Arts Desk

Mike Watt on Jamming Econo, and D.C. Bands on Their Favorite Vans

Band Van

Mike Watt is surely the world's foremost philosopher on the Ford Econoline.

"The boat, man, it’s the center of the touring universe," says the bassist and singer, who played in the great post-punk band Minutemen and has toured the country in at least four Econolines.  "Without that you don’t get from the last show to the next one. I do almost all the driving. I like feeling the vibrations on the hands—when I get to the gig I do the soundcheck and then I conk in there...and then I go right to the stage. It’s the conk pad for me. It keeps you safe. It’s just not a tour without those things."

These days he's touring as a member of the Stooges—he's been on 61 tours in various bands since he started playing in the '70s. He currently drives a 2005 Econoline E-350 and lives in San Pedro, Calif., where he uses the van to lug his kayak between tours. He owned his previous Econoline for 14 years, from 1990 to 2004, and logged about 248,000 miles on it.

That's about how many miles the Econoline I wrote about last week had on its odometer at the time of its apparent death. That brakes-challenged van, which is still sitting by Adams Morgan's J&N Auto Body in the alley between Champlain Street and Ontario Road NW, toured with D.C. indie-rock outfits like the Make-Up, the Warmers, Faraquet, Trans Am, and others. The Warmers' Juan Carrera bought it new while on tour in 1995.

The Econoline, to hear Watt tell it, is the ideal touring vehicle. But some of the musicians I interviewed for my feature had other loves.

“Just to let you know, Trans Am is traditionally a Chevy band,” Trans Am’s Philip Manley says. I asked him to expound. "In our experience, Chevy's have been more reliable," he says.

Faraquet did some touring in Carrera's van, and its member Jeff Boswell, now the operations director at Washington City Paper, bought it in 2000. Devin Ocampo, formerly of Faraquet and now of Medications, writes in an e-mail:

The baby I have a soft spot for was our old brown and yellow Dodge Ram extended 15 passenger. That thing was a beast! It originally belonged to Smart Went Crazy and was passed down to Faraquet after that band broke up. In Smart Went Crazy it was a necessity to have such a huge van because there were 5 of us in the band and lots of gear. But, it was a thing of luxury when Faraquet acquired it. There was a loft in the back to store everything under and we still had room for 2 complete benches. With only 3 of us in the band we had ample room to stretch out and take stow aways upon our journeys. It did not, however, have air conditioning and was louder then any radio we ever put in it. Still, I loved it.

"The van used to be an accoutrement that signified seriousness in one's endeavor of being in a band," writes Ian Svenonius, who before the Make-Up led Nation of Ulysses and these days sings in Chain and the Gang and Felt Letters. "Some group vans were legendary; garage bands in the '60s often used hearses and the Mummies from SF had a '60s ambulance with crazy fins, as did the Am Rep band Surgery..."

To Watt, nothing beats Econolines—there's a reason he famously summed up his punk-rock philosophy as "We Jam Econo."

"The whole concept of Jam Econo—it comes from those boats," says Watt. "You don’t need a lot to fucking have a band. When I said that, 'we jam econo,' it didn’t just mean the van." It meant recording and touring on the cheap—sleeping on people's floors if you weren't simply sleeping in the van, for example. Jamming Econo was Watt's term for DIY.

Once, when his band fIREHOSE was en route to Cleveland to record in the late '80s, the group's '74 Econoline broke down—the motor gave out. Watt slept in the car for two days waiting for it to be fixed while the rest of the band went on to Cleveland. He takes care of his vans, he says, and they take care of him.

"The thing you can’t skimp on with band vans is the suspension," Watt says. "The key to keeping your boat going is maintenance—always do the oil changes even if you’re on tour. That’s the best stuff you can do." And it's important to install a rack or other implement to keep gear in place.

Watt tours hard, but not recklessly: His Minutemen bandmate D. Boon died in an automobile accident in 1985.

Watt still thinks about that, he says: "Every time I go on tour, I promise I’ll get my men back to their moms.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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