By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
Adley Penner estimates he has logged tens of thousands of miles in the saddle while bike touring with his band, Bicicletas Por La Paz (Bicycles for Peace). The eight-member band, based in Oakland, travels to local and international gigs on their bicycles to share their unique blend of pedal-powered politics and high-energy dance music. And they schlep their customized sound system with them.
“We’re a Latin, circus, funk band, inspired by Bob Marley, Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao and Primus,” said Penner, the band’s guitarist and one of the vocalists. The 35-year-old native of Vancouver, Canada, formed the group three years ago with a vision of merging his passions for music and bicycling. The group is comprised of musicians, circus performers and bike activists, and shows involve a lot of audience interaction.
Politics are at the forefront of what they do. Cycling songs range from “Gigante Elefante,” about the perils of dodging cars while rolling on two wheels, to the joyous “Vámonos Ciclista.” They have also sung about police brutality and social justice.
“Yes, we want people to feel good, but we want them to think, too. Think and dance,” Penner said.
The band’s first major bike tour was a six-month journey down the California coast and through Mexico. They’ve repeated that trip twice since then. Future plans include touring in Columbia, where Penner lived for a year and a half.
On Saturday, Bicicletas Por La Paz will park in Santa Cruz at the Crepe Place for a show featuring songs from their new album, Musica Por Puppets. I interviewed Penner by phone during some rare free time. Penner and Carolyn Herlehy, his partner and band-mate, also have a pedal-powered smoothie business called Eazy Breezy Bike Smoothie.
Q: What is your background as a cyclist?
A: “I started bicycling as a kid in Vancouver. I grew up in nature. But what really changed the scope for me was when I was 20 years old, I did a bike trip across Canada for three months. That changed my perspective on transportation. There was a sense of freedom and peace I experienced that was like nothing else. Now I am a full-on bike commuter. I bike everywhere. I don’t have a car.”
Q: Where does music fit in with bicycling?
A: “Music is my number one passion. I discovered the guitar at 15 and that changed everything. I’ve been a guitarist for 20 years. I also studied Afro-Columbian percussion and play the Afro-Columbian flute. I wasn’t sure how cycling and music would come together. I moved to the Bay Area in 2006 for the music scene. Our band played in the Bicycle Music Festival in San Francisco in 2008. That was a pivotal festival. I was extremely inspired by the band Ginger Ninjas, who also toured by bicycle internationally.”
Q: What’s happening next for Bicicletas Por La Paz?
A: “We’re leaving June 22 for a two-and-a-half month bike tour from Vancouver to the Bay Area. We’ll play Biketopia music festivals — bicycle music festivals centered around bicycles and live music. There will be 10 or 15 of us on that trip. We’re also planning a tour in Greece this year. We are taking a boat over there instead of flying to avoid using fossil fuels. In May, we’re gong to be performing at a pedal-powered stage in at the Santa Cruz Arts and Technology festival (SCAT). Plus, we’re making our first video.”
Q: Explain how your band travels by bike with all your gear.
A: “We carry all our own gear on our bikes, including our specialized sound system. All the sound in our shows is generated off audience participation. We have people ride four stationery bikes that are connected to generators and people have to cycle to power the generators. There are two powerful speakers and a sub-woofer that turn into a trailer. And there are drum kits now that fold in on themselves. It’s not easy, but we’ve proved that we can do it. And we’ll keep doing it.”
Q: How do you find people for your band?
A: “It’s actually our biggest challenge to find really good musicians who want to bike. At this point, everyone, at least 10 or 15 people, have cycled at least on a month-long tour. It’s not a small endeavor. It is demanding. But in exchange for so much time, you feel very empowered, you feel inspired and you inspire a lot of people.”
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: “We put people on bicycles. That’s what I am most proud of. I have friends who now ride bikes that haven’t in a long time. It’s also really important to mention that none of this would be possible without our crew and the bike community. I have ideas, but they come into fruition because of Carolyn and the crew. This is not a one-person project. Cyclists all over, from here down to Mexico, have given us places to stay, fed us, given us tools. Bicycles are so inclusive. We draw in the community no matter where we go.”
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.