Christopher Todd / Courtesy Photo
Adam S Phillips / Coutresy Photo
If you go
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1
Where: Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St. Boulder, 303-447-0095
More info: foxtheatre.com
Denver’s itchy-O, in case you’ve been missing out, is a 32-piece percussion-centered electronic marching band.
The basic idea is that horns have been replaced with synthesizers, vocoders and theramins. The larger idea is to disorient the audience. Even beyond the experimental nature of the music, an itchy-O show is a totally unusual experience.
We shot Scott Banning some questions by email ahead of the band’s Feb. 1 show at the Fox Theatre.
An electronic marching band isn’t exactly a common thing. How did this all come together in the beginning?
Itchy-O started in 2005 as an ambient project made from the layered tracks of animal heartbeats found on vinyl from a veterinarian school. In 2007 itchy-O had grown to nine players: drummer, percussionist/sampler, cellist, violinist, accordion, two guitarists and two bassists. We were playing music choreographed to experimental films created by the founders of the group (who now prefer to remain nameless). These early multi-media shows were lavish, and as itchy-O was relatively unknown, landing shows to bring the production to was a difficult.
The main founder of the group had close ties to the infamous ’90s act Crash Worship and was alumni from the notoriously irreverent Extra Action Marching Band from San Francisco. itchy-O is hugely inspired by these two acts and could easily be considered the bastard child of both.
Having had direct experience with the power of procession and crashing events, itchy-O decided to experiment with this offshoot project, bypass the politics of booking/promoting, strap amps to their backs, harness drums to their fronts, and take their show to large crowds themselves. When considering taking itchy-O to the streets and un-tethering the cinematic “sit-down” band, it wasn’t hard to make the leap to battery-powered electronics, as no one in the band played brass. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. So, we started tinkering around and have come a long way since the early days of exploding batteries and smoking wires down in the basement. We also quickly adopted a “no-brass” policy as this immediately set us apart from all of the other raucous marching bands springing up all over.
In the bio on your website, there’s a line about the “disorienting power of itchy-O.” Is creating something disorienting a goal or just the way the music turns out?
Our goal is chaos, and we rock the Church of Entropy. However, the music itself is highly structured and organized. But, one of the things that is so disorienting about an itchy-O show is that we smash this perception that the band plays on stage. Audiences are so conditioned to focusing their attention toward the front of the house that when performers come up from behind them and play next to them, that division that is broken is really powerful. People then feel overcome by the show and even be a part of.
The visual elements are obviously important to the performance. Can you give me some insight into the creative process there?
We are pirates in many respects, besides performing masked and swarming our audiences like organized crime. Our aesthetics include elements from a variety of cultures. However, when witnessed all at once in our itchy-O avant-rock-blender, the lines of reference become blurred. Cultural origins are stripped away and become completely archetypal and strangely alien … but primally innate.
This upcoming show at the Fox is a Chinese New Year show. I’m guessing there will be visuals that reflect that? How about the music?
This show will shine a light on our Chinese Lion Dancers, who are traditionally trained. We also have some other Chinese New Year tricks up our sleeves that we’d like to keep up our sleeves.
I’m curious how you ended up working with St. Vincent and David Byrne. The collaboration makes a lot of sense.
David Byrne LOVES marching bands. The Talking Heads also used to have a ton of unconventional, disorienting tactics at their live shows, like closing with a supporting act, which is what he had us do last year at the Botanical Gardens. The initial email forwarded to us from Mr. Byrne said that he had “worked with the Extra Action Marching band in the past and wondered if itchy-O would be interested in doing something similar.” We were totally pinching ourselves and we are pretty sure he had no idea that there were alumni from Extra Action in itchy-O.
Someone had turned him onto a short documentary that had recently been made about itchy-O, and he evidently liked it and contacted us. Judging on how big his eyes got when he turned around on stage and saw us after we had filtered in from backstage, he had little idea of what was coming. The videos online are telling but do not give this production full justice.
Needless to say, playing this show with David Byrne and St. Vincent was a dream come true. He was incredibly warm towards us and all of his players and management were an absolute pleasure to work with. We all joked that we could hang it up after that show. David Byrne likes our band — mission accomplished!
Contact Ashley Dean at 303-473-1109. On Twitter: twitter.com/AshaleyJill.