How Sweet the Sound: Inside the Live Wires and Bent Circuits of the Noisician Coalition

Noisician Coalition
Published  February 2013

Noisician Coalition Every Mardi Gras, it begins the same way. A barrage of text messages assault my cellphone, all bearing the same all-caps headline: ATTENTION! ATTENTION! INCOMING TRANSMISSION! Then coded instructions start flowing in regarding shady meeting spots, approximate times and demands for an immediate RSVP. If you say you’re in, it’s time to get the gear ready, clean and prep the costumes and if you’re really preparing, buy a fresh bottle of whiskey.

Of course, even the best-made plans during Carnival time never happen as expected. The frustration that Mardi Gras causes is a tradition in itself, with scarce parking and no place to pee. The whole affair, whether you’re a born-andbred local or alcoholically-challenged visitor, is routinely amazing in its ability to inspire and enlighten but at the same time drive you completely out of your mind. It’s no wonder that while some make a pilgrimage every year to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, others run to the hills, or better yet the suburbs, to hide from the enormity of it all. The same could be said about the act I perform with, a local marching band that has alternately inspired and annoyed crowds for over eight years running: the Noisician Coalition.

Part marching band, part social club, the Coalition (NoiseCo for short) is known for primarily two outstanding features, one being our uniforms which always consist of three stark colors: red, white and black. But the word uniform is actually too formal, as each member fashions what amounts to a full-on costume that reflects our chosen style of play, the projected weather for the scheduled march and how easy it will be to use our instrument. This freedom of expression has resulted in what could best be described as apocalyptic junkyardchic. When a NoiseCo performance has a full roster in attendance (approximately 30 to 60 confirmed members), it’s not uncommon to witness a deranged panda howling into a bullhorn right next to a Japanese kewpie doll bashing a five-gallon water jug full of bottle caps against the pavement, only moving out of the way to allow a hirsute ape wearing a space helmet enough room to amble through, squealing feedback. There’s also a pervasive circus-military edge present and to truly experience a NoiseCo performance, you really do have to witness it, preferably by surprise.

The second thing that makes NoiseCo an attraction is our choice of musical instrumentation. Each NoiseCo member sports an entirely homemade noisemaker, fashioned out of digital effects processors, household appliances, bullhorns and virtually anything else that generates a sound. All the parts can essentially be found in an electronics shop or hardware store and everything amplified is battery powered. All percussion instruments are handmade as well, a dream come true for any big kid who grew up banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. Every instrument has a name, usually reflecting its intended use. There’s the Megarocka, the aforementioned five gallon jug filled with bottle caps and fixed atop a length of PVC pipe, making it a giant, perverted rattle. The Gramoblaster consists of an old Victrola amplifier horn, effects processors and hybrid kazoomicrophone. The Stringdinger is a square wave generator triggered by a lone bass string suspended over an erstwhile guitar neck, which is covered in magnetic tape. Pressing the string down creates either high or low squeals of pure tone. The Uba, with a serpentine body crafted from plastic air-conditioner piping that functions as a sort of tuba, always gets curious looks. The Discordian marries an old, cheap children’s synthesizer to guitar effects pedals, resulting in a screeching, spastic version of an accordion. Even the bullhorns are given stage names like the Suckhorn, the Ridiculophone and the Red Screecher. The list goes on, and while members are encouraged to try out different instruments from time to time, most find one that suits them and stick with it.

Noisician Coalition

Official NoiseCo press releases have described the group as “sounding like a marching band side-rolling over an embankment into an oncoming police car, but in a good way.” That’s why a majority of our performances are held outdoors. Marches are cathartic, usually sweaty affairs that can find our ranks being broken and more than one band member wandering off in search of a fresh cocktail. Our actual sound ranges wildly, as one minute you’d swear that you just heard us play a song—an actual rehearsed song—but then everything dive-bombs into a swirling mess of sirens, voices and frantic bashing. This has made NoiseCo the eccentric’s choice for big events that don’t mind the occasional headache from their entertainers. Over the years we have performed at Jazz Fest, Bonnaroo, Voodoo and of course in a variety of Mardi Gras, Halloween and Valentine’s Day parades. This hasn’t scared away more adventurous bookings, though; we also perform at the annual festival of Purim at Shir Chadash synagogue in Metairie as the lead noisemakers, blotting out the name of Haman during ceremonies. And a recent visit to the Norman Mayer public library in Gentilly to teach children about hearing protection not only turned out some good advice, but also left those kids thinking about how to fashion their own Noisician-style instruments.

NoiseCo was founded in 2005 by local performer-appropriator-inventor MattVaughn-Black, almost simultaneous to his being involved with the New Orleans Bingo! Show, where he assumed the stage persona “Mr. the Turk.” MattVaughn had already been a fan of Bingo! frontman Clint Maedgen’s other act, Liquidrone, as well as a personal friend to both outfits. His own personal aspirations in sound and performance dovetailed with his experiences around that time, as MattVaughn recalled for me: “It was really a matter of being exposed to a variety of music and ideas all at the same time, but from different sources. I saw a performance at the Matador that was just one guy playing a homemade instrument, made out of stuff you bought at a hardware store. Then I was searching the internet and came across someone selling an electric kazoo. And I thought, “Hey, I could do that, only different.” Not too long after that, I joined the Bingo! Show… Being around them and the ideas they had made me want to create something of my own. When I hung out with Clint, we used to talk about all of the weird musical gadgets we wanted to build. I honestly just wanted to be in a parade—in a marching band—but I didn’t know how to play an instrument. I worked around it, creating an instrument that nobody knows how to play. So that way I’d be the best at it!”

The first NoiseCo march was held during the Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina, a time when not only the fate of carnival, but the city itself was in a state of suspended animation. Many krewes were unable to assemble because their members were living somewhere else. MattVaughn saw this as an opportunity to try some of the ideas that he and Maedgen had talked about and hopefully add something unpredictable into the post-Katrina Mardi Gras landscape. So with a collection of modified bullhorns and a few friends who were up for raising a ruckus, NoiseCo began. Of course, what happened wasn’t the reinvention of the homespun Mardi Gras krewe; if anything, it was a freak flag flown high at a moment when life was tough. But enough people saw that first march or heard about it afterward that MattVaughn started receiving applications for this “noise parade” he had started. By the following year, membership had swelled to over 30 active members. Since then, NoiseCo has boasted a list of local quasi-celebrities, erstwhile weirdos and an occasional “real” musician among their ranks, such as Maedgen himself, virtuoso Helen Gillet and author Gabe Soria.

Noisician Coalition

Due to work schedules and families, NoiseCo members drop in and out of engagements, which not only keeps the overall intent of spontaneity alive but ensures almost total improvisation. Virtually the only constant at any NoiseCo march is MattVaughn, conducting via percussive rhythm or visual cues, although how much of his direction is followed could be up for debate. How a large group of unrehearsed, mostly untrained folks can make moments of what could pass as actual music happen (and what makes a good candidate for a Noisician) is something MattVaughn has thought about often: “Have you ever seen that pentatonic experiment with Bobby McFerrin? He was on a panel where they discussed the idea of certain scales being universal to human rhythm. He used an example where he started hopping up and down while the audience sang a note to correspond with that motion. Then he would hop to his right or left, adding another note and the audience followed suit. So he was going left, right, left, right, note-for-note. He kept expanding it, adding notes and movements. Then he stepped out of sync with the rhythm, going right when he was supposed to go left. And everybody in the audience followed with the correct note, for that scale. He told the audience afterward that he had done that same experiment all over the world, with the same results every time. People just know what’s supposed to fit, and when. I personally call that the sweet spot, when NoiseCo is jamming on something for a while and it suddenly just falls into place, even though we never rehearsed it at all.”

There are other forms of music direction MattVaughn would like to see NoiseCo attempt in the future: “An idea I have is what I call the ‘Amazing Grace’ experiment, where you take a track, something like the song “Amazing Grace” that’s embedded in the national consciousness. Everybody knows that song, so when they hear it they already have it playing along in their head. You start with a click track, adding layers on top of the foundation as it goes along. Once there’s enough going on, you take that click track away and suddenly the piece that you’re riffing on top of, it’s no longer there. All that you would have left is the mass that was built around that original song. I’d love to take maybe six or seven public domain tunes and use that as a way to create a set-list.”

When I ask him why there isn’t a document  of the sounds as well as the sights of the Noisician Coalition, like a CD or DVD, MattVaughn’s answer is both quick and very matter-of-fact: “I was working on that as a project once, trying to record the whole thing. But it never quite worked out. The real problem was that there’s a difference between seeing us pass in a parade setting and seeing us stop in one place and play. It’s two different experiences. I did want to try and give people who work in recording or remix acts some audio of us to add to or enhance. But then it became an issue of whether or not they got the concept or were willing to put in the work, especially considering the quality of some of the recordings. And you can’t blame anybody for that.”

Noisician Coalition

As far as organizing NoiseCo and the notion of having what would amount to band practices or possibly writing what some may call “real” songs, it turns out these ideas have been seriously considered, with scattered attempts at rehearsing or learning actual cover versions of songs. But despite our best efforts, these practices have never quite panned out. Somehow it all makes sense, considering the fact that NoiseCo occasionally operates under the guise of “The Krewe of Joyful Noise.” For us, the moment is all that matters and we never know when a jam is going to climb and peak or crash and burn. For MattVaughn, it ultimately comes down to one point: “People have tried to convince me to make something out of this, into what some people would consider legitimizing it, supposedly making it real. It actually has infected my psyche at times where I’ve considered whether I should treat this one way or another… but then I realize that isn’t what this is about. It never was. We would lose some of the purity of the whole thing if I tried to do that.”

Throughout the history of NoiseCo, one adversary has reared its head more than any other. One that will have any Noisician looking for an exit strategy from a march, or at least the proper paperwork. I’m talking about the NOPD and while a high percentage of marches go off without any problems or registered complaints, there have been moments that give MattVaughn pause. A particular Lundi Gras march (traditionally with no permit, starting around midnight) one year almost turned ugly when the anticipated crowd turnout was far higher in number than expected. That experience, coupled with the more current debacle that was the so-called Krewe of Eris “riot,” leaves MattVaughn unsure of whether or not to pursue what some view as NoiseCo’s most traditional of all marches on Lundi Gras night: “My idea, for the last few years anyway, has been more of a guerilla, surprise thing. As in, ‘are they going to show up and march around the French Quarter?’ Because, for the last few years there have been situations with other krewes’ members getting arrested, supposed riots, people getting maced… and so I think that there has been some anxiety for people going down there. The biggest moment for me regarding those Lundi Gras performances was a few years back when we showed up at R Bar and there were like 400 people waiting outside in the street. And then when we turned onto Esplanade Avenue, there were like ten or fifteen cop cars up and down the street. We even had undercover officers following us around! We were observing the rules, so everything was cool, but it’s too risky at times to be that lone orphan parade anymore. I’ve always been in love with what I call the orphaned, bastard krewes: The Krewe of Eris, Krewe of Poo, KreweDelusion… In some ways it’s gotten out of hand, you know? That entire Krewe of Eris situation, where you had the cops beating up on locals a few years back; you have just enough booze and just a large enough crowd with some misunderstood, anti-authoritarian kids who start mouthing off to the cops, then the whole thing just goes bad. I’m leaving Lundi Gras 2013 to be a last minute judgment call. We started it with seven or so members back in 2005. It was a total surprise to people on the street. But now people expect it and to the cops it just looks like I’m leading a mob, which is never good. Either way, if you’re out in the French Quarter that night, you’ll know if we’re marching because you’ll definitely hear us coming.”

It only makes sense for an outfit that was founded on unpredictability and mystery to always keep people guessing. Those flagship Lundi Gras marches may be over—squeezed out by stricter laws—but there are other marches we have to do, other routes to take, and those text messages on my phone are still rolling in.

The Noisician Coalition will be marching in the Krewe of Muses parade on Thursday, February 7th. Parade rolls at 6:30 pm Uptown. They will also be marching in the Box of Wine parade, between Thoth and Bacchus on Sunday, February 10th. Time tba. For more information visit noisiciancoalition.org or facebook.com/noiseco.

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