Music News

The Story of Kalliope, Phoenix's Extraordinary Party Car

After the dust settled at Burning Man 2012 and attendees went home, the team at Walter Productions — specifically, founder and Valley resident Kirk Strawn — began thinking of what to take to the event in 2013.

"We wanted to take fire, and a next-generation sound system," Strawn says.

Burning Man, a weeklong music festival held in the northern Nevada desert, is a gathering run not on money, but on the idea of gifting and participation. Your experience is limited to what other participants take for everyone else to share and experience.

Many people take with them things like alcohol, drugs, and water, but Strawn, driven by a passion for old cars and the overall Burning Man experience, pushed him to get creative.

Strawn takes "art cars" — discarded autos modified into interactive art projects.

It started in 2009 with Walter the Bus, a large fire truck transformed into an extra-large Volkswagen bus. As Strawn continued attending Burning Man, his concepts grew into a fire-spitting, horned truck named Heathen, and an oversize Volkswagen Baja Beetle named Big Red.

But as 2012 drew to a close, Strawn wanted to incorporate a stronger music presence into his mix.

"Kirk started throwing the seeds out, saying, 'Let's build a DJ art car and put it on top of Heathen,'" says Walter Productions general manager Ryan Tucknott on what would become Kalliope.

Every visionary needs a "get it done" person to turn the visionary's ideas into reality. Tucknott is that person. He started out as a volunteer who juggled his fascination with the Walter the Bus and a full-time job in event productions at the W Hotel in Scottsdale. After putting in many hours of work as a volunteer, he was hired onto the Walter Production's small staff after the initial completion of Kalliope.

The idea spread through word of mouth. Friends of friends heard about the project in casual conversation, and those who were inspired — and had a useful skill — found themselves at evening design sessions in early January 2013.

"People would bring food, drink beer, and draw on a white board," Strawn says.

The "music art car" concept started as an addition to the existing car, Heathen, but the team quickly realized that the multitude of speakers and lights they wanted to incorporate was too much for Heathen.

"We had come to a realization that we were talking about building a trailer that would ultimately become Kalliope," says Strawn. "We envisioned a Gypsy wagon or circus wagon, with old speakers as well as new modern speakers [and] that it would be pulled by the fire truck."

Jamie Cordelier, then a senior at Arizona State University, was hired in May 2013 to lead Strawn's artistic design team.

At one meeting with Strawn, Cordelier, and a handful of others, a member of the team named Ricky asked, "What about a Kalliope cart?"

Strawn loved it, and after a discussion about whether Kalliope should be spelled with a "K" or "C," a major step in the design's direction had been taken.

"Calliope with a 'C' is an actual musical instrument. It's like a giant pipe organ that they used to have on river boats. Kalliope with a 'K' is a goddess. She's a muse. So it's either/or. We're going for the goddess type of thing, but also with the musical side, too," Tucknott says.

"He [Strawn] didn't know how he wanted it or what would be on it. He just knew that he could imagine a Kalliope cart, and it was up to us to create some kind of design that fits his idea," Cordelier says.

By last summer, Kalliope had taken form. Volunteers and the Walter staff worked 24/7 at the Walter Dome, a workshop and event space in south Scottsdale.

"It's a collaborative design process, and you can think of the teams as an artist collective, but it's also more than that," Strawn says. The team is includes tractor drivers, mechanical engineers, architects, artists, and mechanics.

Volunteers hunted down pieces in junkyards and vintage stores across the country. Her body came from a junked 1969 Fruehauf semi-trailer.

"We use a lot of old stuff. The trailer was ready to be junked. We got that very cheap. It was filled with a bunch of stuff we scrapped and basically paid for the trailer with. So we almost got it for free. We reuse anything we possibly can," Strawn says.

Some of the team was flown in from other parts of the country. Alex Moe, who worked heavily in the design of Kalliope's sound system, came from New York to assist during production.

Most of the people involved in the project were volunteers. Ben Bethel, owner of Phoenix's Clarendon Hotel and longtime friend of Stawn's, would let visiting volunteers stay at the hotel for free.

And the group often threw parties to raise money for the project.

Kalliope finally debuted at last year's Burning Man and since has appeared at events like Phoenix Pride and Peace Pi. Earlier this year, an attendee at one of the Walter Dome events happened to have ties to Superfly Presents, the company that puts on the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals in Tennesse and San Francisco. Coincidentally, Bonnaroo had been looking for an art car to feature.

And just like that, just shy of two years later, the team behind the art car had succeeded not just at creating Kalliope, but landing a spot at one of the country's largest music festivals.

Next up for Kalliope is a pyrotechnic component to fit the fire/music theme of Burning Man, scheduled for early September.

And Walter is getting help from an unlikely source — higher education.

This year, Kalliope was part of Purdue University course called Propulsion Design, Test, and Build. Last year, the small class of six added a cannon to the top of Heathen that shoots 20 pounds of propane into a fireball. And this year, it will add to Kalliope 15 to 20 torches that will be commanded manually or by a signal-processing unit that can shoot flames based on the music's rhythms and bass lines.

"It's a little bit hippie, if you will, but they do things safely. I would not have gone along if I was not convinced that things could be done safely," says Purdue professor Timothée L. Pourpoint, who teaches the class.

The class started working on the project January, and will work through the summer, hoping to finish before Burning Man in August.

"Burning Man is the area you experiment, and you learn about what you might do in the real world," Strawn says. "It brings collaborative, participatory and creative origins out into the rest of the world."

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Amanda Savage
Contact: Amanda Savage