An interview with Paul Freedman, the Fossil Fool

By Maurice Tierney

Years ago I ran into this dude calling himself the “Fossil Fool” on the Vegas strip during the Interbike trade show, rapping away about bicycles on a bicycle-mounted sound system. It’s been a good 15 years, and as I continue to run into Paul on a regular basis, I get more and more fascinated with all the rad bicycle stuff spinning around in his orbit.

There are copycats and there are crazy cats, and this dude’s an original. Besides the Fossil Fool gig, he’s currently got his hands into Rock The Bike, Yuba Bikes and The Bicycle Music Festival. Let’s see what more we can learn…

So Paul, I first met you as the Fossil Fool, rapping outside the Interbike convention hall. Can you tell me how that developed?

Bike rapping…I have always enjoyed wordplay. My first bike rap was “No Bikes In The Yard,” which I wrote about the rule at Harvard that you have to walk your bikes in Harvard Yard. After moving to the Bay Area, I found an outlet for my musicality through street performing and on early “Millie Tours” with Xtracycle. This was back when Kipchoge Spencer was at the helm of their marketing as well as at the helm of Millie (their vegetable oil-powered touring bus). There was a real appreciation of music and spontaneous performance in that community and they definitely encouraged me to develop the bike raps. I began creating my own performing niche using “Soul Cycles” (custom music bikes) and appearing in front of cafes, at Maker Faire, Critical Mass, and at our own Bicycle Music Festival.

And then what?

Well, having come out of Harvard with the aim of being successful in the world of Internet startups, knowing the guys from Xtracycle gave me a window into an alternate reality where the goal was to have fun, change the world, and make money, perhaps in that order.

I co-founded and ran Worldbike.org (Xtracycle’s nonprofit arm) from 2003-2006. During that time I had access to the “Tinkers Workshop” space that is now Rock The Bike. I was experimenting with building sound systems. I think when I met you in Las Vegas I was probably riding an earlier model “Soul Cycle.” The music bike interest morphed into my human-powered music passion after sharing a workshop with Nate Byerley, who invented our Bike Blenders (Rock the Bike’s best-selling product). Nate now runs Xtracycle with Ross Evans—small world.

I also am a partner in Yuba Bicycles, so I am fortunate to be on the inside with both of these small cargo bike companies, by virtue of having met these guys when I moved to California. Benjamin Sarrazin, of Yuba, Ross and Kipchoge are all a few years older than I, so it has been very influential seeing how they were growing their bicycle businesses. I don’t think I could or would be doing it without their example.

What’s the deal with Rock The Bike?

We’re bike people. We’re inventors and advocates working away in a sweet little workshop in Berkeley, California, pushing the limits of bike culture. Our mission is to get people in touch with their ability to make a real, lasting impact in the ongoing climate crisis, through pedal-powered event activities and products that help bike people shine in their communities. We want lots more people to think, “Pedaling is cool. I want to ride a bike.” Our dream is to help spread the spirit of the bike into the broader culture by organizing, entertaining, inspiring, educating and inventing new ways to get the message out there. And more importantly, we help our customers spread the message in their communities.

What are some of the more interesting and creative uses for Rock the Bike products that you’ve seen or heard about?

Bike-blending krill for the fish at Aquarium By The Bay, and Cabot Creamery setting the world’s record for Largest Smoothie. A customer, Wheely Good Smoothies in Baltimore, has built up imaginative shapes around bike blenders, like an electric guitar, a horse and a mosaic bike. In the pedal power world, it’s Kipchoge and the Pleasant Revolution (his band that tours by bike) leading multi-country tours and using modified JBL loudspeakers for their nightly shows.

I also think we’re doing some of the coolest stuff with our own products: pedal powering Bill McKibben’s recent speech on divesting from fossil fuel companies on the City Hall steps in San Francisco (with a stock One Bike/One Speaker sound system), powering a high school prom (students pedaling in prom dresses and tuxes), and putting on the Bicycle Music Festival.

Lately, I’ve seen you around San Francisco on a ginormous, tree-shaped bicycle, so big that it sports outriggers. Where’d you get the idea for “El Arbol”?

My ideas for music bikes have been getting more ambitious. I started with plywood and made shapes that were angular. Then I moved on to curved forms. El Arbol was probably the sixth or eighth Soul Cycle I’ve made. I had been making these in the Tinkers Workshop, where Rock The Bike has its headquarters. One of my mentors there was Danny Zolotow, who saw my potential for working with fiberglass. He showed me how you can take a chunk of foam, sand or carve it into any shape, cover it with glass, and then dissolve or remove the foam and get a hollow reproduction of your shape. It got me thinking—what if, instead of putting a speaker box on the back (or front) of a load-carrying bike, I could have the speaker box be the bike? So there wouldn’t have to be a frame; the speaker would be the frame. Then after a period of hibernation, I started drawing the Tree.

So all this pedal-powered sound and motion has something to do with the Bicycle Music Festival?

The Bicycle Music Festival came about in the experimental phase of pedal powering music about seven-eight years ago. I had met a musician named Gabe Dominguez who came to my shop with great persistence, and coaxed me to translate my passion for Soul Cycling into a lightweight touring-ready sound system. Of course we had to look hard at the batteries, one of the heaviest components. The irony is that we now use such amazing batteries (for mobile sound) that are actually lighter than the pedal-powered gear. But that’s OK, because we’ve now discovered other reasons to power shows with our bodies, mostly to achieve the goal of a community-powered music experience and to turn people on to their ability to make an impact in the climate fight.

Anyway, Gabe and I were pumped about having hit on something cool so we decided…let’s do a festival!

How many years has the Festival been going? What’s in store for this year?

This will be our seventh. We’re focusing like never before on the audience experience. In previous years, we would do our daytime festival, break down and pack all the gear onto cargo bikes and trailers, then move with our audience through the city while enjoying a LiveOnBike performance, then set it up again at our night venue.

Our audiences love our LiveOnBike rides, but there has been as much as two hours of wait time for breakdown and set-up. And this number was destined to increase with our new line array (of speakers). So this year, we decided to use duplicate gear to allow us to start the night concert immediately after the LiveOnBike ride arrives. This moveable feast will be much more enjoyable to the audience. We’ll still be carrying everything by bike, but people won’t have to wait for us to break everything down.

What was your favorite moment at a Bicycle Music Festival?

Rolling out of Golden Gate Park with the LiveOnBike Parade is pretty uplifting. Then hitting city traffic and continuing to keep our spirits high as we head to the night venue. Seeing people lean out of apartment windows in amazement at our street theater. In terms of all-time moments, one I’d have to mention was in 2009. The festival was still unpermitted, and we ate it big-time as park rangers in Golden Gate Park tried to shut us down. The delays caused us to cut half of the acts, and by the end of the day we were wiped as we headed out to the last of our festival stops: a public pier. Gabe and I had no energy and were thinking, “How little do we have to do to get through this last band?” But the last band was Tornado Rider, and they brought it! Soon everyone was dancing, finding new energy, and singing, “I’m a falcon!”

What do you hope to accomplish with your various endeavors? Any future goals?

Global warming (and environmental destruction in general) is such a daunting problem—it can be hard to even look at it. But bicycling (cargo biking in particular) and pedal power are emblematic of real solutions, where the environmentally responsible choice also makes your life better, makes your community stronger, and in some cases costs a lot less.

A pedal-powered concert is a micro energy environment where people can see and feel that energy has to come from somewhere. Energy is not free. The whole attitude that energy is free comes from our over-reliance and subsidy of fossil fuels. A major change in attitudes has to happen, but guilt trips don’t work. It’s got to happen through opening hearts and minds. Music is a major tool for that. A pedal-powered concert or a bicycle-mobile concert is way more fun than a diesel-powered concert. There are more ways to be involved. And you’re much less likely to go home with your ears ringing.

My personal mission right now is to advance pedal-powered concert sound to the point where music fans love it and demand it, start biking to shows, and grow an awareness of the hypocrisy of music events in which the message is peace and love, but the power source is fuel from the Middle East.

Bicycle Music Festival

Join the party this Saturday at Golden Gate Park from noon until 5 p.m., followed by a "Live On Bike" performance parade across the city to the Mission District. It’s free for all ages! The organizers are also hosting a fundraiser to offset some of the permit costs, so chip in if you can. 

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