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Southwork And The Magic Bus (R.I.P.).

June 5, 2013

SouthworkSmall05Text by Nikki Volpicelli. Images by Kate Harrold.

Buses don’t walk but this one of a kind of did — into the lives of seven South Philly guys who were sick of touring in a constricting van. If you ask Southwork bassist Nick Anastasi, he believes this to be quite literal.

“I saw this bus and all the sudden I was running through a field of flowers and the bus was walking towards me,” he says before correcting himself. “It was slowly rolling down a hill and I was running at it, in slow motion, and it was magical, and the music crescendoed.”

SouthworkSmall04You see, it’s actually a brilliant idea buying a school bus. This one in particular was purchased in 2011 from a privately owned company contracted by a school district in New Jersey, where it’s mandated that school buses be eighty-sixed after 10 years of service. They’re like the police horses of the New Jersey school system but with fewer retirement perks. The guys reason that the market for an out-of-service school bus consists mostly of bands, churches and tailgating Eagles fans.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in late January and the Southwork band mates – Mike Vogel, Joe Smith, Al Smith, Tony Trov, Erich Miller, Joe Reno and Anastasi – are inside the bus, somewhere deep in Georgia. Through the phone, the guys’ closeness
is apparent.

“We don’t fight,” says Anastasi about living in such close quarters with so many fellow travelers. “We have plenty of ways to relax. We have skateboards, music and a Crock-Pot.”

Good thing they have cushions because something they also have is one bed. For all of five of them. To sleep in. On tour. In an old school bus. Trumpet player Miller jokes that they all zip their sleeping bags together each night.

“Four spoons are better than four forks,” Anastasi adds.

SouthworkSmall01The real reason for the solo bed is storage purposes. It’s easier to pack instruments under one bed. Originally, Southwork planned on stuffing bunk beds into the vehicle but when you throw multiple guitars, mics, stands, a trumpet, a ukelele, tenor and baritone saxes and bubble machines into the mix, it just doesn’t seem wise to waste that much space with sleeping quarters.

Glam-folk band Southwork is known for their quirky performances, and their ride is no different.

“The bus is definitely a magnet,” says Anastasi. “If you roll into a small town with a school bus full of people dressed like maniacs and pull up in front of a venue and park, people get curious.”

At shows, guests are encouraged to wear team colors – yellow, orange, blue and purple. There’s almost always a bubble machine (or two), and at the group’s Johnny Brenda’s debut album release show for Arise earlier this year, hundreds of balloons dropped from the ceiling mid-set. Every song on the album can stand alone, is instantly head-stuck and crafted artfully, a series of strong pop songs with circus-like, jazz undertones and big
band belly.

SouthworkSmall03That’s this band though. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been playing music together since they were 13-year-olds, about 15 years now. They know how to run the band as a business, which is often times something that artists miss.

“Our band is registered as a business on paper,” explains guitarist and singer Vivas. “The bus is owned by our label (Writtenhouse Records), so it’s a listed as a commercial vehicle.”

This means plenty of law abiding, from twice-a-year inspections to obeying parking codes to paying the fees. On the up note, Anastasi reasons that if he “accidentally” mows anyone down, “a bandmate, for instance, they couldn’t sue me.” So that’s good. Vehicular manslaughter aside, the bus has forced the guys into mechanical engineering.

“We are now oil changers and electricians,” Vivas continues. “The other day, we ripped up all of the paneling to follow a few faulty wires. We’ve probably pulled the battery in and out a thousand times.”

Speaking of thousandths, Anastasi says, “We just crossed our thousandth mile last night and she has yet to throw a temper tantrum. I keep thinking if I give her all the love that she needs, she’ll keep baking cookies for us. We’re hoping to keep her forever.”

For when that sad day inevitably arrives, there is already a living will of sorts in place.

“We talked about when the bus goes, we’re going to bury it with the roof hatches at ground-level so that when each of us dies, we can be buried in the bus,” explains Anastasi. “When the last of us is on their death bed, they’re responsible for crawling in and shutting the door. They’ll die in the driver’s seat.”

Miller calls it the “Busoleum.” Vivas reasons that they’ll probably just take it to the junkyard and scrap it. (To make money for another bus, of course…)

“Before we bought this bus,” Vivas says, “I asked my girlfriend’s stepdad, who is a bus driver, for his advice on buying a school bus to tour in. His advice was not to buy a school bus. Here we are now.”

*** EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after we interviewed the guys, the bus died. They are searching for a new one.

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