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Interview with Jake Cotler and Dave Bell from Jam in the Van (Includes interview)

Travelling the length of breadth of the United States in a brightly-painted van listening to music and attending festivals is obviously nothing new, but the hippies of the late 1960s would be in awe of the level three music-loving friends, who met while still in college – and who had no previous ties to the industry – have taken it to.

For this is no ‘beat up’ camper van with engine trouble. This is a state-of-the-art, solar powered vehicle equipped with the latest technology that invites musicians inside to perform. Those who have taken advantage of this excellent idea include Gary Clark Jr., George Clinton, Misterwives, Allen Stone, The Orwells, Blues Traveler and Deer Tick.

To explain how the concept first came about, here’s California resident Jake Cotler, who started Jam in the Van back in 2011 with Dave Bell and Louis Peek: “Me and a couple of my buddies were pretty avid music festival-goers… I have always gone to Bonnaroo down in Tennessee ever since I was like 19 years old,” he recalls.

“I actually met some of my best friends down there; my buddy Louis, who I started Jam in the Van with, and my other buddy Dave, who I started Jam in the Van with. Dave had never been to a music festival before and I convinced him one year to come to Bonnaroo because his favourite artist Bruce Springsteen was playing.

“So he came and he loved it – had the best time ever. Then a couple of years later, I’d been out of law school for a little bit and was working at a law firm. We were both at jobs we didn’t really love. Dave was working at a TV production company and we’d be on the computer all day talking about going to Bonnaroo and planning our trip.

“We would always rent RVs and stay on the festival grounds. It was super expensive to rent an RV, so we were looking on Craigslist and if you look on Craigslist, you see that you can buy an old vintage RV for nothing – for seven hundred to a thousand bucks. We were just joking around saying, ‘Hey, let’s buy our own’ and then we were like, ‘Well hey, what if we did this?’

“So the idea was kind of born over two guys being bored at work dreaming about going to a music festival. We talked to our other buddy who decided he was interested in the idea too and wanted to fund it.

“We got some money raised and bought a crappy old RV, gutted it in my backyard and looked up bands on the Internet and said, ‘We’ve got this van, do you want to come jam in it?’ It kinda grew from there…”

Dave Bell remembers his first music festival well: “I’m a New Yorker and I grew up on the East Coast going to see Springsteen my whole life with my family… He headlined Bonnaroo one year and that’s why Jake convinced me to go with him. He’d been a number of times, but I’d never been and I went and it was amazing – it opened my eyes to so much more.”

Reflecting on how he and Jake first met, Dave remarks, “I met Jake because one of my best friends from high school was his college roommate. So I went to visit my high school buddy at the University of Michigan one weekend and I spent the weekend hanging out with Jake and we hit it off.

“Then I moved to Los Angeles after college and he was already out here. We became good buddies and we both had a love and appreciation for live music. The whole idea for Jam in the Van came about because we were getting ready to make plans for an upcoming Bonnaroo, and one of the big parts of that is renting an RV…

“Jake was kind of joking around with some Craigslist ads saying ‘Why don’t we just buy an RV instead of renting one – we can get one for the same price?’ and I said, ‘Well why don’t we get an RV and start filming some bands playing in it?’

“I expected him to be like, ‘You’re an idiot, get back to work’ but he said, ‘No, let’s do it.’ I think our love for live music and the lack of love for the desk jobs we had at the time propelled us to do it.”

Jake and Dave, recently returned from a week-long residency – in conjunction with GQ – at this year’s South by Southwest, are fully committed to offering a first-class service and, as such, travel with a 12-man crew that consists of cameramen, sound engineers, PAs, interns, photographers and a driver named Spudnik (Louis is more of a silent partner), and I wondered what the general reaction to their ambitious undertaking has been like.

“Well when we first started doing it,” begins Jake, “we had this one band from Utah or Colorado – one of the very first sessions – and we called up their manager and said, ‘We’re doing this thing, come on out’ and he said, ‘We’re gonna do it, but just so I’m clear, you’re asking me to send my band with all of their equipment and stuff to an alley in Venice and meet some guys with a van?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, pretty much.’

“That was before we had anything up on the Internet… But after people saw what it was and once we had a product to show, the perception all changed and now everybody loves it and people know about it before we even get to them.

“The reaction’s been great and I think that’s because of the high quality of the product we’re putting out. A lot of bands and their teams have told us that it’s the best live recording they’ve ever done and it sounds better than studio recordings. That always resonates well with us because that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Dave has also been delighted with the favourable comments and is often pleasantly surprised at the number of folks who have heard of them: “One of my favourite things is when people that have watched our videos but have never seen us in person see the Jam Van, or see us – just randomly – and they say, ‘Oh my God, that’s Jam in the Van – I love that thing!’

“The other side of that is there’s a long list of bands that I both love and respect and we’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of them. Hearing the positive feedback from those groups about how cool a project it is and how good our content is is really the best part of it all. I pinch myself every day that it’s a thing I get to do.”

As far as the future for Jam in the Van is concerned, the sky really is the limit and both of these down-to-earth types seem extremely optimistic about its endless possibilities. More vans, more cities, more states and more countries would appear to be the long-term goal, and why not?

“There’s like two or three festivals going every weekend it seems in the summer and we can’t be at multiple ones right now,” says Jake, “so we definitely in the future want to be at multiple festivals and be able to do this all over the world, really. I mean I get emails and Facebook messages from people in Turkey, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Australia – everywhere. They’ve seen it and they want us to go and do it there.”

His buddy agrees that there are no limits to what the pair can achieve with this: “I truly believe that it is an evolution to a global platform and I’d love to do it in countries and continents all over the world… I think there’s amazing music to be discovered and to capture everywhere.”

Over the coming months, this mobile recording studio/live stage/musician magnet will be ‘rocking up’ at a number of prestigious music festivals where it will once again play host to more Jam in the Van Sessions.

These include the California Roots Festival and the Bottle Rock Napa Valley (both of which are in California) in May and the the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in Telluride, Colorado in September. As a parting shot, I asked Dave to which festival he would most like to take Jam in the Van.

“Our own,” comes the immediate reply. “The Jam in the Van Festival. The whole company was started because Jake and I love going to music festivals together. It’s still something that we try to spend the majority of the year doing and we would love to host our own. That would definitely be the dream in the end.”

For more on Jam in the Van, check out their official website.

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