If you see a horde of musicians dressed like pirates who raided a band uniform store flood out of a giant touring coach, followed by fire spinners on stilts and sequined dancing girls, you’re probably about to witness the concert extravaganza that is the MarchFourth Marching Band. On Monday, June 7, the band will stage a huge performance at the El Rey Theater. Adults and children alike have the chance to be wowed by the music and spectacle this band is known for.
MarchFourth, the group’s website proudly touts, is a date, a command and a band. It was formed by a mess of artists and musicians in Portland, Ore., on March 4, 2003. M4, as the band is known to fans, was originally supposed to play one Mardi Gras party, but the group had so much positive feedback it just kept going. First comprised of 15 musicians, M4 now has 23 official instrument wielders: 13 on horns and sax, nine drummers, and an electric bassist. M4 also includes a posse of other performers—“beauties”—who are part of every show. Currently there are 10 in this circus-style entourage who dance, walk on stilts, hula hoop and more. Sometimes they play venues wherein musicians spill off stage and the dancers mix with the crowd, erasing the line between band members and audience.
Not everyone tours at once, however. “The roster on the website is much like a sports team roster, where it shows the entirety of the band as opposed to who may be playing any given night,” explains John Averill, band leader and bass player. Averill says the band has core members at every show and others who sub in and out, adding that many of M4’s original members now have families and are unable to tour as much. “Lately, as we've been streamlining our touring band—we have been working with five to six drummers and eight to nine horns. It actually sounds tighter with a ‘smaller’ lineup.”
“In terms of vibe, we're all about seizing the moment, and no two shows are ever exactly alike. We establish a connection with the audience and see where it goes from there.”
M4 doesn’t have much in common with a traditional marching band. The musicians write their own material, record albums and rarely march—although they can if needed, Averill assures. From renovating the inside of the touring bus (which M4 owns), to creating instrument harnesses out of old bike parts, the group is pretty DIY. Some of the members are also costume or clothing designers, and most piece together their own “uniforms.” Averill credits this to the vibe of their city. “I think we're a product of the Portland artistic community at large, which has the sensibility that it makes more sense to recycle and create from that.”
The music is a mash-up of big band, jazz, ska, Eastern European folk and other styles. Some songs have a distinct Latin rhythm; some sound like ’60s spy themes. It seems whatever the eclectic group likes gets thrown into the mix, as any member can write music for the band. M4’s size and controlled musical chaos lends itself to one of the band’s goals, which is to get the audience worked up and dancing. Averill likens M4 to other large bands with high-level showmanship, like Gogol Bordello. “Musically, we borrow from many styles and genres, which is a form of recycling,” he says. “In terms of vibe, we're all about seizing the moment, and no two shows are ever exactly alike. We establish a connection with the audience and see where it goes from there.”
M4 has been touring and garnering more international attention, and Averill hopes it will continue to grow. “I want to tour the world and play music for everyone, bringing as much joy as possible, so we can remind each other that we are all related as human beings, despite ideological differences.” He says it would be a dream come true to have MarchFourth become financially sustainable, where all of its members could make a living and not have to juggle other jobs. However, Averill is well aware of M4’s relative success and happy with the way things are working. “We'll just keep plugging away because we have fun doing what we're doing; in many ways we are already ‘living the dream,’ and I think it's important to recognize where you are as you strive for loftier goals.”