We Will Run Through You: The What Cheer? Brigade Prepares to Invade Houston

I was never in marching band. It wasn’t that I hated the brass or snare or tuba, nothing like that — it’s just that I saw all those poor bastards practicing outside on the parking lot tarmac in the Texas afternoon heat, wearing those hideous, heavy woolen uniforms and with some weird martinet of a “teacher” shrieking that they were doing it wrong, and I swore to myself that I would never, ever do that. Marching band people, the kind of people who really, truly loved it, they were flat-out crazy; they might as well have come from a different planet.

All of which may explain why Providence, Rhode Island’s What Cheer? Brigade made perfect sense to me the very first time I heard them — they were finally definitive, indisputable proof that yes, marching band people were crazed, noise-addled whackjobs. Because that kind of insanity’s practically required to be a member of the Brigade.

I mean, we’re talking a nineteen-piece band, one that’s equally at home on a stage or tramping down some grimy street in the backwoods of Europe, who play music that’s less John Philip Sousa and more Gogol Bordello (or maybe Motherhead Bug, at least in their instrumental mode). They’re wild, brash, and in-your-face, soldering together every genre imaginable, from punk to second-line jazz to salsa to klezmer, and all at full, break-your-eardrums, dance-party volume. All purely with people power; no amps in sight.

And now, for the first time (as far as I’m aware, anyway), they’re nearing the gates of our fair city, ready to invade the downtown environs with their massive, raucous, band-as-movement sound. Be afraid, very afraid. And then either dance or get the hell out of the way.

SCR: Okay, so first things first: where the heck did What Cheer? Brigade come from?  Can you give us some history, or maybe a manifesto of some kind? And why a marching band, as opposed to a more traditional “band”-type band, or even something electrified like The Polyphonic Spree?
Greetings from Mardi Gras. It’s 9:50 and we’ve been drinking and playing music all day; we’re writing from a computer that doesn’t do capital “L”s.

To answer your first two questions, we wanted to make loud party music that didn’t rely on amplification and could be completely mobile. Hence, brass and drums. Our inspiration comes from the various brass band and street music traditions around the world, as well as contemporaries like Extra Action, The Infernal Noise Brigade, the Hungry March Band, and the Brass liberation Orchestra.

Is there any significance to the name?  Is it a Rhode Island thing?
“What Cheer?” is the city motto of Providence; it’s an old English greeting that means, “what’s happening?” Local legend has it that when Roger Williams landed at what is now Providence, members of the Narragansett Nation approached his vessel and said, “What cheer, netop?” “Netop” is the Narragansett word for friend.

As it happens, What Cheer is also a town in Iowa, which, according to its town founding legend, was named by someone originally from Providence.

What are your musical backgrounds, in general?  Are the Brigadeers mostly, say, refugees from Rhode Island punk bands or from high-school marching band?
Some of us are former band geeks and some are veterans of, or still active in, Providence’s noise, punk, metal, and/or free-jazz scenes. Some are both. It’s hard for Providence to take you seriously if you’re not as loud and aggressive as possible, and our music and performance reflect this.

Who does the songwriting, for the most part?  Is it a communal effort, or…?
We perform a combination of covers and originals. There are four or five of us who write and arrange for the band, but the final versions of our arrangements are usually a result of workshopping by the entire band.

Is there one main mastermind who runs the show from behind the scenes, Wizard of Oz-style?
No. We make decisions democratically. At the same time, there is definitely a core group of organizers who step up to make those decisions a reality. When we travel, we rotate leadership each day.

I’m somewhat stunned, by the way, by the sheer breadth of musical influences, from samba to klezmer to Gypsy music to whatever else. How does that all come together?
Street music and brass band music from all around the world share a number of common threads, and we try to knit it all together. But, again, one of the most vital influences is Providence’s tradition of aggressive, loud-as-hell music, which our live show makes evident.

Are there plans for a followup to We Blow You Suck?
Yes. This fall we recorded a “live-in-studio” show at Machines with Magnets in Rhode Island. We’re mixing it right now, and we’re really excited about it. Machines With Magnets has worked a really cool variety of artists, from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to Battles.

Congrats on winning the Haizetara Street Music International Contest; that sounds like a pretty ridiculous cool deal.  What’s the reception been like in Europe in general?
The Europe shows were awesome. One great thing about touring with this band is the variety of shows we can play, from club shows to political rallies to shows for kids. And if a show falls through, we can always just play out on the street. Haizetara itself was insanely fun. I think that the younger people in the town, from the kids to young adults, picked up on the fact that we were one of the younger, scrappier, weirder bands competing in the festival, and they showed us a great time and great hospitality.

How’s the tour down south been going?  I can’t even comprehend what it must be like to travel with, what, 19 people?
Our last Southern tour, in August 2009, was, show for show, probably our most consistently awesome tour. Not sure why, but crowds down south just get us. After a great show, a punk in Chattanooga gave us one of the most thoughtful compliments we’ve ever received: “Your show blew my mind, and I know it must be difficult traveling with this many people, so I appreciate whatever it is that goes into making this work.”

Our shows over the past few days in New Orleans have been amazing, and we added a last minute show in Lafayette last night, where we met three awesome Cajun guys named Shikey, Junebug, and Smitty.

And what the heck is HONK!TX?  Seeing it on the WC?B site was the first time I’d ever heard of it…
HONK! is a festival of street bands that originated about five years ago in Boston and spread to Seattle and now Austin. The festival focuses particularly on activist and community-based brass bands.

Kind of added to that, is there a marching-band subculture floating around out there?  Reading through the blog, it sounds like there are a lot more bands out there like y’all than I would’ve guessed.  Got any compatriots/partners-in-crime?
The Honk! website is a great resource to learn about the emergent marching band subculture right now. There is a new wave of community and activist street bands popping up around the world right now! Particularly important fellow-travelers of ours include the Rude Mechanical Orchestra from NYC, who are super politically-on-point and perform almost exclusively at rallies, protests, and benefits.

Even though it’s not a musical track per se, I love the track “Recess,” where you recorded a bunch of what I’m guessing were elementary school kids freaking out after a performance; do y’all play a lot of kids’ shows, at schools and whatnot?
Yes, we try to perform at a few local elementary schools every year. These are some of the funnest shows we play.

What can us Houstonians expect from the WC?B show here in our sweaty, spread-out city?
We don’t mess around; making people dance at our live shows is the central reason for our existence. We are aggressive; we will run through you; you will interact with us. END

[What Cheer? Brigade is playing the SXSW Overflow Fest on 3/10/11 at Super Happy Fun Land, along with Vockah Redu & The C-4 Band.]

Interview by . Interview posted Wednesday, March 9th, 2011. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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2 Responses to “We Will Run Through You: The What Cheer? Brigade Prepares to Invade Houston”

  1. KateA on March 10th, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I saw the WC?B in Chattanooga with my family. It was one of the most enjoyable shows that I have seen in years. My daughter, 4 at the time, was entranced. All of the people there were. It was an outdoor thing and the band involved the crowd and turned a blacktop parking lot into a party. After the show, the musicians stuck around and let kids play some of the percussion instruments. If you can see one of their shows, do it.

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » SXSW Overflow 2011: Day Two (What Cheer? Brigade, Vockah Redu, & The C-4 Band) on March 10th, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    […] they were enjoying all the seamy underbelly of New Orleans has to offer, so you can check that out right on over here, including an MP3 courtesy of label Anchor Brain Recs. And hey, if you’re still not convinced […]

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