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.
The band's music, however, isn't necessarily its focal point. Mateo the bullhorn player admits that parts for certain numbers were lifted from sambas and the soundtracks for Bruce Lee movies and Jesus Christ Superstar. Over an entire set, many of the tunes seem to blend together, which is intentional. Cheffins explains that the group's sound is inspired by the works of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a Moroccan horn-and-drum ensemble hailed by everyone from William Burroughs to Mick Jagger to Talvin Singh and with which Extra Action has played. Cheffins is a big fan of the Master Musicians' version of "ecstatic trance," the primeval music from which the electronica subgenre takes its name. "I think of trance in terms of people being able to step out of their daily lives by listening to music -- music that takes over people's lives while they're listening to it, in a visceral way, in a way that you can smell and feel, in a way that's immediate and urgent."
Cheffins changes the subject. "We should mention," he confides, "that as this interview is happening, members of the band are doing booty rolls on the couch and knocking over tables."
It would be a disappointment if the band members weren't acting oddly, considering Extra Action's reputation for outrageousness. At the 2000 Dyke March, the group spotted a party on the third floor of a nearby building and trooped on up; this year at the Exotic Erotic Ball, all 35 members crammed into the men's bathroom at the Cow Palace. In May 2000, the band was hired to play at a piercers' convention in Las Vegas. "Everyone took mind-altering substances and went into [an] old-man bar," Furstenberg recalls. "The flag girls were stripping down to beaded G-strings on the slot machines. Guys who were regulars were saying, "I haven't seen anything like this since 1959 -- pinch me!'" In July of last year, following spontaneous shows at the 16th Street BART station, the Atlas Cafe, and several bars, the group crashed a David Byrne/Dave Eggers reading at Cell Space. Apparently, Byrne stood on a chair and danced. "He was either very polite or he liked us; he called us the next day, but he didn't sign us to [his label] Luaka Bop," Furstenberg says with a grin.
When the band grew bored during a parade on Treasure Island on July 4, it took a detour and played in a Filipino family's kitchen. Afterward, the group decamped to a warehouse party, where the owners had stuffed 10-foot rubber ducks with fireworks. Eventually, an M-80 flew out, clocking Furstenberg in the head. "He fell down and busted his head open and passed out," snare man Tommy Cappel says. As a flag boy directed the ambulance toward the profusely bleeding trombonist, the group stood over him and played a song called "Black Chicken."
"The paramedics were like, "We've seen people get shot tonight and we've seen bloody-ass car wrecks, but this is way more mind-blowing,'" Furstenberg chuckles.
Extra Action has a similar effect on its audiences. At the SF Weekly Music Awards in October, the group stopped traffic on Columbus Avenue. But instead of getting pissed, one man got out of his car and joined in, while little old ladies danced in a tour bus' windows. Usually, Extra Action plays two or three spontaneous shows after each "official gig," wandering into wherever will have it -- and taking much of the audience from previous gigs along for the ride.
John Koch, lead guitarist for local band Troll, followed Extra Action for several hours during this year's Halloween parade in the Castro. "They turned chaos into complete harmony -- everyone was stepping in line and dancing with them," he remembers. "Whenever they would stop, chaos would start again. People would look at each other and say, "Why am I dancing with you?' Then [the band] would start up again, and everyone would join in."
"We're like the inhibition decloaker," trumpeter Gabe Pinar says.
"What the band does is social work -- it's personal outreach," says percussionist Montana Swiger.
"Yeah, we're terrorist social workers," Furstenberg laughs.
In fact, the more the band plays, the more people want to join it. A fourth segment of the group -- the pep squad, a less synchronized version of the flag corps -- was added recently to accommodate new members. The constant influx is starting to cause some problems, however. "We've gained about 15 members in the last few months, and it's starting to break apart under its own weight," Cheffins admits. "The old members are getting burned out. It's hard for us to work out new material with so many people."
"The bad kind of organization could ruin the band, but if we don't organize, the band could also implode," Furstenberg offers. "We were talking about this, and Simon said, "For a long time my vision of the band was this anarchic free-form thing that self-organized and was driven by the passion to bring this ecstatic, crazy experience to other people. But I guess my vision of the band has to change into a more ordered entity.'"
As a result, the group has become more selective in its choice of members; it's also talking to a booking agent and working toward putting out a CD of the tunes recorded at Lucky Cat and various live shows. Regardless of how the Extra Action Marching Band plan proceeds, its members hope to keep spreading the anarchy for a long time to come.
"It's a fantasy of mine that 15 years from now -- when I'm long gone -- there will still be an Extra Action Marching Band," Kelly Richardson says.
"I want to see it be like the Master Musicians of Joujouka, where it's a multigenerational thing, and we can retire eventually and rake in the earnings," Furstenberg says.