Matt allen, a live-wire Californian who likely knows more about frozen dairy products than you and I put together, is earnestly explaining to me how, exactly, he became The Ice Cream Man, his alter ego now for five years. It is 10 o'clock on a sticky Chicago night, and we are seated at a pavement table outside a hotel bar, where he is trying, unsuccessfully, to order a second beer while speaking very rapidly to me – with barely a pause for punctuation, or for breath – in a series of ever decreasing circles.
"Okay, so what it is is this," he begins, bringing his hands together, "and what I'm telling you here I normally don't tell people until, like, way, way into the interview – in fact I can't believe I'm giving this to you so soon, but anyway, anyway ... what it is, is that I'm dedicating seven years of my life to giving away ice-creams. Half a million of them. For......... f free. Ambitious, huh? I get to travel the country dispensing happiness to people, a little luxury, a slice of heaven, and in the process I build up a business out of it. That's right: a business. No one has ever done that before, have they? That's what they'll say about me, they'll say: 'Giving away ice-creams in order to build up a business? Hell, no one has ever done that before.' "
Eventually, the waiter sees his waving hand, and approaches. "Can I help you guys?" he asks.
Allen, who seems to have forgotten his desire for a second beer, whips out a small tub of ice-cream from a brown paper bag in his lap. It's a Ben & Jerry's, mint chocolate chip. He proffers it to the waiter. "Go on, take it. It's free."
The waiter looks mildly confused, suspicious even. "Free? What, are you from the company, or something? Ben & Jerry's?"
"No," says The Ice Cream Man, "I'm The Ice Cream Man. It's what I do: give out free ice-cream."
Now the waiter grins. "Gee, thanks. I love Ben & Jerry's."
As he departs, Allen turns back to me. He is beaming. "See? That's what it's all about, right there." And then he frowns. "Shit! I forgot to ask him for my beer."
I've years ago, Matt Allen, at 34, was a man for whom the word drifter might well have been invented. He was about to turn 30, had spent his twenties working in bars, a chocolate factory and thrift stores, and had, to date, been fired no fewer than three times. Then he happened upon the idea that would go on to define him. In order to remain in the city he had studied in for one more summer – Durango, Colorado – he needed money, so he bought himself a three-wheeled bike and sold ice-cream off the back of it. At the end of the season he found he still had plenty left, and so he announced, on a college radio show he was then hosting, that he would throw a party at which he would give away the remainder of his stock free of charge later that day in a local park. Quite a crowd descended, people queueing for up to half an hour for a popsicle or two, gratis. This, he noted, made everyone quite pointedly happy. Free ice-cream! Does life get any better? And that's when it hit him, like a meteorite: if he could do this again and again, not just in Durango, but right across the United States, well, wouldn't that be a swell way to make a living – if, of course, he was able to make a living out of it. He quickly convinced himself he could. He could launch a website to increase publicity, he could secure sponsorship and free donations, and then hand out his product at places like music festivals, where the hip and the influential congregated, which in turn would land him a reputation, and afford him a springboard from which to spring – well, to who knows where?
Half a decade on, and he has so far given out close to 200,000 free ice-creams to rock stars and their entourages at a clutch of music festivals all over the US (and, to date, one UK festival, All Tomorrow's Parties at Camber Sands last year). Occasionally, conscience gets the better of him and he visits children's homes and children's hospital wards instead – where the reception he receives is rapturous – but mostly he sticks to the festivals, where the reflected glory from the superstars he serves helps him to shine in an increasingly public arena.
Last year, word of his distinctly wacky endeavours reached the producers of an online TV company called Babelgum, who commissioned him to deliver a series of backstage podcasts, in which he hangs out with the great and the good while they work their way through his frozen fare and strum an accoustic number or two. Customers have included MGMT, The Flaming Lips and Kanye West.
What an odd way to spend a life, I tell him.
"Well, I know lots of people who have proper jobs and make proper money, but are they really happy?" he wonders. "Because I can tell you, I am. And so I should be; I'm doing humanitarian work here."
Contributing to people's sugar levels hardly counts as humanitarian work, though it is certainly true that his presence livens up his immediate surroundings. Up close, The Ice Cream Man looks disarmingly like Jim Carrey, and has the zany character to match. At festivals, people are happy to see him. If he misses one, he tells me, "people are disappointed. They've come to depend on me."
Before ice-cream took over his world, Allen liked to describe himself as a latter-day beatnik, travelling the country back and forth, sometimes aimlessly, other times with a specific purpose in mind. One summer, he trekked the Appalachian Trail. Another, he toured the country's rollercoaster parks ("I like rollercoasters"). And in 2001, he cycled from his home in Long Beach, California, to Maine to raise money for charity.
"I have done all these things just because," he beams. Because? "Sure. Because they seemed like a good idea at the time, because they were for a good cause, because it's better than doing nothing at all. I had fun doing them. But what I'm doing now is my biggest project yet, and it's reaching new levels." From the brown paper bag, he offers me a tub of his latest big-name acquisition. "And now we've got Ben & Jerry's on board, which is kind of like a seal of approval. We've got 3,000 of these babies to give away tomorrow [at Chicago's music festival Lollapalooza, which takes place in downtown Grant Park]. Watch them fly."
he following morning, grey storm clouds have gathered in ominous numbers, and by lunchtime the rain is pouring down, though the temperature is still nudging 30C. It's a day to enjoy indoors, marvelling at the invention of air conditioning. And many Chicagoans, it seems, are doing just that. Though Lollapalooza is a big deal here, with the bill including Depeche Mode, Kings of Leon, The Killers and up-and-coming indie balladeers Blind Pilot, right now the vast majority of the 75,000 ticket holders are conspicuous by their absence, off sheltering somewhere else and waiting, presumably, for the weather to improve. Which it steadfastly refuses to.
Hardly ideal conditions for ice-cream, then, even free ice-cream, but Matt Allen is a man who cannot help but look on the bright side of life. I meet him in the Production Area at 3pm. He is difficult to miss, dressed in a blue striped shirt and blue striped trousers, and a big trucker's cap that tries, and fails, to tame his unruly mop of hair.
"Beautiful day, huh?" he says, without a trace of irony. "I'm serious. I love the rain. It keeps the dust down. And besides, tomorrow's going to be boiling. Let's enjoy the wet while we can, shall we?"
We walk through the mud and past his fairly nondescript ice-cream van (an old white Dodge with a few stickers on it), in which sit his possibly long-suffering girlfriend Kate (recently made redundant from MTV, and therefore with nothing better to do than accompany him) and his sidekick Knife (an Alaskan Maths major far more approachable than his unexplained nickname suggests). Business is less than brisk at the moment, so Allen leaves them to it and takes me to a small patch of grass, where we sit on two chairs in the rain that he manages to ignore so much more than I do.
This is pretty much his life, he explains, for four months of every year: on the road, backstage at events like these, handing out free dessert. The remainder of the year is spent trying to secure more sponsorship, and begging new ice-cream companies to donate several thousand examples of their products ("Nine out of 10 of them say no outright," he laments). But he always manages to secure some – several thousand, usually – and if these are not enough, then he simply goes to the nearest wholesale supermarket and buys them with his own money.
The previous day he had talked about this becoming a business, but surely paying for a product he subsequently gives away cannot make for good financial sense, can it?
"Well, establishing yourself is a slow process," he argues.
Is he in debt?
He laughs uproariously. "Absolutely! To fund this project, I sold my car, I gave up my apartment, and I'm back living with my mom. I owe, like, tens of thousands to the credit card company alone ..."
So why on earth does he persist?
"Because this is what I signed up for! This is what is required of me! Don't get me wrong, the sponsorship we do get is just about enough to keep us out on the road, but none of us are making any real money out of it yet. I'm just hoping that, long-term, we will."
He isn't entirely sure how, though.
"As I already said, no one has ever done this before, but if I do manage to give away a full half million by having secured proper sponsorship – and publicity, don't forget that – then surely that will make me an attractive proposition to all kinds of companies, right?" Companies, he adds, who might well then invite him on board, and afford him a carte blanche to do his entrepreneurial best for them as well.
"I won't lie to you, I have no idea what the future holds, but then I don't live in the future, I live in today. Tomorrow, who knows? Perhaps I'll work in the entertainment industry somewhere, or maybe I'll write a book about my experiences. But right now, all I want to do is give away free ice-cream."
Soaking wet, grinning his deranged Jim Carrey grin, he squelches back to the white Dodge van, steam rising from his sopping back as he goes.
A couple of hours later, I visit him again. But the backstage area is still conspicuously empty, and of those bands that had promised to turn up throughout the day to be guests on his latest podcast, only one has. No one appears to be in the mood for ice-cream today, and right now, framed in the window of his van and peering gloomily out at the heavy weather, he cuts a rather forlorn figure, perhaps weighing up the exact pros of this most unusual of callings.
But then a heavily laminated tour manager trundles by, his torso protected by a large dustbin liner, his bare legs flecked with mud. He looks up, sees the van and smiles.
"Hey, it's The Ice Cream Man!" he says, wading over.
Allen suddenly comes back to life. They exchange exaggeratedly hearty greetings, and he hands the tour manager a tub of Cherry Garcia.
"Thanks, dude. I love this stuff."
Allen sits back down again, forlorn no longer.
"Never underestimate it," he says to me, smiling.
Episodes of Road Trippin' with Ice Cream Man can be viewed at babel-gum.com/icecreamman. Matt Allen is currently looking for sponsors in order to cover the UK festivals next year. For more information visit icecreamman.comReuse content