Inside the solar-powered van that’s recording your favorite bands

Jam in the Van/YouTube

This van goes to 11.

During South by Southwest, every public space turns into a music venue: parking garages, coffee shops, record stores, dive bars, riverboats, and pizza parlors. More than 1,900 bands will perform across 92 venues during the annual music conference, and that’s only counting officially sanctioned events.

But there’s no other event space quite like Jam in the Van, a solar-powered tour bus that’s been converted into the most popular recording studio on YouTube. It’s parked this week at Camp Sandy, a lakeside retreat about 25 minutes outside the city. There’s kayaking, a pool with a basketball goal, and plenty of lawn games. Former Top Chef champion Paul Qui is onsite filming instructional cooking videos for touring bands.

“It’s our own little oasis from downtown,” reflects co-founder Jake Cotler, his pup RZA chilling nearby. “This is way more our speed,” adds Dave Bell, another co-founder.

jam in the van

It’s Friday morning, around 11:30am, and the crew has already recorded 18 sessions over the past two days, including performances by the Black Angels, Delta blues guitarist Cedric Burnside, and indie songwriter Laura Jean Anderson. By the time the bus rolls out on Sunday, JITV will have added 45 sets to its deep catalog. Artists still to come include SXSW breakout Yola, Wyclef Jean, and Hayes Carll.

The idea for Jam in the Van originally came from a tossed-off AIM conversation in 2011 between Cotler and Bell, who traveled every year to Bonnaroo, flying into North Carolina then driving down in a rented RV. After seeing Black Cab Sessions, a YouTube series in which artists perform one song in the back of a taxi cab, the two figured they could do something similar with an RV. They picked one for $800 off of Craigslist and made their first trek to SXSW in 2012.

To hear production manager Eric Peterson tell it, that first vehicle was a feat of DIY engineering. The bathroom served as the sound engineer’s booth; he’d mix sessions sitting on the toilet, balancing the mixing board on the sink.

That bus actually never made it home from Austin. The engine and a faulty oil line gave way somewhere in West Texas, sputtering out “alongside a tattered windmill and an abandoned goat farm,” according to the subsequent Indiegogo campaign that helped the company acquire its second bus. The crew raised $10,450 from 77 backers in time to return the following year.

jam in the van

To call JITV’s third vehicle, a 38-foot 2004 Holiday Rambler Admiral Series RV, an upgrade would be an understatement. It’s what would happen if Xzibit’s Pimp My Ride visited a jam band. SoCal graffiti artist Mear One handled the paint job, and it’s loaded with top-of-the-line gear: Audio-Technica microphones, Orange amplifiers, QSC speakers and monitors. The walls are covered in concert and promotional posters, sponsorship swag, and Christmas lights. What would have otherwise been a bedroom has been stripped for the sound engineer’s booth, separated from the performance space with a door, and a generator backs up the three solar panels on the roof.

“I got to build this room,” says sound engineer Ethan Glaze, who came aboard in 2014, with obvious pride. Wires line walls, connecting the two rooms through some holes he drilled, and every storage space is crammed with various cables.

It’s a tight squeeze, but you’d be surprised how much you can pack in. At the moment, the Marcus King Band is setting up for its third Jam in the Van session, a Rhodes keyboard in tow. The Southern soul outfit produced one of JITV’s biggest breakouts in 2017, “Rita Is Gone,” which has more than 1.3 million views. One of the crewmembers jokes that King could be JITV’s house band.

Today, the Marcus King Band opens with “Side Door,” a slow-burner of Southern soul that erupts behind King’s guitar solo, then does two takes of “Goodbye Carolina,” another single from last year’s Carolina Confessions, and closes with a heavy, unreleased track called “The Well.” The audio quality sounds shockingly good, watching a live stream on two TVs just outside the RV.

“It’s the family vibes,” says King, when asked why he keeps coming back. “They treat you very good as an artist, and honestly, the mix is incredible.”

While it pulls in some marquee acts, as evidenced by its SXSW lineup, JITV primarily spotlights up-and-coming artists, the type of bands usually listed in the microscopic font at the bottom of festival lineup posters and still searching for a break. As such, most JITV videos yield only a couple thousand views on YouTube, and with close to 1,500 sessions recorded to date (though many of those have yet to go live), it can take some effort to find a band that resonates.

But JITV has a strong track record of recording artists before or just as they break nationally. The site, for example, featured Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real performing “Find Yourself” in 2014, three years before the band cut the track with Lady Gaga. Likewise, Gary Clark Jr.’s “When My Train Pulls In” from that same year boasts 2.2 million views on YouTube.

Jam in the Van has also been steadily expanding its reach. You can stream sessions on Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Music, but its success is still primarily driven by YouTube, where it boasts more than 250,000 subscribers and 93 million total views. (By contrast, Jam in the Van has only 5,499 followers for its main account on Spotify.)

While there are plenty of other ways to watch live music or stream exclusive sessions online—Daytrotter, La Blogothèque’s Take Away Show, and the sorely missed A.V. Undercover all come to mind—there’s nothing else quite like Jam in the Van, both in terms of presentation and volume. It’s more hippie-dippy than NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, more cramped than Audiotree Live. And it’s on wheels.

“The performances are so intimate and equal parts raw, funny, intense, and informative depending on the performer inside,” says Peterson, who also serves as the talent booker. “Every artist brings something different, and I think our fans really respond to the setting, as it’s akin to a band’s practice space, or perhaps their dad’s ‘man cave,’ depending on what the viewer projects onto the space and gets from the musician they’re watching.”

Paul Qui at Jam in the Van

Paul Qui (right) leads a cooking tutorial.

Seeing the operation in real time, Jam in the Van moves with the efficiency of a Jiffy Lube oil change, even when half the crew is still recovering from the night before. Each band loads in, records, and heads back out in the span of about 40 minutes. When parked at the company’s headquarters in West Los Angeles, JITV averages between eight to 10 sessions every weekday, split between local artists and those passing through on tour. One new session gets uploaded Monday through Friday, and Cotler estimates that some of the SXSW recordings will be live as early as next week.

The crew spends a significant amount of time on the road, especially during festival season. JITV has recorded Rebirth Brass Band in New Orleans, Ziggy Marley in Cleveland, Portugal. the Man in Las Vegas. Peterson cites War performing “Why Can’t We Be Friends” parked at KAABOO Del Mar last September as a personal highlight. Since the summer of 2015, JITV has logged over 52,000 miles, not counting its recent three-and-a-half day trip to Austin.

JITV will travel to Music Tastes Good in Long Beach and Desert Daze out in Lake Perris, California, later this year.

“We’re always keeping out channels open and engaging in conversations, and things often pop up with not too much lead-up time, which keeps it all exciting,” says Peterson. “We are flexible and ready to go!”

In other words: Have van, will travel.

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Austin Powell

Austin Powell

Austin Powell is the former managing editor of the Daily Dot. His work focuses on the intersection of entertainment and technology. He previously served as a music columnist for the Austin Chronicle and is the co-author of The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology.