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Say Cello to Ben Sollee and His Traveling Band

By Kate Peterson

Bands normally travel in a van of some sort, packed with equipment. Or they travel by plane or car, also known as the easy way.

When Ben Sollee and his crew travel around from gig to gig, they do it the other way. They bicycle with all of their equipment. There is Sollee, with his cello, and then there is drummer Jordan Ellis with a trailer behind his bike carrying the kit. There’s also a crew member packing all the merchandise for the shows and, new this trek, a filmmaker from Ashville, NC, who will be filming along the tour.

Ben Sollee is a cellist from Kentucky, widely admired for his unique genre-crossing skills. He was a member of the Sparrow Quartet, whose members included Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen. The cello player has also been featured on NPR, PBS and the Showtime television series “Weeds.”

In February 2010, Sollee—along with three Kentucky musicians—released the album “Dear Companion.” All of the songs were written and performed by Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore; it was produced by and featured Jim James of My Morning Jacket. The album sheds light on the destruction caused by mountaintop coal mining, and its effect on the people of the central Appalachia region.

Sollee’s current tour kicked off in New Orleans, where the cellist and his band played the Preservation Hall. Prior to arriving in New Orleans, he was supporting Brett Dennen.

IN had a chance to speak with Sollee recently during a brief moment of down time.

IN: Your tour is called “Ditch the Van,” tell us how it works.
SOLLEE: It is a response to the normal touring routine, where you get in a van, on a bus or travel in and out of towns by plane, never really getting to experience the town or the people. We want to bring it home: touring is not real life. You live frame-to-frame touring, it is individual snapshots, not a whole experience—it feels often superhuman. Traveling by bike is you taking you somewhere as fast and as far as you can go. The reward is getting to know the community.

IN: How did the idea come about?
SOLLEE: I was touring abroad and felt I was getting nothing out of what should have been the most exciting part of my life. I wanted more.

IN: You are from Kentucky. What part?
SOLLEE: Lexington, born and raised. I live there now with my family, son Oliver and my wife who is an art student.

IN: What or who were your major influences?
SOLLEE: In public school, at the age of nine, I picked up the cello. The vernaculars were baffling, I was learning classical in school, my dad is a rhythm and blues guitar player, my grandparents listened to Appalachian style music, so it all mixed and I was able to make it work on the cello.

IN: Why the cello?
SOLLEE: Well, at eight or nine-years-old you are influenced differently by things, I liked the wide variety of sounds the cello made; I really liked the low sounds.

IN: We noticed you play banjo, too.
SOLLEE: Yes, like the color wheel, every instrument has a complete opposite; the tenor banjo is the cello’s complete opposite. On my new album, there are two songs where I use the banjo.

IN: Playing Bonnaroo, what was that experience like?
SOLLEE: It was my first year playing solo. I biked the 330 miles to Manchester, and it felt great.

IN: Compliments to your Subway Sessions on YouTube, the venue is perfect for your sound.
SOLLEE: It is the common person’s cathedral. It was New York, so we got many looks from people who were wondering what they were being caught up into. New Yorkers often are caught up in a movie set, or in the filming of a commercial. The subway cops ran us off, even though we had a permit to be there.

IN: A big focus of your musical career is social consciousness. Tell us when that happened.
SOLLEE: I grew up in the suburbs of Kentucky, middle of life, public school, no traveling and was riding a boat down the middle of the river. Then I went on tour abroad and was exposed to a completely new world and opened up to how other people live.

IN: You have aligned yourself with three high level organizations: Clif Bar, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Oxfam, tell us about that decision.
SOLLEE: To raise awareness about poverty and struggle, each of them support this message: if you focus on keeping yourself healthy you will be able to effectively keep your community healthy. There is a two-mile radius around all of us that, if each of us truly cares for, we will all benefit.

IN: When the tour is over, do you have any thoughts on what is next for you?
SOLLEE: My 10-year goal is to be able to do all of my touring by bike. If I have to fly, then it is not worth it. There are different opportunities coming my way, I will be recording a new album next year, playing festivals, spending time with family, writing scores for a few ballets and working on pieces for film and tv.

IN: Final thoughts?
SOLLEE: I want to make sure everyone knows that the decision to “Ditch the Van” is not a green thing, it is about connecting with the spaces, places and faces in my show locations and everywhere in between. I have logged 3,200 miles; this is my fourth tour, on one bike. I am excited to see what this tour has to offer.

BEN SOLLEE
WHEN: 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 3
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox St.
COST: $8 to $10
DETAILS: vinylmusichall.com