It is impossible to ignore Itchy-O. At full capacity, the band comprises 32 members, all dressed in matching costumes, all masked, delivering truly alien vocals and playing marching-band instruments along with guitars, basses, taiko drums and electronics attached to portable amplifiers. There is also a Chinese lion named Larry.
"I was pretty overwhelmed and blown away," recalls Jello Biafra of his first time seeing Itchy-O, at warehouse venue Glob in January 2013. "They entered from several different parts of the building. It was almost pitch dark, so all you could see was whatever lighting they had attached to their bodies. I hadn't been in the middle of anything like that since Crash Worship, and they have some of that same tribal hypnosis going on, but [with] more melody. It's a wider palette of music they're using here."
It is not easy to overwhelm Jello Biafra. Co-founder of the Dead Kennedys, he currently runs the influential Alternative Tentacles label and maintains an active career as a spoken-word artist and general supporter of the strange and populist.
But Itchy-O stayed with him, and Biafra signed the band to Alternative Tentacles this past May. Itchy-O's debut full-length, Burn the Navigator, was released earlier this week.
"I'm one of these crazy people who still keeps my label going in order to release music I like, no matter what that music is," says Biafra. "Sometimes I go on hunches, and then the band keeps on growing and growing, both artistically and in terms of the audience.
"I'm hoping that's what's going to happen with Itchy-O. It's one of the most unclassifiable things we've ever put out. It's one of the most of the most exciting projects that's come our way in years."
The partnership marks an important development for the band, too. "We are so proud to be on this label, as it represents to us the destiny of age and a fervent conviction to march to one's own drum, as weird and alien as it may sound to the rest of the world," says Itchy-O, which will only give interviews as an anonymous collective.
Founded more than four years ago as Itchy-O Marching Band, the group has since been a constant presence in Denver and beyond, crashing shows more often than formally appearing at them, causing confusion that usually turns to delight. But the band's unusual approach presents challenges. "Jello, in some respects, has taken a chance by signing us," says the band. "On the surface, we are different than many of the bands on AT's roster, but when you take a closer look, Itchy-O fits perfectly on the list, with acts like Zena Geva, LARD, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, the Butthole Surfers and a slew of other bands."
Itchy-O operates as something resembling a well-disciplined musical cult, with its members hiding their true identities in order to preserve a sense of mystique. That's rare in an era when little remains hidden and even the smallest expression of ego is encouraged. Its size has also prevented Itchy-O from touring as frequently as other bands might, though it has managed to travel some in the past. And the magnitude and spectacle of the operation isn't an easy thing to record.
Spike (a.k.a. Christopher Todd)
But the things that make Itchy-O unwieldy have also helped it become inarguably the highest-profile experimental band in Denver. The visual insanity of its shows has helped it gain a wider audience than many of its peers in the scene. Experimental music essentially questions what constitutes music, and that can be challenging for listeners. But you don't need background experience or any particular context, really, to appreciate the energy and momentum behind Itchy-O.
There's little precedent for such a band. But it operates in the tradition of artists like EZLN, the Zetas, and, as Biafra noted, Crash Worship -- a California-based experimental performance group founded in the mid-'80s. And Itchy-O has found kindred spirits over the years, including one of the few people equal to the challenge of capturing the band in a recording: Denver's Bob Ferbrache, who's worked with 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Warlock Pinchers, Ian Cooke and, yes, Crash Worship.
Ferbrache met Itchy-O through mutual friends years ago and recorded the outfit's debut EP in 2011. And when the opportunity came around to take his friend Biafra to that performance at Glob last year, he jumped on it.
Biafra was impressed. "Jello didn't put [Burn the Navigator] out as a favor to me or anything like that," says Ferbrache. "He put it out because he thinks they're amazing. AT doesn't just put out punk records; they put out all sorts of stuff. Lots of fringe stuff. I thought it was a perfect fit once it happened."
Biafra even joined the ranks for a July 4 performance at the Fillmore Auditorium. "Jello underwent our secret initiation ceremony, donned a uniform and mask, and ran around like a cinematic sorcerer with a camera tied to his head," says Itchy-O. "We wish we could keep him and have him at every show. He may moonlight with us again in San Francisco when we head west on tour this fall."
That tour was made possible in part because of Ferbrache's improbable success in recording the album.
"I turned to Bob after I saw Itchy-O," remembers Biafra of that first show at Glob. "He was waiting with bated breath for my reaction, and I said, 'How the hell do you record something like this?' Well, Bob found a way. The sound is that full, and every instrument of every percussionist is audible on every track. Bob found a way to weed things out, and still, layer upon layer is coherent. I've got to say that, as fortunate as Denver is to have such a brilliant studio wizard as Bob Ferbrache, I think he outdid himself with this one. This may be the best production job he's ever done, considering what it was he had to work with."
Locally, Itchy-O has always included other experimental acts on its bills, which has surely inspired fledgling musicians and artists to pursue their own crazy concepts. With Burn the Navigator, the band finally has a proper album equal to its overwhelming live show. And this fall, it will undertake the heroic logistical feat of a substantial tour, giving the city's weirdest music a chance to reach a national stage.
Itchy-O will celebrate a record release at 3 Kings Tavern on Friday, September 26
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