This profile appeared in Treadlie vol.15, October 2014
Performer Amanda Palmer talks about life on the road, the art of asking and her penchant for clunky old bikes
Talking with Amanda Palmer, you get the feeling that she falls a little bit in love a lot – bikes included.
She learned to ride in the early eighties in ride in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts on a “typical suburban tricycle”, then a two-wheeler with training wheels.
But the first bike she really fell for was a white BMX. It came the toy store in the mall, and it rocked her fourth grader world.
“One of my most vivid memories is of riding my dirt bike to school wearing sunglasses, and pulling up and making tracks. I felt so cool. Our town was rocky and hilly, and there were lots of paths linking one joint to another. We went everywhere by bike.”
A steady stream of bikes got her through childhood, her teenage years and into college. Not long after she met Brian Viglione and together they formed a genre-defying “Brechtian punk cabaret” performance duo called The Dresden Dolls, which bought the pair a cult following, a record deal and a life of touring.
“My relationship with bikes reflects my life as an artist. As soon as I started touring I gave up cycling. I toured with The Dresden Dolls for five years straight. I live out of a suitcase and work on a very cellular level. I haven’t owned a bike for ten years!”
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been cycling. Amanda is adept at the art of asking – reaching out to her community of fans for what she needs to get by, in exchange for performances, meals, beer, and love. And ever since she fell a little bit in love with Melbourne, she’s been back on a bike.
“In 2012 I was in Melbourne making the album Theatre is Evil. Melbourne is a great place for cycling, so I asked on Twitter where I could source a bike.”
A local fan responded, loaning Amanda and her three-piece band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, a bike each in exchange for breakfast.
Crowdsourcing a bike via social media worked a treat on Amanda’s most recent visit in March 2014, too. She was working on her book, The Art of Asking (“it was like giving birth to a giant book out of my vagina”), and again put a request for a bike out on social media. More fans responded, and became friends, providing Amanda with the kind of heavy, clunky old bike she loves.
“It’s like there’s an endless karmic cycle of bikes, and I’m the caretaker. It’s wonderful to watch bikes create community,” says Amanda, who spreads her time between Boston, New York and Melbourne, relying on the kindness of strangers and the “random closeness” reaching out can bring for many aspects of her avant garde existence.
“Sometimes when I feel like performing I put the offer out and see who responds – these are my ninja gigs,” she says, going on to recall one of the best ninja gigs she’s ever had. It involved bikes, and it happened in another Australian city, Canberra.
“I hooked up with a crew of bike freaks called Rat Patrol, and 50 of us ended up cycling around the city. Someone rolled a piano off the back of a flatbed truck and onto the Carillon, it was pretty wild.”
A favourite bike experience? Melbourne, winter 2012, during the making of Theatre is Evil. Amanda and her band were based in Melbourne’s inner north, practising and recording at the Bakehouse Studios in Richmond, and tuning up the material with a residency at the Northcote Social Club. The two locations are approximately five kilometres apart, and inbetween them is Ruckers Hill, with its dramatic drop on the western side and postcard-perfect view of the CBD in the distance.
“We’d take our gear from the Bakehouse to the Northcote Social Club in a giant cargo van. We’d load in our instruments and our amps and our bikes at one end, and load them out at the other. Then we’d play the gig and get sweaty and drink beer and hug the fans, then one of us would drive the van home, and the rest of us would coast down the hill.”
“It was an amazing feeling. To get on a bike with your band and take a long downhill ride home together in the dark of winter – it was the most thrilling, ecstatic, orgasmic record-making experience.”