The road less traveled
bicycle enjoying life in the major-label lane
July 15, 1999
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- Kurt Liebert of the band bicycle is one of those artists who doesn't handle rejection well. He handles it better than well. He takes rejection and turns it into the fuel that leads to opportunity.
Take, for instance, his situation in 1995. Living in New York City, he was a struggling musician who made a habit of being swept aside by those in the music business. He was also about to lose his day job at a pharmaceutical company. Life was not looking up. So Liebert looked west.
He concocted a rock 'n' roll bicycle tour across the United States, planning to stop at towns along the way and play for local music fans. It would be a free-spirited adventure, and a fun way to market his music. For Liebert, this leap into adventure was a logical career move.
"I said, 'I'm gonna go for the things that seem real to me,' and in my life none of my friends had a record deal, I'd never met anybody personally that had a record deal, I never knew anybody that had a record deal," Liebert says. "So I said they don't exist in my world. So why try to get something that doesn't exist?"
'There were moments when I hated it beyond belief. Eight hours of rain in 45-degree weather and you just start freezing to death.'
Liebert believed a life on the road existed for him, and he was ready to go alone, but his bandmates were excited by the cross-country idea. The guitar player at the time even said his mom would follow them in a 28-foot camper.
"If you're going to plan a rock 'n' roll bike tour across America, make sure your guitar player's mother wants to buy a 28-foot camper to go with you," Liebert laughs. "That helps out a lot."
The tour was a success. Well, at least it was fun. bicycle sold some records. (Guess where they got the name? -- and yes, it's spelled that way, with a lowercase b.) So Liebert decided to do it again. And again. And again.
So far, he's been on at least a half-dozen bicycle tours across America -- over 5,500 miles -- promoting his music on both coasts and across the plains and purple mountains' majesty. To help support his treks, he landed two grants and sponsorships from bike companies. The media caught on, too. The band's adventures were featured in New York Times Magazine, People magazine, and on CNN's Showbiz Today.
Most important, Liebert was living life his way, not worrying about landing a record deal, enjoying the promise of what lay around the next corner.
Then a funny thing happened -- Capricorn Records came calling last fall, and suddenly Liebert and his band had a multi-album pact. The first CD under the label was released on Tuesday.
The self-titled record was produced in part by Chris Ballew, formerly of the band The Presidents of the United States of America. It features a catchy stew of styles -- from Beck-like anti-folk, to hip-hop, to Beatle-esque melodies, to industrial dance.
"It's pretty much a mix of all my styles," Liebert says. "Basically, we've just been all over the country, touring and writing this album. I guess it's an end-of-the-century kind of thing for us."
'I've got to do this'
Liebert, 33, grew up in Spokane, Washington. He got his first record, a Jim Croce release, when he was five. During his youth, Liebert expressed his interest in music by mimicking what he heard on the radio into his tape recorder.
His parents traveled a lot, he says, and they took him to his first concert at age 12 -- Sister Sledge and the Village People at Madison Square Garden.
"I was like, 'Damn, I've got to do this,'" Liebert recalls. "So I went home to Spokane and the cow fields and started writing songs and being in bands."
By the start of the '90s, as Seattle exploded with grunge, Liebert was living in New York City, hanging with other musicians, immersing himself in hip-hop and anti-folk scenes while trying to sell his records.
He ended up working at that pharmaceutical company for nearly five years to pay the bills. But when they informed him he was being laid off, Liebert started planning.
"I made my office there ground zero for my band and booked a whole tour across the U.S.," he says.
Now, looking back on his bike tours of America, he's nostalgic, even when the memory is painful.
"There were moments when I hated it beyond belief," says Liebert. "Eight hours of rain in 45-degree weather and you just start freezing to death. That sucks.
"But for the most part, I loved the adventure of it. You find yourself doing these amazing things and hanging with a lot of different people."
Prince, and women without shirts
Among Liebert's experiences on the road -- he recorded at the famous Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis, and during a break he ran into the artist formerly known as Prince.
"I went down the hall to get a Coke and I'm hearing this guy playing bass. I mean, he's just slamming. And I look in and see this short guy with a satin shirt, and he jumps down -- you know his familiar Prince jump that he does -- and it's him and I'm just thinking, 'Oh my god, he's giving me this little private bass concert.'"
Liebert also got in touch with nature, venturing to the liberated woods on a small island off the coast of British Columbia.
"(There are) no cops there, so you can imagine what they're growing," he says. "In the morning you'd wake up and go out on the beach and eat fresh oysters and clams and blackberries. It was so great. The girls didn't wear shirts, no bras either. It's like total hippies '60s commune."
And during all the experiences, Liebert was taking notes.
'Poet, loser, prophet, priest'
The songs on "bicycle" were written on the road, some with his friend Forrest Burtnette. (Yes, he toured the country with a guy named Forrest, enduring "Forrest Gump" jokes like "Ride, Forrest, Ride!")
Among the topics covered: the joys of cleaning ("Electrolux"), the joys of taking a shower ("Clean"), and a fictional encounter between "Geraldo, Oprah, Uma and Dave ... and Godzilla" ("Oh Jesus I'm Dying"). Liebert also pays homage to Beck, gettin' hardcore jiggy with it on "Bionic," in which he declares in the chorus, "I'm a poet, loser, prophet, priest."
Perhaps the most energetic tune is "High Plains Drifter," a spirited dance riff that Liebert says was turned up a notch by Ballew's production. It reminds Liebert of the road.
"When I think of that song, I think of when we were biking across the country and we were going from Wyoming into Montana and there was this long stretch of highway that was just completely free for like 150 miles," Liebert says. "It was so straight ... and there was nobody on it and we were just riding so free across the plains."
'Getting your thirst quenched'
Liebert says his favorite song on the album is the first one, "68." He got the idea for it while riding in California.
"I was biking up this highway from San Jose to Santa Cruz on a West Coast tour and I had 110 pounds of gear, traveling up this road that was steep as steep can be," he says. "I was completely parched, didn't have any water, dehydrated beyond belief and I went around this corner and saw this half-bottle of Evian water. That's what it's about. It's about getting your thirst quenched and how amazingly good getting your thirst quenched can be."
After a long ride in the music business, it seems Liebert has finally found his half-bottle of Evian. He says he and his current bandmates will tour the country starting in August. They won't be riding bikes. Instead, they'll be traveling like a normal band to cover more ground.
But don't think this modest achievement, a record deal, has changed Liebert. He says he'll bike across the country again.
"I actually kind of miss it," he says.
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