A punk absurdist marching band? Chicago troupe to fill Brass Rail
Accordionist originally from Fort Wayne
Photo by Jason Creps
March 5, 2020
Mucca Pazza is an Italian phrase meaning “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Actually, that’s a lie. Mucca Pazza means “Mad Cow.” That’s what an eccentric music troupe calls itself and, given the nature of that delightfully subversive eccentricity, the name is as appropriate as any.
Mucca Pazza will perform at the Brass Rail on March 14.
A fun take on tradition
Mucca Pazza first started rehearsing in 2004 in a steel mill parking lot with a view of the Chicago river.
Former Fort Wayne resident Hope Arthur became a member about a year and a half ago.Arthur was well known to Fort Wayne music aficionados as a keyboardist who was comfortable in myriad settings.
With Mucca Pazza, Arthur plays the accordion.
Asked how she would describe Mucca Pazza to someone who knew nothing about the band, Arthur said, “I kind of use some of the verbiage from the bio, which is that we’re a punk absurdist marching band. It’s a really fun take on a traditional thing, which is marching band. That’s something that a lot of people can connect with us over. I think the most important thing for me is that the goal of this band is to just spread pure joy.”
Being in a traditional marching band is a much weirder experience than people who only watch marching bands might assume, Arthur said in a phone interview with Whatzup.
But Mucca Pazza is weirder, hence my “Revenge of the Nerds” reference.
I, as a longtime weirdo and nerd, would never use the words “weird” or “nerds” pejoratively to describe Mucca Pazza. Mucca Pazza is what a marching band would be like if it let its collective hair down, so to speak.
The uniforms don’t match, for one thing. For another, the songs (mostly originals) run far afield and afoul of anything that might be considered the traditional marching band “repertoire.”
Mucca Pazza songs can draw upon reggae, rock, soul, funk, classical, and the music of New Orleans brass bands.
And Mucca Pazza makes use of instruments and instrumentalists that aren’t usually found in marching bands. These instruments and instrumentalists are grouped in the “freak section.”
I think it’s safe to assume that “freak” isn’t used pejoratively there.
“Our current freak section is guitar, mandolin, violin, cello, and accordion,” Arthur said. “We’re playing around with ways to amplify ourselves. Otherwise, during the show, we have to plug our instruments into an amp and then we’re stuck with cables.”
For 25 people crowded atop often small stages, being stuck with cables is a real problem.
So Mucca Pazza developed “speaker helmets.”
“They’re basically megaphones attached to helmets,” Arthur said laughing. “With a battery. It’s pretty ridiculous. You plug your instrument into your helmet.”
Just making it work
Traditional marching bands are known for tight choreography. Mucca Pazza moves more like a punk band.
This can get tricky on a small stage (like the one at the Brass Rail, for example).
“We just make it work,” Arthur said. “I mean, we just did a residency at the Hideout in Chicago. And that stage is also very tiny. We just make it work. We also have ways of being immobile and playing in the audience. So we might put a certain amount of people on stage and then the rest of them could play in the audience. It all depends, because we want to sound good, too. So we just kind of make the call based on the gig, whether we want to be onstage and have full sound or if we’re gonna be mobile and be self-amplified.”
And then there are the cheerleaders. As you might expect if you’ve read thus far, the cheerleaders in Mucca Pazza are different from the ones that you might see at a college basketball game.
For one thing, they might do a cheer about algebra or the Dewey Decimal System. For another, they usually break away from each other and do some interpretive dancing.
Basketball players don’t consider cheerleaders to be a part of their team, but Mucca Pazza cheerleaders are full members of the band, Arthur said.
“We’ve been having a lot of conversations,” she said, “about integrating them into the compositional process. Maybe using them as instruments or composing things based off of their movements. So we’re functioning more deeply as a unit.”
Make art and spread joy
Mucca Pazza has performed at Lollapalooza and on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Its music was featured on the Amazon Studios series Transparent.
The band was also invited by NPR to perform a “Tiny Desk Concert” in 2015.
Despite these achievements, Mucca Pazza is not yet a full-time job for its participants.
Even many five-piece rock bands who aren’t gargantuanly famous struggle to break even on a tour. Add 20 more pieces and profitability becomes a dicier proposition.
“We make an effort to take on corporate gigs to offset some of the gigs where we might not make much money,” Arthur said.
The nonmonetary rewards of being in the band are ample, however.
“A lot of the people in the band are professional musicians who are doing (Mucca Pazza) outside of that,” Arthur said. “So everyone goes in knowing it’s not the highest money maker.
“I feel like everybody in the band is on the same page, that we want to make art and we want to spread joy,” she said. “We believe in this mission of Mucca Pazza to do that. It’s such a special wonderful thing that we all want to keep doing.”