Posted March 18, 2013 by whopperjaw in Tunes

MarchFourth Marching Band: A Portland “odd”yssey

Portland’s MarchFourth Marching Band transcends categorization. Musically, they are aptly self-described as a “brass-rock-funk assault peppered with moments of swing, jazz, Bollywood, ska and metal.” Visually, to call the group’s performances – which features 20-plus stilt-walker/dancers, acrobats, hula hoop performers, and other collaborators – “spectacle” actually seems a bit understated.

MarchFourth (M4, colloquially) is an unmitigated, unabashed joy merchant. The band – formed to play a Fat Tuesday party on March 4, 2003 – has steadily grown its national following. M4 recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with back-to-back shows at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom on March 3 and 4.

Whopperjaw caught up with founding member John Averill by phone while he was at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

The 10th anniversary show at the Crystal Ballroom was special. What made it different from other M4 performances?
It was a couple of things. One, I think it was including some of the guest performers and dancers who don’t tour with us. When we come back home from touring, we have people who are still affiliated with the band and want to perform. Aaron [Lyon], who’s now in charge of the dance team, did a really good job of integrating [guest performers]. And just being able to collaborate with people as talented as, like, [acrobatic dance troupe] Kazum – I mean, their routine was just insane! If we had the budget and we could tour around and have those guys on board as part of the performing troupe it would be amazing, but we can’t. So that’s what makes it special is that when we’re in Portland we can hang out with our friends and they can do these cameos.

Also, having some of the group’s alumni there was really special to me. I don’t really get to see them anymore because I’m always on the road. So it was just nice to see everybody. And, as far as the set list goes, I felt kind of liberated. I felt like I could put together whatever sort of set I wanted, so I kept the energy going all night.

I understand you’ll have music in the upcoming Pixar film, Monsters University. What’s going on with that?
About a month ago, they licensed 16 seconds of one of our songs, “Gospel,” which is on the Rise Up album we did in 2009. They licensed that for the trailer, and then we just found out a week ago that they want to license the song in the movie as well. So, the way the licensing money is broken down, the composer is going to get 42.5% of that money. I’m really stoked because the guy who wrote the song, Eric Miller, hasn’t played in the band for five years. He actually was playing in the band when we weren’t making any money. This will be kind of a belated “thank you” to him.

As a songwriter, it seems you acknowledge, or reference, Portland a little more than other contributors. Would you say there’s something particular about Portland that has allowed MarchFourth to prosper?
I went to LA for college. I lived there a total of 12 years, but I was from Eugene, Oregon. LA is like that volcano that still erupts regularly and still produces really good bands. When I moved to Portland in ’97 I had this sense that the town is like a flower bud, and I think Portland is blooming.

I think that proximity in a place like this makes a project like this one more likely to happen. Most people in Portland live around the center of the city – they’re not scattered in the suburbs so much. I find it takes 20 minutes to get to anybody’s house, wherever you live in Portland. It would’ve been a lot harder to put something of this scale together in LA, where people are already driving 45 minutes one-way to work. When people are spread out in LA, they’re really spread out.

Do you have any favorite marching-band-meets-pop culture moments? Was the USC marching band playing on Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” a big deal for you?
When Radiohead came on and performed with the USC marching band [at the 2009 Grammy awards], that was amazing, just because I think Radiohead are brilliant. The funny thing about the Fleetwood Mac thing is that when we put a band together for the party in 2003 we learned seven cover tunes – and the obvious choice for one of those cover tunes was “Tusk.” So we actually learned “Tusk,” with that crazy breakdown, and it was the only time we ever played it. We played it our first show, and we’ve never played it again. I think we just felt like we barely pulled it off once. We went for more of an ethnic/gypsy vibe after that first show.

Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin produced your last CD, 2011’s Magnificent Beast. How did you connect with him?
He relocated his family to Portland in, like, 2004. The band was about a year old and he just saw us play outside of Doug Fir or something. It was literally his second day in town. My friend Matt Butler does this thing called the Everyone Orchestra – he puts together a bunch of musicians, it’s all improv, and he just conducts. He had me as one of his singers for a show and Steve Berlin was a sax player, so Steve and I kind of met that way – that was probably 2006 or 2007. When it came time to record the last album I called him up and he set it up at the studio; it was the first time we worked with a producer. We’d been doing everything on our own prior to that, so it was a big leap forward, as far as our records go, to work with him. It was just nice to have someone with an objective ear listening and thinking about the big picture and keeping things on track.

I guess it’s a testament to the project as a whole that it’s always been the sum of its parts, and I’m grateful that the parts making up the project have been really, really cool people.

Let’s go back to March 4, 2003. Could you have anticipated a 10th anniversary? What was the general goal?
I just never would have thought we’d be going ten years later or that two-thirds of the people that were there in 2003 wouldn’t be there in 2013. I guess it’s a testament to the project as a whole that it’s always been the sum of its parts, and I’m grateful that the parts making up the project have been really, really cool people. If there’s been any change, the talent level is going up. Anybody coming in is going to be at least as good as, if not better than, the person that they’re replacing. So the band is, piece by piece, gradually getting better because the musicianship of the individuals is getting better. And not everybody is the right fit for this project – you know, there are really amazing musicians out there that can play circles around us, but a lot of amazing musicians don’t have the temperament. You have to have a certain amount of willingness to kind of just go on what’s essentially a strange fieldtrip. There’s a lot to deal with – it’s a lot of energy to have everybody around.

In some of your recent interviews, I notice that it seems like you might be letting go of the “Marching Band” concept – that it doesn’t “fit” so well. Are you feeling an urge to replace that part of the name?
It’s really interesting you would mention that, because I was gung ho over this last year. If you’re a college student on campus and you see this poster that says “MarchFourth Marching Band” and you don’t know anything about us, you’d assume we were a marching band. You’d think, “Why would I want to pay $20 or $25 to hear somebody playing what I’m going to hear at the halftime show on Saturday at the football game?” And I wouldn’t be [into it] either, frankly. I’m not a lover of marching band, I mean I’m a bass player with a rock background who put together a marching band for a Mardi Gras party and played bass because we didn’t have a tuba. The whole thing happened by accident, and I found myself stamped with this “marching band” tag. It did sort of help us get out-of-the-box gigs, the kind of gigs a lot of rock bands wouldn’t get. So it’s helped us in some ways. But I was really contemplating if it was hurting us at all.

As we were touring throughout most of 2012 I started asking people, “Do you think we should drop the “Marching Band” from our name?” I had an idea in December about having our anniversary show be a big PR announcement where we officially dropped “Marching Band.” But I kind of felt like it was pushing a rock uphill to make that happen and that it was divisive within the band. I’ve kind of come around to thinking we should just keep the “Marching Band” name.


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