The Ragbirds are ready for the road — and they're doing it the right way. When we caught up with singer and multi-instrumentalist Erin Zindle, the Ann Arbor-based band had just left town for a showcase gig at Austin, Texas' famous South by Southwest festival. Zindle apologized for not calling back — "It's hard trying to get six people out of the house," she says. This is nothing too shocking — bands from all over the country converged on Austin simultaneously, hoping for a breakthrough moment in the sun. Every musician wants to make an impact. But one of the things that makes the Ragbirds unique is their desire to make less of an impact — on the Earth. The band tours relentlessly, but for some three years now they've been committed to a greener, better way — criss-crossing the country in their beloved eco-friendly touring van—which they know on a first-name basis.
"Her name's Cecilia," Zindle says of the van, a modified Ford Econoline 350. Like many a ship, she's been given a woman's name, a name with a symbolic resonance that Zindle enjoys. "The funny thing," she says, "is that it's not really about a woman — it's a reference to the patron saint of music. Kind of a muse that comes and goes." (She also acknowledges, as a musician, the obvious connection with the irritatingly catchy late 1960’s Simon & Garfunkel tune, but believes the writer Simon was also nodding toward the Catholic martyr.)
Faith in the small things
"We've had Cecilia since the fall of 2008," Zindle explains. It's been a rewarding relationship, but it began with the band's own passionate commitment. They already believed in touring with environmental responsibility. The band used whiteboards for their setlists instead of paper, and brought their own water bottles and coffee mugs along to save on disposables. "It's a little extra effort," Zindle says, "but these are the things that everybody should be thinking about." But the group knew that it was the unavoidable driving that would make a mark on the earth.
"We travel a lot," Zindle says. "We do, like, 200 shows a year, and we've been to 45 states. We just knew that it was having a large negative impact on the environment — and it's also very expensive." The group put their heads together and decided to do something about it. "We had pretty good motives to do some research into alternative fuels," she says, and the Ragbirds did their homework.
What’s the secret? What lets Cecilia travel 90 percent of her miles without benefit of gasoline? Solar power? A nuclear reactor? The answer is a bit more prosaic, but a lot more practical — oil. Not the kind from the ground that caused all this trouble to begin with, but plain old vegetable oil. Cecilia has a modified diesel engine that allows it to run on fuel that would otherwise end up being discarded. It was a technology that other bands had already turned to. “Our friends in My Dear Disco were running on vegetable oil while we were looking at it,” Zindle remembers.
The technology of virtue
The project came together when the Ragbirds found Full Circle Fuels, of Oberlin, Ohio, a company which has been modifying diesel vehicles to burn vegetable oil since 2005. (They’ve worked on everything from cars, to big rigs to off-road vehicles, having done some 300 conversions.) “They installed this really high-tech system,” Zindle says. “It’s pretty complex, but it’s really cool.”
Full Circle does what’s called SVO conversion, fitting heat-exchange and filtration systems to diesel vehicles so that they can run on waste oil. In fact, the diesel engine, originally invented by Rudolf Diesel, was meant to run on peanut oil. “There’s a lot of conspiracy theories,” says Zindle, about what led to the switch to petroleum-based diesel fuel. “Can you imagine,” she asks, “if every diesel engine from the beginning had run on vegetable oil? It produces 90 percent less emissions, and is carbon neutral — it’s food!”
Quite literally, it is. The Ragbirds fill up Cecilia while on tour in the easiest way imaginable — they ask for it. They roll into town and find a restaurant with the omnipresent bin of waste grease out back. A quick chat with a manager will usually get them what they need. “My husband Randall is our percussionist,” Zindle says, “and he has a whole little spiel about how we’re touring green and that we’re trying to do everything we can.”
It gets a little more difficult in some towns — as the SVO conversion process gets more popular, particularly in the West, demand for used oil goes up. But it’s worth it — fuel economy is just as good as with petroleum-based diesel fuel, and it’s a lot cleaner. “It smells like cooking food,” Zindle says. “A bit odd, but it’s a ton better than the diesel smell.”
Welcome to the machine
The van is more than a way to travel — it’s a way to communicate, and to help spread the band’s positive message. “It starts a lot of conversations,” Zindle says. “Whether it’s with the manager of Taco Bell or whoever. It’s spreading the word that there’s an alternative. It’s interesting because it gets people thinking”
The Ragbirds’ new album, released in February, has the evocative title Traveling Machine. Zindle sees the meaning as threefold. It can refer to the band itself, with its relentless touring — friends have called them a “traveling machine.” Then there’s Cecilia, the faithful van, the machine that makes the travel possible. And finally, there’s the music itself, the reason for it all, and which takes fans and listeners on another kind of journey. The Ragbird’s eclectic folk incorporates a vast array of influences, from celtic to African to Caribbean. “We’re using these styles from all over the world,” Zindle says, so it’s like we’re musically traveling to places we couldn’t otherwise reach.”
And Zindle’s songs speak of different kinds of journeys. “I think the biggest message in my lyrics is hope,” she says. “It’s usually hard-earned hope — the songs take you through something that’s hard to get through, but hope is there at the end.” It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this could mirror our culture’s journey away from our slavery to fossil fuels. This humble step taken by a group of working musicians points the way to a cleaner future. Let’s hit the road.