up our stage anywhere; so we have taken a group of 30 people out to a secluded spot outside of town, built a fire, set up the stage, and had a private dance party in the wilderness.
We also try to organize renegade performances in the park to give aspiring artists an opportunity to practice in a no-pressure situation. We set up our stage, tweet our location, and showcase poetry from local poets, or live music from local musicians.
We have done movie screenings in the park, where we set up a screen beside the bus, and use the onboard power to run the projector. We have provided local initiatives with support in the sense that we can park the bus in front of a store or community event, and simply draw attention to what is happening by playing music and having people outside for the public to talk to; the bus is a great conversation starter.
By far though, our favourite types of events are where we can set up the full stage, bring in a good-size sound system and go for hours. BassBus draws from the artists and performers we meet, and when someone hires us, we love giving the opportunities to perform to the people who are active in our community.
Q: Have you taken it on any trips?
A: We have gone on a number of road trips with the bus, but no multi-day tours per se.
We were surprised when our first paid gig came before the bus was completed. During the spring of 2011, the organizers of Motion Notion music festival contacted us to see if we would be interested in coming to the festival and running the chill-out zone. It was around that time that we realized BassBus could be something massive.
We accepted the offer, and two weeks after our launch party we set out for Motion Notion. With a trailer in tow, full of our stage, sound, lights, camping gear and other essentials, we rolled into the festival grounds. After getting stuck in the mud, setting up in mosquito land and sound checking the system, we had accomplished our goal of being part of a music festival. The part that still amazes us is that Motion Notion was only the second time the bus was out! We camped in the bus and ran the stage for four days straight – 24 hours a day. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Q: What are the biggest challenges of operating BassBus?
A: The list is endless, but to be honest, the challenges are the most rewarding part. Each of the people responsible for BassBus, and that list reads about 10 names long, had never really done anything like this before. Every day there is a new challenge to deal with; whether it’s simple maintenance on the bus, learning the proper method of filling out a commercial vehicle driving log, dealing with sound equipment that doesn’t work or the tasks of running a business such as accounting and payroll.
Q: What sort of reaction do you get when you pull up in BassBus?
A: People’s reactions to BassBus vary from amazement, to joy, to confusion, to excitement, to the odd person who is actually offended by it. By far the best reactions come from kids though. We pull up in front of a pile of kids, and you see their eyes light up and they start jumping around waving their arms; you’d think Mickey Mouse had arrived. Then we pass the 3D glasses around, and people realize the entire paint job goes 3D once you look through the glasses. It’s an awesome feeling.
Probably the most rewarding aspect of the job is that our hard work is constantly validated by people who would normally be on the other side of the fence regarding the activities we are involved with. People completely removed from our community walk up to the bus dumbfounded; touching the bus as they walk around it with their mouths open. Then we bring them inside, and the camera phones start coming out, and people remember years ago they had this bus, or "oh my gosh, my father would just love to see the amount of work you have put into this."
Q: What's ahead for BassBus this summer?
A: The summer is shaping up to be a busy one! BassBus has been invited to a number of music, art and community festivals in the coming months. We are excited to be heading to Inshala 5 the weekend of June 16. After that, BassBus is busy right until the end of August with events happening at the Stampede, Kensington Sun and Salsa festival, Bass Coast and Shambhala.
In addition to the cool big events, we are always throwing together little events here and there; renegade music in the park or a movie.
Stay up-to-date with BassBus happenings by following them on Twitter (@_BassBus_) and Facebook. (Fb.com/BassBus)
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