What could go wrong?
A year and a half later--and a good deal wiser about vegetable-oil fuel conversion--the band members can say it's not as easy as it sounds.
"We weren't sure we knew what we'd gotten ourselves into," says the band's drummer, Ben Schneider, who has done most of the mechanical work on the bus.
"I'm still not sure we know what we're getting ourselves into," pipes up guitarist Miles Bennett.
It's been a long, strange trip for the Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout--described by Schneider as an "eclectic, experimental rock band, sort of" that's influenced by Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth and Danny Elfman--since Schneider purchased the '81 Blue Bird for about $1,500 up in Maricopa County.
The band members painted the bus Halloween orange and black and strapped a cow skull under the windshield. They tore out the seats to make room for their gear, and set up a few couches, a television and a video-game console. They added solar panels to the roof to power their computers and other electronics.
But converting the engine to run on vegetable oil has proven to be a tricky job. Schneider originally turned to some high school science teachers for help, but while that project--which involved "a lot of copper tubing"--sounded great in theory, it went terribly awry in execution.
It also turns out that restaurants are surprisingly reluctant to part with their used veggie oil. Most have contracts with recyclers that they don't want to upset, while others fry meat in the oil, which renders it useless as a diesel substitute.
The band members have learned the hard way that retrieving used vegetable oil is, well, pretty gross. The process first involves sticking your head into a stinky grease tank to get a whiff to determine whether the oil has had meat fried in it. Then the oil needs to be siphoned out and filtered, which the band first tried to do by pouring it through coffee filters into buckets.
"It's never pleasant," Schneider says. "It ranges from terrible to, you know, that-wasn't-horrible-but-definitely-not-enjoyable."
When it came time for Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout to set out on its first tour with the bus, back in the summer of 2006, the veggie-oil fuel system wasn't working, so they had to use diesel fuel. Given that the bus gets about 8 miles to the gallon, it proved pretty expensive to drive up to Portland and back to Tucson, although they did have plenty of fun on the three-week escapade.
The bus made it there and back again, but it broke down during a homecoming show at downtown's Solar Culture. After spending his last $150 getting it towed home, a disheartened Schneider abandoned the project for about six months.
But when a mechanic told him that the bus could get up and running again if he just fixed a minor electrical problem, Schneider decided to resurrect his dream.
This time, he spent about $3,000 working with a mechanic to convert the bus to run on veggie oil. He also picked up a more sophisticated filtering device so the band members would no longer have to undertake the messy process of pouring the oil through coffee filters.
But just hours before the band planned to set out last summer, the bus once again broke down. Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout had to tour in a Dodge Caravan minivan they borrowed from Schneider's mother.
"We still had a lot of fun, but it definitely dampened a lot of things," says Schneider, who notes that in cites like San Francisco and Portland, it was a lot easier to park a minivan than a 40-foot bus, anyway.
But the dream lives on. Schneider believes he's on the verge of getting the bus running again. He's hoping to get on the road to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival in March, followed by a jaunt up the West Coast.
The members of Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout have come up with some new ideas about how to support themselves on the road, too. They're considering adding a kitchen to the bus so they can sell food when they arrive in a city. They figure if they use a deep fryer, they can create their own fuel at the same time they're supporting their musical habit.
While he's been through a lot of heartache, Schneider says he has no regrets.
"The experience has been awesome in a sense, but also the most frustrating thing I've ever done," Schneider says. "It's worth all of my troubles, but if it's not running this time, I'm not sure what I'm going to do."