On the surface of it, the idea of retrofitting an 1980s mail truck into a vehicle that’s both an ice cream truck and an analog recording studio sounds like something out of a ‘90s Nickelodeon cartoon.
Who could come up with it in the first place, let alone actually pull it off? The creator would have to be someone of talent, vision, and motivation, along with an ability to think so far outside of the box that they scoff at the concept of a box in the first place.
Enter Ben Smith, a composer/producer from California who more than meets those prerequisites. Bearded with a head full of very long dreads, Ben speaks with a perpetual grin that both welcomes and hints that he’s got quite a few tricks up his sleeve. One of those tricks is that he designed and built the Splice Cream Truck, a mobile recording studio where visitors can press their own vinyl and have a cold, refreshing dessert at the same time. Since creating the truck in 2016, he’s taken the colorfully painted vehicle all over the country, recording live concerts and, most importantly, oral histories of the people he encounters, the vinyl recordings of which he donates to libraries and community centers.
“I’ve always wanted an ice cream truck,” he grins. “That was going to be my vehicle one way or another.”
Smith was born in Long Beach, Calif., but he’s never been in one place for long. His father was in the Marines and subsequently a pastor, and his large family of thirteen moved several times a year.
“It was hard in two ways because we would come into the school year in the middle of the school year, not know anybody—everybody’s already formed their relationships and their little cliques and stuff—and then I come in the middle of the year,” Smith explains. “And then when I finally get acclimated to the situation, we move.”
To pass time when friends were scarce, Smith immersed himself in reading and electronics, teaching himself the basics of computer programming on a Commodore 64 his father brought him. “I was just always into electronics,” he recalls. “My dad recognized that and he would just bring computers home and just let me take them apart or let me do whatever.”
Smith’s father was an interesting figure. With double doctoral degrees in theology and language, he spoke five different languages and had studied the religions of the world extensively before becoming a Pentecostal pastor. “I don’t know if you know about Pentecostal, but it’s like the strictest one,” he explains, adding, “He once told my mother that saints don’t chew gum.” The colorful stories Smith told about his father could constitute their own article; for the sake of brevity, the man was a strong provider and protector of the family, and in spite of the strict manner in which he ran the household, he constantly and enthusiastically encouraged his children to pursue their passions. “You can be whatever you want to be in life,” Smith smiles, quoting his father.
Smith’s early exposure to music came from video games and TV. “I would turn the game on and I wouldn’t play,” he explains. “I would just let the theme song roll over and over.” He also remembers the theme song to the 1980s show Airwolf, citing it as an early music-related memory. He began to notice that music affected him in strange ways, often leaving him entranced. Later in life he would come to understand the sensations as symptoms of synesthesia, a phenomenon where an individual experiences the automatic, involuntary association of sounds, colors, smell, etc., but as a child it was rather confusing. “I had no idea what it was as a kid,” he recalls. “I just thought something was wrong all the time.”
He kept the experiences to himself, largely, for fear of how his religious community would receive it. “When people have a certain mindset, everything is of the devil,” he explains. “I couldn’t really discuss it with too many people because if I bring it up, ‘Oh, that’s a demon!’” Nonetheless, he remained fascinated with music and continued to explore it.
Again, his father noticed how his son perked up when music played, and brought him an acoustic guitar one day. “I had no idea how to hold the guitar,” he laughs, recalling that he used it as drum instead.
Smith’s mother passed away around this time, to the understandably great sadness of his father. “It kind of went into a spiral, because my dad hadn’t been without my mom ever,” he explains, “so then that’s when we really started bouncing around.” The family began to move all around the country in a refurbished Greyhound bus, to the delight of Smith, who exclaims, “As a kid it was awesome. ‘I’m in a freaking bus!’”
Through the patronage of his father and his musical older brother Fred, who eventually became a touring jazz pianist, Smith got his hands on a vast array of musical instruments and production software. From making beats on drum machines to splicing audio from VHS tapes into loop tracks, he was becoming quite a capable music producer. After graduating high school a year early—“I hated high school,” he recalls—he enrolled in the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, where he learned classical composition and piano.
After receiving a scholarship from the prestigious Musician’s Institute in California, Smith got his big break when he was discovered after just two months in the school by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, producers for Janet Jackson and members of Prince’s original band. Smith went on to work with recognizable artists Killer Mike, Big Boi, Missy Elliot; he even did music for MTV’s Wildboyz.
So what brought him to Cleveland in the midst of such success? Smith cites several reasons, but the biggest draw was the city’s embracing of the arts, which a friend told him about. “He was like, ‘You’re a musical dude, you’ll love how it’s centered around the arts up here. You should come up.’” Smith took his friend’s advice and doesn’t regret it, attesting, “He was absolutely right.”
The idea for the Splice Cream Truck came to Smith while he was daydreaming at his day job as a computer programmer. “Oh, I got a degree in IT, by the way,” he comments casually, adding one more accomplishment to his already impressive stack. “I drew the truck,” he recalls. “I came up with the name at the same time.” What might have been a silly, idle doodle for someone less determined was all but a reality for Smith. “I knew it was going to happen,” he grins.
Smith obtained support and funding for the Splice Cream Truck through a city art grant, made possible by Cleveland’s patronage of the arts. Smith found out about the grant with very little notice and had to campaign aggressively to win the grant. “I did it in two days,” he proudly stated. By the way, Smith is incredibly humble, especially for someone with such an interesting and accomplished life. The only time he beamed with pride, and deservedly so, was when he explained how hard he worked to get the grant for the truck.
His love for vinyl—“I’ve got a ridiculous collection of vinyl records, like 3,000.”—led him to install an analog tape system and a vinyl lathe into the truck. Bearing in mind his love for music, the fact that he’s primarily used the truck to capture oral histories of people he meets might come as a surprise. “I usually have trouble talking to people,” he explains, “so I thought it would be good idea to compile stories without necessarily having to be there.”
“From that drawing to now, it was like a whirlwind,” Smith concludes, smiling. “It feels surreal. I’m relatively young and so much stuff has happened that it feels like this was decades and decades ago, but it wasn’t.” When asked how feels about having led such a unique and accomplished life for such a young person—he asked that we not reveal his exact age—he simply shrugs, “It’s kind of normal for me. The stuff that I do is so ridiculous, it’s just normal.”
He also suggests that the early passing of several of his family members— his mother passed when he was nine; his older brother Chris, whom he looked up to greatly, before he was 30; and his father in the mid-2000s—has kept him from taking life for granted. “I think we all kind of felt like we had limited time on Earth,” he explains, adding with a grin, “I have a lot of energy. I don’t do much sleeping.”
Space constraints have forced us to omit many more of Smith’s accomplishments; if you heard his whole story, you’d understand that you’d need a whole book to tell it. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, is leading a life that is decidedly one of a kind, which Ben Smith and his Splice Cream Truck most certainly are.
“Fear and Loathing in Helena, Montana”
Smith found the truck that became the Spice Cream Truck after an exhaustive internet search; the fact that he found it in Helena, Mont., a remote Gold Rush town of less than 30,000 people, is indicative of how deep the search went. He had to take several buses and then ride in a stranger’s RV just to get to the town.
The journey there was difficult enough. He describes a terrible bus ride where he got no sleep, getting gawked at—a black man with 2-foot dreadlocks stood out like a sore thumb in the predominantly white, rural Midwest—and a dingy motel where a prostitute working next door kept him up all night. The lack of sleep would affect his trip home dramatically.
Getting the truck to Cleveland is Smith’s own version of Homer’s The Odyssey. First of all, the vehicle was a 1984 mail truck with a right-side steering wheel, patched tires, and just an 8-gallon tank; Smith had to drive it nearly 2,000 miles to get it home. Second, he had been up for three days at this point, and the terrible experience of the first part of the journey made him want to get home as quickly as possible, so he decided to drive straight back with no sleep.
There was a blood moon that night, which could be seen as an ill-portent of things to come. Immediately, a blizzard struck. A tire popped. The engine overheated. He ran out of gas far more quickly than he anticipated. As soon as the blizzard lifted, he found himself surrounded by fog so dense that when it lifted, it revealed an already-risen sun. “Now I’m like, ‘I’m gonna die. I know I’m gonna die.’”
By this point, his lack of sleep was causing him to hallucinate. While Smith has never done drugs in his life, his trip home was as psychedelic as The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. He describes tree spirits, various drivers and passengers—the truck has one seat, mind you—and an abyss into which a character from Game of Thrones warned him not to look where a sinister version of Dopey from Snow White stared menacingly back at him. “Someone asked me to hand them my shoe,” he claims, and he obliged. To this day he has no idea what happened to the shoe.
Finally, he got home safely, if a bit shaken. The trip must have taken quite a physical toll on him because his roommate gasped, “What the fuck happened to you?” as soon as he walked in the door. He got it home, though, and he was finally able to create the Splice Cream Truck. “I’ve taken it way across the US: I’ve taken it to New York, I’ve taken it to Seattle. I didn’t drive it that time,” he laughs.