Well, they are doing it again. For their Third Thursday event on the 26th, the Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a throw down and this time you should probably not miss it (remember what happened last time?). If you have ever been delighted by the total chaos that is HONK! in Somerville, or been stuck in 6hrs worth of traffic because of it, you can thank/blame Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. This motley crew of musical misfits will be performing their unique blend of…well…I’ll let them explain what it is, but I know that when I ran into them at HONK!, I stopped, I said ‘wtf is going on?!’ and I didn’t leave until they were finished and we had a singalong.
I was able to get a mini interview out of them before the event at the PEM, so do your homework and I’ll see you Thursday!
Junkyard Arts: Tell me how Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band (ENSMB) came together – how did you find a group of people, all musically talented in the marching band persuasion, and also really into steampunk?
The Rev.Handsome Chuck: The process has really been an organic one, as the group has gone through a lot of membership changes over the years. We didn’t start out with any intentions of being a Steampunk band, and in fact, when we started most band members weren’t familiar with Steampunk at all. Additionally, quite a few people that have been in the band had no prior marching band experience. Our fashion choices for the band were really informed by our mythos of being the pied pipers of Emperor Norton (you can read the full story on our website), so we went with what we thought that should look like. In more recent years, now that the band is more established, we’ve definitely attracted members that have interests in all of these things.
JYA: Talk a big about what steampunk is and why you think it has such a huge subculture.
RHC: This is a huge topic in and of itself, and I actually feel like quite a few people on the internet have spoken about it more eloquently than I can, so I’m going to take a pass on this one.
JYA: Bah! Fine – to wikipedia, the lot of you. Who would you say are some of your influences, musically? You guys have done some covers of big songs, in your style, that are pretty huge crowd pleasers – but you also mix in some…gypsy music? I have no idea what else to call it. Feels very Russian-peasant to me, which I like. But I could be way off. Help me out, here.
RHC: We do draw from quite a lot of influences in creating our musical repertoire. The style your talking about is a combination of Klezmer and Balkan music. Balkan is more of an appropriate and all encompassing term than gypsy. Gypsy unfortunately has very discriminatory connotations, (Ed. note: this is what you call a teachable moment) as it has historically been used as a derogatory term for the Romani people, who remain an actively oppressed minority throughout Europe to this day.
We use the term Balkan to refer more to the style of music from the region rather than a specific culture or country, though of course the Romani style of music is a huge element of that. That’s just one rich musical source that we draw songs and inspiration from though, and each individual in the band has their own personal influences that color what they bring to our sound. I would say collectively we’re fans of New Orleans jazz, experimental noise, Bollywood, modernist composers, horn driven funk, heavy metal, swing, punk rock, folk traditions from all over the world, and of course, the many facets of the modern brass band tradition, as well Klezmer and Balkan brass music. We mix and match it all pretty freely, and are constantly pushing ourselves to do new things with all of these elements
JYA: Who is Emperor Norton? Why does he have a marching band?
RHC: Before passing from this plane in 1880, Emperor Norton I, the first and only Emperor of the United States, revealed to his followers that he was no ordinary mortal man, but instead a manifestation of the absurd and unusual forces of the universe. He offered them the chance to follow him on his crusade to unsettle and disturb that which had become bland and banal. A grand parade ensued and continues on through time and space, bringing in its wake a glorious commotion that encourages all to join in the jubilation and make of this world what they will.
ENSMB is the progeny of this bizarre cavalcade. We dance at the edge of reason, sing the song of society’s fringe and drum out whatever din we are called to march to. Emperor Norton is not dead; he is waiting to be awakened in each of us.
JYA: How did you all get started playing your instruments – I’m guessing marching bands? But you also have some nontraditional marching band instruments, like accordions and a variety of strings.
RHC: HA! We all have our own unique histories for how we ended up in this band, so detailing our biographies would take up more space than I imagine you have. We have a pretty diverse collection of players, as far as our musical backgrounds are concerned. Not everyone has a marching band background, some people came from classical settings, others have degrees in music, while others are largely self taught. We also have a mix of professional musicians and people with day jobs. As for me, I was actually drum major of my high school marching band, so I guess once a band geek, always a band geek.
JYA: You call yourself a circus band (if I am understanding correctly, this is not a circus + band, but a circusband?) – elaborate!
RHC: Actually, when we started out, we were circus + band! However, the circus part developed enough that it eventually became it’s own group, which is where the Boston Circus Guild came from. We’ve taken to describing what we do as circus music because it captures the spirit and approach of what we do. Stylistically, traditional circus bands drew from whatever cultures and influences the band was made up of and the circus came in contact with, so by its very nature it was an amalgamation of style and genre. We’re seeking to do a contemporary version of that same thing, drawing together diverse sounds and styles, unifying into one exuberant performance.
JYA: Would you consider yourselves performance artists? Musicians in costume? Not in costume at all and you just live it? Or are you just what you are?
RHC: I like to think of us more as performance artists. Our music is huge part of it, but the presentation of that music is also very important to use. We have strong desire to produce spectacles, and music is just one of the tools we use for that.
JYA: I’ve seen you guys at HONK! before, what other kinds of events do you perform at? What would be a dream event for you to play?
RHC: We play at all kinds of things! HONK! is probably our favorite thing to do, but we also play rock clubs and other more traditional music venues. Of course, we play at a number of Steampunk events throughout the year. We play at our own and others’ circus & variety shows, in addition to being involved in the occasional theatrical production. We also play for weddings and other social events, as well as community festivals and street fairs. As far as our dream event, I think we’d love to be a part of a HONK! national tour, were that ever to happen. We’d also love to be more involved in music festivals and start getting our show in front more people that might not otherwise have access to what we do.
JYA: Throw down some hip hop beats and you guys remind me a lot of Balkan Beat Box – have you ever done any collaborations with bands or musicians that are totally different than what you do? What would be a dream collaboration project?
RHC: We’re big fans of Balkan Beat Box, and, in fact, cover one of their tunes. It’s funny you should ask about this because right now we’ve got a remix album in the works that we’re super jazzed about. We love some of the things that are happening in electronic music right now, specifically that involve a lot of Balkan and Swing music, so we decided we should try our own take on it. We’re working with quite a few EDM producers and remix artists who are very excited about getting their hands on our tracks, several of whom I’ve been talking to for years about doing this. It’s still in the early stages, but the material I’ve heard so far is a fresh and interesting take on our music. We’re hoping to release it in early 2014, so stay tuned for that.
JYA: I’m intrigued! What can people expect to see at Thursday’s event?
RHC: Music that you can’t resist and musicians that you can’t get away from (my favorite thing is playing in the thick of things with people on the dance floor). Dancing, hopefully lots of dancing. And sweating, from lots of dancing. Also, lots of hats, that’s a thing for us, and certainly for Steampunks. ;)
Third Thurday: 80 Days: A Steampunk Celebration /Thurs 26th / 6:30-9:30 / Members: free, nonmembers: $10
Peabody Essex Museum / East India Square / Salem, MA /