Marching Through Europe With The Infernal Noise Brigade
I'm standing in a club called Lovelite when I hear the Infernal Noise Brigade, tinny and building, through radio speakers above the bar. It's a song they like to begin with, called "Retardvark." At first I can't figure out where it's coming from and imagine that the band is marching up the street, that they're going to march through this room, past the bar, over the couches—you never know how the INB is going to make an entrance—but then the walls begin to rattle. I feel the drums. They've entered from the back. They're in the next room. Between me and the next room is a sea of Germans. German sardines.
This is Berlin, in a neighborhood someone in the band calls "one of the last vestiges of the freaks." It's humid. It's July and it's been raining. The band is in partial uniform. They're wearing the pants: black, with reflective-orange stripes down the legs. They wore these pants for crowds in London, Edinburgh, Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and towns in between. They wore them last night in another Berlin bar, an underground bar in a squat—they played so loud I thought the ceiling was going to give—and then boarded a city bus to play a second set, at 3:00 a.m., at another squatters' bar, also underground, called Kontrol Punkt, which we entered by crawling through a hole in the sidewalk.
Now they're crowded together on the Lovelite's stage. One of them is in the crowd, wearing twin aluminum poles that hold a set of speakers over his head. He looks alien. He's controlling the sounds that come out of the speakers with an iPod—bleeps, sirens, policemen, static, a choral "Happy Days Are Here Again." Usually the whole band marches through the audience as they play, but, again, sardines. The bartenders in back are standing on the bar. The disco ball is a red, nightmarish sun. The singer, who is black and queer and has a commanding presence, and whose instrument is a megaphone, holds his megaphone up to a microphone and lets out a beautiful, atavistic wail. There is a pause, a second of saturnine nothingness, and then a thundering beat. The crowd loses it.
The Infernal Noise Brigade's first gig ever was in 1999, in downtown Seattle, on the streets outside a now-famous meeting of global economic policymakers, and even though they've gone on to play in warehouses, boats, bars, and clubs, they are at heart a street band. My introduction to them took place a few months ago on Pike Street, outside the Comet Tavern, which had just closed. Half of Pike Street was blocked. In the center of the crowd were lights, instruments, flags, rifles, and costume animal heads. The music sounded grand. The crowd, and certainly the band, knew that it wouldn't be long before the cops came. The song they were playing ended and they announced that they had no more. The crowd begged for more. They were finished, someone in the band said. The crowd begged harder. I remember pleading like a child for them to please, please, please play one more song.
They started playing again, and the crowd damn near exploded with happiness. People got out of their cars and danced. I danced. Men and women made out. Consider, if you live in Seattle, the state of street performance in your city, and then consider what it would be like to luck upon a 25-member marching band dressed as chickens and rabbits in the middle of Pike Street in the middle of the night. What seemed impossible about it was that it was so weird and confident and happening here. Suddenly the outside of the Comet Tavern was awash in blue and red light and a police officer was walking toward us. At exactly the right moment, one of the bass drummers raised her hands and made the international gesture for song's over.
Months later, in May, I went to an INB party in a semi-outdoor warehouse under the West Seattle Bridge. There were dancers and blackjack tables and hundreds of people. It was a party to raise money for Europe. They were heading to Scotland to protest outside the G8 Summit and following that planned to tour the continent—England, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and maybe Serbia (which didn't pan out either). I bought a framed print called "Live Fish, Dead Fish" in a silent auction, went out and drank a beer on the train tracks, wondered how many other musicians and artists there were in this city that I knew nothing about, and sent a text message to my editor.
Convincing the INB that I should go to Europe with them was another matter. One evening in early June three drummers, a cymbalist, and a half-dog half-wolf met me at my apartment. Why did I want to come with them? Why did I want to see them in Amsterdam, Brussels, Hamburg, and Berlin, but not at the G8? What was my slant? Would I be sarcastic? Would someone at The Stranger rewrite me to be more sarcastic? Would I travel on the bus with them? Would I eat with them? Would I sleep where they slept? At the end of a great conversation and a fair amount of whiskey, they said that they were going to have to call a meeting and the group would have to take a vote. The INB is made up of two-dozen people and every decision they make is by consensus. They're constantly calling meetings.
I had a couple things working against me: The group has an antagonistic history with The Stranger. Shortly after America invaded Iraq—endorsed in The Stranger by Dan Savage and, actually, me—several members of the band put on suits and ear protection and staged a sound installation at The Stranger's offices, with an air-raid siren hooked up to a car battery. Then last year, after the INB was arrested protesting the Republican National Convention in New York City, The Stranger published an article by Josh Feit in which one member of the band was misquoted to sound "really stupid," as another member of the band put it. The woman misquoted believes it was a misunderstanding. She has no hard feelings. "But if it was someone else in the band who'd been misquoted like that," I was later told, "you wouldn't be on this trip."
Three weeks after getting the green light and two weeks into the INB's tour, I take a direct flight to Amsterdam. For hours, the man behind me talks to the man next to him about "global brands," Starbucks, the factories in Asia he's visited, "the home territory," his wife, and church. His trip is to follow a business prospect. He and his wife have prayed about it. This man is my worst nightmare—religious, corporate, and cheesy. "There are other opportunities in the company that are also really nice ones," he says at one point. "I have to figure out which one would I have more fun with." There are rabbits running alongside the runway as we land.
The Amsterdam club where I'm supposed to meet the band is coated in years of graffiti, and no one answers. I go for a walk and come back. It's early morning. Eventually I ring enough times that a guy comes to the door.
"Are you in the band?" I ask.
He doesn't speak English. Nor is he really awake.
He leads me through the silent club, past a bar and a stage, and gestures down a long hallway that eventually opens out into a garden and courtyard shaded by stone buildings on four sides. Someone is sleeping under a tree. Several more are in sleeping bags on benches. Some people are going in and out of one of the buildings, drinking coffee, and I recognize a few of them. I am introduced to the others.
A breakfast of salad, fruit, and bread. A meeting about the urgency of getting on the road. Instruments loaded onto the bus.
Tonight's show is in Brussels, and soon enough we are speeding down the highway, marveling at the Dutch countryside: cows, windmills. I'm eating salad out of a shopping bag. There are no forks.
"I just don't think messing with the form of the song is what we should be doing tonight," says the only one in the group who makes his living playing music.
"As long as we're debriefing," someone says, "can people be really gentle with the parasols? They're so fragile."
Someone else says, "This bus is fast."
"It feels like it's going really fast," says the guy across from me, and then adds, "We were on the slowest bus for about two weeks."
The bus we're on has been provided by a Dutch foundation called Theaterstraat that supplies sound equipment, busses, and volunteer bus drivers to left-wing groups who stage demonstrations in the street. Reinier, one of the two unflappable drivers, told me later that they decided to support the INB because "they were more or less invented to break police lines by music, and that was interesting to us, to see how it's done."
Someone has been voted to serve as liaison between the band and the drivers, to make things easier. (The group's system of having meetings at every turn is ridiculous, they admit, and laborious, and on tour, impossible, so at times they appoint certain people to handle certain things.) She comes to the back of the bus and says that the drivers can put on music if people want music. She offers this information delicately, and adds, "I'm not going to pick it. But maybe we could appoint someone to. Also, if we need to make an announcement, there's a microphone up there. If you need to communicate something."
"Just put something on, I don't give a fuck," someone says.
"Okay, if someone wants to play music, bring up a CD."
After some time, someone puts on a CD that begins with the Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society."
Less than five minutes go by before someone says, "Is everyone okay with turning this off? If not I can put on headphones."
"I'm rocking out," someone else says.
"There're 25 people. There's no way we're ever going to agree."
They cut the music.
I bring up the music on the bus just because it's a fair illustration of the drawbacks of fairness. (A couple days later in the trip, Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister, one of my favorite albums, will get about 20 minutes of air time on this bus before it, too, gets vetoed. Ah, consensus.) Once we get to Brussels, there's a disagreement over something a lot more important to everyone: uniforms. Most of the argument I miss, because they keep it out of earshot, but someone turns to me and says that you can tell where the INB's priorities are by considering how long certain meetings take. In preparation for Europe, he says, they'd have meetings where "there would be 10 minutes for where we're going, 10 minutes for music, and then, like, an hour and a half for uniforms."
"We're real fascists on our fashion angle," someone else agrees. "You'll get to see this. That's what our most impassioned arguments are about."
Soon enough it's decided and everyone, in uniform, with backpacks full of water, boards the bus.
There's a conversation about whether I'm going to publish their names. Everyone in the band has a band name spelled out in rhinestone lettering somewhere on their uniform, and often—although not always—these are the names they refer to one another by. They just want to confirm that these are the names I'm going to use. I say that I'd rather use their real names, for the sake of straightforwardness, and some of them say they're fine with me just using their first names, but others say they aren't. Someone argues that the band names help retain the mystery of the band. Someone else says that she doesn't want people at work to know what she does outside of work. It's not until Berlin that one of them explains to me, "I think the names retain the spirit of the band—the idea that the Infernal Noise Brigade is made up of individuals who are really into it rather than individuals who are trying to define it."
So, in the spirit of their fundamental wishes, and because their band names are totally confusing (there's a woman who goes by Mr. Rose, there's a guy who goes by Mildred), I've decided not to use names at all, to attribute everything to the band in general. It is, after all, a marching band—militaristic, congruous, a single aesthetic force. The conformity is ironic, but more on that later.
For the record, though, here's the roster: Annemat, Atomika, B. Q. (whose band name is Red Dot, but no one calls her that), Bluer Than You, Bookworm, Brassbelle, D. P. Punkass ("My whole name is Dread Pirate Punkass, but in print I like to be D. P. Punkass"), DK Pan, Flash, Grey Filastine, Hawtpantz, Ice Frog, In Phase, Megor, Mildred, Mr. Rose, the Professor, Ramon, Satsuma, Skunk, Spider, and Violet. At least, that's the roster as far as Europe is concerned. Not everyone could make it.
As we drive through Brussels, someone says, "This city is here because of pomme frites. This is where French fries are actually from."
"You mean freedom fries?" someone says.
The bus pulls over next to a park. Everyone gets out. Guys take turns peeing against a tree.
There is some waiting around while the majorette, who will lead the "action," as they call what they're about to do, gets briefed.
"I'm going to go sit on one of those benches over there," someone says.
"Should we all go over there?"
"I don't know. I don't feel like organizing that."
The majorette comes back and briefs the band. This is not an anti-government action, she says; this is an action of solidarity and support for an artist community whose neighborhood is being torn down to clear room for new development. Gentrification. Basic stuff.
They've asked for something festive.
A TV cameraman is here. A reporter for Flemish radio is here. The majorette blows her whistle and the band, playing loudly, sets off down a main street, past tall churches and small bakeries, past new buildings and old buildings and fenced-in lots of rubble, past a guy in green who stops to watch as he's putting out the trash, past shirtless men leaning out windows, past a woman on a balcony in a pink T-shirt that says WATERMELON, past waving families sticking out of windows in slanted roofs, past old people sitting outside a grocery store who promptly erupt into a debate about what's just gone by. Dozens and dozens of people at windows, people on every block. On the street, a crowd is gathering behind the band. Eventually it's about 100 strong, including a guy talking on his mobile and taking video at the same time, two men on a two-person bike, and a toddler in a yellow dress.
After stops along the way, the band ends up in a dirt courtyard in front of a glinting office building. You couldn't have wished for a more vivid backdrop. The building is a cheap-looking monster, the kind of thing that no one in his or her right mind would destroy something else to build. A huge sign advertises that five of its seven floors are still available—publicizing, in other words, that it's a building no one needs.
The band claims the lot in front of the building as their stage, just as they have claimed streets and public spaces around the world. They spread out. The flags lend a kind of imperialist air. With their cymbals and drums and horns and general uniformity they look probably not unlike bands looked in Europe back in the day, in the medieval period, when they were functionaries of the government and tools for spreading propaganda and essential to militaries.
A chopper circles, as if it's part of the show.
"They British?" someone asks me.
Afterward the crowd demands an encore, and they get one. Someone announces on the megaphone, "We're Infernal Noise Brigade from Seattle. United States!" This news comes as an obvious shock to everyone. Then the band gets on the bus and drives off. Ten minutes later, I happen by this block again, and the entire crowd is still standing there, wondering what happens next.
There is a show that night at an art loft in Brussels, which the cops show up at, and the next day, on the bus, heading from Brussels back to Amsterdam, the majorette tells me about the police in Scotland. (She joined the band two and a half years ago during the Iraq war because she wanted to protest but, as she says, "I'm so against standing around and chanting.") In Edinburgh, the police ceded one side of a major boulevard to them. At the G8 protest, riot police on horseback surrounded the INB as they made crop circles in a barley field, while police helicopters kept tabs overhead. One time, as the police on horseback advanced, the band played "Ring of Fire" while running backward.
"One thing I am proud of about the INB is that we don't stop playing when things get dicey," the majorette says, referring to the G8 but also to political protests they've played in New York City, Cancun, and elsewhere. "Our rule is, Keep playing. If people in the band are being pulled out and arrested, you keep playing. You keep playing as long as you can."
The INB is overtly political—radical, appalled at the world, constantly instigating—but it's impossible to put the band into one political category, partly because a lot of them don't think in terms of political categories at all. "We've never described ourselves as anarchist, that's such a buzzword," one of them told me. (Lo and behold, in 2001, The Stranger reported that the INB "is widely known as an anarchist marching band.") There is an anti-authoritarian strain in everything they do, they admit, but the point of their disruptions is simply the power of disruption itself. As the Seattle artist Susan Robb puts it, "They either open a space or exist in a space that lets a lot of freaky shit happen."
The band's history of freaky shit is difficult to get them to talk about, both because they're modest people and because they've broken some rules, but the lore includes handing out ceramic plates to a crowd and then, at oompah moments, insisting that everyone shatter them; crashing a Seattle Police pep rally; staging a battle between good and evil with black and white dragons and Osama bin Laden costumes and fire (which the police theatrically descended upon with tear gas); throwing a party where they lobbed Molotov cocktails at an effigy of Bush and then destroyed a police car (according to the band, it was a taxi painted to look like a police car); and, one famous New Year's Eve, putting on HAZMAT suits, dropping acid, and climbing into the back of a Ryder truck. They were on their way to perform at Pike Place Market, and an expectant crowd was waiting.
"The truck stops at, like, Spring and Western, and we can hear the driver saying, 'No, there's nothing in the back. You can search it.' There's probably like 25 people in the back," recalls Robb, who was along for the ride and has been associated with the band since the beginning. (We spoke a couple days before I left town.) "So the door goes up and there's at least 15 police in cars, on horseback, on bikes, and on foot, looking at us, the 25 people in HAZMAT suits, with musical instruments attached to us, on acid... I have a picture of the police looking at us, and we're all laughing, because can you imagine the police at that point? You know they want to laugh. You know that it's fucking funny." (Robb's theory is that the police hold a grudge that goes back to WTO and had staked out the building where some of them were living. They were all issued tickets for not wearing seatbelts, and the show at Pike Place Market didn't happen.)
No one in the INB talks about politics except on fairly broad terms, but one time on the bus a band member referred in passing to the group as "generally anti-capitalist," which explains WTO and the G8. But when I floated the term by one of the original members of the band, he dismissed the term as "kind of trite." Someone else, at another point, said, "No one in the band has ever been able to represent the band." The only thing everyone agrees on is that none of them are Republican.
For their dauntless, intimidating exterior—"post-apocalypse blue collar punk," someone once described them to me—the INB is made up of sensitive, creative, hopeful people. "I really like the contrast between the way we come across and who we are," the majorette tells me as we approach Amsterdam. "And we prove that radicals can be on time and look good. We can pull it together."
Across the river from the center of Amsterdam, the bus comes to a stop in the shadow of a huge ship. The ship is called Stubnitz. It's a former fishing vessel of the East German fleet—one of the few remaining ships in the East German fleet still in operation, according to a crewmember—but it's been repurposed into a "cultural platform and production facility" that's used by musicians, multimedia artists, theater artists, and filmmakers. It's old. Its decks are crowded with ladders, towering lookouts, lights, machinery, doors that seal, thick rope, navigation stuff, huge links of chain, benches, and tables. A banner hanging over one side of the ship says: BAR IS OPEN.
The ship fills up with people.
A charismatic Dutch couple who saw the INB in Amsterdam two nights earlier—a show they played the night before I arrived—has come to see them again. They profess shock that the band is American.
"You only hear Bush, Iraq..." she says.
"It's nice to see there are cool Americans," he says.
There are also, the Dutch and Belgians seem baffled to discover, black Americans. On the Stubnitz, everyone later learns, someone tells the singer, who, again, is black, that his English is very good. (It should be. He was born in Yakima, WA.) And in Brussels, someone asked one of the white women in the band where all the black people in the band were from. (Seattle isn't faultless on the race front either. Funny story: The singer was in the Ryder truck in a HAZMAT suit, too, but "there were a couple other black men in the group and, you know, [the cops] don't know the difference," he told me. "So when they asked me if I'd already been processed [for a ticket], I said, 'Yeah, that guy got me.'" It worked.)
The Dutch band that opens for the INB on the Stubnitz is an all-white bunch, middle-aged, and they are dressed as flowers. They are like a little garden of whimsy. Complete stoners. Occasionally they all bend their knees in time with their songs.
Then the Infernal Noise Brigade, a black and tan and orange army, swarms the deck. The drums start, like the infuriating jolts of a firing squad, and the guy next to me jumps. "Hey." The snare drummers smoke with no hands. The bass drummers, three women, are pretty and aloof. The sound of horns tears through the air. The flag twirlers twirl.
Then the majorette leads the band, and the band leads the crowd, into the hull of the ship, where there are two more bars and several levels and an open chasm in the middle. It's like a theater in the round, filled with green and orange light.
The music is relentless. Some of the band's repertoire is directly lifted American-military drum-line stuff, with original horn lines. (Other songs incorporate Moroccan, Balkan, Japanese, Korean, and Gypsy melodies and beats.)
It's kind of an extreme moment visually. We seem to be in the hands of extremists. Fashionable extremists. The fact that something about this does feel scary and open-ended only proves the frightening effectiveness of symbols and gestures, because these are just ordinary people—bike messengers, students, a counselor at a refugee center, etc.—doing a kind of theater. Theater with an exciting, incantatory power.
Susan Robb says, "I think that they're really about personal freedom. And it's in the way that Bush and everybody else would hate, because it's real freedom. It's real autonomy." In an age when the leader of the free world is constantly boasting that what we're doing throughout the world is "spreading freedom," while at the same time people around the world—including Americans, especially Americans outside the cultural and moral mainstream—are losing freedom all the time, I can't think of a more important central issue for a group of artists to take up.
And I love loud music. It encourages feeling. It's totally liberating. In the windowless hull of the Stubnitz, people dance like you wouldn't believe.
But try rivaling Germany for fascist settings and chilling subtext. And wreckage. In Berlin, four band members and I climb into a chunk of some larger piece of debris sticking out of the ground. We're outside Tacheles, once a famous department store, then a famous squat, and we're looking out on an expanse in the middle of the city where buildings were bombed and never rebuilt. Almost all of Berlin was at one point destroyed. It's a city that constantly reminds you of spectacular force on parade. I ask them: What is the INB getting at? What are people supposed to think? "I don't want them to think," someone says right away. "I just want them to find it kind of ecstatic."