Photo courtesy of Todd Seelie
If you’ve attended Pittonkatonk, you’ll know that the party What Cheer? Brigade brings is unmatched, creating music that makes you want to dance or march into joyous battle against the evils of the world. If you haven’t yet seen the band, imagine a small army of folks wearing marching-band gear with the biggest smiles on their faces, dancing around, running through the crowd and crowd-surfing through trumpet solos.
The brass band ranges from 15 to more than 20 members at any given time. To travel from city to city, it requires two vehicles, including a 15-passenger van with the backseat taken out for cargo and gear. Despite performing with old-school instruments, the band has a distinctly modern way of approaching the art it makes and how it performs. In addition to booked appearances, the band performs guerrilla-style at least once a month in Providence, and often looks for time and space to do the same while on tour in other cities.
“In Providence, the police usually let us finish the song before they tell us to stop,” laughs tuba player Dan Schleifer in a phone call with City Paper
from the road.
While some of the members of What Cheer? Brigade have marching-band backgrounds, the group didn’t necessarily emerge from traditional roots.
“When we started What Cheer?, we were all part of the warehouse scene in Providence, with punk and noise-rock bands,” explains Schleifer. “We were super intrigued with starting a band that could be just as loud without relying on electricity.
“Like, could we be as loud as Lighting Bolt [from Providence] without being connected to an electrical outlet?”
WC?B then set out to find its repertoire. It wanted a selection of songs that were fast, loud, intense and aggressive, which drew What Cheer? to Eastern European music. Being a stone’s throw away from the significant Balkan music community in New York, where the band had connections, helped fuel the selections.
While there was support from some folks in the warehouse scene, there were certainly skeptics and naysayers too.
“Some people saw the horns and were like, ‘What the fuck is this, a ska band? Fuck that!’” laughs Schleifer. “But as long as you’re making art that’s weird enough and feels like genuine expression, most people are willing to embrace you.”
What Cheer? Brigade is certainly not a ska band. The ensemble performs Eastern European and Balkan brass music that has a punk sheen, and the band maintains a DIY attitude.
The first two albums from WC?B were recorded live as a full ensemble. The hope was to capture the energy and power of the live performance, but the band wasn’t sure those recordings were doing it.
So for its latest album You Can’t See Inside of Me
, the band spent over 10 days at the Machines With Magnets studio recording the instruments individually and in small groups. With the various instrument tracks in isolation, those parts could be given as stems for DJs and producers to play with.
As part of the You Can’t See Inside of Me
release through Don Giovanni Records, there are nine remixes by artists like Moor Mother, Malportado Kids and Filastine. By giving a year-and-a-half worth of space between recording and releasing, the band had a lot more time to treat the album, and the DJs had time to create remixes.
With this album, the band also included detailed liner notes about each song on the record.
“We play music from a lot of traditions that we didn’t necessarily grow up in, so we felt like it was important to pay homage and make sure our listeners were aware that we didn’t come up with it or discover it,” explains Schleifer. “Instead there’s this long tradition we’re tapping into.”
The band also worked with the Serbian equivalent of ASCAP and BMI in order to make sure royalties were paid to the songwriters.
“When bands play traditions they aren’t coming from, it can erase the original artist, and we don’t want to do that.”
Gratitude is something that the band emanates. According to Schleifer, “Punk Gratitude,” the second track on the record, was named for the notion that maybe punk doesn’t have to be tough or mean. Maybe punk is sometimes leaving hand-designed thank-you notes and thoroughly cleaning up after yourself when someone is kind enough to let a 16-person brass band sleep in their living room.
The ensembles associates a great deal of gratitude and positivity with the city of Pittsburgh thanks to Pittonkatonk
and its founder/organizer Pete “Pandemic” Spynda.
“We have some of the consistently best crowds here,” says Schleifer. “We really feel like we have a second home there in Pittsburgh.”
Catch What Cheer? Brigade performing with Blak Rapp Madusa with Drum Lines & Hard Rhymes, Homing and Pandemic behind the Blumcraft building in Oakland on Wednesday.
This event benefits Jayvan Tarver (who you can read about here
6:30 p.m. 460 Melwood Ave., $10. All ages.