Chicago’s Mucca Pazza is a difficult band to introduce. At over 30 members, they could easily be classified as a marching band, but only by appearance. With rock sensibilities and a wide array of instrumentation, there aren’t enough hyphens in the world to connect the eclectic genres mixed into any given piece.
Mucca Pazza will be releasing their new full length LP, Safety Fifth, on 12” vinyl through Electric Cowbell Records this Tuesday, 6/12. We’ve got your chance to win a copy right here, and in anticipation of the release, we were able to chat with guitarist Jeff Thomas about the new record, vinyl, and the intricacies of a 30+ member band.
Where did the marching band idea come from?
It is kind of an evolution of thoughts. In some form or another, we have all played with each other in different theatrical groups. Some of us participated in an anti-war march, where our band director, Mark Messing, put together an All-American anti-war marching band, as he called it. That idea started around the same time, and we thought that this is an interesting format for a rock and roll venue. Let’s see what we can do with a marching band performing in spaces that a marching band shouldn’t normally be performing in or that nobody has ever seen perform in before. That’s kind of how it came about.
Now the marching band format is starting to pop up in a lot of different cities. There are a lot of strange marching bands starting to come out and I don’t know if it is because of us band nerds who have never really been able to express ourselves in a 3, 4, or 5 piece rock group.
Are there any venues that don’t work? Have you encountered anywhere you can’t play?
No, we’ve found a way to always make it work whether it’s tight or not. There are some venues that are hard to perform in because the ceiling is too low for our sousaphone, but we’ve accommodated. We’ve even performed in canoes on the Chicago River. I think we pride ourselves on being able to perform in any kind of space and make it something special.
How did the speaker helmets come into existence?
I am the electric guitarist in the band, and I remember seeing the sort of genesis of Mucca Pazza when it was mostly horns and drums. I had known Mark Messing through working around Chicago, so when I had seen the seed group, the early Mucca Pazza, I told him I loved it and that I wished I played brass. He laughed and said, “We can just put a speaker on a helmet and then you can march around with us.” I laughed and thought it was a joke, but he had this “no, you can do this” kind of attitude. That’s kind of how it started and we just figured out how to do it.
What is the writing process like with 30+ musicians?
There are probably 10 composers in the band and each composer/piece has its own styles. Some of the pieces were written for specific sheet music and specific orchestrations, but there are also some pieces we’ve written collectively or just spontaneously. We do a piece called “Alarm” and that was written while we were in a parking lot and we heard a car alarm. We just started playing with it, and then turned it into a really loud, destructive, punk rock tune based on a car alarm. Then sometimes someone will just bring in a lead sheet that’s just melody and chords so each section will work out what they will do. Every piece is really kind of different.
Is it hard getting organized in a band with this many members?
It is and it’s a process that we’ve been working on for a while. With a band such as ours, with this many people, we’ve got to book tours, and that takes time and a lot of thought and a lot of communication. We are managing to figure it out in our own peculiar kind of way. We all love this project and we love being a part of it, so we do our best to make it easy to book tours and performances.
We are excited about Safety Fifth, can you tell us how this album is different from your previous records?
This is our first album in three years, and we have been trying to figure out how to think past just putting a group of songs together and make an album. On this album we’re still trying to get our band to be a distinct product, but we’ll probably never get that. Really, we are a piecemeal kind of band.
This album though is interesting because it’s our first album that we recorded in our own studio, in our own space, on our own time, and all together. That’s given us the freedom to make the decisions in the studio without being in somebody else’s space. It sort of gave us the feeling of being able to do whatever we wanted.
Why was it important to you that Safety Fifth be pressed on vinyl?
Party because we’ve always wanted to hear our stuff on vinyl. There’s something permanent about vinyl, something timeless about it. Something that like if all the electricity in the world goes out and we’re back to the Stone Age, and if that record hasn’t melted, we can hook up a bicycle, a needle, and a horn, and we can still enjoy this product we’ve made.
What are some of your personal influences for this album?
I try to buy up every original music score I can find, but they’re hard to find on vinyl. Unless you’re in a second hand store, most of the record stores really love the pop rock records like The Rolling Stones or Joy Division. But to try and find the original score of Elmer Bernstein’s The Caretakers, that’s a rare record. I love listening to that music, and that’s what I tend to collect. I do have my Joy Division, but there is some beautiful music by the ‘60s composers who were listening to The Rolling Stones, had an orchestra at their disposal, had a B-movie and could do whatever they wanted. They also knew that not a lot of people were going invest money, so they took some risks, and I find that kind of music fascinating.
How do the hometown Chicago audiences react to you vs. some of the other cities you’ve played?
It’s interesting, because we’ve been in Chicago, doing our thing, for the last 6 or 7 years and the Chicago audiences pretty much know us. So the difference between the audience and the band members is kind of blurred because the show turns into a big dance party and we are all enjoying this music together.
When we perform in front of other audiences and cities that have never seen us, it’s really more of a joy for us to see the audience see us for the first time. Typically their mouths are opened or their eyes are moving around the stage because there’s 30 freaky performance weirdos up there all playing together in different outfits with different personalities but making the same music. It’s fun to see an audience who has no idea what we are.
Anything you want to add?
Keep in touch. See our videos. If you really love our music then bust out that old saxophone that you’ve had since high school and get your other band nerds together and start your own freaky, weirdo, music, community band. There are plenty of four piece bands out there but not nearly enough 30 piece bands.
Mucca Pazza will be performing Safety Fifth in its entirety at a special sneak peak release show on Tuesday. The 21+ show will kick off at 9:00 PM at the Hideout, 1354 W Wabansia Avenue. Tickets are available for just $15 and can be picked up online through Ticketfly.
If you don’t win a copy of Safety Fifth here, you can pre-order it from Electric Cowbell Records for just $10.99. The jacket was designed by grammy-nominated Kathleen Judge (Neko Case), and if you order before Tuesday, you’ll get a free 12” x 18” full-color poster.
Touch the Police
Rabbits and Trees
Sunday Showing, Part 1
Tube Sock Tango
Hang ‘Em Where I Can See ‘Em
Mawi Wawi 5-0
For a chance to win a vinyl copy of Mucca Pazza’s Safety Fifth, simply share with us in the comments of this post your favorite film score. I’m going to go with Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love.
Please remember, only those of you with mailing addresses in the continental US can enter! The winner will be chosen on release day, Tuesday (6/12).
06/14 – Brooklyn, NY – Public Assembly
06/15 – West Orange, NJ – Thomas Edison National Park
06/16 – Washington, DC – Yards Park
06/20 – Chicago, IL – Garfield Park Conservatory
07/12 – Chicago, IL – Taste of Chicago
07/20 – Louisville, KY – Lebowski Fest
07/21 – Chicago, IL – Palmer Square
07/28 – Milwaukee, WI – Brady Street Music Festival
08/18 – Chicago, IL – Bottom Lounge
Interview by Patrick David