Denver's Otherworldly Marching Band Itchy-O Plays Dark Mofo Festival in Tasmania
Itchy-O is perhaps one of the most intriguing musical groups in Denver. The 32-piece marching band is outfitted with all sorts of percussion, including a slew of snare, bass and taiko drums, as well as vocoders and guitars, all electrified to create a sonic experience unlike anything you've heard before. As if this wasn't enough to set the group apart, Itchy-O performs in eerie,masked attire, illuminated by lights worn by the band. Itchy-O is currently signed to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label, on which the band released its debut full-length, Burn the Navigator.
These eccentricities made Itchy-O unlikely yet perfect candidates to perform at the annual Dark Mofo Fest, which takes place in Hobart, Tasmania. The festival is known for its dazzling light fixtures, demonic musical performances, nude swims in the Derwent estuary at dawn on the winter solstice, and its hardy attendees, who've been braving the unpredictable Tasmanian weather since the festival's inception in 2013.
Itchy-O was scheduled for a performance at the Blacklist Party on June 17, 2016, but the band also crashed a party at the festival the night before and made surprise appearances at the fest's Winter Feast and the Burning — a culminating activity during which festival-goers write down their darkest thoughts and put them inside the ogoh-ogoh, a giant creature-like sculpture that is then set ablaze.
The mysterious, demonic marching band elaborated on the experience at Dark Mofo — and maintained its members' anonymity — with a collective voice.
Westword: Was this itchy-O’s first international appearance? If so, how did it compare to expectations, and if not, how did it compare to past ones?
Itchy-O: This was the first time Itchy-O had traveled abroad, and we literally could not have gotten any farther from Denver. In terms of our expectations for the festival, they were already set high after researching the caliber of work curated over Dark Mofo’s last three years (Diamanda Galas, Antony and the Johnsons, Yamantaka Eye and Naysayer, among just a few). We knew to expect there would be the kind of compelling and challenging acts we love; however, the entire city of Hobart was taken over by art encounters curated to undermine all expectations (luminous large-scale installation art, luscious and brooding film, a bacchanalian Tasmanian feast, blazing fire sculptures…). We were also absolutely humbled by the outpouring of love and professionalism from MONA’s Dark Mofo staff and shared a deep mutual gratitude for the performance feats we created together. These were our people — unreasonably, passionately and absurdly committed to creating art that confronts the ordinary.
How was Itchy-O chosen to perform at Dark Mofo?
Supple-Fox Entertainment, based in Melbourne, discovered us through our label, Alternative Tentacles, and came to see our Hallowmass collaboration with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last Halloween. The inductive and immersive production, which included a major audience surprise, aligned completely with Dark Mofo’s philosophy of rewriting the rules for performance art. Looking back now, our presence at this festival really seemed to be written in the stars and total fate.
How did Itchy-O compare to the other groups playing the festival in terms of style and origin?
MONA’s Dark Mofo festival is truly quixotic. From the food to the art to the music and performances, it is an extraordinary sensory overload and an exquisitely curated ode to light in the dark winter night. We felt right at home as soon as we stepped off of the plane.
Itchy-O has become a small army with literally TONS of gear, so we usually outweigh other acts in pure volume and spectacle, but playing the same festival with heroes like Jarboe, J.G. Thirwell and newly discovered cousins, Cult of Fire, was humbling, for sure…
Our dance card for the festival was, by our standards, completely enchanting. The first night we crashed a party where Chelsea Wolf was doing an impromptu performance. The second night we were billed at Blacklist, a huge 3,000+ licentious party with urban-mythologist-costume-designer Justin Shoulder and an African dance troupe. The third evening we played a mammoth foodie fest with our mobile production that eventually landed us on a grand stand at a big finale surrounded by smoking meats and, of course, fire. But the real denouement was the fourth night, in which we collaborated with local Tasmanian taiko drummers Taiko Doramu and Balinese performance artist Ketut Rina. We led a parade of over 10,000 people to the burning of an effigy filled with festival-goer confessions of fears, called an ogoh-ogoh. Here in the cold and dark of the descending winter, everyone became a member, a spectator, a part of the parade as the festival celebrated its close. Dancers choreographed a wild balinese fire ceremony with Ketut to Itchy-O’s signature climax piece, "Inferno No Corridor," and the enormous dragon-like creature was put ablaze under a 30-foot crowning sculpture that read “FEAR EATS THE SOUL.” We burned our fears and prepared ourselves for what the world has to offer and what we have to offer it. It was magnificently life-affirming, and we were intensely moved by the experience.
How was the crowd and atmosphere of Dark Mofo different from your other experiences performing?
A celebration of the physical darkness, of that first surprising chill at the start of winter, of mystery and discovery — we felt it was the ideal festival and setting for Itchy-O, and we completely reveled in it. As each evening fell dark, festival-goers willingly wandered into the night with an appetite for adventure. The shadowy, anticipation-filled atmosphere of Dark Mofo was like that of a nest made specifically for Itchy-O, to protect, nurture and encourage us to go as electro-primal as possible. Our mission these days has been refined down to “radical mass transcendental inclusion.” For our fans, our shows provide an exalting release with a little hope for the modern-day savage in all of us. We absolutely live for this moment of mind-melting conversion with fresh, un-expecting audiences. Dark Mofo became the perfect vehicle, ensuring us crowds and crowds and crowds of new Itchy-O virgins. Though they didn’t know exactly what we were going to offer, the audiences were well-primed disciples of dark, absurd and arousing art.
Has playing at Dark Mofo in any way influenced Itchy-O in terms of sound/direction?
“Fear Eats the Soul” — the glowing artwork above the festival’s Dark Park — shimmered each night with this message. We carry that message with us now more than ever, inspired and shaped by those illuminating words. It filtered into our performance, our music and our lives, for sure.
Did the setting of the festival affect how Itchy-O performed?
Every show demanded different performance styles, as we were in four different settings with unique themes and audience types, and we happily obliged. Three of the four shows [were] unannounced, and [we leveraged] our trademark "crash" model to bowl over and blindside audiences. One of the reviews described our well-practiced infiltration as akin to a Viking longboat coming ashore. We were really pleased by that.
One of the unique aspects of the festival was the incredible investment in highly skilled house, tech and stage management. It is a reflection of the festival’s standards, but also the deep regard for art and artists outside of the U.S. We have never encountered this level of competence and kindhearted support in all our travels, and it definitely impacted our performances.
We were also at sea level and super-powered from all that oxygen.