Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: A Chat with Kai Brown
In Robert Pirsig’s classic 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the protagonist straddles the two worlds of technology and art during a road trip across America. It's a philosophical wormhole of a story, but brings up a timely point: how can we get off the grid while staying connected to everyday life?
I was drawn to Kai Brown's Instagram feed- the Australian musician had embarked on an epic journey with his mates from Los Angeles, aptly called the Sons of Gratitude, riding their motorcycles across the American southwest and documenting with killer photos. In a way it's a postmodernist reinvention of the classic road trip, akin to Hopper's Easy Rider or Kerouac's On the Road, but instead of counterculture dissolution they have shifted the paradigm: sitting in mindfulness at 80 mph on a Harley Davidson.
His philosophy of simple-living (Brown lives in a retro 1972 International Land Yacht Airstream in Venice Beach, where he records his studio sessions and walks to surf) has brought him countless gifts and opportunities, none of which he takes for granted. Having left Australia years ago, he’s been making his way as a musician in the U.S. since- no small feat. His joy for life, surfing, and cruising the road on classic bikes and automobiles makes him the perfect Southern California transplant. It also evokes his California-laced music. His song “Princess of the Desert” just popped up on a limited vinyl German release with fellow West Coasters Tom Freund and Chris Joyner, along with Grant-Lee Phillips, Rachel Yamagata and Ben Taylor.
To bring it full circle, this weekend Kai performs for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday party. His story is about letting go, tuning in and appreciating the now, because after all, as Pirsig wrote, “the real motorcycle we are working on is ourselves."
SM: Who is the Sons of Gratitude and how can I join (just kidding)?
KB: The Sons of Gratitude is Marty (actor Martin Dingle Wall), me and Josh (actor, Josh Pence). We are the core, but we have people drop in and out. It's very loose. Last year's trip was three weeks from here to Missoula, Montana. This most recent one was from LA to Monument Valley over the course of 10 days. The whole point was to do a southern route of Utah.
We rode through Canyonlands, Zion, Moab, open Arizona, incredible places. Beautiful land, very spiritual. [Venice Beach mural artist] Trek Kelly helped us route the trip with a van. We brought a blogger, Mimi Elashiry, who shot a lot of the imagery we are making for a coffee table book. An amazing spirit, photographer and blogger. Through her following she was able to spread the spirit of Sons of Gratitude throughout the world.
The intention was to inspire people to move out of fear and try to be present in their everyday, to live life and have these experiences with not much money. The Sons trips never cost that much money. Sometimes people think about traveling and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I have to save like $10,000 to go on a trip." But in California and the States and Europe, and even Australia, you can do a trip easily. You can get out and go camping on the weekend. "Hey, let's go to Joshua Tree and camp- it costs a tank of gas." Bring some water and camp food and go and spend a night out under the stars.
SM: Did you camp in all these places?
KB: We camped most places. We were lucky to be sponsored by an American company called POLER Outdoor who provided us with tents and gear, and we really aligned with their ethos. We were also really blessed because went we got to Utah, we had a connection with a Navajo tribe, so we spent 4 nights in total in different parts of the Navajo lands.
SM: How was that experience?
KB: It was amazing and beautiful. They are lovely people and we were really looked after. We got to sleep in a hogan one night at our friend Alex’s place, we did a smudge-down, which is part of the Navajo ceremony where they cleared our spirits, we learned about the tribe and their customs. They had a big log fire in the middle of this hogan and we all rolled out our bedrolls and talked all night in this beautiful space. It was all dirt floor, all very connected to the earth.
"That’s the great thing about traveling; you try to be a good person, try to be humble and connected to the greater source, and you meet great people who are proud of where they come from and their heritage. If you can show humility and grace, and the ability to learn what they have to show, then people open up and become really excited to share what they have."
SM: What’s so great about it is that you’re doing it with a community. You’re not just out by yourself. So many people when they travel go out by themselves because it’s the easiest way to get into that exploratory way, but you’re doing it within a group, and that lends itself to its own level of abundance.
KB: It’s quite incredible traveling with a crew, the ups and downs and everyone’s expectations. The greatest thing about the Sons crew is that we’re good communicators. We definitely had moments where people getting shits with me and I was getting shits with other people but we were really good at talking with each other. It’s kind of a like a band. Having these creative up and down experiences that are very deep. Everyone is having their own experience inside of a collective experience.
SM: You were out there for long days! How many hours would you ride?
KB: Anywhere from 8 to 16 hours a day. The first day was from L.A. to Zion. We left LA at 3:30 a.m. and we got to Zion at 6:30 pm.
SM: What kind of bike are you riding?
KB: I’ve got a 2008 Harley Davidson Nightster 1200.
We got a lot of ground covered, we slept 5 hours a night maximum. but we also managed to find another gear. A big shout-out Mimi, she was a trooper, she sat on the back of that bike for the first day for 16 hours. She’s never ridden more than 40 minutes.
SM: What a little badass!
KB: She’s a badass and was probably more together on the trip than I was. Laughs
SM: That’s how the ladies, work, Kai!
SM: What was your favorite place to see or pass by?
KB: We had so many different experiences. In Meadow, Utah where we camped on a hot spring that was 100 degrees in the water, 60 feet deep and in the middle of a cow paddock. It was down a dirt road on someone’s property, muddy and the snow up on the mountains and it started raining, 45 degrees. It was freezing and beautiful. We met some interesting people who came out of nowhere to soak up the hot springs.
The smudge-down in Oatman, at Alex’s house in the hogan. The whole tent smelled like sage. It was like riding piece of sage bush after that, every piece of clothing smelled like sage for days.
SM: Finally! Someone gave you a proper sage-down.
KB: Honestly one of the greatest nights for me was our first night in Zion because we found and Indian rez and we mets our friends who had come up from Vegas. It was probably as big as the group got, 8 or 9, so we had a big campout, everyone was really tired but we watched the sunset. It was actually that night I got a call about the Dalai Lama gig.
I had one bar of reception, I’m sitting in an Indian reservation in Zion, some of the most beautiful nature I’ve ever seen and I’m like, "OK this is good start to the trip."
Part of the trip for us is definitely about letting go. As artists, as creators, we are constantly pushing and creating and not always getting the things coming back to us. We try to create dreams, but we don’t have a tangible result. At the end of the day there’s not a house built. There’s a dream created and sometimes those dreams don’t come together.
But we when get on our bikes and let go, I think energetically that shifts the playing field. All of a sudden you go from pushing and pushing to just opening up and receiving, and if nothing comes, then nothing comes. But you don’t carry the weight because you’re on a bike every day. You’re not getting on the internet to reply to an email or make a phone call. You’re just in the present, riding your motorcycle though beautiful nature and connecting with friends.
I’m right where I’m supposed to be. And I think there’s definitely something energetically to be said about that. Caring but not caring. Ok, thank you universe, I’m taking a break now.