Gimme Some Action

Nothing is safe from the chaotic mania of the Extra Action Marching Band

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.'"

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