The Answer Is Blowin' in the Wind

News & Politics

College-pop rock outfit Guster has been incorporating food drives into its concerts for years, nudging the band's sometimes-insular student fan base to care about community service.

Now Guster is kicking off the first annual Campus Consciousness Tour, a cross-country college spree meant to raise awareness about sustainable energy alternatives. Guitarist Adam Gardner shared his thoughts with WireTap about biodiesel tour buses, wind power, student apathy and making environmentalism cool on campuses.

WireTap: Where did the idea for the Campus Consciousness Tour originate?

Adam Gardner: This is a new project of an environmental nonprofit that my wife, Lauren Sullivan, and I started called Reverb. The whole idea of Reverb is to spread environmental awareness through touring musicians, to capitalize on that relationship between a band and their fans. Reverb has worked on a bunch of tours we started in 2002 with a co-headlining tour featuring Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morissette, and since then we've been on tour with Bonnie Raitt, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, O.A.R. But this is the first tour that Guster and Reverb have done together, and I'm excited because finally my own band is involved.

The Campus Consciousness Tour is directed, obviously, toward college students. The majority of social change in this country has happened on campuses, historically, and Guster's fans are college kids, for the most part. So Guster seemed like the perfect choice for this tour, since we have that relationship with students. We're hoping to turn kids on -- I shouldn't call them kids (laughs). I sound old 'cause I feel old! -- to turn people on to the viable options out there in their everyday lives that will lessen their impact on the environment.

WT: What is this tour going to look like?

AG: The tour itself is green. We're running the buses on biodiesel, which is a more environmentally friendly fuel than straight diesel. It's made out of vegetable oil, and it has all sorts of implications that I like. I like the fact that it's a domestically based fuel we don't have to go to war over it in foreign countries. It helps support the American farmer, and the actual exhaust output is significantly less. So that feels good as a band. You know, we're rolling around in these buses; it would be nice to not be spewing our exhaust everywhere.

We're also offsetting each concert's power consumption. We've partnered with NativeEnergy, which is a Native American-owned wind power company, and they are assessing how many kilowatt-hours each concert is consuming. We'll then replenish the grid with that amount of clean power. So it's not like we're directly powering my electric guitar with a wind turbine it's an offset that happens afterwards.

We'll also be doing our own recycling. There's a lot of plastic used on tour, and we use a lot of batteries. So we're going to make sure we don't just throw out our 9-volt batteries; at the end of a show we're going to collect them and make sure they get disposed of properly. So we're just being mindful of our own imprint. We want to make sure that we're walking our talk.

The main front of our tour is what we're calling a Consciousness Pavilion, which will be present at every show. It'll be a consortium of kiosks and tents and whatnot, sort of a festival atmosphere, where people can go and learn about renewable energy and offset their own power use. So we're putting it in terms college students can understand, like, "Hey, come sign up for a Cool Tag," which is basically a renewable energy credit for wind power, "and offset your laptop for a semester, or offset your dorm room for the year."

WT: What was it like converting a cross-country bus tour to biodiesel fuel?

AG: One of our key partners is the National Biodiesel Board, which is helping us organize the fuel stops on the tour. You know, biodiesel is available at 600 pumps around the country, but you can't just pull into any gas station and get it.

It's very unusual for a band at our level to be using biodiesel -- in the past Jack Johnson's done it, and Neil Young, and Bonnie Rait and Willie Nelson. But let's face it, Guster's not at that level. So it's interesting that some other bands on our level that are friends of ours are like, "Hey, I didn't even know you could do that. I thought it was too expensive." So it's great that we're turning on our peers in the music industry. Hopefully we can have a real impact on the rock 'n' roll industry in general.

For this tour, we had to abandon the bus company that Guster's been using for years because they weren't set up for biodiesel. I think it sent a real message to them. We were like, "Look, we're loyal to you, but if you can't run biodiesel. … You don't need a special bus to run on it. You just have to allow it to happen."

WT: Why would large bus companies hesitate to allow biodiesel fueling?

AG: The hesitation on the part of a large bus company -- or a trucking company, for that matter -- is warranties. Right now Detroit is behind the ball in terms of considering biodiesel a fuel that doesn't void the warranty on the engine. And that's another goal of this tour, a ripple effect that we hope it will have. It's completely feasible. There just aren't big dollars marketing it just yet. But it's all about supply and demand, and if we can help create the demand, the supply will come.

WT: What kinds of things will concert-goers be able to do at each show?

AG: There will be food drives at the shows run by Rock for a Remedy, and the band has agreed to certain incentives, which is great -- like the person who brings the most food will win an after-show pass and come meet us after the concert. We've also partnered with City Year, which is like an urban, domestic Peace Corps. They're going to be setting up trainings with on-campus groups and community projects at every stop on the tour as well. I wanted the tour to be about community service, as well as getting people jazzed about environmental alternatives. There's usually such a disconnect between a university and the community in which it resides -- I know my own experience at college was in a complete bubble -- so I think it's a great way to hopefully inspire some kids to consider their surroundings and do what they can to help their community.

There will also be events during the day. There's this campaign called the Campus Climate Challenge, which is actually a consortium of environmental nonprofits, and they'll be organizing certain events, like a Pimp My Clean Car Ride demonstration. The idea is that there will be something creative at each college stop, to make it interesting to your average college student, who may not necessary identify as an environmentalist.

I think the thing that I like about this tour is it has a very positive spin. It doesn't have a doomsday message, like, "Oh my god, we have to do something or we're all gonna be screwed" even though that obviously is the case.

WT: This all sounds like a lot of work. What kind of organizing did you have to do to set up these different events?

AG: The credit really goes to my wife, Lauren. She's done a ton. It's something we've been working on superhard for months now, and it took a lot of coordination. It's great bringing in partners, like Rock for a Remedy, who's doing all the coordinating with the local food banks so we don't have to deal with it. That's been critical -- it takes a lot of hands to turn the wheel.

WT: What has it been like working with local student and community groups?

AG: Lauren's experience has been very positive. One [student environmental] group called up my wife, and was like, "We're so happy to have Guster's support behind this, because the perception of us on campus is that we're not that cool." And, you know, I think Guster does pretty well at these schools, and the concerts will be well-attended. It's interesting to be a rock band supporting this and bolstering some of the smaller local campaigns. And that was the whole idea of Reverb in the first place.

WT: Every tour of this kind is heavy on rhetoric, naturally. This tour also seems to have a lot of meaningful action. What, of all the things you're doing, do you expect to have the biggest impact?

AG: I guess my goal in general is to open people's minds. I'm sure there are many college students who know way more than I do about these things, but I think your average college student that's coming to a Guster show probably doesn't. So I'm just hoping people learn that these things are for real, the alternatives are not theoretical, and they can be put into practice right now. Hopefully we can get people excited about this stuff.

That's what I like about working with Clif Bar -- they're clearly a sponsor of the tour, but I don't feel bad at all about their presence, because they represent the way business should be done. They pushed our organization to use wind power and offset our power use.

WT: What has the band's involvement been in the planning and execution of this tour?

AG: Up until this point, most of the involvement has been mine (laughs). Lauren has done a ton of the work, and I've kind of been spearheading it. But everyone is superexcited and curious, and they (guitarist Ryan Miller and drummer Brian Rosenworcel) are certainly learning. They're the ones coming to me, and saying, "All right, is biodiesel really going to work? We're not going to be stranded in the middle of Nebraska?" They're actually asking very practical questions that are good for me to think about. We're all learning together.

WT: This being the first annual Campus Consciousness tour, what things are you hoping to do differently in the future? Of course, you've barely started this one, but you probably have grand ideas.

AG: Absolutely. I think where I'd like to see this go in the future is to the universities themselves. Right now what we're doing is great because it's affecting student bodies, but part of the Campus Climate Challenge -- and we'll see how these turn out, but I think they will turn out really well, because they're inviting a lot of faculty and administration to the events -- but the idea is to pressure these institutions to start using renewable energy. I think in the future I'd love to really get faculty and administrators involved right from the get-go.

WT: Given all the hurdles involved in making a tour completely sustainable, what are Guster's future tours going to look like -- those that may not necessarily be under the heading Campus Consciousness?

AG: Yeah, it's funny to talk about these big issues -- bus companies, and the rock 'n' roll industry in general -- when I'm also hoping this goes well for our band, that everything works and everyone's cool. But I do feel that once you go biodiesel, you can't go back. And I don't want to go back! Why would you? So I think assuming that everything goes well and everyone's happy with how this turns out, there's really no reason for us to go back to regular fuel. That's the whole point. It would be awfully suspect if all of a sudden we went back to diesel and started dumping our trash on the road or something. This isn't a green-washing campaign, you know. We're trying to do this for real.

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