:: Bluebird Theater :: June 7 ::
By Timothy Dwenger
When most people hear the words “marching band” their minds immediately jump to high school football games, parades, bad polyester uniforms and the dreaded label “band geek.” While that’s understandable mental muscle memory to conjure those images, Portland’s MarchFourth Marching Band has shattered the dated “nerd” label by embracing it to the fullest, coupling it with some burlesque, circus freak and vaudevillian performance style and in the process has created one of the most enjoyable party bands currently on tour.
MarchFourth is not your typical marching band. In fact, they aren’t really a marching band at all. While they dress in the stylized outfits you’d see at games or parades for their performances, they don’t really “march” much at all — except down the occasional street and into music venues from the front to start their shows when they can. What they do is perform high energy, horn and drum driven music with a passion and fervor and the spectacle that the 18 on-stage members create.
“We’re a band with dancers and stilt walkers,” said band leader John Averill in a recent interview with The Marquee while he was housesitting for a friend in Portland, Ore., just a few days before MarchFourth left for a cultural exchange trip to China. “The role of the dancers in this band is to go out there and interact with the audience and help break that wall down and get them dancing too. So they kind of have a dual function, they’re part of the stage show as well as kind of integrating us with the audience more,” said Averill.
As he discussed the upcoming trip to China, Averill was a little bit wary of how the band’s over-the-top act would be viewed in the communist country and was admittedly going into the trip with the idea that the Chinese were a suppressed culture who might be sitting out in the audience “wondering what the hell is going on” as he and his band performed. “We do have this one song that we play often where Katie, our trumpet player, gets to the front of the stage and gets the audience to do these dance moves,” he explained. “Usually, when we play in the States, we’ll put that any old place in the set but I think for China we’re gonna do all the performance stuff about halfway through and try to get them out of their seats and see if they stay dancing for the last five songs. We’ll see. If we can get the Chinese to dance I’ll consider it an accomplishment.”
Here in the States, getting their fans to dance has never really been a problem. Since their very first show at a Fat Tuesday party that Averill threw in Portland ten years ago (aptly on March 4), MarchFourth has been crafting the musical and performance elements of the group. “Our first show was to a packed house, which was great. The energy was just insane and two weeks after that, on March 20, there was a big protest rally in Portland against going to Iraq and we figured, ‘Well shit, we’ve got this marching band with seven songs, let’s go join this rally,’” he said. “That sealed the deal because it was something really powerful that day. There were eighteen thousand people out in the streets, and we marched around and played the same seven songs over and over and when we were done it was kind of exhilarating. I had never been a part of a march and playing a wireless bass with a battery powered amp being pushed on a cart was just too surreal to not try.”
Though Averill has traded the cart for a bus, and the seven cover songs for a whole catalog of original material, including the group’s 2009 studio release Rise Up, MarchFourth has retained the indie/do-it-yourself attitude that got them started 10 years ago, and with so many band members to share the load it’s no wonder that D.I.Y. works for them. The group has hired a booking agent, but they still do all its own publicity and management. They have also retro fitted their own bus to accommodate their outrageously large number of touring members. “We tour with about twenty-two people including two drivers, a roadie and a merch person,” said Averill. “We need five drummers, seven or eight horns, me, and four dancers who can do different things. So we’ve been traveling with an eighteen person troupe for three years now. The interior of our bus is like transformers. The guy who designed it is Nathan. He’s one of the original members of the band and used to be a stilt walker until he got a neck injury. So, Nathan designed the bus and it’s just amazing because we have a little functioning kitchen where you can pretty much make anything that you would make at home. All the other space on the bus inside is four or six top tables that are broken down into sections that can be tables or two double bunks. We have six bunks permanently set up in the back and then other than that it’s kind of ‘as needed.’ If we’re driving all night, as people get tired they just set up a bunk. Our bus can sleep twenty-four people if you set up every single bunk. It’s kind of hard to describe, but if you saw it you’d see it’s pretty ingenious. Basically the inside of the thing is a convertible.”
With the grueling tour schedule that MarchFourth subjects themselves to, it’s a wonder people aren’t sleeping all the time. Currently touring about 200 days a year, the band has become like a family out on the road and, surprisingly enough, there’s not much drama, according to Averill. “We have all kinds of people in this band. We have some alpha dog kind of guys who like to bark loudly, we have quiet brooding types, and then we have super chill people and we all get along. There’s a strange advantage to traveling with twenty-two people as opposed to five, because there’s kind of a diffusion that happens. If you’re having a problem with somebody you’re not stuck in a seat next to them in a van traveling for eight hours,” he explained. “To me, it seems a lot weirder and more uncomfortable when you got four or five guys in a van. With our band, if you’re having a problem with someone or someone is getting on your nerves or you need some space, you can just put headphones on and just go to the opposite end of the bus and do your thing. You can travel for days and not even really have an encounter with someone.”
It’s a far cry from the way large groups used to travel back in the day and Averill, who uses a special sports-based app made for teams to keep the “team” organized, admitted that compared to big bands of the past, MarchFourth has it almost easy in comparison.
“I got really inspired five years ago when I rented a couple movies, The Benny Goodman Story and The Glenn Miller Story,” Averill admitted. “Their stories about traveling were incredible. I don’t understand how they did it in the thirties, the big band era, how they toured with those huge bands. They didn’t really have big buses at the time. Eventually busses came along but back then there were a lot of large vehicles, station wagons and Packards and that kind of thing. There would be a thousand miles across the Midwest between payphones!”
But like their big band forefathers, MarchFourth’s mission is to entertain the towns they visit, and the group, who uses the rally cry “Joy Now,” does so in spades and with a flare and magnitude that few acts can hold a candle to.
:: MarchFourth Marching Band ::
:: Bluebird Theater :: June 7 ::
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