Photos: Dave Manning

03/22/17

Paul Tralka

Paul restores camper vans, works at a craft brewery, and currently drives to the surf in their 1973 Chevy Balboa mini-motorhome.

I caught wind of Dave Manning a few years back when I was fortunate enough to organize a van gathering premiere of The Bus Movie, a documentary about the iconic VW bus in which Dave is featured. It’s a must see for any VW van enthusiast. I was drawn to Dave’s story and his music in particular. I began to listen to his music as I drove the open road in my van. Turns out, that is exactly the scenario he envisions for his music. He’s an old soul who chooses to live the slow road, simple life while drawing inspiration from his 1965 Microbus. He writes original, storytelling music, which is just as original as him and his van as it was when he bought it (when he was 17). If there is an authentic vanlife character out there, it’s Dave. I wasn’t sure how to start my interview with Dave, but I quickly learned he was easy to talk to.

Who is Dave Manning?

I guess I’m a crazy cat who’s just living in his van trying to live simply out in nature and playing some music while enjoying being out on the road and not being part of the rat race. Dave went on to tell me about his latest album “Road Trip Songs,” which he wrote based on his experiences on the road. He makes music that others can listen to while they travel. He keeps that in mind during the process. That is how he envisions his fans enjoying it. His lyrics come from his personal experiences. For example, when my girlfriend at the time dumped me, my buddy said, “At least you’ll get a good song out of it!”



I spoke to Dave about a Kickstarter video he did about two years ago. You seem like a real, simple guy who doesn't focus on social media or spends too much time on the computer. I know Kickstarter can be a lot of work. How was it for you handling all that time on the Internet, and was it successful?

Previously, I would make an album from my own money and hope to sell enough copies to make it all back. To have people directly support your music was a real joy. People aren't really into buying albums these days, but they are into supporting and having a connection to the music and the artist. It made it more personal. It was a lot of computer time, and I don’t really like the computer other than just booking gigs. I put together the video and luckily had a good friend guide me on the whole Facebook thing. I actually didn’t realize it was so much computer time when I started. It was mostly just organizing and posting on a schedule. Without his help, I don’t think it would have happened.

Speaking of computer time, it seems to me there is a current trend in posting photos to social media depicting vanlife as a glamorous lifestyle, and people may not see the hardships. Sometimes, it seems like people get lost trying to gain followers and potentially lose the true connection to the goal—separating themselves from it all and experiencing time outside. Would you say that’s true or do you think it’s a good thing?

It goes back to what I was talking about with my Facebook and Kickstarter experience. People alway post the good stuff. I think millennials are used to having a screen in their hands and that is how they connect with their friends and maintain relationships. I’m personally not into it. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; it’s just who they are as a generation and how they connect to the world. It’s less of a documentary and more of an update on the times when things are good. I’ve done that. I used to do a radio show from inside my van and looking back at it is great. It’s important to document your life so you can look back on it later on. It helps to remember those past moments so vividly. It’s easy to document your life as you go, but you have to be careful you don’t let it interrupt actually living your life. When I used to do my radio show, it would take me several hours a day, several days a week. Those were days I could have been floating down a river on an inner tube. It worries me that because the millennial generation spends so much time on screens, they often miss out on a lot of the joys of life.



Like I mentioned earlier, I learned about you first on The Bus Movie. How did that come about? Were you discovered from your social media or your website?

The filmmaker, Damon, heard about me while he was in Arizona interviewing my friend who has a van. My friend asked if he could call me and I said, “Of course.” Damon filmed me while driving a newer Vanagon Westfalia, and he essentially just lived with me on the road while documenting our time in Arizona and Montana.



I read that your documentary appearance led you on a trip to Germany to the Volkswagen factory where your van Vincent was assembled. Tell me about that.

Yeah, that was cool! I went twice separated by about a year. We had lunch and shared some beers with people at the factory. It was funny—we were hustling around filming and I just had to stop and take it in. I had to ask, “Where was
my bus made?” The tour guide explained that my bus was made and assembled right here. “You are here, Dave,” he told me. It sounds a bit corny, but it was emotional. I thought about how the van that has changed my life was born here. And meeting the people in the factory—even though it was a whole generation later—was still surreal. Strangely Vincent doesn’t talk to me often, but I remember vividly driving through Reno, Nevada, and him telling me, “Dave, I am not German anymore, I am American now. I was only there for a few months and I’ve been here in America for 50 years. I’m the guy seeking freedom. I’m the hippie. I’m on the road climbing the mountains and playing in the dirt.”

How long have you and Vincent been travel partners?

I guess about 27 years, but I haven’t been living in him the entire time. I used to work day jobs and only use him for trips. I had an around town car, usually a Volkswagen like a Beetle or Karmann Ghia, for my day-to-day driving. Vincent was always there for me as a camper. It was when I decided to do music full time that I began to live in the van. It actually surprises me more musicians don’t do what I do, living full time and traveling in a van. As a musician, you're not tied down; you can usually get work wherever you're going.



How do you carry all your gear?

Well it goes back to keeping it simple. The more crap you have and the more time it takes to set up and break down, the less time you're actually playing music. Playing is the fun part. I keep it simple with just a keyboard and a PA system, more or less.

I saw on your website that you once outfitted a VW Beetle to travel around Scotland in. Tell me about that.

Yeah, my wife had a 66 Beetle at her place in Scotland (where I am now), and I couldn’t afford to buy a van like Vincent. They are just too darn expensive. There was a newer diesel van on her property, but I knew if it did breakdown, I would have to call a tow truck. I opted for what I know, and Volkswagens are more fun to drive anyway. So I took out the front seat and laid down a board for sleeping and my keyboard. I made some curtains using her grandma’s old sewing machine, and it actually made for a pretty comfortable home. I had a small sink for brushing my teeth and a stove for coffee and food. My feet were in the glovebox, but it was ideal because I didn’t have to move around much. Everything was within an arm’s reach! It feels in some ways similar to a backpacking tent, but with windows all around. A groovy little camper! I was told by a friend, “You know Dave, Vincent is jealous.”



Living in a van can easily be portrayed as all flowers and beautiful surroundings, but are there times when it’s hard? Are there things that aren’t glamorous? What are they?

Well, it’s cold! Even in Arizona in the winter, it freezes at night. It really stinks when your water freezes. I’ve developed a process of keeping water in the kettle so if it does freeze, I can turn on the stove and have water. It sucks to get out of bed when you wake up and not have water from the tap. At the same time, it’s something I enjoy. You get used to those things. And you can’t have stuff. Sometimes you see something in an antique shop, but you have no room for it. Or you find a cool rock, but you can’t keep it as a souvenir. But it makes you live in the moment. You enjoy the rock and save it in your memory. And bugs. There’s always a bug of some sort wherever you are. And also you get kind of taxed when you go to the grocery store, because you can’t fit a whole box of something. Take salt for example. I just want to fill up my salt shaker. I don’t need a whole box of salt! So, it’s not always easy.  

But you learn from it all. You connect to nature. That’s the reward. The closer we get to living the way we evolved from in nature, the closer we get to experiencing real living. People do all these retreats to try and find something to cure them, and really the way you fix it is to live outside without lots of stuff in a small place. National Geographic did an article called something like, “Your Body on Nature,” and what really stuck with me was when it said that if they could make a pill that gives you all the benefits you get from being in nature, it would be an absolute smash hit. Your physiology and psychology is more in balance when you are out in nature. But a lot of this is something we already know.

It’s also dark, but again, you begin to enjoy the hardships. One thing I have enjoyed learning is that when you live outside, you get comfortable living in the dark. Night is just another part of the day. I think it’s a beautiful thing to be comfortable outside at night. Most people who live in homes become accustomed to being inside where their lights are always on. I feel lots of people are missing out on night. It’s beautiful out there.



So what’s next for Dave Manning? Will you keep doing the “crazy cat just living in his van and playing music” thing?

Well, yeah. I’d like to do another album recorded live from a radio studio. A really small radio station in Goldfield, Nevada (a population of about 90), invited me to play. Most of their listeners are probably just passing through on the interstate. A friend once sung a song called, “I’m forty miles of famous,” in reference to the range of the station. I’d like to go there again and work on that recording. Everyone is invited. Last time, there were six people and that was half the town. I’ll probably put together another Kickstarter for the album, but I need to get enough songs written. Part of the process of songwriting for me is actually playing in front of people a few times. By doing that, it morphs and settles in. Oh, and I forgot, I’m going to Burning Man again.


Check out Dave Manning's website here.