ARCHIVE: Hungry, Horny, Hot to Trot

cropped_and_resized_band_toc_bodyBy TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 15, 2009)

They emerged from around streetcorners, from in between buildings and behind parked vehicles. A small cluster of dancers, twirlers and drummers at first, then a couple of dozen blaring brass and woodwinds strong — and finally a surreal squadron leading a crowd of duly deputized revelers up the street in some kind of cattywampus carnavale.

It was June of 2008 and The Hungry March Band had landed at Asbury Park, a madcap procession that traveled from the Cookman Avenue arts-block district to the center-lanes stage of the Asbury Lanes — with time in between to march on up two flights of stairs and cram into Bink’s “inner sanctum” for an impromptu blast that’d be a lease-buster in lesser burgs.

Formed close to a decade ago in the shadow of the Cyclone in Brooklyn, blessed with an ever-morphing liquid lineup, the HMB has marched in the vanguard of a truly grass-roots musical movement that’s as open-air inviting as it is underground — a “radical street-band” underground that flips the “band geek” paradigm around into the funnest, freakiest party you’ve ever died to get into. It’s a movement that’s taken root across North America and points elsewhere, with highly mobile musical units like Rhode Island’s What Cheer? Brigade and Portland, Oregon’s March Fourth Marching Band crisscrossing the continent on seat-of-their-pants tours that have brought both organizations to the Lanes.

And Asbury’s “atom age alterna-arts odditorium” — already a scene like something out of Fellini on most nights — has stepped up to provide friendly harbor for these spitvalve squadrons, none of whose members tend to make anything resembling a living from their big-band bivouacs. With their colorful costumes — tawdry top hats, checked blazers, Seussian striped stockings and fallen-majorette regalia — the Hungry marchers fit right in as performance art, alongside the burlesque revivalists, sideshow specialists and theatrically bent bands who’ve made the Lanes the venue of choice for latter-day vaudevillians.

It’s not just about the visuals, though. The HMB are a seriously musical lot — as prone to purvey an obscure gypsy traditional or Bollywood soundtrack number as they are to deal out their own avant-funk, nu-jazz, no-wave brand of originals. With the sousaphones pulsing out killer bass riffs and the hardcore drumline rolling with the natural slapback from a downtown concrete canyon, the stage is set for the brash punkitude of their communal arrangements to piledrive these tunes home, in a way that recalls everything from the USC Marching Band and big-band Benny Goodman, to ZappaZornSun Ra and, what the hell, Pigbag.

Busy as they are with traditions like the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the Village Halloween Parade and the just-ended annual HONK! Festival in Boston, the Hungry March Band has actually never gotten around to playing a football game. But beginning 6pm tonight at the Brooklyn Bridge and continuing through this weekend, they’ll be busier than ever with their own BONK! slate of events in Brooklyn — with one crucial detour down the shore to Asbury Park. This Saturday night finds the HMB hosting a BONK! Brass ‘n Bowl brouhaha, with special guests The Yellow Hat Band (from Seattle) and The Pink Puffers (who the band met in Rome on their recent tour of France and Italy). Doors creak open at 10pm, which suggests to us at least a little bit of pre-show mobile mayhem on the boards and boulevards of the city.

Searching for someone to interview within the Hungry horde, Red Bank oRBit was put in contact with Sara Valentine — who, as very visible twirler in the band’s “Pleasure Society,” often fronts the band on full parade. She also serves as eloquent spokesperson for the HMB at large, and even put us on the phone with drummer Adam Loudermilk as she made sure that everyone in the crew had their lunch order right. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: Thanks for talking to us, Sara. You come highly recommended by Juicy Jenn at the Lanes, as a liaison of sorts.

SARA VALENTINE: For today I am! I’m booking the show with the Lanes, which is part of our own thing called the BONK! Festival. It mostly takes place in Brooklyn, but we love it at the Lanes. It kind of reminds me of CBGB; very cool, no presumptions. And it’s such a fun environment, they treat the performers so well there.

Well, I first saw you there, and in downtown Asbury Park, last summer and I was just amazed in a way that no band had managed to do in quite some time. Would you put Asbury Lanes, Asbury in general, on the short list of favorite venues?

Definitely, although I have to say we were late in coming to play there — other bands like What Cheer and March Fourth had already played there by the time we got around to it, even though we live closest to Asbury Park. But if we’re identified with any one place, it’s Coney Island. We have such a good relationship with Coney Island; the band originally came together to play the 1997 Mermaid Parade, and we’ve played it nearly every year since.

We grew as a band; over time it became a horn-heavy ensemble, and we started doing things like the HONK! Festival, with all of the other radical street bands, all of them large ensembles with brass and lots of percussion. This year they had 25 bands from all over America; a couple from Canada and one from Italy.

And that Italian band is one of the groups that you’ll be bringing with you to Asbury?

Yes, they’re called the Pink Puffers. We met them in Rome; they’re really funny, great choreography, and I think you’ll really love them when you see them.

Well, it’s interesting to see this thing taking off the way it has, particularly because it’s so live-performance oriented, and I’m sure not exactly cost-effective. You all gotta go out there and cram into the multiple vans, and hope you don’t lose somebody back there at the rest stop. But would you say it’s become kind of a Revenge of the Band Geeks thing, for all the kids who were in band in high school? Were you a band geek yourself?

Actually I was in drama; that was my thing in high school. But as for it being a geek thing, maybe you should ask Adam — he’s over here, and he can talk to you about it while I figure out who ordered the sandwiches and who gets the Indian food.

ADAM LOUDERMILK: Hello? Yeah, to answer that question, it could be kind of a geek thing. We definitely have a few band geeks here. I remember my own high school band director being quite the tyrant; it would be a tough experience a lot of times. But I stuck with it, and anytime anyone asks me why I do it, it’s because I get to play the music that I enjoy.

I guess it’s a safe assumption that nobody’s getting rich playing in a big marching band.

ADAM: No, it’s definitely not a moneymaking venture. We’ve all got our other gigs and things to do. And we wind up doing a lot of free shows; we did a series of renegade events in New York, playing random spots in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Staten Island Ferry.

One of the things we’ll do is play to support causes that we believe in. We’ll get a consensus going and do a charitable fundraising, awareness sort of event.

So how many people are in the band these days?

ADAM: It fluctuates a lot. There’s a core group of ten to fifteen people most of the time, and it can go to as many as 22, 23 members. Right now it’s about eighteen, nineteen people — and we got by with less than that when we made our two trips to Europe; about thirteen or fourteen total.

So we’ll be seeing a little under 20 people in the band when you drive down to Asbury Park?

SARA: Actually more like a dozen for the Asbury Lanes. We have a lot going on over the weekend and not everyone can make the trip. We’re super busy this October, which is great, but we’re doing the big Halloween Parade, and we’re at St. Ann’s Church on Halloween Eve. We’re doing all kids of new things — we played at a soccer game a while back. We may never play halftime at a football game, but maybe soccer will be our thing, and we’ll be a different kind of marching band for a different sport!

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