SXSW veteran Ben Sollee ditches the van for a bicycle

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Ben Sollee spends a third of each tour traveling with his cello strapped onto his Xtracycle, a bicycle designed for carrying heavy loads. He is originally from the mountains of Lexington, Kentucky, but influences from all over the country can be heard in his genre-bending, cello-based music (Photos courtesy of Tin Ear Productions).

While a common goal for most musicians is to achieve a notability that requires owning a touring van, Ben Sollee’s preferred method of transportation while on tour is his bicycle. 

It would not be unusual to see the Kentucky-born musician traveling the countryside with his cello strapped to his bike and his band, gear and all, in tow. The group has gotten in the habit of dedicating a third of its tours to bike travel, ditching the van for a few days for more spacious travel accommodations. 

“You go out and spend three times the amount of time on the road to make half the money,” Sollee said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve created these relationships with these communities that seem to be much more intimate.”

Sollee’s penchant for long-distance bike travel is just one of many charms left over from a childhood spent growing up in the slow-paced mountain town of Louisville, Ky. His Appalachian drawl and friendly demeanor still remain, along with a deep concern for the livelihood of the mountains and forests he calls home.

With lyrics that commonly touch on nature and environmental issues, Sollee’s distaste for harsh environmental practices is clearly displayed through his music.

“I try to be very honest in it. The things I care about as a person come out in the music,” Sollee said. “I don’t think you can separate those two things — the land and the people. They affect each other so intimately.”

Sollee’s temporary abandonment of the van for the bicycle is his way of not only helping the environment, but also connecting with the land he so often passes right by and the people he spends his nights performing for.

“I would love one day to just do all my touring on bicycle,” Sollee said. “Something about the pace of that tour and the way I connected with the community really resonated with me.”

Another piece of Kentucky that Sollee keeps close is his drummer, Jordon Ellis. The bandmates met in high school in the Kentucky All-State jazz ensemble.

“I was the drummer, and Ben had blind-auditioned his way into the bass spot with his five-string cello, which soon turned into a four-string electric fretted bass after the director had a look at the ‘cello thingy,’” Ellis said. “Poor Ben had to learn how to play electric bass in three days for the concert.”

Sollee and Ellis reunited for the first time since their high school All-State jazz ensemble days three-and-a-half years ago and have been playing and touring together ever since, even biking alongside each other with a small trailer to carry Ellis’ drum kit. 

Had the violin or viola been Sollee’s instrument of choice, touring by bike might have been much easier, but he has been playing cello ever since he picked the instrument up in elementary school.

“I stuck with the cello because it was such a utilitarian instrument,” Sollee said. “There was something about the sound and the variation of sounds I could create.”

Although Sollee will not be biking to Austin, he and his cello will be making yet another South By Southwest appearance at this year’s festival.