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A band as bizarre, diverse and complicated as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum couldn't be expected to travel in any normal vehicle. So it's only proper that once the band pulls up to New York's Bowery Ballroom, the usually stoic NYC passersby stop, point and stare. These are pedestrians who don't blink when they see Gene Simmons selling hot dogs on the street. Those who check out the band's show at the Longhorn Saloon in Fort Worth on Saturday will understand the fuss.
It's not that well-known on our side of the Rockies, but the West Coast is home to the Green Tortoise bus line, a hippie Greyhound sort of operation that stops for cookouts instead of fast food and can take passengers down past Mexico or up into Alaska. Four years ago, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum purchased one of their decommissioned buses, one that had put in decades of service to Costa Rica and back. It's large, green, old and awesome.
"That's the coolest fucking bus in the history of buses!" an Asian hipster dude in a pink shirt confirms as he passes.
Besides, it wouldn't be like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to tour in something as blasé as a van. Conceived in 1999, the Oakland-based band has built a following around its intricate and often jarring mix of experimental rock and theatrical stage presence. With the band decked out in full costumes and makeup and playing an assortment of homemade instruments, the stage show is as much a visual spectacle as it is an auditory cluster bomb: It's Mr. Bungle with a sense of style.
In contrast to the chaotic atmosphere onstage, the bus remains comparatively serene. It's a family affair, as bassist Dan Rathbun and his wife, Nieves (who sells homemade skin care products at the band's merch table), have brought along their 3-month-old son, Jasper. Also, violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt is expecting her own child soon, courtesy of her boyfriend, SGM drummer Matthias Bossi.
"I don't know anyone who is bummed out about having babies on the bus," says singer/guitarist Nils Frykdahl, who until recently also had his 5-month-old daughter in tow. "Even the people who aren't interested in babies. It lifts everyone's spirits and gives people something to do."
Little Jasper promptly pukes.
At most, the band has had 12 adults and two babies on the bus. Frykdahl often brings his big brown dog, too, but the pooch is sitting this one out. Space is needed, after all, and somehow, everyone manages to get his or her own sleeping pod in the back section of the bus (even the infants).
The band's dramatic, performance-centric mindset is reflected in its choice of travel activities. There is no television in the bus, but there are bins filled with books of plays, which the band uses for what it calls "analog theater." It's as simple as it sounds: split up parts and read them aloud, English class-style. Though no one in the band has extensive theater experience, Frykdahl proudly touts the theatrical elements of the band's style and mentality.
"That's part of my idea of hitting the stage," he says. "It becomes a theatrical stage as soon as you take it, no matter what sort of style that you decide to adopt. Rap is a theater style: You wave your arms in a certain way, you say this and that to the audience. Shoegazing is a theatrical style: staring at your shoes. Those people aren't really all shy and depressed. So, I figure, why not make it explicit?"