“Do not. Remove. The matchbox.”
That was the advice Aaron Leitko, Hugh McElroy, and Sean Peoples received five years ago when they bought their white, nearly windowless 1995 Ford Econoline 150—a hulking, utilitarian shell of a vehicle that had spent much of its previous decade hauling some of D.C.’s most tour-hardened indie-rock outfits across the country.
Here’s a partial list of those bands: the Make-Up, Faraquet, Trans Am, the Warmers, HiM, the Sorts. And here’s a partial list of shit found in the van at the time of its death three weeks ago: a basketball; some cassettes; a mic stand; numerous parking tickets; an even dollar in change; a pink, rainbow-adorned Care Bear.
And, of course, the matchbox, which had sat on the dashboard ever since the van’s original owner, successful indie-rock manager and former Warmers bassist Juan Luis Carrera, placed it there some 15 years before, when he bought the van on tour in Arizona.
“The matchbox is a mystery,” says McElroy, an ex-member of defunct Dischord outfit Black Eyes. “It was pointed out to us that the matchbox had to stay in the van—that there would be consequences to the matchbox leaving the van.”
Despite the van’s exhaustive repair history—written partly on a Crownhate Ruin flyer—the totem must have served the Econoline well. “[I]t was really in good shape until it wasn’t,” says Leitko, an editorial aide at the Washington Post, freelance music critic, and purveyor of druggy-sounding post-disco with electronica duo Protect-U.
The van, whose health had been declining in recent years, met its end the way it probably should have: on the highway, coming back from a show.
McElroy, who’d been road testing his new group Cephalopods in New York and Philadelphia, was returning to D.C. on I-95 when, around Baltimore, the van began to wobble. The band pulled over and smelled burning rubber; that night they made it back to D.C. on back roads. Several days later, a mechanic told McElroy that repairs to the brakes would cost around $1,200.
“It was sort of a not-worth-it situation,” says McElroy. The van’s insurance was about $1,000 a year; it was a magnet for parking tickets; the owners had been using it less.
So they signed the vehicle over to the auto shop and walked away from this unassuming artifact of D.C. music history.
“My most resonant memory of the van is how decadent it was,” says former Warmers drummer Amy Farina, who now plays in the Evens. “Especially for a band like us. It wasn’t like we were paying the bills.”
Decadent? Only if you’re in an indie band, for which cramped transportation with unidentifiable odors is de rigueur. The Econoline was stripped-down—but also new. “After being on tour with a few bands the years prior and lacking the mechanic’s ‘touch,’ I wanted something reliable,” Carrera writes in an e-mail. During one period in which he left the van unlocked but with a Club on the steering wheel, would-be thieves left strange objects inside it. One time, he found someone sleeping in it.
Once, when Warmers guitarist Alec MacKaye was driving down 16th Street NW after a show in Philly, two teenagers in a coupe pulled up next to the Econoline at a red light. “This kid in the passenger seat was giving us this hairy eye, just being this aggro kid,” MacKaye recalls. “He was really young. I gave him a look like, ‘What’s the problem?’” The light turned green and MacKaye drove on. The teens just sat there. “They’re behind us, and they just floored it.” MacKaye stopped at the next red light. “And they just drove right into the back of the van, at maybe 40 miles per hour, and just destroyed the front of their car….They had lights hanging out and wires—man, it was weird.” The teens sped off.
The van was basically unharmed, and the band returned home to Mount Pleasant, then walked to a 7-Eleven and reported the incident to a policeman there. “And immediately he got the call back that they stopped the car and they have some suspects,” MacKaye says. The Warmers followed police to where the teenagers were being interrogated. The band identified them, and the driver was arrested. The cop decided to let the passenger—the aggro kid with the hairy eye—go. “They told him tonight’s your lucky night, and the kid’s like, ‘How do I get home?’….And the cop says, ‘Why don’t you ask these guys?’”
“I can’t remember if we give him a ride; I don’t think we did,” MacKaye says, laughing. “But we might’ve.”
The Warmers broke up in 1997, but by then Carrera was operating a record label and managing bands. He frequently lent the Econoline to other groups. The Make-Up took it out on one tour, although frontman Ian Svenonius can’t remember which. “[I]t was…necessary since renting is so expensive (and often impossible for the marginally employed) and…most groups aren’t going to lend their wheels,” Svenonius says via Facebook. “For a while Make[-U]p was proud that we had a ‘shorty’ or more diminutive Chevy van but as soon as we opted for a full size bass rig we had to find another one.”
Trans Am has less fond memories. Someone tagged the van in Montreal during a tour around 2000. “Just to let you know, Trans Am is traditionally a Chevy band,” writes the group’s Philip Manley.
Faraquet borrowed the van several times before member Jeff Boswell, now the operations director at Washington City Paper, bought it in 2000. The group used it for only around 20 shows before breaking up in 2001. The van then became Boswell’s main ride. In 2002, he packed it with Dischord merchandise to sell on a Fugazi tour. That was the year of the Beltway snipers—who were initially described as traveling by plain white van. “Every time I drove around I felt like someone was watching me,” Boswell says.
In 2005, Boswell sold the van to Leitko, then an editorial aide at Washington City Paper who played in A Day in Black and White, and Peoples and McElroy, who were playing together as Hand Fed Babies. A Day in Black and White did some touring in it but soon broke up; Hand Fed Babies barely drove it. Leitko then used it for a noise project, for the group SPRCSS, and Protect-U; McElroy and Peoples used it for their respective labels, Ruffian and Sockets, as well as other projects.
“In my own world, it had a new life. It became the Fatback van—it was very helpful with that,” says Peoples, referring to the vehicle’s role in lugging around gear for the popular funk and soul dance night he helps run. “It’s as if it mirrors the D.C. musical trajectory, which is less and less well-known bands and now these dime-a-dozen DJ nights,” he says, only somewhat jokingly.
Leitko, McElroy, and Peoples never opened the matchbox until they had to clear out the van. Says McElroy: “Inside it’s got a number of small objects. I guess I shouldn’t say—well, small wooden cylinders wrapped in thread. Maybe small, tiny effigies?”
The Econoline’s former owners “got their money’s worth,” says a mechanic at Adams Morgan’s J&N Auto Body, where the van was deposited. If a band could swallow the $1,200 bill, he says, the van probably has another tour or two in it, despite its odometer reading of more than 200,000 miles. “Honestly,” he says, “it’s not that big of a repair.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery