My mother was a serial collector of old things and instruments, which is why, for a while, there were two pedal organs in the basement of the house I grew up in. My friends and I would sometimes try to see who could pedal faster and, therefore, play louder.
Nobody has ever marketed a pedal amplifier, so Mr. Something Something invented one. The Toronto Afrobeat band regularly plays shows run on electricity generated by fans pedalling stationary bicycles.
The band's touring gear includes several large batteries and a generating stand with room for 10 bicycles. The bikes charge the batteries, which run the amps, providing steady power for the band even if several people stop pedalling at the same time.
Playing off the grid, as Mr. Something Something has done intermittently for the past year, has given singer Johan Hultqvist a new feeling for the links between people and power, and between performers and audiences. The fans pumping away to keep his microphone running, he said, symbolize the feedback relationship of musicians and listeners, and demonstrate a kind of freedom that we need to cultivate more.
"We don't tend to consider the real cost of our electricity, because we don't produce it ourselves," Hultqvist said, over a coffee near his home in west Toronto. "If you get on a bike to produce power, you realize that there is some kind of sacrifice required for anything to happen. But you're not having to rely on a supply system that's out of your control, and that could break down. The closer your source of power, the more likely you are to feel empowered, and to feel free."
Drummer Larry Graves came up with the bicycle idea, after Mr. Something Something played a wind-powered show at the farm of Michael Schmidt, the Durham County dairy farmer who became something of a celebrity last winter when he was prosecuted for selling raw milk. An Israeli heavy-metal band had already experimented with the pedal-power concept, and an inventor in New York state had developed a generating stand.
The stationary bikes have sometimes met with resistance in unexpected places. The band was setting up to play at the Green Living Show at the Canadian National Exhibition last spring when a building inspector and fire marshal appeared, and told the players (including guitarist Paul MacDougall, saxophonist John MacLean and bassist Liam Smith) that their generating system posed a fire hazard.
"The irony was that we ended up having to play on the grid at the Green Living Show, though we were there to showcase new technologies and what's possible," said Hultqvist with a smile.
He shares in the band's songwriting with Graves and MacLean, providing most of the lyrics for their buoyant, rhythmically gnarly tunes about urban tragedies and dreams of better worlds (their latest album, on World Records, is called Shine Your Face ). He's also the main spokesman for the band's gentle activism, which has taken Mr. Something Something to organic farms, food co-ops and other places where bands don't normally play.
The 33-year-old, Swedish-born singer said he probably would never have become an active environmentalist if he had not emigrated to Canada, where it takes so much energy just to get around the country. He experienced an epiphany on that score while touring in Western Canada, at the moment when the van made yet another fuel stop and several empty plastic water bottles tumbled from his open door.
An initial stay for a few years in the late nineties ended when his first band imploded just after getting a demo deal with Sony. He returned eight years ago, and became a keen supporter of what he regards as a cultural explosion in his Toronto community. For the past three years, he has presented a monthly series of readings and performances by musicians, writers, comedians and activists at Café Tinto on Roncesvalles. Compared with Sweden, where institutions and their ways are more deeply entrenched, Canada seems to him a place of limitless possibility.
Hultqvist and his fiancée, the jazz pianist and singer Elizabeth Shepherd, dream of getting off the grid permanently, by finding some land and building a self-sufficient green dwelling, along the lines promoted by the American architect and "garbage warrior" Michael Reynolds. Maybe it will include a retrofitted barn, Hultqvist said, for performances, dances and other forms of communal creativity. Once you give up centralized solutions to power generation, every place can become a centre.
Mr. Something Something plays the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto Saturday night (Sept. 26).