WHEN Fri 2/23, 9 PM
WHERE Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
MORE Velcro Lewis & His 100 Proof Band and Reds and Blue open
In a few weeks, bands all over the country will start making their way to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival. It can be an arduous journey--hundreds of acts are all trying to get shows on the same days at the same venues in Oklahoma City, Fayetteville, Dallas, Houston, and other pit stops that can make the pilgrimage profitable, or at least help pay the way. If the costs are daunting to a typical four-piece, it's no wonder Chicago's Mucca Pazza found them insurmountable--the 30-piece "circus punk marching band" had to take a pass. "The maximum time people felt they could take off of work was four or five days," says bandleader Mark Messing. "We needed to fly. Plane tickets were gonna run about $5,000." Factor in renting a truck to transport equipment down south, plus two vans to cart the band around once they were in Austin, and in the end they couldn't figure out how to do it for under ten grand.
Mucca Pazza has had the kind of year plenty of bands would kill for: playing Lollapalooza, appearing on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, headlining a sold-out Saturday night gig during the Tomorrow Never Knows festival at Schubas. They've landed representation at Satellite Booking, the agency that handles the Silver Jews, Bobby Conn, Pit Er Pat, and Bert Jansch, and in December they self-released their first EP, A Little Marching Band. Navigating popularity with a crew of 30 may be their biggest challenge.
The group has origins in the All-American Anti-War Marching Band, an ensemble of musicians and activists Messing helped assemble in early 2003, just as the U.S. was readying for war. "We had about 80 people," Messing says. "Maybe a dozen of them were musicians; the rest were activists." They'd participate in protests, parading to the Daley Center making as big a ruckus as possible. But Messing, who's been involved in various performance groups since moving to Chicago in 1979 and works full-time as a composer for films and theater companies like Redmoon and Lookingglass, thought the group could be transformed into something a little more long-term. "I was scheming about a band with odd combinations of instruments that could march around town as its own music-driven spectacle," he says. The following winter he started inviting people to play at Maestro-Matic, his recording studio and business office in Humboldt Park.
In the fall of 2004 Messing approached Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten, who'd also been active in the antiwar movement, to see if the club would be willing to host regular performances by the group, which had taken the name Mucca Pazza. Tuten gave them one Monday a month. "I felt like the taverns that gave free stuff to the revolutionaries at Valley Forge," Tuten says. "In Nicaragua during the Sandinista era, places like the Hideout were called 'patriotic businesses.' I felt like it was the least we could do to help."
The early shows, Messing says, were "like an open rehearsal. Pieces were too long. But there was something that people enjoyed, I guess. They were amused. If they weren't into it, they'd just say, 'Oh, these guys are jamming.'" The group was relatively small back then, with six or seven regular members, most of whom had played together previously. Percussionist Rick Kubes, for example, had known Messing through the theater scene since the early 90s. "We said in the beginning people could just bring their friends," says trombonist Elanor Leskiw, "and if they liked it, they stayed." The band continued expanding. Cheerleaders were thrown into the mix. And some recruits were drafted in fairly random ways. Accordionist Shaye Cohn, Messing says, "was just playing on the street by Earwax. I put a bunch of money in her hat and said, 'Please call us.'"
During a Mucca Pazza show soloists step on each other's toes and horn players give wallflowers in the audience an earful of brass while the cheerleaders walk a thin line between overzealous and confrontational. Everyone's done up like it's halftime at a college football game. And that's on an average night. "The first year, we realized we just had to learn how to play together as a large group," Messing says. By the summer of 2005 they'd started branching out from the Hideout. One of their bigger early shows was at the Metro, playing between acts on a Dresden Dolls bill. "We got so spread out that we completely fell apart," Messing says. "Half the band was already playing a completely different song by the time the other half had caught up.
"The nicest, weirdest place we played last year was in canoes," says Messing, referring to a benefit for Friends of the Chicago River held last summer. "We got in 14 canoes at Wacker, close to Lake Shore Drive, and paddled inland. We actually rode and rehearsed some formations, moving from a column to a semicircle. When a section of the band was featured they either stood up or were paddled into the middle of the semicircle. We reformed the column during the final song and faded into the sunset."
Last spring word of the band reached the producers of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, who were digging around for local talent to appear during a week of tapings at the Chicago Theatre in May. Two days before the taping of the final show they were booked to perform during the closing credits. "When he came out and introduced us," Kubes says, "he worded it as a thank-you to Chicago, so everyone just screamed. It sure sounded like it was for us! We knew the reality, but it was still our rock-star moment."
The national TV appearance naturally increased demand. "Last June, I asked them to play the Summer on the Square benefit in Logan Square," says Tuten. "They'd never turned me down for a benefit, and they'd just done one for Hurricane Katrina kids in the Chicago Public Schools. Mark and Elanor asked everyone if they could play, and then felt really bad telling me they just couldn't. They had three events in a row, including a show at Martyrs' that sold out. It kind of hit me then: in our world Mucca Pazza was always big, but they were becoming 'popular.'"
Late last summer the organizers of Lollapalooza offered the band a slot. The festival brought them into a more "traditional relationship with the audience," says Messing, "where we're on a stage between two sets of speakers, our sound's coming from one direction, and people are watching." Kubes, at least, wasn't entirely comfortable with it. "That was rough," he says. "Jumping over chords, getting goosed by drum pads, the heat and humidity. People are evaporating in those outfits and you have no space to do shit. But from the minute we walked offstage, there was something different. There's no question, phones have been ringing off the hook since."
In November Mucca Pazza released A Little Marching Band, which they'd been recording in fits and starts for over a year at Maestro-Matic. It was a challenge for engineer Jacob Ross, who came in to help with the sessions. "Space becomes an issue when a band gets as big as Mucca Pazza," Ross says. "Not just physical space--the sonic space of the mix is just as crowded." The EP is being distributed through the Web site CD Baby, but Messing says they think of it more as a souvenir people can take home from a show. And while it isn't without its merits, Messing admits it's hard to replicate the experience of having a trombone slide whiz past your face.
Once you've got a record out, of course, your next step is to tour, and though Mucca Pazza won't make SXSW this year, they're planning a less expensive trek to Columbia, Missouri, in early March, where they'll play the True/False film festival. This weekend they're headlining the Double Door, there are a slew of benefits on the horizon, including ones for the community youth-arts initiative Co-Op Image and the Chicago Bike Federation. A mobile performance with Critical Mass is also in the works. "Whether it's financially profitable or not is not the worth," says Messing. "It's whether we have a good chance of connecting with an active community that's involved in the promotion of the arts or other social endeavors: bike and food co-ops, sustainable energy and agriculture organizations. Groups that parallel the independent track we're part of in the music world."
Anyone who saw the giant Adidas sign behind the band at Lollapalooza might wonder if compromise is inevitable, but Messing remains optimistic. "We're not dependent on our band, so we can turn down anything we need to," he says. "I hope we won't have to compromise one thing, that in the big and the small we'll be able to keep the priceless things priceless."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.