Q&A: MarchFourth!’s John Averill talks Portland and stilts
This Saturday, October 24th, come watch MarchFourth!, a Portland based band with over 30 members, take the stage with its touring performers for the Levitt AMP Charlottesville Music Series at the IX Art Park. WTJU’s Chiara Brown was lucky enough to do a virtual Q&A with band leader and founding member John Averill, and discuss everything from their fan base, touring traditions and life in Portland, to near misses with stilt walkers.
WTJU: MarchFourth! has 17 members on stage at one time, what is a typical rehearsal like with so many people?
John Averill: The funny thing is that we don’t really rehearse, especially as a whole group. The band consists of 13 musicians and 4 dancers/performers, and the members fluctuate from tour to tour (not all of us live in Portland). When we have new material to learn most of the parts get worked out in sectionals (horn section, drum section). I’ll learn my parts on bass and then we’ll run the song at soundcheck. Back in the day, before we became a touring band, we used to practice every Monday, but we haven’t had regular practices for 6 years now.
WTJU: There seems to be a lot of moving parts to be aware of during one of your shows—any good pre or post performance stories?
JA: Well it certainly took us a while to become more aware of each other, and in the early days horns would get whacked with flailing drum sticks. Occasionally someone will trip over a monitor trying to get out of the way of something else. One time I got hit on the head with a stilt. The stilt walker was doing an acrobatic move and his leg came down on me like a baseball bat. If I hadn’t been wearing a burly top hat I would have required stitches; the impact was enough to break my sunglasses into three pieces and at first I thought I had broken my nose!
WTJU: On that same note, MarchFourth! is a particularly unique band because of the strong relationship between the music and the visual aspects of the performances. What’s involved in the coordination of the two aspects? How much of that work is linked, or are the musical and visual concepts thought out individually then put together?
JA: If the dancers are doing a routine to a song they’ll learn it on their own and then we’ll run it as a group (at soundcheck). The dance team coordinators will let me know before a tour which songs they are doing routines to, and I’ll give a heads-up to the musicians. We just work it out on the road, and we (the musicians) don’t know what it’s going to look like until they’re doing it in front of us. Sometimes we make mistakes playing the music because we’re busy watching some crazy stunt flying around us!
WTJU: The band has 30 active members on its roster who rotate per tour. Is it hard to keep all the members on the same page when they’re not always together? Is there ever any meetings that involve the band as a whole?
JA: We try to have an annual meetings, and there is talk of having more than one meeting a year. We tour with 21 people (including a driver, sound tech, lighting tech, and merch person). The
musician / performer roster is kind of like a baseball team. We have “starters,” and we rotate “alternates” depending on our needs. It took a few years to build the roster so that we can always field 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 3 saxes, 5 percussionists, and 4 performers at every show. So far (knock on wood) I am always the bass player, and our bari sax doubles on guitar (and he’s at every show as well).
WTJU: I know that MarchFourth! members spend most of the year living on the tour bus—does the band have any touring traditions while it’s on the road?
JA: There are certain places we like to visit whenever possible, but it all depends on the routing. We traditionally have to spend the night on the bus at truck stops and at RV campgrounds. We can’t afford to go out of our way and hang out someplace for a couple days, and days off are rare. That said, when we’re in Montana we like to stop at Bozeman Hot Springs. When in Wyoming, we like to stop at Saratoga Hot Springs. When we’re in California we like to stop at In-&-Out Burger. There have been a couple times when we’ve been able to have a day at Joshua Tree Monument. We shop for groceries at Trader Joe’s whenever possible, but that’s more of a necessity than a tradition.
WTJU: On your website you mentioned that over the years some of your lodging has been accommodated by “Uber-Fans.” What do you think the main way that these close relationships between the audience and the band members have developed?
JA: We have an amazing network of friends and family that we’ve been cultivating over the years, and we’ve made some great connections with fans who now are our friends. We’ve done random shout-outs on stage asking if anyone has a place for us to stay (and park our 45’ bus).
We can’t afford hotels, unless the promoter throws them in as part of the deal, so we really depend on staying with people. The cool thing is getting to know them, watching their kids grow up, and soaking in different realities all over the country. We’re good house guests, and always try to leave places better than we found them. It goes beyond just washing your dishes. You have to be grateful when someone is willing to let 20 people stay at their home.
WTJU: MarchFourth! has performed with a lot of very successful artists, notably playing with Gwen Stefani, OK Go, and others. What has the experience collaborating with these other bands been like? Who do you think MarchFourth!’s dream collaboration might be?
JA: We have joined OK Go, Pink Martini, and Galactic on stage. I don’t know if I can speak for the whole band, but I think it would be cool to collaborate with someone like David Byrne or Peter Gabriel.
WTJU: The band is based out of Portland—what is the music scene like there and how does it differ from other places you all have visited? Was Portland a good environment to begin the band in?
JA: Portland was indeed the perfect place, and we used to be a household name in Portland, but for the last 6 years we’ve been focused on touring, so I guess we’re an export product now. We only play Portland a couple times a year and have become somewhat disconnected from the city.
Portland has changed a lot, for the better and (because of that) now for the worse. The band was born out of the Alberta Arts District in 2003, back in the day when artists could afford cheap rent and make amazing things happen on a shoestring. Because everything in Portland is in close proximity, it made it very easy to get together and rehearse and throw parties. Now everyone and their dog wants to move to Portland, all the green spaces are filling in with crappy apartments, and the rent is being jacked up so artists can’t afford to live there. The little city is becoming a “real” city, without the racial diversity that makes up the foundation a lot of “real cities;” Portland seems to be attracting mostly white people, and frankly it’s kind of sad to me.
WTJU: I know MarchFourth!’s song “Gospel” was featured in Monsters University. Is that type of licensing something that the band is interested in continuing in the future?
JA: Oh God yes. Those kind of opportunities are what help bands survive. All of our income comes from people actually paying to see us, and we have to travel to play for them. Then we hopefully sell some merch and use that money to fund making our records (and investing in more merch). Licensing deals are a way for bands to make money without having to grind for it. With Monsters University, our song appeared in the movie but was left off the soundtrack. I would love it if we could do more of that kind of thing, and it would be a dream to have the band’s music be part of a larger film score.
WTJU: How has the band changed since its conception in terms of performance style, types of songs, etc.?
JA: We used to be pretty chaotic, and our performances used to be kind of cutesy-meets-drunky in a fun party way, like the band-next-door that you want to root for and don’t expect to be perfect. There are only 4 of us remaining from those days, and the people attracted to the project now are of a higher caliber in terms of their craft. Musically, we’ve always included all kinds of genres in an effort to create a sound of our own. Over the past few years the band has really dialed it in and we’ve somehow become a “professional” band without losing our goofy party edge. The band, pound for pound, is much tighter these days and the music is funky and rocking. The performers have really upped their game and now have that “wow” factor in their routines. Yet, we never want to be this super polished Cirque du Soleil Vegas-kind of thing. Our set list changes every night, and we are essentially down-to-earth folks who love making people happy. We’re still learning and evolving, and that’s the beauty of it.