#33 Riffs into Madness: An Interview with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band

Steampunk music comes in various interpretations and styles, from Rasputina’s lilting southern gothic to Sunday Driver’s Indian-infused world folk and Vernian Process’s melodic steamwave instrumentals. But few bands can embody steampunk’s post-modernist mix of eclectic, rip-roaring energy as the ladies and gentlemen that make up Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. Today being the Fourth of July, the US holiday marked by parades, parties, and fireworks, I thought it was only apt to feature some big, incendiary music on the blog, and ENSMB is as big as steampunk bands can get.

Steampunk’s Big Band, Emperor Norton’s Stationery Marching Band

The band professes that their origins stemmed from esteemed eccentric Emperor Norton’s final deathbed revelation:

Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Before passing from this plane in 1880, Emperor Norton, I, 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. They dance at the edge of reason, sing the song of society’s fringe and drum out whatever din you are called to march to. Emperor Norton is not dead; he is waiting to be awakened in each of us.

Saxophonist and ringleader Handsome Chuck (the gent in the bowler and spiffin’ side-whiskers in the first row, right-hand side in the above picture) offered some insights into the workings of steampunk’s most mobile musical group.

Welcome to Beyond Victoriana, Chuck! So riddle me this: is the inclusion of the word “stationary” in your band name entirely ironic? Or as kooky a choice as your namesake Emperor Norton? Because your performances are far from immobile.

It’s always been intended to show off our somewhat irreverent and unorthodox take on things, but actually, it was an apt description of us at our inception. In the beginning, we were a largely stationary stage band with a more traditional rhythm section including a drum kit, upright bass and the like. At that point, the “marching” seemed a bit out of place, and was meant more to give a nod to the rest of our instrumentation. However, over time we’ve developed a bit of a split personality, and now we switch back and forth pretty freely between our stationary and our marching set ups depending on what the occasion calls for. Both show off different sides of the band, but we love them both too much to ever go completely one way or the other.

And I think that audiences also appreciate a change to get up and get moving too! The moment your band caught my attention, actually, was the antics you pulled at Steampunk World’s Fair, where ENSMB frequently tromped through the hotel at all hours of the day and night (and that infamous congo line during Saturday night of the festival.)  Despite this chaos, though, your music is very well-constructed. What is your musical background? Have you had any professional training?

Music has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started learning the sax when I was 11, and have been playing music in one form or another ever since. In high school, music was my entire life, and the marching band was a huge part of that, which has certainly affected where I am today. I studied music formally in college for a few semesters, but eventually changed my academic pursuits to other topics, though I never stopped working on music in one way or another.

I’m not surprised that you were a band geek in high school. ^-^ But what about the musical experience for your other members?

The overall experience level of our band members is actually pretty high. We’ve got several professional musicians, several more people who do music part time, and a few for whom music is their primary hobby. For the most part, everyone in the group has other bands that they play with, so we’re really quite a musically active group.

So how long has ENSMB been performing as a group?

We celebrated the three year anniversary of our very first show this past April, so we’re just starting off our 4th year as a band. We actually started gathering people together in the fall of 2006, but it took several months to find the right people. Ever since then, we’ve been plunging frantically onward.

At Honk! Fest 2009. Image courtesy of ENSMB

How did all the members come together? Has the band always been conceptualized as this huge (since it is a marching band)?

The band was always meant to be big, certainly by average band standards. I really wanted a good sized ensemble with diverse instrumentation so that we had a lot of possibilities to play around with. As far as how the band came together, there were a few key moments that set the wheels in motion for me. The first big one was the realization that the musical ideas that had been kicking around my head for a few years were, at their roots, meant for a marching/street band, though I didn’t set out intending to do this. I just had a sense of the music I wanted to do and it was really all about the interplay and layering of horns and percussion, but it wasn’t until one night when I saw this band from NYC called the Eternal Buzz Brass Band that it hit me like a hammer that what I had been thinking about all along was essentially marching band instrumentation. Brass bands, particularly New Orleans style ones, weren’t new to me, and in fact that special brand of funk and jazz has always been hugely influential to me. Yet for some reason it didn’t click in my head until that moment that the band I wanted to have needed to be very directly related to that style. It was a big light bulb moment for me, and I went home from the club that night and pulled out a bunch of old compositions of mine that had been gathering dust and started reworking them with this new vision in mind.

As far as the members go, we’ve been very fortunate to bring in some very talented people, which we’ve found through various friends in the local music scene or just from posting ads on craigslist. I started with a small core of friends and people I’ve played with before, then from there we started hunting around to fill out the other instruments we wanted. Very quickly though we went beyond the simple horns and drums mix because we kept finding good musicians that wanted to play with us, but didn’t exactly fit into that. I was thrilled as this went along because it gave us some many options and really expanded the musical territory we could explore.

Sounds like ENSMB is steampunk’s version of The Polyphonic Spree, minus the robes. With a group so large, is everyone a permanent member, or do you rotate any out?

Band membership with a group this size is not always easy to deal with, schedules are tough to juggle and there are a lot of instruments to manage musically, but it’s a worthwhile trade off for what we get from it. At this point, we have a very solid core of people that I think of as ENSMB, and we’ll have anywhere from 8-13 people at an average gig. As I mentioned scheduling is tough with this many people, and thus not everyone can be at every show, so we do have a number of friends that join up with us on a “reserve” basis to either fill in for missing people of just to bolster the group. Our biggest membership expansion happens whenever we play at HONK! Fest, which happens annually in our home of Somerville MA, Seattle WA, and for the first next year, Austin TX. Since these festivals have some of the biggest craziest street bands you’ll ever see, we try to round up all the brass band musicians we know to make a powered up version of ENSMB to take to the streets and party with all the other HONK! Bands.

I’ve heard your music described in a variety of ways: Eastern European, Jazz, avant-garde, vaudeville. Where does the band draw its inspiration? How much of the potpourri style of ENSMB’s music is influenced by each individual musician’s taste, your creative vision, or some sort of band mind melding?

We get our inspiration from all over the place. One of the upsides to the colonial era was that is spread the brass band concept and instrumentation all over the globe, but then thankfully nearly all of those cultures took it and ran with it in their own ways. The result has become a huge variety of musical styles that can be played with roughly the same kind of instrumentation. Furthermore, I’ve also always been very intrigued by the concept of the circus band, which was a byproduct of that phenomenon. I’m not talking about the oompa type band that gets associated with the mainstream idea of circus today, but instead the more “Old World” tradition of itinerant musicians working with a group of traveling performers. These people came from all kinds of backgrounds, bringing their own styles along with them, to play under one tent so to speak, which in turn traveled around being influenced by the various people that they entertained. Likewise, this is why we draw a lot from Roma music. The Rom, or Gypsies as they’re better known, have been a kind of ultimate cultural sponge. Being vagabonds for their entire history has caused them to draw musical elements from every other culture they’ve been a part around, which they’ve then infused with their own personality and passion. This has lead to a rich and diverse style that is powerful and robust, and honestly is a lot of fun to play.

Everyone in the band has very eclectic tastes and a band like ours is the perfect vehicle to explore ideas and styles that might not be possible with most other bands. Our music is put together such that every individual has a lot of room for interpretation and embellishment. Most of the songs I write are really outlines of what I want the music to sound like. I bring the parts into the band, but I rely on the people to actually breathe life into the music. The music on the page will work as written, but the real magic happens when people make the parts their own by interacting and playing off of the other instruments. What results is music that I couldn’t have written, even if I wanted to, and that is a living thing to be experienced in the moment because it’s never going to happen quite that way ever again. It’s a really challenging and invigorating approach to playing our music.

ENSMB at the Steampunk World’s Fair. Image courtesy of ENSMB

Your collective ensemble work is certainly a standout feature of the band; that gives your music a hodge-podge creativity that I associate with steampunk. Have you considered your music to fall under the steampunk umbrella before performing at the Steampunk World’s Fair?

I certainly have. Being a fan of Steampunk since the 90s, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to watch it grow and develop into what it’s become over the years. I was even more fascinated by what it shares with ideas that I and many other artists have about the direction of music. ENSMB’s music is drawn from many traditions reaching back over a century, but we’re not simply interested in being recreationists. We want to bring all of these styles and flavors into the present. To me, that’s what is at the heart of Steampunk, which admittedly I tend to use an umbrella term for all of the branches and subgenres like dieselpunk, clockpunk, etc. It’s not about the past, it’s about right now. Steampunk is a thing that could only have existed at this moment in time. Someone with more perspective on our community might be able to speak to this better, but I feel like we are an important part, yet small subset of, what might be thought of as Steampunk music. Much of our instrumentation is something you could have seen anytime throughout much of the world in the past 150+ years, and our music includes many styles that are much removed from contemporary culture. However, we are very much a band of today, of the here and now, and that’s what makes it Steampunk. We bring all of the elements together to create something that draws heavily from the past, but is very much coming from our present culture and could never have happened before.

Where do you see the ENSMB going? Do you have any upcoming gigs or projects you’re like to shout about?

We had an amazing time at the Steampunk World’s Fair, and we would especially love to start making more appearances at cons and other Steampunk events. Seriously, if anyone out there is involved with these kind of things, ask people who went to the SPWF about us, and then get in touch with us so we can bring that party to you.

In a nutshell though, we spread the Gospel of Emperor Norton and we’re going to keep doing that until the whole world has heard our message. We want to meet and have fun with as many artists, performers and creators as we can, and keep striving toward bigger and crazier things.

We’ve got a brand new album out, Reign of Revelry, which we really want people to hear because we feel it’s something fresh and unique. We put a lot of love into and we’re really proud of how it captures our sound. You can get it on our website at ENSMB.com.

Reign of Revelry CD

Our calendar is always filling up with club shows, street fairs, parades and the like so people should follow us online for the latest updates (website, facebook, twitter, livejournal, myspace, etc). we’ve always got new things brewing, so you never know when they’ll pop up. The next BIG event we have coming up is our beloved HONK! Fest. If people have never heard of it, they should go right now to honkfest.org and check it out, then should do everything they can to come to it. It’s kind of like a religion to us, it would make Emperor Norton proud, and it’s certainly unlike anything most people have ever experienced.

Will you ever be on the lookout for new folks who want to jump in and play along with you? I happen to play a mean kazoo…

If you see us out making a ruckus, feel free to jump right in!

***

Thanks again, Chuck, for stopping by the blog. Readers, go check out their collection of links above, or see it all in one place at ENSMB.com.

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4 responses to “#33 Riffs into Madness: An Interview with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band

  1. Pingback: Inner West LIVE

  2. Really great band. Thanks for introducing them to me!

  3. Pingback: #46 Celebrating Our First Birthday! « Beyond Victoriana

  4. Pingback: Sepiachord - Thoughts on Music in Steampunk