Dedicated to the pursuit of capturing great music, Jam in the Van (JITV) travels the country in a solar-powered mobile recording studio on wheels. Five years, three vans, and over 100k YouTube subscribers later, the JITV crew has amassed an impressive catalog of live performances.
We talked with co-founder Jake Cotler and sound engineer Ethan Glaze about the group’s roots and life on the road.
Audio-Technica: What inspired you to hit the road and start Jam in the Van?
Jake Cotler: We had some great times at Bonnaroo for many years and for a few of them we rented RVs. That kind of led us to looking at old RVs on Craigslist, which in turn led to the idea. Also, we didn’t love our jobs at the time.
A-T: How did you go about transforming an RV into a recording studio on wheels?
Jake: We took a different approach for each van:
- Jam Van 1: With a crowbar and hammers and no plan.
- Jam Van 2: With a crowbar and hammers and sort of a plan…
- Jam Van 3: Paid the professionals.
A-T: Do you remember the first Jam in the Van performance? Tell us about it!
Jake: The first band we recorded was called The Muddy Reds. They don’t exist anymore, but six years ago, this raggedy bunch of musicians stumbled up to the back gate of my house on a Saturday afternoon and asked if they were at the right place. I told them they were and they brought their van down my Venice alley, unloaded their gear, and put it in our van. At that time we were fully DIY. I don’t think the van was even painted yet and we bought most of our equipment at Guitar Center, had a little dinky drum set a few mics, and the sound guy who was a very grumpy fellow, sat in the bathroom to work our tiny little sound board, small enough to fit on a bathroom sink.
The session did not go smoothly. There were a ton of technical difficulties, including blowing out the power to my building (we ran extension chords from my upstairs window to the van). Eventually we got something recorded, of which we ultimately only captured one song and had to eventually reshoot the session. That being said, all of the first sessions were some of the best. That was when we didn’t have a very clear picture of what we were doing with this idea; we just knew it was a good idea. So those first shoots were more like parties where our friends would come over and hear music in the backyard on weekends. Everyone was there because it was a good time, even the people doing the filming. Those first shoots were great.
A-T: What challenges do you face recording in a Winnebago?
Ethan Glaze: As with all studios, the challenge is always to minimize background noise. Of course, when you’re in an RV at a music festival, that’s quite a challenge, as you can hear on the videos when you are just hearing the audio from the cameras. Also, there’s obviously the issue of space. We’ve worked out a fairly good system of setting up initially and staying out of each other’s way, but as soon as you get a band inside, it’s always a new gymnastics routine to learn.
A-T: You’ve recorded over 600 artists over the last five years. How has your process changed during that time? What lessons have you learned?
Jake: I think we’re actually over 700 maybe 800 at this point…we’ve come a long way. Our production is pretty streamlined now. We used to take several hours to shoot a session, now we’ve got it down to like an hour or less and we try to never shoot less than five bands during a production day. Our equipment is obviously light years ahead of where it used to be. There are a lot of other little and big things that have changed or developed both in regards to production and the company as a whole since those first shoots, so I’ll just pick the one that I think has been the biggest development, when we became solar powered. That’s allowed us to film literally anywhere we want to go. Back in the day we had so many issues with having to find a power source and blowing out power sources. Now we don’t have that worry, unless of course the solar malfunctions, but in that case we have a generator, so we’re good.
A-T: With so many performances on the books, are you able to choose a favorite?
Jake: Not sure I have a favorite; but one that was really cool was The Felice Brothers. That was one of the first bands that I was a big fan of beforehand that came and played in the Jam Van, so that was kind of a cool moment.
A-T: Throughout your travels you’ve uncovered some of the hottest new acts in music. How do you pick performers?
Jake: If we like it we put it in the van. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good music, although we try to hit that mark most of the time. However, sometimes it’s good for other reasons, like when we recorded Ranger Bob singing about pumas, that was just good stuff for a variety of reasons. So if we think it’s good, for whatever reason, we’ll put it in there.
A-T: On the road you’re limited to the gear you have on board. What are your go-to microphones?
Ethan: Now that we’re working with Audio-Technica, I record most full bands’ vocalists with the AE6100, solo acoustics with the AT4050 and AT4040, and for honorable mention, I use the PRO 35 for all horns and toms.
A-T: Established musicians like Ziggy Marley and Wyclef Jean have performed on the van. Do you approach the recording process differently when a well-known artist is behind the mic?
Ethan: To be honest, no. Everyone that comes into the Van is talented, and I do my best to make everyone sound as good as they are.
A-T: You guys are always traveling. What’s your favorite thing about life on the road?
Jake: The looks we get at gas stations when we hop out of the van are pretty good. Also, when we pick the places that we’re going to eat at and stay at we have some fun… Morty is the restaurant guy and I’m the hotel guy. Ethan just drives.
[Photos and video courtesy of Jam in the Van]