Last September, around 20 members of the MarchFourth marching band descended on the German countryside. With classic marching band brass and drums, plus electric bass and guitar, stilt walkers and dancers, the band entertained small town folk who were much more accustomed to traditional marching brigades than to the Portland, Ore. group's unique brand of jazz, ska and rock.
It wasn't an easy sell at first, says saxophonist Andy Shapiro.
"People were sitting all buttoned up," he says. "Our dancers would try to pull people out of their seats and the [Germans] would swat them. But it blew everyone's minds. One group of girls quit their jobs and started following us around Germany."
In Amsterdam the band played in an artist village called Ruigoord, and spent one evening in a five-story tower made of shipping containers and salvaged wood playing to hippies for a birthday party.
"We couldn't get the whole band on one floor of this building," says Shapiro. "So we split up and played old time-y music and '80s covers. You could watch the roof buckle by a foot and a half."
On the last day in Amsterdam the members of M4—as it is nicknamed—realized they would need thousands of dollars to transport the band by train to Marseille, France where it had its final European gig. They decided to busk in the town square, playing the same 40-minute set three times before they'd gathered enough money to head to France. The 20 members then crammed their way onto a train—instruments, luggage, costumes and all—which was, Shapiro says, a bit of a shock to the commuters just going about their daily business.
So goes the exciting life of a marching band—or, as bandleader John Averill calls them, "a little big band disguised as a marching band." When not touring overseas, M4 tours with a little less than 20 members in a 1984 MC9 tour bus with a modified interior. In reality, however, the band counts over 30 individuals who contribute to the music, dance and other entertainment aspects of the eight-year-old group, which is currently on tour and slated to play the Top Hat on Wednesday.
"We're pretty free-spirited, and once people see us the whole uptight military-esque stigma of 'marching band' kind of flies out the window," Averill says.
M4 is a big band that started out with a big goal not necessarily meant to have a long shelf life. Before M4's inception, Averill was into throwing theme parties for which he'd put together one-night-only bands that usually fell under the rock genre. For March 4, 2003, Averill and some friends decided to cobble together a Fat Tuesday marching procession with brass, drums and Averill wielding a wireless electric bass.
"The whole concept was too fun not to try," he says. "But I was kind of amazed that this project took off and kept going, whereas the other bands were intentionally one-night-stands."
M4 started out playing covers of Rebirth Brass Band, Fela Kuti, Eastern European gypsy brass and samba. But over the years, the band has continued to create original material, which now comprises most of its set. The band has also recorded a few albums including its most recent, Rise Up, from 2009.
"We're due for another album," says Averill, "so I'm not sure what the process will be. I'm interested in experimenting a bit more, and bringing in more vocals. Our live show will always be its own thing, so I'd like our records to stand on their own—as audio documents, as opposed to trying to re-create the live experience."
If you've never seen MarchFourth play, it's easy to get a sense of how dynamic and diverse the whole production is from YouTube videos of shows spanning venues from concert halls to raging parties like Burning Man. A marching band is a great way to change up a bar or club scene, but the genius lies in the fact that the sound and colorful, circus-like entertainment appeals to a wide demographic, too.
"I don't know of many bands who can play the club and festival circuit and still appeal to kids and grandparents," says Averill. "The whole thing is kind of puzzling, actually. Maybe that's part of why things like 'genre' and 'demographic' don't really translate."
M4's versatility and boldness is one thing, but part of the fun is focusing on the sheer size of the endeavor. It's not just about the spectacle of horns and crazy costumes, it's about taking people's assumption about what you can do in a bar for entertainment—a five-piece band, for instance—and multiplying that six times over. Now you've got a whole crowd entertaining you. It's like a joke about screwing in light bulbs or how many clowns can fit in a car: It's over-the-top.
"I definitely asked the universe for a band, but I didn't specify how many people should be in it," says Averill. "That's the cosmic joke for me. It kind of reminds me of that Far Side cartoon that takes place in hell where the devil opens the door for a conductor and in the room are a bunch of banjo players, and the devil says: 'Here you go, maestro!' I'm not sure why that comes to mind, but I think the correlation has to do with the absurdity of it all—and enjoying it."
MarchFourth plays the Top Hat Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM with opener LYNX. $15/$12 advance at Ear Candy and Rockin Rudy's.