Start with a gritty New Orleans street-band influence — all fun, all music, all party. Throw in more musical influences than you can count, from Eastern European gypsy grass to George Clinton funk to Bugs Bunny cartoons, and you’re getting close. Add a sizable percussion section, fire breathers, jugglers, dancers, a healthy appreciation for marching band costumes and a sense of humor, and you begin to approach what MarchFourth Marching Band is all about.
It’s hard to describe MarchFourth Marching Band without seeing them live. (As band leader and bass player John Averill says, “We’re actually just kind of a marching band in disguise.”) The band’s latest album, the 2009 release Rise Up, sounds like a (stationary) big band with a drum corps, but the album’s tracks are so eclectic it’s hard to nail the sound into one particular genre. Averill, who spent most of the interview with Boulder Weekly following a four-foot garter snake around Topanga Canyon, Calif., finds labeling the band’s music just as hard as the rest of us.
“Our sound has really evolved [since the band’s inception in 2003],” Averill says. “I think the initial ingredients that we had when we started were like Rebirth Brass Band, Fela Kuti, and definitely samba, and Eastern European gypsy-grass. Those were sort of the initial ingredients that we started with, then we started adding a lot more jazz and funk and rock since then. A lot of our newer material is pretty hard-hitting in a big dancey, funk-rock mode.”
It starts to make sense as you listen to the album.
The band has more than 40 people contributing when back home in Portland, Ore. — about 20 came along for the tour — and Averill says about 12 people write the band’s songs. That’s a lot of influences, especially considering how the band picked up many of the horn players after gigs.
“Most of the songs are written by the horn players. And some of them have some really interesting elements that they’re putting together in these songs. You go from some New Orleans funky thing to some almost math rock kind of thing to this gypsy breakdown. We have this one song that’s this sort of drum and bass with a cowboy sort of gallop. It’s all over the place,” Averill says.
Managing more than 20 people can no doubt be frustrating and challenging at times, but Averill manages to keep a cool head. It helps that the band is diva-free.
“I just try to guide where I think the project needs to go at any given moment,” Averill says. “It’s like a chariot being pulled by 20 horses or something. If the horses decide they want to go this way, all you can do is try to steer it.”
Rise Up’s opening track, “Ninth Ward Calling,” is straight New Orleans party funk — percussive hand clapping, multi-layered cascading horns, and the rough melodic chanting you get when instrumentalists try to sing, all tied together by creative horn fills. The “Sing, Sing, Sing”-inspired drums of “Dynomite” are so infectious they turn casual listeners into amateur tabletop drummers. “Nightmarika” sounds like the bastard offspring of the West Side Story “I like to live in America” riff and the harmonic minor scale. “Freestyle for Miles” shoots steroids into some classic Miles Davis tunes and blasts them out of the park, and “Powerhouse” is a loving cover of the instantly recognizable theme of every accident-prone factory ever to appear in a Looney Tunes cartoon. It’s a wild album, and it’s insanely fun to listen to.
“We don’t really try to write the same song twice," Averill says. “A lot of bands will have a hit and try to write songs in the vein of that hit. We don’t really do that. We just keep trying to explore different genres. We’re not really bound by a genre, which is what makes us kind of different from other bands. Most bands have a genre, like, ‘We’re a rock band.’ But us, we’re not really a marching [band], we’re not really a funk band, we’re not really a New Orleans band at all. … I’m not sure what it is exactly.”
Whatever it is, it’s working. MarchFourth continues to grow in popularity, and the band recently passed one of those rock band milestones in hiring a booking agent. For Averill, it’s the payoff after hard years of doing everything under the sun trying to make it as a musician.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Averill cautions. “I definitely asked the universe for a band, but I didn’t specify how big it would be.”
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