The Invisible Hand is about a month away from releasing its first album, a self-titled, professional effort that rounds the rough edges of the band’s ferocious live show without diminishing the music’s intensity. The album is a 45-minute behemoth that marries the fidgety power pop vision of songwriter Adam Smith with a band eerily suited to execute it. Things are looking up.
Adam Smith fronts The Invisible Hand, perhaps the most celebrated band in town. The four-piece comes to a crucial juncture later this year when it self-releases its album, and the key to success may actually be on the band’s keyring.
But the fate of Charlottesville’s favorite indie rock band is intrinsically tied to a new fifth member: the American Single. At least, that’s what they call the eye-grabbing, Cheez-It-colored 1995 Ford Club Wagon with 172,000 miles that began as a service vehicle for the Virginia Department of Transportation, but now conveys Charlottesville’s best indie rock band around to nightclubs, basements and bars across the nation.
Inside, the tape deck has been upgraded to a CD player, with an auxiliary jack for iPods. The band listens to hip-hop and Radiolab. The middle row of seats has been removed, to maximize leg room in the back row. Guitarist Jon Bray works on his bawdy blog, about food on the road. There is talk of installing a table, where the members can take meals during long trips.
“We aren’t a band that sells a lot of stuff over the Internet,” says Smith, and indeed, as record sales continue to peter out across the board, working bands are increasingly forced to hit the road to make ends meet. And hit the road, the band has, spending more than 100 hours a month in the van to pay for its expenses at home, which include a practice space on 10th Street, various promotional costs, and the album, self-financed and recorded with Louisa producer Chris Keup. (Keup helped to offset that cost by hiring the band to record the theme song for a Bravo TV show, “9 by Design.”)
No piece of equipment highlights the pitfalls that await touring musicians as well as the vehicle. It can break down and delay a show (as Justin Bieber’s did in June), flip and kill the band (The Exploding Hearts in 2003), skid into a ditch and bruise the singer (Weezer last year). No one was hurt when The Hand’s first van was destroyed in Brooklyn. Witnesses claimed that a 15-passenger van slammed into the 2000 Toyota Sienna—twice, for good measure. “It felt malicious, but I know the person was just drunk,” says Smith. “It was still driveable. The side that got hit was scraping the tire, so we had to get everybody to stand on the passenger side.” At the nearest mechanic, more bad news: The van that had safely brought the band from Charlottesville to Texas, to New York City and beyond, was dead on arrival.
Yet with its insatiable desire for fuel and maintenance, Smith says the American Single—which last belonged to a Richmond band, Prabir and the Substitutes —is not viewed by The Invisible Hand as a necessary evil, but as its home on the road. “The van is very important. It brings people together. There’s nothing like eight hours in a van with three other dudes. You really get to know each other,” a comfortable dynamic that translates readily to the stage; for example, Smith and drummer Adam Brock usually drive the van, and as songwriter and drummer, also drive the band.
It’s more than enough for now, says Smith. “It’s got this cute little purr when you turn it on—a little rumble. It’s nice,” says Smith.
“You feel like you’re the boss of the road.”