Paul Freedman, a.k.a. the Fossil Fool, is a singer-songwriter and builder of elaborate art bikes who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since 2001, when he decided to apply his Harvard University education to building custom bikes, accessories, pedal-powered products, and mobile sound systems, Freedman created Fossil Fool and Rock the Bike to sell his creations and provide a platform for his performances and alternative transportation advocacy work.
But anyone who’s watched Freedman build and ride his creations — such as his latest, El Arbol, a 14-foot fiberglass tree built around a double-decker tall bike with elaborate generator, sound, and lighting systems and innovative landing gears — knows this is a serious labor of love by an individual at the forefront of Bay Area bike culture. We caught up with him recently to discuss his work and vision.
SFBG How did Rock the Bike start?
FOSSIL FUEL I was working at a shop in Berkeley and I decided to make my first bike music system, which I called Soul Cycles. So I had that other job at a bicycle nonprofit, which is cool, and that was the first impetus. I did two innovative things with my first bike music system: I put the controls on the handlebars, which I’d never seen anyone do, and I put speaker back-lighting to make the speakers look nice at night. I used a really nice CFL fluorescent lamp, and I started playing around with those and it looked great, so that was our first product for those first three or four years.
SFBG What was going on in the larger culture at the time that led you to believe your interest in bikes and technology was going to be fruitful or make an interesting statement?
FF I care deeply about biking and a lot of the people I was with did too, but I felt like the bicycle advocacy scene was not very effective when it came to actual outreach. I felt like the thing that had been really formative for me was this person-to-person interaction, in my case by hanging out with the guys who started Xtracycle, and going on quests to get ingredients for dinner and riding late at night with the music systems on the tour. I felt like those experiences were what made bicycling appealing, but the bike advocacy scene was using guilt trips and telling people you should ride a bike because you’re too fat and you should ride a bike because there’s too much traffic. And I felt like we needed to shift that mindset and really start focusing on the fun aspects of biking and the social aspects to grow the scene.
SFBG Do you feel like it has, and what effect do you think it had on those who weren’t already riding bikes?
FF I think it’s moving that direction. Even within traditional bike advocacy groups, those people are starting to really focus on their events and creating community, in a good way, and challenging themselves with doing so. And I think that’s really positive.
SFBG Your timing also dovetailed with heightened green awareness — with a push for renewable energy, concerns over peak oil, and things like that.
FF Yeah, I feel that transportation choices are the main thing people need to examine about their lives with respect to their impact on global warming. And that’s not just a feeling, that’s the consensus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. They say that if you want to have an impact on the planet, positive or negative, the first thing you should consider is your transportation habits. So that means flying, it means driving, and everything else. I don’t think it’s really beneficial to focus on what people need to do with a car, like they need to drop their kids off. It’s more important how people do the optional things with cars like the trips to Tahoe, and the flights to Mexico. It’s those optional things I want to focus on, which is why I’m so interested in Sunday Streets, which is like the antidote. It’s this thing you can do here, that you can walk and bike to, that’s as fun as driving to Tahoe.
SFBG Through your technology and design work, it also seems like you’re showing a broad range of what people can do on a bike, with lots of cargo or a whole performance stage setup. Do you think design is convincing people that bikes are more versatile that they thought they were?
FF Oh yeah, I think that would be a really beneficial outcome of this work. By riding through town with our music gear, of course people are going to look at that and think, oh yeah, I could probably go to Rainbow Grocery and buy a bunch of food for my household on a bike. So it would be a great outcome if people would make that connection.
SFBG Is there anything about San Francisco that makes people here more receptive to your message?
FF San Francisco is a very tight city geographically. It’s not like Phoenix. The blocks are pretty short here and the distances are pretty short here, and you can ride year-round here, which is not true in Boston where I grew up.
SFBG The focus on technology and design here also probably helps, right?
FF Oh, for sure. This is an awesome place to be prototyping and doing funky mechanical, electrical art. There’s a lot of support for it. There are places like Tap Plastics for learning about fiberglass. There are lots of electronics stores that serve the Silicon Valley tech developer communities. You can buy stuff there that’s helpful. You can learn about Arduino [an open source microprocessor] at Noisebridge. There are a lot of resources for doing interactive art here or for doing bicycle-related projects. There are a lot of welders here.
SFBG Where do you think we are on the arch with this stuff — the beginning, the middle? — in terms of gaining wider acceptance of biking as an imperative and an option for anyone?
FF I think there’s an important generational shift underway, and I don’t know whether it’s my focus on bikes that leads me to meet all these kinds of people, but it feels like I’m meeting more people these days that are going to pick their next city or their next neighborhood based on how it is to bike there. They’re bringing it up in conversation, it’s not me. So it seems like people are really considering what their daily life is going to be like and how the community feels, and biking is one of the symbols of a whole swath of other beneficial things. They know that if they see a bunch of bikes when they visit a place, then there’s probably a lot of other cool stuff like music, arts, farmers markets. Those kinds of things are sort of linked together, and the bike is the key indicator. So there’s been this generational change of thought. The idea that having a bigger, faster car is better, I just don’t think that’s popular with these people. They no longer believe it.
SFBG It’s having cooler bike.
FF It’s having cooler bike and being able to use it and not have to step into the stress of car culture if you can avoid it.
SFBG What’s your next step?
FF One of the really positive things for me has been the Rock the Bike community, with its roadies, performers, musicians — all types of people who are on our e-mail list. So I can just say, I need three roadies for a three-hour performance slot and there’s going to be a jam at the end, so bring your instruments. That’s an awesome thing and it’s just going to improve, so I think the community will grow as we continue do gigs where we have fun and the people have fun.
In terms of my own art, this tree [gesturing to his El Arbol bike] has been my focus for the last year or two, and it’s not done yet. It has to look undeniably like a tree. It looks like a tree, but with a light green bark that you really don’t see in nature, so that has to change. I want it to have brown bark, but I still want it to do beautiful things at night with translucency. And I want it to have a true canopy of leaves, so that when you’re far away from it at Sunday Streets and you’re wondering whether to go over there, you’ll see a tree. Not just a representation of a tree, but I want them to be like, how the hell did he ride a tree over here?
SFBG Why a tree?
FF I don’t know. You get these ideas, and you start drawing them and can’t shake them. There are all sorts of reasons why trees are interesting. They are gathering points.
SFBG And you’re doing some very innovative design work on this bike, such as the landing gear.
FF The roots. Yeah, that’s never been done before. Through the course of doing the project, people would send me tips and interesting things, and one guy sent me a link to a photo of tall bikes being used in Chicago in the early 1900s as gas lamp lighting tools, and they were very tall. I’d say 10 to 12 feet tall, and they were tandems, so there was a guy on top and a stoker on the bottom providing extra power, and they didn’t have landing gears. So they would ride from one lamp to another and hold the lamp as they refilled it. And I just love that story because if you were growing up in Chicago, and you saw these gas lamp people coming by in the early evening to turn the lights on, and if you were a little kid trying to fall asleep or whatever, that would have an indelible mark on your childhood, and that whimsical quality is what I’m going for. That should be part of what it’s like to grow up in the Mission District in 2011.
SFBG How does that fit into the other cultural stuff that you’re also bringing to the bike movement, the music you’re writing, design work, the style, and the events that you’re creating?
FF Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so multipronged. I would clearly be a better performer and musician if it was the only thing I did, so I apologize to all my fans for not putting 100 percent into the music. But I put 100 percent into the whole thing, including creating bikes and running Rock the Bike, which is a business.
SFBG But are you doing all these things because you find a synergy among them?
FF It’s the fullest expression of who I am.
SFBG Where do you see this headed? What will Rock the Bike be like five years from now?
FF I would like to see the quality of our entertainment offerings steadily improve to the point where people genuinely look forward to it, and not just to the gee-whiz aspect of look what they’re doing, but just for the feeling of being there. So I’d like to challenge ourselves with the quality of the music, how it is to be engaged in the setup process — because I think the setup is cool, with biking to the event and engaging in the transition to a spectacle, where every step along the way is part of the show. I like that idea. I’d like to challenge ourselves to be a carbon-free Cirque du Soleil, a show that is slamming entertainment and they bike there and pedal-power everything: the lighting, the sound, the transportation. And I want the performers to be just as good.
SFBG Are there people in other cities doing similar things?
FF The Bicycle Music Festival is spreading to other cities, which is cool. I think there are going to be over a dozen bicycle music festivals this summer. In terms of people doing really inspiring work with bike culture or this kind of mobile art, you definitely see some amazing things at Burning Man. That’s probably one of the best venues for this type of art. But I can’t think of another city where people are doing all of this. I’m part of a group on Flickr called Bicycle and Skater Sound Systems, and there’s nothing on that whole group that I see as being on this level. I don’t know why.
SFBG When you ride a cool custom bike down the street, the reactions it elicits from passersby is just so strong and happy. What is that about?
FF It’s a reaction to an expression of personal freedom. People light up when they see you expressing yourself, and a part of them thinks, oh yeah, that would be fun, I’d like to express myself. And there are just so many ways to express yourself and be human — and that’s something that we need to remind ourselves because, in many ways, our personal freedoms are declining and there’s more surveillance.
SFBG And people might take that spark and do any number of things with it.
FF One of the very cool things about bicycle art is that it’s mobile. So you ride your bike and you might turn heads a couple dozen times a day. I ride this tree, and if it’s in the full mode where it’s 14-feet tall and there’s music on, and I’m going from here to Golden Gate Park, I’d estimate that 500 people see it. There’s probably no other art form you can do that with. I can’t think of any other that’s like that. So it’s a really cool art form. Those people aren’t paying you, but you shared art with them, and it’s a good way to get exposure. It’s a great way for a lot of people to see your art.
SFBG With your mobile, pedal-powered stages, you’re also demonstrating green ways of powering even stationary art.
FF It is an interesting time for pedal power. I feel like there’s a turning point that’s maybe beginning in the field of events with how they’re powered. I think there are going to be a lot more people who are going to festivals in the coming years who are looking at the diesel generators and saying, ‘My summertime festival experience is being powered by diesel.’ And I think there are going to be a lot of people seeing that and wanting to do something else.
SFBG Have the technologies for how much juice you’re able to get out of pedal power been advancing since you’ve been working on it?
FF Yes, it’s truly impressive right now, particularly if you’re putting that juice into music because we have very efficient generators where there’s no friction interface anymore, nothing rolling on the tire, it’s all just ball bearings rolling on the hub. Then we put that power into these new modified amps, and they have a DC power supply now, as opposed to an AC power supply, so we don’t have to put the power into an inverter. So the net sum of that is one person can pedal-power dance music for 200 people, which is pretty amazing and inspiring.
SFBG And the battery technology is also improving, right?
FF Yeah, the batteries are what you use for the mobile rides, and that’s getting better. If you’ve been to a bike party, it’s just incredible how many good, loud sound systems there are right now. It’s a very kinetic art form, although I wish people would focus more on the visual aspects of their system, because I feel like there’s a trend to get big and loud fast. But I wish there were more people doing the work that Jay Brummel is doing, where he doesn’t just want to ride on a bicycle, so he turned his bike into a deer and he steers by holding the antlers.
SFBG But there has been some push-back from the police. Have you gotten many tickets?
FF Well, I got tickets for riding up high on this quadracycle. There is a law against riding tall bikes in California. It says you shouldn’t ride a bicycle in such as manner as to not be able to stop safely and put your foot down. Obviously you can’t put your foot down on a tall bike.
SFBG The fact that you have landing gears on your bike didn’t make a difference?
FF Well the officer didn’t take it seriously, but the court sided in my favor. The judge was flipping through photos of the landing gear the entire trial — he couldn’t stop flipping through them. And he asked, ‘How do you get on? Where do you step?’ So I was like, ‘Well, you step here, you step there, and you swing.’ It was pretty fun.
BICYCLE MUSIC FESTIVAL
Saturday, June 18
11 a.m.–10 p.m., free
Various locations, SF