It’s the middle of the night somewhere in West Texas, and the members of the Honey Island Swamp Band haven’t slept a wink.
They stagger out of the black 1980 Prevost tour bus they have affectionately named the “Death Star” to a line of fueling pumps at a nondescript 24-hour gas station. Amid much eye rubbing and leg stretching, an event begins to unfold so surreal to their bleary minds that they begin to wonder if they are all hallucinating: Another black 1980 Prevost bus pulls into the station and lumbers to a halt at the gas pumps directly across from the Death Star.
Same make, same model, same year, same color, same condition. It’s as if there is now a giant mirror running the length of the gas pumps between the two road-weary busses.
Before anyone can figure out what’s happening, the doors of the second Death Star swoosh open, and out lumbers what HISB guitar/mandolin/harmonica player and vocalist Aaron Wilkinson can only describe as “a Latino version of our band.”
The strange sight was not lost on the parallel group of musicians, who Wilkinson says were just as amazed as the HISB guys were. “There was this sense of, ‘Do we have to fight each other now?’” he recalls.
(Un)fortunately, an Anchorman-style brawl did not ensue, but the other band definitely left with a great road story told from the other side of the mirror. And that’s what Wilkinson, Chris Mulé, Sam Price, Garland Paul and Trevor Brooks have been racking up over the past two years—a plethora of crazy road stories that have rolled in along with the countless miles covered since embarking on a nationwide tour in support of their last album, 2013’s Cane Sugar.
There was the time the Death Star’s brakes locked up while Wilkinson was navigating the hills outside of Birmingham, Alabama, forcing him to drive up a roadside hill to bring the runaway bus to a stop, nearly flipping it in the process. Then there’s the improvised cooling system Wilkinson managed to “MacGyver” together while driving through the mountains of Colorado which consisted of a length of hose topped by a bottle with holes poked through it running from the shower in the back of the bus to deliver a steady mist of water to the overheating engine.
There are the people, like Galactic’s Jeff Raines, who hop on board only to jump ship at the first sign of trouble aboard the Death Star. Raines, who decided to ride back to New Orleans with HISB after a show in Mobile featuring the two bands, was able to catch a more secure ride before Wilkinson could fix the broken timing belt that stranded them on the side of the road.
However, “Fix” may be the wrong word in that particular case. “We ended up holding the engine together with a bunch of strap ties,” Wilkinson recalls. “I remember at one point in Mississippi, Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, and there was some kind Mississippi resident who saw us struggling with the engine and decided we needed to hold hands and have a prayer circle in order for us to get back home.”
On an improvised prayer, the Death Star has always gotten the band back home, and they even occasionally get to tour in style.
Wilkinson and Mulé agree that they are “set up for a party” on the bus, but neither want to tell those stories. Instead, they both seem to enjoy the idiosyncrasies and challenges of their tour bus as much as they like to complain about the detours and breakdowns. “It’s sort of like the Bad News Bears version of a bus,” Wilkinson says. “It’s something we bought ourselves and completely built ourselves even though we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Wilkinson, who stands about six-foot-three, personally oversaw the design of each bed in the bus, making sure to leave enough room for him to stretch out all the way. “I took accurate measurements,” he says. “I think there’s room in this band for even someone six-foot-four or six-six. I don’t think we could take anybody over six-six.”
For Mulé, the best part about being on the road is the time the band gets to spend together bonding, writing songs, and hanging out between far-flung shows. After all, the Death Star is sort of like a motel on wheels.
“You can tell in the music that you get to know each other a lot more that way,” Mulé explains. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing sometimes, you never really know. Musically, it’s always a good thing, because if an idea pops into your head and you want to change a little something tonight, you’ve got the freedom to do that.”
Wilkinson says that being on the road so much in such tight quarters has transformed the band’s dynamic into something closer to a football team. “It can’t help but make you tighter,” he explains. “After a great gig, everybody is stoked. It’s a little like being on a team that just won a big victory. You all jump on the bus and you’re celebrating. Other times, when things don’t go so well, it’s a different mood, but you’re definitely going through it together, so there’s a camaraderie either way.”
That camaraderie will be on full display during the band’s November 1 appearance at this year’s Voodoo Music Experience, Mulé says, adding that the whole band is looking forward to the gig since they have missed the last two years.
“We’re all really psyched about it,” says Mulé. “We get to dress up and maybe be a little silly and have some fun. We’ll maybe even think of a couple covers that we can throw in there that will be fun to play for Halloween. We’re super excited about our return.”
As for the Death Star, Wilkinson has some words of advice for any young band pondering a similar purchase.
“If you’re successful enough that you can just rent a bus and rent a driver, that’s definitely the better way to go,” he says. “If you’re the Honey Island Swamp Band, you’re not quite that far along, and you’ve got to buy one for yourself and just figure it out.”