JULY 31, 2014 / GUARDIANSOFCRAFT
Name: John Averill
Hometowns: Eugene, OR, then Los Angeles, CA, then Portland, OR
Current occupation: Bandleader and bass player for MarchFourth Marching Band
Based in Portland, Oregon, MarchFourth (nicknamed “M4″) is a marching band, but not your typical marching band. They combine musical styles from across the globe and perform high energy shows with powerful sound and dazzling visual displays, including dancers and stilt walkers. They’ve performed with No Doubt, Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic, Balkan Beat Box and more, and they’ve performed at such festivals as Burning Man. This Friday, August 1, their tour brings them to the Beer Camp Across America, New England edition, in Portland, Maine. Apart from aging with apparently remarkable grace (see above), John Averill is the band’s leader, and he generously agreed to take a break from touring and answer some questions from the Guardians of Craft blog. G-blog is lucky–and grateful.
G-blog: If funk, klezmer, New Orleans brass, and Serbian brass had an orgy one night, and a child of unknown parentage was born from them, I would say that child could be M4. That’s how I might describe your sound, in other words. But how would you describe the band’s sound?
J-Averill: I’d say that’s pretty accurate. There are some other missing genetics in the musical lineage you described, the most predominant being rock and jazz. We’re sort of like Duke Ellington meets Sgt. Pepper with influences from all over the globe. We’ll borrow elements from pretty much any genre, without having a singular genre to call our own.
G-blog: Is there something that all the styles and influences that M4 draws on have in common?
J-Averill: In terms of music, the common denominator is groove. We strive to play music that moves people and gets them dancing. In terms of the overall performance of the group, I’d say there is a thread of high-energy inclusiveness that forms the core of our ethos.
G-blog: Let’s go back to the beginning. What was “Chow Yun Fat Tuesday”?
J-Averill: It was a party we threw in 2003 on Fat Tuesday. I had been doing these “hybrid theme parties” for a couple of years in Portland that were influenced by the Burning Man festival, where the idea was to create a one-off band that learned a specific set of music for each event, and place the band within a multi-media event that included costumes, art installations, performance art, DJ’s, etc. Chow Yun Phat Tuesday was a mix of Mardi Gras and the Chinese New Year, at least stylistically. The date of Fat Tuesday in 2003 was March 4th, so we just decided to name the project after the date of the party since it seemed kind of obvious in terms of synchronicity.
G-blog: Why the mismatched band uniforms? (And isn’t “mismatched…uniform” an oxymoron?)
J-Averill: That’s clever! I never thought of that. Well, since the event was a costume party then it seemed that wearing thrift-store/vintage marching band outfits would the obvious starting point for attire. After 11 years we still kind of have that visual aesthetic as the foundation of our style, but we have no hard-core dress code so people are free to create their own variations loosely based on a marching band theme. The mismatched aspect reflects the reality that we are all individuals expressing ourselves together in a team environment, in addition to the fact that it’s more challenging to find an entire set of matching band uniforms that actually fit everyone. Plus, marching band pants are ridiculous contraptions that feature sliding zippers to accommodate a few (but not all) sizes, and they usually don’t have pockets. So, we mostly focus on finding cool jackets.
G-blog: What aspects of your own individual background prepared you to lead M4?
J-Averill: The first thing that comes to mind is playing team sports. I was a soccer freak growing up, and one of my favorite teams was a coed team that my dad coached when I was 12 years old. We had more girls on our team than any other team in the league, and the other teams would laugh at us before games. Then we’d kick their ass, and it wasn’t because we were more skilled; it was because we had chemistry and a team-first attitude. We were like brothers and sisters. That experience in particular reminds me the most of M4. In terms of musical background: I don’t have any credentials other than growing up listening to a lot of music and then deciding to learn the bass at age 19. I don’t have any formal training of any kind, and am the first to confess that in many ways I really don’t know what I am doing or how I’m able to do it.
G-blog: The first song of yours that I shared with my friend who’s coming to Beer Camp with me was Simplon Cocek. Since coceks are made for dancing, I was pleased that she promised to dance with me to it, but she confessed she wasn’t sure she knew how to dance to it. I suspect it’s because of its irregular meter (it feels like 9/8 to me), which a lot of Eastern European brass songs have. What advice, if any, would you give to someone unsure how to dance to such songs?
J-Averill: That’s funny. Whenever we play that song, or another song called Snake Five (which also has an odd time signature), I always scan the audience to see if anyone is dancing. Usually, at best, there’s one or two people grooving to it. In general, the types of people who can naturally move to odd meter songs are as follows: children, the elderly sun-baked blissed-out Colorado native, the random transient that stumbles into the free concert, or the person who has obviously taken acid before. My advice would be to literally close your eyes and let your body sort of shimmy about; there is a rhythm there for sure. The way I move to it is to stay (literally) on my toes and bounce around. If you try to use your linear brain you’ll just fall down, especially in this day and age where people are trained to move to a clock of some kind.
G-blog: Can you tell me a bit about the process (or processes) by which most of your songs get composed and arranged? Is it one or two members who do most of that heavy lifting, or is it more broadly collaborative?
J-Averill: This band has many composers, and the biggest gift that former members have given us are great songs. Currently, there are about five or six of us active band members writing for the band. One in particular is really proficient right now. Basically, how we work is: people write songs, work out the arrangement, create a demo, produce charts, and then we learn the song as a group. Usually we accumulate a handful of new songs a couple times a year and then learn them in batches. The drummers have to work as a section to create the grooves, and the horn players work on the melodic lines. On bass I just try to glue it all together. We’re starting to collaborate more these days, but haven’t had the time to work on new stuff because we’re constantly touring.
G-blog: Two of your songs that I personally love are (the award-winning) Space Hole and also Crack Haus. (Maybe Crack Haus is also award-winning, but I just didn’t see that.) How did you choose those titles?
J-Averill: Space Hole was written by Robin Jackson (our original tenor sax player) who submitted it to a songwriting contest and won an award with it; he told me he wanted the song to sound like the soundtrack for a science-fiction action blockbuster. Crackhaus was written by Jason Wells (one of our original trumpet players), and is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek attempt at European techno. Both of those songs are off our first album, which is 10 years old.
G-blog: You’ve played with some other great bands, including Pink Martini, Budos Band, Balkan Beat Box, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Who are one or two bands with whom you’ve not played yet, that you think it would be really fun to jam with, and why?
J-Averill: For sheer party madness, I think it would be fun to play with Gogol Bordello, but they have it in their rider that they won’t play with bands that have more members than they do, I suppose because size and spectacle are something we both have in common. I recently stumbled on this band called Zongo Junction (from Brooklyn, NY) who were really great. I bought their CD and it’s really trancy Afro-beat stuff. One of the first bands we ever opened for years ago was Antibalas (also from NYC area). I’d love to open for David Byrne or Peter Gabriel someday, just because I think they and their audience would appreciate what we’re trying to do.
G-blog: What’s your favorite story from the band’s history that you can tell in brief?
J-Averill: That’s tough. We’ve had some fun, improbable, and borderline insane adventures so far. Right now the most interesting story to me is the one that we’re in the middle of right now, which is: band goes on full-on summer tour wherein our bus breaks down in San Diego, we fly to Colorado and rent vans, four days later bus picks us up in Colorado and immediately breaks down again, then we hustle to Denver, rent three mini-vans and a box truck, and continue across country. We are now in NYC, and in two days our (presumably fixed) bus is picking us up in Philadelphia to continue the tour to North Carolina. Then we drive west to Salt Lake City and then home. So far, miraculously, we have not missed a show on this tour (knock on wood).
G-blog: Finally, since you’re coming to play at an event centered around beer, I have an alcohol-related question. If there were a beer or cocktail called the March Fourth, what kind of a beer would it be, or if it was a cocktail, what would its ingredients be?
J-Averill: In terms of beer I’ll take a crisp German-brewed MarchFourth pilsner any day. The M4 cocktail would probably be: two shots determination, one shot gratitude, and a jigger of audacity. Stirred, shaken, then stirred again. Served with a Jameson’s back.
G-blog is deeply grateful to John for taking the time to answer these questions. And I’m super excited to see the band perform at Beer Camp. If you’re there in Portland for the event, and you see a 6’1 Black man grooving to the odd meter of Simplon Cocek, that’ll be me. And even though I’m usually an IPA man, maybe I’ll have a pilsner in John’s honor.