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By Gil Riego Jr.
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The audience members at Studio Z don't know what's coming. They're busy enjoying the Future Primitive Soundsession, shaking to the turntable wizardry of Pam the Funktress, Shortee, Jack Dangers, and other DJs. There's a break-dance circle in one corner, and up on some scaffolding Devious Dose Green paints a mural in time with the music. It's your average cool Saturday night show -- until the Extra Action Marching Band shows up.
The first thing the crowd hears is a martial thudding, delivered before Extra Action even leaves the backstage area. People turn their heads, wondering what is going on, craning to see. One by one the flag boys and girls pop out of the doorway dressed in skimpy white-and-gold uniforms. Next comes the pep squad, bedecked in gold helmets and pompoms; a plethora of horn players and drummers follows. What at first appears to be a regular band grows stranger with each passing moment. Finally, the very large, very loud band pushes into the middle of the crowd and chaos erupts, with flag and pep squad members draping themselves on unsuspecting dancers, drummers pounding out thick rhythms, and horn players blowing in all directions. Everywhere you look, people share the same expression, a mixture of confusion and delight that seems to ask, "Who are these guys?"
Ordinarily, marching bands don't inspire such reactions; then again, there's nothing ordinary about the Extra Action Marching Band. This is a group that pushes lasciviousness to ridiculous extremes, favors unannounced performances over set gigs, and is more apt to play twisted funk than "When the Saints Go Marching In." In three years, the collective has gone from being a novelty fixture on the underground party circuit to one of the most unpredictable and inspiring groups on the local music scene. Along the way, the 35-member ensemble has taken the concept of the marching band -- and live music -- into the realm of guerrilla theater, invading celebrity book readings, municipal transportation hubs, record stores, and even private homes. Of course, responses to the band's shenanigans vary.
"We never know if people are going to throw bottles or panties," says bell player Violet Erica Angel.
"You can't really predict how people are going to respond," trumpeter Ben Furstenberg admits. "The weird thing about the Marching Band is that all kinds of people seem to like it: cops, junkies, various stripes of hipsters, streetwalkers, jocks."
So what is it that makes carpenters, opera singers, sous-chefs, graphic designers, and other seminormal folk get dressed up in booze-stained outfits and go barnstorming across the nightclub landscape, unsure whether they'll be greeted with cheers or jeers? "The shows are like the best drugs you've ever done crossed with the best sex crossed with the best loving," flag girl Kelek Stevenson explains.
The Extra Action Marching Band began in early 1998 as a "processional band" for the bacchanalian cult group Crash Worship, serving as a mobile opening act for the wildness to come. Several of Extra Action's earliest members still play in the ensemble, including Angel, timbale/tom player Simon Cheffins, bass drummer Andrew Berrian, snare players Tommy Cappel and Kelly Richardson, pole drummer Mutt Mule, tom-tom player Jon Scheinker, and drummer-turned-bullhorner Mateo (who goes by his first name only).
At first, Extra Action mostly performed at friends' parties and Crash Worship gigs, occasionally riding roughshod over more public events like the Castro Halloween parade. The current version of the band didn't come together until a year and a half ago with the addition of a horn section and the synchronization of the flag team.
With its exuberant sexual interactions and gender-bending disguises, the flag team often draws the most attention during performances. What began as a one-man troupe called, oddly enough, Fred's All-Girl Flag Team has evolved into a choreographed squad that will go to any extreme to elicit a reaction from the crowd. "We're a bunch of crazy bitches," Kelek Stevenson says with glee during an interview at a Hayes Valley bar. For a time, the outfit preferred boxing gloves to flags. Unfortunately, not everyone watching wanted to climb into the ring: At a May 2000 show at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art, one attendee took offense when his girlfriend's drink got spilled and cold-cocked a flag girl.
"The marching band brings on a level of energy, a level of chaos and intensity that a lot of people don't know how to deal with," Stevenson says. "It turns into weird aggressive trips or weird sexual trips, stuff that can be very invasive."
"Do you know what "abjection' is?" flag girl Mimi Vitetta asks. "It's an art-theory term for when you're both disgusted by something and you really like it at the same time. I think the flag team is like that. It brings out the things that people are disgusted [by] about women."
"We're trying to take everything to an extreme," says drummer Angel. "It's more of a sexploitation vibe than a sex vibe. We're trying to be so over-the-top that it's ridiculous. I hate it when people take us seriously."
As for the horn section, it started as a threesome of trumpeters (Eduardo Ríos, Dolores Ávila, and Fighty Bitey Liz) playing freewheeling solos over drum parts written by Cheffins, Richardson, Cappel, and Angel. By the fall of 2000, enough members had joined for de facto brass leader Ruben Tomar to suggest that the horn section "retire" for a bit, separating from the band to write its own parts. When the two camps reconvened in spring 2001 to record tracks at S.F.'s Lucky Cat Recording studio, the horn players had created intricate melodies that raised the music to a new level.
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