Scott Banning on the Origins of Itchy-O Marching Band
SW Photography Itchy-O Marching Band
During its relatively short life of a little over a year, Itchy-O Marching Band (due Sunday, May 22nd at Sutra) has left quite an impression on anyone who has seen this group of around thirty people in uniforms that make them look like a special unit of interdimensional troubadours.
Instead of just the typical marching band instrumentation, Itchy-O includes more experimental sounds provided by electric and electronic instruments, including vocoders and synths for a sound that is both classic and -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- charmingly eerie.
Band leader Scott Banning has been involved in the world of avant-garde music since his days living in California, and this group combines his love of both the weird and the visceral in an unforgettable experience both for the performers and the audience -- intended and otherwise. We had a chance to talk with Banning at length, in advance of the release of the group's debut EP Inferno, about how this whole thing came about and some of the ideas behind it.
Westword: So why is it that Shakes the Clown holds such a special place in your memory?
Scott Banning: I was working out of Local 16 in San Francisco for a couple of years. Working on films and stuff. Mostly I was pushing wood and working in the art departments and stuff. They payed fifteen grand twice to try to clean my ass up because I was out of control. I ended up in this pretty posh rehab, and once a week, they would go out and get us movies, and we could request what movies we wanted. So I requested Shakes the Clown , and they actually got it, and we watched Shakes the Clown in rehab.
So you were in rehab? What, may I ask, was it for?
Heroin. I cleaned up in 2002. I came out here in 2001. I was a total wreck, and in 2002 I got my shit together. I got my EMT, and I was running a 12-step meeting in the hospital on the psych floor that I was once a frequent flyer on. They ended up hiring me, and from there I went to the ICU.
How long had you been struggling with heroin?
First, and foremost, I was a total alcoholic, and I started using heroin on a regular basis to quit drinking so much, and it worked [laughs]. I stopped drinking so much, I'd say, right around '97 when it started, and by 2000... I was so smart I went to Southeast Asia to get away from heroin. I came back an absolute mess. At that point, I was involved with Crash Worship on that very last leg. I was never in Crash Worship, but I was going on tours with Extra Action Marching Band and Crash Worship.
I was helping Simon Cheffins with the Extra Action Marching Band right before I moved out here, so I had had a taste for guerilla, subversive marching bands. There's a lot of them now. I probably don't know of all of them, but when we first started this thing, in February of 2010, immediately, we caught some heat about copying another marching band here in town. We were catching heat on Facebook and being called "copycats" and my best response was: "Check out some of the other people doing this, Mucca Pazza, Kill Sonic, The Hungry March Band. Or Extra Action Marching Band. They certainly weren't the first."
Simon from Crash Worship is a good friend of mine, and intentionally or not, he has a way of cornering markets. In the '90s there were a bunch of bands that came out that looked and sounded a lot like Crash Worship, but the thing with that is, do you think Crash Worship was the first group of people to light a fire and pound on a drum? Not really [laughs].
There's a good chance that lighting a fire and pounding on a drum goes back to pre-historical times.
Right, fire and pounding on stuff. So what really happened was Itchy-O has actually been around since 2005. Because there was a good two years where I was absolutely done with music and scared to death at even the notion of making music again, just because there was so much stuff I couldn't listen to anymore and stuff I couldn't watch anymore. There were such deep associations with heroin and music, that I had to stay the hell away from it. In 2005, it started to look like I would be okay. There was no way I could live without making music.
So I acquired a record of canine heart sounds. I took this record and a friend of mine, Matt Mackman, who I met here in Denver through the IATSE [International Alliance of Theater and Stage Emplyees] Local, was really key into coaxing me off the island of recovery and saying, "You know what? There's still a place for you here without being all jacked up." He gave me this recording program called Amadeus, and I started screwing around with it, and then him and I recorded some music together for a project called The Secret Magic of Cumin. There was some great stuff that came out of that, and someday I'd like to put it out there -- if I ever have any time again.
But I put together this thing with layered heart sounds and called it Itchy-O. So Itchy-O started kind of as this dark, ambient thing. I'd been trying to get out of from behind...I don't know, you know, I used to go through phases of wanting to get out from behind the drums. I've given that up at this point. I've never been any sort of conventional drummer.
I've been playing drums since I was nine; it's what I'm good at, and I've accepted the fact that I'm a drummer. Any other instrument I try to play in my own limited fashion, I play like a drum. I've written a lot of the keyboard parts and handed them over to Kirsten Vermulen and she has augmented them and changed them and made them better.
Many of my influences are an Eastern approach to drums. I played in the San Francisco Taiko Dojo for a couple of years. I never performed with them. I just trained with them. They had a dojo in Little Japan, and it was ten bucks a class back then. Then they moved to Daly City or something. I joined the Oakland dojo for a little bit, but it was nowhere as fierce as the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
Sensei Tanaka is a really hard teacher, but what he transmits is really intense. The whole taiko approach is that there's a language spoken on the drums. It's very tonal, and it actually has syllables and you play prayers on drums. That was really intriguing to me. I really related to the whole prayer thing on drums. Drumming is really spiritual for me. Looking back, all I've ever wanted to have is a spiritual experience, and so everything that I do, creatively, is in an effort to transmit or experience some sort of spiritual experience.
That first Itchy-O recording was called Pulmonic. All of the songs on it took the titles of the heart sounds on the record, because they were all heart anomalies, like "Systolic Murmur." Dog heart sounds on vinyl. So awesome! I found it at a thrift store. It made me think, "I've got to make music again! This is a really great find."