During its relatively short life of a little over a year, Itchy-O Marching Band (due Sunday, May 22nd at Sutra) has left quite an impression on anyone who has seen this group of around thirty people in uniforms that make them look like a special unit of interdimensional troubadours.
Instead of just the typical marching band instrumentation, Itchy-O includes more experimental sounds provided by electric and electronic instruments, including vocoders and synths for a sound that is both classic and -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- charmingly eerie.
Band leader Scott Banning has been involved in the world of avant-garde music since his days living in California, and this group combines his love of both the weird and the visceral in an unforgettable experience both for the performers and the audience -- intended and otherwise. We had a chance to talk with Banning at length, in advance of the release of the group's debut EP Inferno, about how this whole thing came about and some of the ideas behind it.
Westword: So why is it that Shakes the Clown holds such a special place in your memory?
Scott Banning: I was working out of Local 16 in San Francisco for a couple of years. Working on films and stuff. Mostly I was pushing wood and working in the art departments and stuff. They payed fifteen grand twice to try to clean my ass up because I was out of control. I ended up in this pretty posh rehab, and once a week, they would go out and get us movies, and we could request what movies we wanted. So I requested Shakes the Clown , and they actually got it, and we watched Shakes the Clown in rehab.
So you were in rehab? What, may I ask, was it for?
Heroin. I cleaned up in 2002. I came out here in 2001. I was a total wreck, and in 2002 I got my shit together. I got my EMT, and I was running a 12-step meeting in the hospital on the psych floor that I was once a frequent flyer on. They ended up hiring me, and from there I went to the ICU.
How long had you been struggling with heroin?
First, and foremost, I was a total alcoholic, and I started using heroin on a regular basis to quit drinking so much, and it worked [laughs]. I stopped drinking so much, I'd say, right around '97 when it started, and by 2000... I was so smart I went to Southeast Asia to get away from heroin. I came back an absolute mess. At that point, I was involved with Crash Worship on that very last leg. I was never in Crash Worship, but I was going on tours with Extra Action Marching Band and Crash Worship.
I was helping Simon Cheffins with the Extra Action Marching Band right before I moved out here, so I had had a taste for guerilla, subversive marching bands. There's a lot of them now. I probably don't know of all of them, but when we first started this thing, in February of 2010, immediately, we caught some heat about copying another marching band here in town. We were catching heat on Facebook and being called "copycats" and my best response was: "Check out some of the other people doing this, Mucca Pazza, Kill Sonic, The Hungry March Band. Or Extra Action Marching Band. They certainly weren't the first."
Simon from Crash Worship is a good friend of mine, and intentionally or not, he has a way of cornering markets. In the '90s there were a bunch of bands that came out that looked and sounded a lot like Crash Worship, but the thing with that is, do you think Crash Worship was the first group of people to light a fire and pound on a drum? Not really [laughs].
There's a good chance that lighting a fire and pounding on a drum goes back to pre-historical times.
Right, fire and pounding on stuff. So what really happened was Itchy-O has actually been around since 2005. Because there was a good two years where I was absolutely done with music and scared to death at even the notion of making music again, just because there was so much stuff I couldn't listen to anymore and stuff I couldn't watch anymore. There were such deep associations with heroin and music, that I had to stay the hell away from it. In 2005, it started to look like I would be okay. There was no way I could live without making music.
So I acquired a record of canine heart sounds. I took this record and a friend of mine, Matt Mackman, who I met here in Denver through the IATSE [International Alliance of Theater and Stage Emplyees] Local, was really key into coaxing me off the island of recovery and saying, "You know what? There's still a place for you here without being all jacked up." He gave me this recording program called Amadeus, and I started screwing around with it, and then him and I recorded some music together for a project called The Secret Magic of Cumin. There was some great stuff that came out of that, and someday I'd like to put it out there -- if I ever have any time again.
But I put together this thing with layered heart sounds and called it Itchy-O. So Itchy-O started kind of as this dark, ambient thing. I'd been trying to get out of from behind...I don't know, you know, I used to go through phases of wanting to get out from behind the drums. I've given that up at this point. I've never been any sort of conventional drummer.
I've been playing drums since I was nine; it's what I'm good at, and I've accepted the fact that I'm a drummer. Any other instrument I try to play in my own limited fashion, I play like a drum. I've written a lot of the keyboard parts and handed them over to Kirsten Vermulen and she has augmented them and changed them and made them better.
Many of my influences are an Eastern approach to drums. I played in the San Francisco Taiko Dojo for a couple of years. I never performed with them. I just trained with them. They had a dojo in Little Japan, and it was ten bucks a class back then. Then they moved to Daly City or something. I joined the Oakland dojo for a little bit, but it was nowhere as fierce as the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
Sensei Tanaka is a really hard teacher, but what he transmits is really intense. The whole taiko approach is that there's a language spoken on the drums. It's very tonal, and it actually has syllables and you play prayers on drums. That was really intriguing to me. I really related to the whole prayer thing on drums. Drumming is really spiritual for me. Looking back, all I've ever wanted to have is a spiritual experience, and so everything that I do, creatively, is in an effort to transmit or experience some sort of spiritual experience.
That first Itchy-O recording was called Pulmonic. All of the songs on it took the titles of the heart sounds on the record, because they were all heart anomalies, like "Systolic Murmur." Dog heart sounds on vinyl. So awesome! I found it at a thrift store. It made me think, "I've got to make music again! This is a really great find."
Maybe this is projecting but the way you see drums, the way the heart operates in the body is a kind of cognate. It serves a similar function.
It's the beat! That's the kind of shit that I live for. I love the stuff I cannot take responsibility for. I love looking back and saying, "There's no way I could have come up with any of that." That's when I know shit is clicking and working, and that I'm on track. I organize stuff to happen, but there's a definitely piece, a definitely window in there somewhere, a space where I'm not in control and I leave things to chance. I think that's where that spiritual kind of stuff leaks in. I think that's what everybody wants, really, is spiritual experience. And I think people are desperate to have spiritual experiences that people's minds can put those things together.
The first time I saw the Butthole Surfers they were doing all that random, sixteen millimeter projection stuff. I think that when everybody first sees that, they think that stuff has been completely orchestrated and choreographed, but the reality is that that stuff is just thrown together, and what you're seeing is just absolute serendipity. It looks like it's synching up to the music and everything, but that's our minds making those connections.
So I made Pulmonic and either Nick Lloyd or Conrad Kehn joined me. Conrad and I are still really close, and he has that Playground thing, and I know that's soaking up all his time. We'd really like to work together more, but our projects have taken off in completely different directions.
I never really hear about The Playground anymore.
Really? He's doing a lot. My god. He's got his head in the right place, and with all he's doing with the schools in town and the Sound Painting stuff. He's a great improvisationalist. He really embraces improvisation, and I really stay the hell away from it.
I was just talking about the way I write music and stuff, but I guess that the creation of these songs kind of happens in a smoky dark room where there's no control, and then I put it in a little glass bubble and bring it out here into the world. The way that these songs for the marching band have been written, I definitely have to give credit to the band, because what usually ends up happening is I'll come up with some parts and some sort of simple arrangements, and invite all the musicians over, and we'll run through it the way that I've constructed it, and we say, "What do you think of that?" And someone will give feedback on various aspects of the song.
But we don't jam at all. It's not because I don't like to jam, but the truth is that I don't like to jam. I can't stand stuff that does parallels straight into nowhere and shit that goes on too long. But I also realize that a lot of good musicians jam, and that's how they get better, and that's how they practice, and that's how they develop relationships and stuff. But I don't have time for it. If all I was doing was music, I might have time to spend all day playing music and jamming. But I don't have time for it, and I know most of the musicians I play with have other jobs and stuff.
I like to think that the people playing in Itchy-O have expressed a lot of gratitude that all they gotta do is show up and this stuff is kind of laid out, and they pour into it their heart and soul. But the vehicle has already been constructed, so people just have to get on. I think we're doing really well, because I think we have around thirty people on board right now that really love to be a part of this project. In the last year, there have only been maybe five people that have left.
Anyway, Nick and Conrad got on board, and I played my first show at Dazzle, and I think there was Nick Lloyd, Andrew McClure, Conrad Kehn and this girl Jen that was playing drums. I put some weird shit together, and there was some improvising in there. I used to do a lot of sixteen millimeter collage, just like the Butthole Surfers. I had two reels of the Nova special The Miracle of Life. It was two parts, right, so I get two projectors and project it side by side and a third projecting NASA building rockets.
You just put this stuff on and you let it rip, and it makes beautiful artwork all by itself. You can play anything along with it and it looks and sounds absolutely spectacular. One of my favorite things to do is at the very end, when the baby is coming out of the vagina, throwing the film into reverse, so that it looks like they're cramming this kid back in.
Some of the stuff that's on the new CD that's coming out, these cows -- I think I got them off of some internet archive or Creative Commons stuff -- I had them playing really loud at Dazzle, and it plays up in the bar. I guess they have speakers out front too. At one point, I had some drums staged around the venue, and I remember going to get the marching band drums because we were going to march through the audience with that gear, and I remember the cows blasting over the bar at Dazzle. It was awesome. It's a jazz bar, so people looked so confused sitting there probably thinking, "What are they doing to us?"
Shortly after that show, I met Kirsten, and we fell in love. She had this accordion under her bed, and I said, "You should play that right now!" I forced her into playing this accordion on some stuff and we made our movie Whirl together. That's the stuff we shot at Lakeside.
The sit down band has developed, and I play drums and all this electronic stuff, and it's choreographed to film. Today, we have David Britton on cello, Ed Smith on guitar and violin, Burt Beaudin on stand-up bass, Kirsten is playing accordion, Nick Lloyd is playing guitar, Drew Vinciguerra is the other drummer -- who I have known for twenty years. Jesse Dickens is also on percussion, and the sit-down band has turned into a real orchestra.
It's a lot of gear and a lot of work, and we couldn't seem to get shows anywhere. We're also not youngsters anymore, and we all have day jobs and families and school and all this stuff, and none of us are willing to haul all this stuff like the old days playing a Tuesday night to play to an empty house. This stuff is good.
As objective as I can be, we pour a lot of work into it, and it deserves better than a Tuesday night. The rub is we're not playing out there all the time. We're not partying and hanging out in the scene. In the beginning, we didn't have a very good draw, so I can't blame bookers for not booking us, because they have bills to pay and all of that.
Then we started creeping up and people started talking about it. Eventually, I got frustrated to the point where I was ready to do the marching band thing again. I realized we could tie amps to our backs and go and play wherever we want, whenever we want and that's how this thing started.
Is that when you started crashing shows?
When we say we "crash" I usually ask permission. There have been very few things that we have legitimately "crashed." A lot of the stuff that has been interesting to play has other musical acts on it, and I don't want to go in and step on someone else's set. No one appreciates that. I've been on either side of the fence with this thing.
I used to run this thing called Big Top Twenty-Three in San Francisco. I booked all my friends' bands and we put on a big circus. So I had all my friends up from Los Angeles in their bands playing, and Extra Action Marching Band asked if they could play, and I said, "Sure." They came tromping in during the middle of somebody's set, and there was a fistfight, and everybody blamed me. So I'd like to stay away from any of that shit anymore.