MANU DELAGO has become one of the most sought-after musicians from Austria on both a national and, especially, international scale. Based in both London and Tyrol, his collaborations span from Björk to Anoushka Shankar, The Cinematic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. Manu Delago is known to be both a virtuoso and a pioneer on the hang (hand-pan), as well as an acclaimed composer and percussionist. However, his pioneering and boundless creativity doesn’t stop at the music. His ideas are big, and he fulfills them. His project, “Parasol Peak” (2018) combined live music, mountaineering and film, and already gave us a hint at what was to come next: the RECYCLING TOUR. Delago, together with 5 other musicians and crew members, will set off on April 30th from Innsbruck to complete a 35-day music tour around Austria; but not with the usual carbon-puffing modes of transport. Instead, their legs will be their engines, their bicycles the machinery, and the solar panels their source of energy. It is an adventure, to say the least. And this is what excites Manu the most about it. That, and how he can transport his message of environmental protection, through local happenings, to a global audience. In light of this, Delago sat down with Arianna Fleur Alfreds to tell her all about the intensive and expansive process which has gone into the tour, postponed from the year prior. And, although the lockdowns go on, the show must go on, too. As Delago puts it, “climate protection and culture can’t wait until the pandemic is over,” so he won’t either.
When did you actually come up with the concept for the Recycling Tour? How long has it been in the planning phase?
Manu Delago: It’s been about 2 and-a-half years now. There had already been a long process leading up to the original date in May 2020, cuz we had to start the routing process about 18 months before. You can’t plan a cycling tour like a regular tour, because you can only move a certain amount of kilometers a day. So already a lot had gone into last year’s planned tour, and now that we’ve added on another year of preparation, and have accumulated even more partners, causing the concept to grow, and with corona still being around, the concept keeps changing.
So, flexibility and adaptability are key factors of this tour – a parallel to some necessary qualities for confronting climate change.
Manu Delago: Definitely. We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments throughout this process. For the first part of the tour, we won’t be doing the concerts in front of a live audience as planned, but live streams. And since I don’t want to do the same thing twice – to build up an audience that follows us along the tour – we will invite local guests to enhance to the program. So, wherever we go, we’ll try to find local musicians or other interesting people who will join us for a session or a few tracks, or do an interview with us. Also I’ll also be doing some interviews online with other interesting artists around the world, or holding these live dialogues on Instagram. We just have to come up with lots of extra content to make this concept work, and to make it interesting. And, I should say, over the last few weeks it has been like a wave that’s growing. It’s been great to see that people are really into the concept and are grateful that something is happening, culturally, cuz there’s not much going on right now.
You can’t stay with your old rules. We all have to change.
What originally inspired this mega-idea?
Manu Delago: I think there are three answers to that. One is the environmental side. That is, me being a private person who cares deeply about the planet. Then at some point I realized I’m actually also a public person. My music has always been just for the sake of music. I never made political or critical music or anything. Music was always kind of holy in a way. But at some point I had this switch where I realized okay, I am in the public eye and I have a responsibility. If I have something to say, I should actually be open and transport my message. And when it comes to the environment, there are things I want to communicate.
The second is the adventurer side of me. My last big project was Parasol Peak in 2018 where we hiked for a week and made music, and an adjoining film. That is still possibly the most fulfilling project I ever did, or maybe the thing I’m most proud of. It felt really unique, and like an amazing achievement. I mean, we were freezing and struggling, in danger, and in fear. But when you’ve accomplished something like this, it’s incredibly fulfilling and just brings so much joy. And that whole adventure-seeking side, maybe in combination with the Groundhog Day of touring-life, which I’ve had for so long, having the same itinerary and day sheets over and over again, it brought me to thinking: How can I change this? How can I make it a bit more interesting, fun and challenging?
It’s possibly the most fulfilling project I ever did, or maybe the thing I’m most proud of.
The third one is maybe the most important, regarding the question of how it started. That is, I was often touring, and before you would have the next drive from A to B, I would wake up early in the morning and go for a run around the hotel. And it’s often some ugly, industrial area, and you run in a circle just for the purpose of health and exercise. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to, instead of running in a circle, to run to the next venue?’ And, I mean, it was usually a bit far. But I thought, ‘What if I had a bicycle? I could probably cycle to the next venue.’ Sometimes you have distances between shows on a tour where you think, ‘This could be done on a bicycle.’ So, I think that was the main trigger. The next thought was: let’s just plan this and do it!
How will people be able to follow you on the tour?
Manu Delago: On the website there is a tracking system where you can track us 24/7 and see where we are, how fast we’re moving, etc. I’ll be super active on social media; way more than usual. I’ll be sharing a lot of videos and photos, also, pretty much daily, doing some kind of live content on social media – sometimes music, sometimes talks, etc. And we will have this daily video blog –a video engineer is travelling with us and he will release a video a day, which not only acts as a diary of the tour, but also should be inspirational for environmental and musical issues.
What are some educational issues that will be communicated?
Manu Delago: For instance, comparing a car journey with a bike one, or refillable drink bottles with single-use ones. Also about our diet – like how to have zero waste on tour. We are trying to get our lunch boxes refilled at every town and village with homemade food. And then there are all the experiments we are undertaking. Like, how much energy can we produce with our solar panels? I want to communicate all these experiments to the audience, and to the world, because I think you can inspire the music industry, and hopefully other bands, musicians, promoters and audiences. We just want to set a positive example in a way.
There’s a quote in The New Yorker from Tamara Lindeman, who records as the Weather Station in an article about musicians and climate change: “We want to make big changes but we are stuck with small ones.” Thoughts?
Manu Delago: Well, I have a story from about two years ago, which taught me that it does make a difference what I do. So, we had the Björk production rehearsals. And there were about 80 people on the set. And there were crates and crates of single-use plastic water bottles with just half a liter inside each. Everyone was having their 3 sips, then leaving it somewhere, forgetting which was theirs, and getting a new one. So everywhere there was mounds of plastic bottles. And it just made me angry. I came home and talked to Claudia (Norz) about it, saying how crazy it was. I thought: Björk is an environmentally conscious person, why is this happening? So Claudia said, ‘You should just tell her’. So together we composed an email to Björk and I wrote: ‘Do you see this happening in our rehearsals?’ And she answered, that she doesn’t know why it’s happening. She had told the production manager about that previously, and so she reached out to him again about it. And the next day, we got an email from the production manager saying that everyone has to bring their own refillable water bottles from now on. And then they kept that policy for the upcoming tour in NY, Mexico and all the promoters had to follow this order. And all I had to do was send one email to Björk who can then reach more people. But that email resulted in at least 10,000 water bottles less. So I learned if you just continue doing things you believe in and try to be an example, the message spreads to others and can actually make a difference. For me it was an example that it helps if I open my mouth.
I still believe that small steps help too.
That’s why I continue to believe that if I keep transporting my message, at least some people who hear it will carry the message forward, and be an example for others. I know I alone can’t do it. But if everyone does something, then it must move up the ladder to the politicians or those with power. Same with the private sector – what we don’t buy or consume, won’t get made or sold anymore. We, as consumers, have to drive the market as much as we can. So I believe it helps if we keep doing things. But obviously the big changes need to come from policy-makers. But I still believe that small steps help too.
What does the term “local” mean for this tour?
Manu Delago: A lot. We will try to eat locally and support local culture, individuals and organizations. Unfortunately we won’t be able to play all of the shows now (due to corona and the lockdown), nevertheless the tour includes quite rural places where there are usually not many concerts going on. Originally we kind of had the skeleton of the tour with 15 shows and then we realized we have to play somewhere in between – because of the cycling distances – and there’s kind of nothing there. And so we started talking to local Green parties, if they wanted to put on a local show, or to local tourism boards. So, it was an advanced booking project because we really had to look outside of the box for setting up shows. But it was amazing because most people really went for it, and I think we did a great job of getting 25 shows in a line in Austria! Unfortunately it’s not going to happen exactly as planned. But it still was really cool to see that it is possible to do that kind of routing. Because usually there is always some kind of long distances when you tour.
And of course this touches on one of the systemic problems of touring and the environment: exclusivity contracts. I wonder how the club owners and promoters are going to get the message – that this is not an environmentally sustainable method of working?
Manu Delago: Yeah, that was one of the first discussions I had with this English booking agent who asked me if we wanted to do the tour in the UK. And she said, ‘well, we have the clause of 100 miles, no other show’. And I said, ‘Well, we are asking audience members to cycle or walk to the gigs, or take public transport, so, they are not gonna travel that far. So we have to make this a local project. You can’t stay with your old rules. We all have to change. And you have to change that clause.’ I mean, we even had gigs planned in Kitzbühel and St. Johann, which are 10 km apart, where even I thought: this is a bit close (laughs). But, they were fine with it. Unfortunately, now only one of them will be happening because of the pandemic.
Everything in this project has a sustainable concept behind it.
What equipment will you be carrying with you in your trailers?
Manu Delago: We’ll be bringing audio interfaces, midi controllers and our own LED lights. We are equipped for a professional show.
So you’ll be generating electricity through the solar panels. Does that mean you won’t be using any electricity from the venues?
Manu Delago: That was the plan, except for the PA, because it’s not possible for us to power that. So here’s another experimental and educational side to it. The plan was to power the tour using only our own electricity; so, some lights, acoustic music and no PA, which would be super quiet. We’d play one or two tracks, and then I would tell the audience with my megaphone: ‘Ok, we are gonna switch on the PA now, using local electricity, as we don’t have enough electricity to power the PA. Just so you know, we generated X amount of megawatts today through the solar panels, but the PA needs so and so much, and we don’t have enough.’ This is now of course going to change, because if there’s no audience, then there’s no PA. So we will try to run everything with our own electricity. We will see how that turns out. But definitely everything that’s our gear – our devices, laptops, phones, the interfaces – we run ourselves with our electricity. Venue-wise, if they provide streaming equipment, I don’t know if we can power it. It’s all quite new. We will find out as we go along.
What about the musicians on this tour? Why this trio formation?
Manu Delago: Similar to Parasol Peak, there was this sports-filter. I mean, I always ask musicians who I appreciate musically, but then for the adventure projects, I also need people who are into that particular sport, or have the capability to do it. And for a tour like this, you also want to be among friends, in a way. Also I like bringing in additional percussionists on these projects, because I love using the resources that are already there. So, in the case of Parasol Peak in the mountains, we had the ice axes, water, rocks, etc. Tobi (Steinberger) was playing on all that stuff. And now with the bike tour, we will be using trailers and bicycles as percussion instruments. So we will be trying to use what we have, rather than bringing kilos and kilos of drum equipment with us.
And I apologize, officially, that there are no women on the tour. I thought about this so much, and talked about it with so many people, but it just didn’t work out that way. I did originally ask Isa (Kurz) but she wasn’t available. And I just didn’t find anyone that I was close enough to, to join. And I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of having a woman either. But I’m very conscious of it, and I regret it.
I saw on the website, that everyone will play more than just their usual roles on this tour.
Manu Delago: Yeah, everyone has to multitask in a way. So, it won’t just be ‘musician’ and ‘technician’, as usual. Alois (Eberl), for example, will be taking care of food, Tobi, will be looking after our laundry, the sound engineer is also in charge of navigation and weather forecast, and he’s also a doctor, and Simon, our light technician, will also take care of the bicycles and the solar panels. So there are a lot of additional roles.
Will there be new material to hear? Have you been composing during your off-time?
Manu Delago: I composed a new track called “Recycling” which is kind of the anthem for this tour. It will be released on the 29th, the day before the tour start. I composed this before the pandemic, before the original tour dates in 2020. So, this has been on my laptop for a long time now. Otherwise, over the past year, I have been working on new tracks. There will be a new album coming out in fall or so, which will be connected to this tour, but not entirely. Nevertheless, the “Recycling” track will be on the new album.
Can you tell me about the partnerships you’ve formed for this project? From both material donations, to environmental expertise?
Manu Delago: Yeah, I’ve never had such a long list of partners actually. For the environmental expertise we partnered up with Greenpeace, and also an institution called Tirol2050, which has the goal that Tyrol will be CO2 neutral by 2050. Then there are some partners that are bicycle-related, who helped us figure out all of our equipment needs. There are tourism-related partners who see a benefit, because we are cycling through beautiful places in Austria. Also a lot of them actually want to enforce environmentally friendly tourism and promote sustainability. So, I’m happy to be some kind of ambassador for these issues, as I really stand for them. The partners have been crucial. It wouldn’t have been possible to do this kind of tour without them. It’s turned into such a big project at this point, where not only is it the six of us that are cycling, but we have a whole team working behind the scenes.
I thought, ‘What if I had a bicycle? I could probably cycle to the next venue.’
Is this a one-time event to draw attention to the environmental cause and inspire thought? Or are there practical, long-term aspects to it?
Manu Delago: Well, sustainability is a really big part of this tour. I don’t consider it a “one-time” thing. Because either – and, again, it’s an experiment – but either we love it so much that we just do it again next year with regular concerts and venues, or, for example, we already had inquiries from bookers in the Netherlands and the UK who have said, ‘this is amazing, can we do this in our country?’ And I answered, ‘Maybe. But let’s just do this tour first and see what actually happens, because we are cycling this many kilometers and playing concerts. This might just not be possible.’ But, ideally, it’s gonna be a long-term project, which we do again. Or, the other option is we keep the model and other bands can use our equipment with their own infrastructure. Or, another option is that we just sell the equipment at the end, which I think is possible, as I believe there will be quite some interest in these objects from fans, collectors, partners, etc., as these trailers will have been on this tour and have an amazing story to tell. So it’s not like we plan to throw them away! With everything in this project, there is a sustainable concept behind it. But, again it’s an experiment, so we are not answering this question before we have done the tour.
What about the bigger picture? How can or do you incorporate the ideas and values you’re bringing forth with the Recycling Tour into “normal” musician life and touring?
Manu Delago: If I fly now, I try to only do so if absolutely necessary. Or, to make it even more worth it, by trying to book more concerts, or staying longer. Or maybe finding routes where the flight connections are fewer, instead of having two flights for every single show. But there are artists like Cold Play, who says they won’t tour anymore till they’re carbon neutral, which I still don’t fully understand how it is possible. Even if an artist or band decided to play only in their hometown – like Björk loves playing in Iceland, still you can’t control the 5,000 people that fly in to see it.
Have you seen any similar projects to the Recycling Tour?
Manu Delago: I didn’t know of any when I started planning. But when I released my first trailer for it in February last year, I got so much response to it and then people started telling me, ‘Oh, have you heard about this person? Or that one?’ There was a woman from India, one from California, a Danish woman. I ended up having calls with some of them and we exchanged ideas. And, although they were all a little less heavy on the infrastructure, management, gear, etc., it was really adventurous and inspiring, what they did. For example, one woman cycled the whole Rhine River from Switzerland, through Germany, to Holland with her cello on her back, playing sort of pop up gigs along the way. So very adventurous, and it was also really cool to see that she got quite a lot of press on it. People were just really interested. So I am certainly not the first one to do something like this. I just think I have put a lot of additional aspects into it.
Have you been training hard?
Manu Delago: Yeah, definitely. Through the postponement, I got an extra year. I did, however, have knee surgery in January. I kind of got the last date possible to do it, which would leave enough space between that and the tour.
How are you feeling emotionally?
Manu Delago: Mainly excited. I just can’t wait for it to start. It’s been so much planning and anticipation leading up to this. I’m so looking forward to the moment when we actually get going. We have a little kick-off event on April 30th – a press event with ORF and so. I think while all the photos and interviews are being taken, I will be secretly just wanting to set off as soon as possible. So, I’m mostly just excited. I think my main concern is just that all the bodies stay more or less fit and capable of cycling. I just know that’s gonna be one of the hardest things we’ve done. It’s not the same cycling 1 to 3 days than it is doing 35 days, without proper breaks.
What about the weather?
Manu Delago: Adventure! (laughs)
Good luck then! See you on tour!