Interview: Q&A with Manu Delago – Rethinking the Touring Ecosystem Pedal After Pedal (June 2021)
With a Giro (d’Italia) just ended and a Tour (de France) only a few weeks away, the cycling season is in full swing, so much so we can’t welcome and back enough the cultural and sport feat undertaken by ManuDelago.
The London-based Austrian Hang player, percussionist and composer is indeed pedalling the final stages of his musical tour of Austria. At the moment of writing, the live tracking map of the tour reports that Manu and his bike are leaving Pfons in Tyrol and heading towards Innsbruck for the last shows.
This is happening after almost 1500 challenging kilometres up and down the Austrian alpine landscape, which he’s covering in little more than a month. Numbers that could generate quite a lot of envy even in pro-cyclists. What’s more, stage after stage, Manu and his 6-cyclists strong music peloton, perform good and proper shows in local concert halls (some of which you can stream here)…and what’s even more impressive are the aims that motivated and set in motion the tour.
Aptly named ReCycling, the project indeed aspires to radically rethink touring, starting with the means of transport or, in this case, ride…
As stated on the official website, “to keep the lowest possible CO2 footprint the entire tour will be done by bicycle. All musical instruments and the required equipment for the live performances will be transported in specially built bicycle trailers. The travel party of six crew members will generate electricity using solar panels”.
No wonder we wanted to learn more on the nothing less than extraordinary adventure, so we reached (via email) Manu in one of his rare days-off-the-saddle and asked him a few questions on ReCycling…
You are more than halfway through your “Tour of Austria”…How many kilometres have you already cycled, how many punctures have you had, and what feelings do you have about your unique experience so far?
Well, we’ve cycled around 850 kilometres now that we’re over the halfway point, and we’re now sort of in the second phase of the tour. Because in the first half we were playing streamed concerts, and now we’ve switched to playing for real audiences, it’s given a great boost to the tour because that’s what the original concept was. So it’s really fun now cycling from city to city and playing actual shows for audiences. I think we’ve only had one puncture and two trailer breakdowns. So twice the connection to the trailer broke. We’ve had to do a lot of brake replacements already too because sometimes we’re going downhill with the trailers, and they’re super heavy, so it’s quite strenuous for the brakes basically.
How did the idea behind the project come about and who helped you to make it possible?
I approached this from different angles. So firstly it is just me being a nature lover and environmentalist in my private life, and at some point I thought that I have a responsibility as a musician to carry that message across to my following and to as many people as possible and to inspire people to live more sustainably. And secondly there is this adventure spirit in me. I thought about how I can make touring more adventurous? How can I make it different from the regular sort of schedule? And on tour I often try to squeeze in some exercise between getting up in the morning and the next tour bus ride. And basically with this, I just thought it would be great to run to the next city or cycle to the next city. We just had to plan accordingly, so I did that with similar assignments with Simon Schindler, my lighting engineer who’s also now responsible for the solar panels and the bikes. Also along with my manager Thomas Tanzer, we basically planned the whole route that can be done on bicycles, which is, of course, way more challenging than on a tour bus or an aeroplane where you can make way more miles in a day. So we had to plan it really, really well to make sure the whole route was perfect.
What are the main aims of your “adventure” and what do you feel you have already achieved after 16 “stages”?
The main aims are to inspire people to live more sustainably, especially with regards to climate. That can be in the music industry, that can be as a band or artist, but also promoters and audiences. And we’re not only cycling but trying to cover as many aspects as possible. So we’re really looking at reducing waste as much as possible, recycling properly, looking at a local healthy diet, so we’re getting audiences to provide us with food that’s homemade and vegetarian and local, and trying to reduce waste of energy. We’re producing our own electricity with solar panels and using that to power the shows. All of these things, we hope that they will inspire people to incorporate these ideas into their own projects. And I think there’s a lot of it that can be taken forward by us for future touring. Obviously, we can’t do everything on bicycles for the rest of our lives because we also want to tour internationally, but there are still a lot of aspects, especially when it comes to food and waste reduction, where I want to carry these ideas forward and develop them further.
I’m pretty sure people stopped you over and over, both on and off the road, asking questions about what and why you are doing what you are doing… How are people reacting to your project (both after a show and when you cycle)?
Feedback has been amazing and people are loving the idea. And yes, it does happen a lot that we get asked questions and stopped. I think on the road we look a bit like a stag do, six blokes on bikes with trailers and a flag at the back and sometimes with music on. So we just want to spread a very positive vibe, even though the whole climate crisis is looking dark we still want to communicate it in a positive way. And also we deal with kind of trying to give information and advice, but also spread it in an arty, musical way and be as positive with it as possible.
I’m also pretty sure that there have been plenty of highlights and moments to remember in the last 20 days… Can you tell us about any particular event or challenge of your experience so far?
A particular highlight was on Wednesday when we played the first show for a real audience because I hadn’t done that in six months. We just walked onstage to applause. And they applauded forever because it felt like the applause was for the re-opening of live music somehow. And it felt really amazing after all these streamed concerts, which I sort of got used to. So playing for a real audience again, that was my highlight.
And the difficulty for me was my own health situation regarding my back. I’ve had a prolapse for around four years, but it was in a pretty good place in the last month and I did a lot of training, but unfortunately, after like nine days I had another injury. And so this is a bit of a challenge for me. But that’s my personal thing, the rest of the band and crew are cycling strongly and I’m just sort of hopping on the tour and using trains in between. So that’s a bit of a challenge for me. I think for the band and crew, the most challenging day was a day where they had to cycle about 70 miles and it was raining all day long. And it is hard because you’re cycling for eight, nine hours and it’s really tough to get through it because it’s cold and wet. But they managed to get through the night. I cooked them some pasta that evening.
I don’t know if it’s just by coincidence or you thought about it, in any case, it’s easy to notice that your tour happens to coincide with the Giro d’Italia. Apart from this project, how much of a cyclist/cycling fan are you in your everyday life?
I don’t really watch races or road cycling, but I do love the bicycle as a way of transport getting from A to B. Especially when I’m in Austria, then I use the bicycle pretty much every day to move around. In London I’m not using it so much. Maybe I should but I never really got into it, maybe just because of a lack of space, I never really know where to put a bicycle in my flat. And it never really felt right in London. But in Austria, I’m using it pretty much every day, or also mountain biking and just getting into nature.
Which leads to my next question…1600km in 35 days is quite a distance and physical effort even for a pro-cyclist, so I’m wondering how much preparation have you and your team put into this tour?
Well first of all I have only asked people who are into cycling and who are up for this project. No one started at zero and everyone was into cycling. But I personally trained for about four months from January to April. I cycled five or six times a week. It did take preparation because we knew that it’s not only cycling, our trailers are very heavy too. So it’s 60kilo per trailer plus the bike. So we did need training and all of us sort of increased the amount of cycling we did in the three months leading up to the tour.
In some ways, considering its scope, significance and mode of transport, music might take a backseat when introducing ReCycling. How do you make sure that the music element perfectly fits within the project?
I wrote the new single that came out three weeks ago [via One Little Independent Records] to very much fit the tour, so that track is written in a tempo that motivates me to cycle and it includes a lot of cycling sounds. But the track is also a bit like a journey through different places. So it kind of has a stop-motion character where you move for a while and then you stop at the place. This might be an urban place where you get some electronic beats and then you move again and you stop at the place which is maybe more rural and sounds a bit more traditional. So that’s sort of how I incorporated it in the music, and for the rest of our set I kind of approached it in a recycling way so that we’re playing lots of my back-catalogue but in new versions. So we’re trying to make something new out of the old. And we’ve also just arranged some cover songs, but also changed them up quite weirdly. So it all has a recycled feeling.
Musically speaking, how are your performances presented?
The stage setup includes our bikes and trailers. So we’re also using those as percussion instruments, but also as props for the stage. So kind of the whole stage has a bit of a bicycle look to it, which I think fits really well into the tour.
Has this experience already inspired you to write new music?
To be honest, not yet, because we’re releasing a daily video blog, which is a lot of work, and in every video blog we’re kind of presenting different music that fits the content of the video. So what we’re doing at the moment is arranging a different song pretty much every day with the videos. So I’ve not really thought about new music, but the reason for that is also that I just finished making an album before this tour. So right now is not the time to write new music. But maybe afterwards, I’m sure I’ll look back and get some inspiration from the tour, because it’s a very intense experience that I think we’ll all be looking back to for the rest of our lives.
Out of curiosity, can you describe a (more or less) typical day in your ReCycling life? I guess there’s no one like the other…
Yeah, every day has sort of a different theme because of our video blog, so we try to get a different message across every day. But of course, a typical day starts with breakfast and then usually cycling. We only have maybe six days or five days without cycling. So usually six days a week we cycle, eat a lot of food on the way, eat when we arrive, and then maybe make some videos on the way. But after cycling, the videos get edited by our video editor. In the meantime, we set up the stage to soundcheck after dinner, release our video blog and then play a show most of the time. And then we’re usually really tired in the evening, but in a nice way like you achieved something, and then start again!
With “only” 10 stages to go… are you already planning another “Tour”, “Giro” or “Vuelta” for the next months?
I am planning another tour in the autumn when I will be presenting my new album, but it will be a bit different. I mean, it won’t be on bicycles, but we will carry loads of ideas forward from this tour. A lot of things that we learned, especially aspects like I mentioned before, food, waste reduction, energy efficiency and lots of things that we want to communicate to promoters, audiences and the music industry.
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