Last year, experimental keys-and-drums duo Speedsquare set out cross-country to busk (perform for tips on the street) in unsuspecting states from coast to coast. They got burned out before the planned end of that tour, coming home earlier than expected, though the trip proved to be a success nonetheless. Watch the East-to-West video here.
On the eve of Speedsquare’s newest adventure, a multi-week jaunt between North Carolina and Maine, keyboardist Billy Sheeran speaks to Xpress about the duo’s smarter touring plan, their reconditioned handicapped van, the perks of street-level performance and how to best transport and upright piano.
Read the interview below, check out the band here, and mark your calendar for their upcoming local shows. Speedsquare plays the New French Bar at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 25 and a local showcase at the Orange Peel at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29.
Mountain Xpress: Speedsquare is gearing up to go back on the road. What will be different about this summer’s tour?
Billy Sheeran: We can’t quite afford to go out West again this year. Also, last summer we didn’t fully embrace the whole Northeast in terms of busking. New York City and Boston: We didn’t get a chance to hit those towns. It’s a lot easier to travel in the Northeast. Everything’s a lot closer instead of driving like 10 hours from one city to another.
We’ll be playing a lot more club shows this time. We’re playing a string of club shows from July 5 to July 12. Last summer we didn’t as many official gigs, per se. Just a couple scattered around. It’s going to be a kind of intense week of doing shows and then a couple weeks of busking. What I imagine we’ll do is play these shows — our last one is in Portland, Me., and then we’ll just sort of start busking and backtrack our whole thing, going back through those towns playing on the street and having real fun.
Which do you prefer, club shows or busking on the street?
I think they’re both great. Both have good points and bad points. On the street, you’re your own boss. You don’t have someone telling you you’ve got be louder or quieter. They’re not pointing at their watch. You’re right there on the people’s level. There’s a cool ego balance to it.
It’s fun to be on stage, as well. There are two different sounds to it, two different shows, the street thing versus the stage thing. On the street it’s just the acoustic piano and drum. We don’t do vocals.
When you’re playing on the street, do you wind up providing the soundtrack for a bunch of people?
Sure! Sometimes. It really depends on what’s going on around us, depending on the city. last year in Portland, Maine, there were a bunch of guys break dancing and reading poetry, so we provided a soundtrack to that. There’s always other street clowns around. There’s a whole little counter culture. I think everyone kind of feels off everyone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Have you ever felt like you were in any danger?
No, not any more than just some sort of reckless drunk homeless guy who’s pretty easy to maintain. You’ve just got to tell him to shut up. But I’ve never felt any real threat or anything, and we really haven’t gotten run off.
The only time we were run off was last summer on Beale Street in Memphis. We had a permit and everything, but apparently there’s a separate permit for just Beale Street and we didn’t know that. It wasn’t anything dramatic.
I’m really excited about this new string of club shows we’re going to play. I also love busking, but I don’t want us to be completely perceived as a side-show band. So we’re going to have a chance to go in these clubs and represent some good, honest rock ‘n’ roll.
How well do the piano and drum set travel?
We’ve got a good system worked out. Our van is an old handicapped van with a wheelchair lift. We built a dolly for my piano with nice big castor wheels and it just lowers and raises on that [lift]. Now we actually have it rigged up so we can fit [percussionist C.] Scott’s entire drum kit sort of strapped on to the piano with the cart so it’s one massive thing and we can trek wherever with that.
Do you have to tune the piano a lot?
Yes. I have a tuning thing with me at all times. It’s constantly going out. It sort of gives it that honkey-tonk sound, at least I’ve started to tell myself that. That’s just kind of the way it is.
This is the second tour for which you’ve had this van. A handicapped van seems like the antithesis of the cool band van. Is it the “short bus” of tour vehicles?
It’s by no means a real-deal touring van. But we’re just a two-piece. For this trip, Scott is installing a bunk on the top because it’s an elevated roof. There’s a lot of headroom. You can do jumping jacks in there. We’re going to install a vent and have our bunks up there and be able to sleep in the van instead of scrambling for some random camp site.
What places did you most enjoying playing last summer, and where are you most excited about going this year?
Boulder, Colorado was really nice. Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine. And I liked Chicago a lot.
We burned out last time right when we got to New York City. We only stayed one night. It was like 103 degrees and we were parked in a part of town where vehicles were being broken into, so we just decided to leave. So this summer we’re really excited about going back, tapping into the Big Apple. I’m also sort of intimidated. People in New York have already seen this sort of thing; we might get eaten alive.
How is your CD, Street Sounds, doing?
We sell most of our CDs when we’re busking. We have them for sale on CD Baby, but we’ve only sold maybe three there. We’ll start recording a new one when we get back into Asheville.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter