Q & A with Robert Granata, Bicycle-Powered Amp Engineer

06/23/2011 4:25 PM |

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Robert Granata is the gear guy behind Pedal Power NYC, the bicycle-powered amplifier team responsible for putting on this year’s NYC Celebrates Water Festival, this Sunday, June 26, in Union Square. It’ll be the biggest bike-powered music festival yet—with 16 bikes and only a 10 second lag between pedal power and performance amplification, there’s a lot (literally) riding the system he’s built. But as well as designing the bicycle-to-amp power system, Granata will be performing compositions inspired by water with 12 other musicians on stage. He and business partner Ariel Agai hope the message of “Natural Ass” power will bring awareness to water issues and water legislation, especially that concerning hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, a method of extracting natural gas that shoots pressurized streams of chemicals into the earth, creating toxic, sometimes flammable, groundwater. Granata spoke to The L about how the amps actually work, how he got Didi Gutman from The Brazilian Girls to perform and how he came to build amplifiers for people like Tom Petty.

The L: How long have you been making music? And can you tell me about your background in making amps?

Robert Granata: I’ve been doing music for…15 years almost, now? When I was fifteen, now I’m 28, so 13 years, give or take. And I started doing amps…oh man, long story. My best friend’s dad gave me a job when I was 17. I was kinda, like, slummin’ around—I was living in California at the time—you know, just a skateboard kid, living off the streets and stuff. And he gave me a job in his shop. He had a cool shop and he just fixed vintage guitar amps. So I started fixing amps there, just doing whatever he told me to do, learning how to solder and stuff. And then I saved up and I went on a vacation to India and stuff, and when I came back I was offered this job with this company in L.A. that builds boutique amps. And it was pretty cool. We ended up building amps for like, Tom Petty and all these crazy names. At that point I was pretty heavy into the scene of amp-building.

The L: How did you approach bands?

Robert Granata: Ariel is pretty connected with the music business, and Vanessa Bley is this amazingly talented girl. And I think he just asked her—he found her by randomly listening to her music and just emailed her. And she agreed to do it. I asked Didi from Brazilian Girls because we met a few times in passing. He wanted to do a show, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. It was his first show and I told him he should do this. I think once they come down and see it—it’s a spectacle the way we’re doing it. They wanna be a part of it. I was certainly excited to be a part of it too. And after biking with the rehearsals, you get a rush from biking. It’s like you’re a part of the show too. I think everyone wants to be involved with it and that’s what’s cool. Everyone we asked said yes.

The L: And how did you meet Ariel in the first place?

Robert Granata: He was friends of some friends, and I met him over a glass of wine. We both randomly drink at the same pub in the East Village, St. Dymphna’s. And we randomly started talking about music and a year later we ended up doing this big project together. We knew we were gonna work together on something.

The L: So how do the bike-powered amps work?

Robert Granata: The bike-powered amps basically have a hub in the back tire, that was originally created to make electric bikes, so you can cruise on them on electric power and switch back to bike power. What we did is convert it into a big conductor on the back tire that spins and it creates electricity, and it’s called DC (direct current), so we draw that current out—we found a way—into this box that fills up capacitors that charge the storage. So we charge a little bit of the storage and then we bring it back into another box which is called an inverter, which transfers it from DC to AC power, which is what appliances run off of. So we basically convert it from direct current to alternating current, and then you can plug guitar amps and stuff into it. And it’s about having a big enough capacitor bank to store enough charge and enough bikes to get watts. But it’s pretty much directly—you would only have 10 seconds leeway. So you have to, like, pedal. You are basically pedaling and powering the stage at the same exact time. If you stop pedaling everything dies, you know.

The L: What have been your biggest technical obstacles?

Robert Granata: We had to build another box…there’s been so many. It’s been crazy. But we’re actually getting there. It’s fun to do this because the system is getting beautiful, you know. […] I guess the biggest obstacle was that we had to build everything from scratch. But we’ve had it work. We haven’t had too many major technical difficulties. Like, nothing’s blown up or caught on fire, so that’s good.

The L: Was there ever a moment of doubt?

Robert Granata: No. I don’t think it was like that. I think it was like, “We are gonna get this done.” And we’ll work ‘til three in the morning building stuff and testing stuff, because it’s going to happen. I don’t think we have a choice for it not to work at this point, with how much man-hours and money and time and people are involved anymore. It’s gotta work. We don’t really have an option for it not to.

The L: What keeps you going?

Robert Granata: See, I think it’s gonna blow people’s minds. And I can’t wait to do it on different levels. Like, it’s funny. Our first thing is gonna be this massive show at Union Square, but I can’t wait to do these three-bike block parties in the summer for people, you know. Like just set up block parties where you plug ‘em into the wall. We can do ‘em anywhere, on rooftops. I think it’s going to be exciting. I think it’s exciting technology. I think people will love it.