Friday, June 23, 2017

Burning Man Band: The 'Magnificent Beast' that is Marchfourth


Chaos theory works in a magical way. Like in a typical disaster movie, when the earth-shaking event begins out in the boonies. The moon shakes. Bubbles start coming out from the bottom  of the sea. The lone hero scientist-researcher begins to detect disturbing readings from some ice-weary cubicle in Antarctica. Before you know it, all hell is breaking loose, snowballing toward an apocalyptic conclusion. But what if that out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere cosmic event, the trouble in River City, began with the birth of a singular moment of pure joy? As some insurgent agent invisible to the catastrophe, violence and hatred already amply available in broad society? Before you know it, before the pharoahs can do anything about it, the whole world is dancing in the streets in global Mardi Gras ecstasy. Such may one day be the case for what was first big-banged as the Marchfourth Marching Band, now known more simply as Marchfourth. Of course, that should all be toned down quite a bit.

Marchfourth isn't a four-piece Beatles or U2 taking the world by storm. The Portland-based troupe-group, with its founding members inspired by the Burning Man events out in the Nevada desert, is maybe 18-20 people up on stage, with burning horn players, burning drummers, burning bassists and guitarists, burning dancers, burning men and women on stilts. All elaborately dressed in chaotic costumes beaming in the glories of the individual as a kind brash, booming, brassy and quite mad high-flying circus.

The group doesn't really operate like other performing acts do, especially considering they have had more than a taste of big-time glory, such as doing theme songs for the "Monsters Inc." kid-movie franchise and getting recruited by the U.S. State Department to tour in China to create a disturbance in the force there. To set up an interview there's no highly efficient intermediary big-label publicist to arrange a time to speak at a specific time. It's more like, hey, here's the number, just call, send an e-mail and we'll get back eventually. When they take to the road, they more often than not stay at the homes of friends and fans and members of their network across the country or in a customized bus full of thoughtful bozos. It's a very communal approach, with group members always coming and going, all managed furiously by lead organizer John Averill, who views the whole thing as a baseball team that's constantly evolving as the season wears on.

Fourteen years ago Averill and co-founder Dan Stauffer decided to channel all of the creative desires inspired by attending Burning Man festivals and a love for New Orleans second-line ensembles into a kind of social club in Portland. Averill had been organizing "hybrid theme parties," creating "one-off" bands inspired by Burning Man, once unofficially described as the "special Olympics of art." Usually held around Labor Day in the desert 90 miles northeast of Reno, the big moment of the event is the torching of a large wooden man. The internationally attended even is officially described as "an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance."

How that combination of off-the-grid gumption was interpreted by Stauffer and Averill was as a marching band combining Mardi Gras and the Chinese New Year. They performed for the first time on Fat Tuesday, March 4, 2003, and two weeks later really set the thing on fire amidst the collective oxygenated angst of a downtown Portland protest against the war in Iraq.

The musicians drew from the institutional brass bands of New Orleans, klezmer, samba and other strong Latin influences, especially since most of the drummers were already members of Brazilian batucada, which is also draws from an Afro-precussive style usually performed by an ensemble, known as a bateria.

Via e-mail, Stauffer described the first igniting of the group this way: "We started going to Burning Man in '98 and got turned on to some large roaming bands like Extra Action and the Infernal Noise Brigade and thought that it would be fun to have an outfit like that here in Portland. You know, something fun, energetic, danceable, and larger than your typical four-piece. John was throwing a big party called Chow Yun Fat Tuesday and we decided to make this party our debut. We teamed up with Faith and Nayana Jennings (a former member now retired now serving as the road manager), and stiltwalker Nathan Wallway to have a crazy dance and costumed circus kind of vibe, learned five or six songs from Rebirth (Brass Band), Fanfare Ciacarlo, Fela Kuti, and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. Four cases of PBR and four practices later we went and played the party, which was a blast but we perhaps had too many drummer and dancers and not enough horn players (now there are more horns than any other section). The next day we went out and did a peace march against the Gulf War, and that was magic, both the protestors and the counter-protestors dropped the anger, fear and bad vibes as we marched through the streets of downtown Portland playing our fun Mardi Gras set. It was like a little ripple of joy in an ugly little sea. We were all pretty blown away getting to contribute something like that at that moment in history, and thought, well, we might want to keep doing this. So we did! And that's just the beginning of this magnificent beast."

One of the things marching bands don't have, in addition to the Burning-Man-slash-stiltwater icon, is a bass player, which Averill brought to the evolving stew.

"Music was always a hobby until about 15 years ago when I decided to chase a musical career," he says, again via e-mail. "I guess I wanted to figure out what it was like to be broke all the time (haha)! I made more money doing visual art-related work, but I love the immediate connectivity of playing music. You play music in real time and people dance, so the joy is instantaneous. With other jobs, like stop-motion animation (my prior occupation), you work behind a curtain for 50 hours a week and then wonder if anyone is going to enjoy what you created."

The current incarnation of Marchfourth consists of bass, guitar, two trumpets, three saxes, two trombones, and four percussionists. Add this to three dancer-acrobats, including one of the last stiltwalkers around -- since it's such a physical job to be a pro that retirements far outweigh the number of available new recruits -- as well as four people as support staff, the whole ethic of roving self-reliant creative outburst becomes a real practical problem. They are now on their third tour bus, modified to sleep more than 20 people.

"We have a full kitchen so we don’t have to stop for food all the time," Averill says. "The vibe on the bus is pretty chill, and very family-oriented. There really isn't any room for drama. There also isn’t any room for guests. So we just kind of pass the time reading, playing games, working on laptops. Whatever pent up energy we have gets released on stage. It’s kind of like we live on a 45 box on wheels, and then we get to a town and just explode on the stage. In a good way. It’s a happy explosion."

As far as getting to be known nationally went, the iconoclastic counter-culture vibe and burn-down-the-big-box unorthodoxy were always the prime directives. For example, "America's Got Talent" asked them to perform on the show (who knew it wasn't all volunteer?) but the group couldn't get their heads inside the request.

"They hounded us, and we made a promo video, but when it came time to sign a contract we decided not to do it," Averill says. "Most of us felt, as a legitimate band, that we didn’t want to become reality TV show fodder, and the contract basically signed away any kind of control of whatever they decided to film us doing."

They put out an album called "Rise Up," and somehow (Averill has no idea how) it ended up in the hands of the producers of the "Monsters Inc." franchise, and they used one of Marchfourth's pieces despite anything Randy Newman could do about it.
"They just picked one of our songs," Averill says. "Randy Newman did all the other songs, and he apparently tried to write one that would replace our song, but I guess it didn’t work. As a compromise, our song (although featured twice in the movie) was left off the official 'soundtrack written by Randy Newman,' which was kind of a bummer."

Last year they put out another album called "Magic Number," which required a slimmed-down tribe of musicians-only to hit the road from Portland to record in New Orleans, where they cut 11 songs in 11 days: thus accomplishing a numerological feat matching the sacred mathematics of both ancient Hebrew, Islam, as well as Christianity. Adding two elevens together, making 22, is the last chapter, the Book of Revelation, in the bible and is generally supposed to mean, getting back to the point of the chaos theory of Marchfourth, a "concentation of disorganization," according to Biblestudy.org. And there is a trumpets-at-the-gates-of-Jericho feeling when the ensemble really gets rocking hard, in a frenetic swing-era way gone post-modern hip-hop, like this were a music set on fire by the devil for the purposes of entertainment in some den of iniquity.

The members, in a crazed energy for a week-and-a-half, would record 10 to 12 hours a day and then form up again on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans like they belonged there, really owned the place. With their crazy outfits, again fitting the anarchic sensibilities, a video of their performance in the Big Easy makes one wonder if they dressed like that all of the time since, based on Averill's description of the time spent in the studio, with free time to rest, eat and dress being so unavailable? There's no organizing principle at work with the outfits, Averill says. But it is an art unto itself, combing Sgt. Pepper, Kiss, Batman and Rocky Balboa when the Stanford Band takes a day off to attend clown school, only to get lost in the desert at, yes, the fringes of Burning Man.

"Everyone pretty much is on their own as far as outfitting themselves," Averill says. "Some people are excellent designers who know how to sew. Others have to get help blinging out their wardrobe. We try to go for a mis-matched 'marching band' aesthetic, but it’s really kind of open. Even though marching band jackets look amazing, the reality is that they are hotter than hell to wear. And those ridiculous hats are actually plastic buckets with no ventilation. So out of necessity people end up chopping off the sleeves and cutting off the tops of the hats."

A shorter version of this story original appeared in Flagstaff Live.

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