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What it's like to be a member of Chicago marching band Mucca Pazza

Zach Long
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Zach Long
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Whether it's marching in the Logan Square Halloween Parade, celebrating the opening of The 606 or turning in an exciting set at the annual Tour de Fat festival in Palmer Square Park, local marching band Mucca Pazza has become an iconic part of many Chicago festivities. Formed in 2004—when the group would regularly practice in a parking lot in Lincoln Park—the ever-changing collective of drumline enthusiasts, brass players, guitarists and cheerleaders has spent the past 12 years reinventing the concept of a marching band. Being a member of Mucca Pazza looks undeniably fun, but it takes a certain kind of person to put on a brightly colored jacket and march to the beat.

Local drummer John Carroll joined Mucca Pazza five years ago, playing percussion for the group when he's not sitting behind the kit as part of Chicago-based math-rock band Paper Mice. Carroll was blown away by Mucca Pazza's sound after he saw the group perform at the Hideout, and so he began repeatedly expressing his interest in joining to then-leader Mark Messing. "Persistence was good in my case," Carroll says. "One of the members was moving to LA, so they needed someone to play glockenspiel, and I was in."

Like many of the members of Mucca Pazza, Carroll isn't actually a former marching band geek—he didn't realize what he'd missed out on until later in life. "I resisted [joining the marching band]. It was not something that I thought would be enjoyable," he explains. "But [Mucca Pazza] is more like a great adult version of marching band—we get to make our own rules."

The do-it-yourself spirit extends to the music, which is generated by the band itself, under the supervision of musical director Ronnie Kuller. When Mucca Pazza started, the group gravitated toward Balkan-style music with prominent brass harmonies, but the scope of the band's catalog has expanded over the past decade. While it still embraces Eastern European melodies, Mucca Pazza has also explored blaring rock songs, waltzes and jazz-inflected tracks. According to Carroll, the musical variation is a product of more than 10 people who write for the band. "If somebody has a very short idea, they bring it in—Mucca acts as a little composer’s workshop."

Mucca Pazza takes full advantage of its repertoire during its live performances, which operate in a state Carroll describes as "structured chaos." Unlike a traditional marching band, Mucca Pazza doesn't spend hours rehearsing meticulous formations—the group prefers to improvise much of its stage show. Members make a point of scouting out every venue, making note of balconies, pathways and other features that will allow them to move through the space and interact with the crowd. 

The band's freewheeling nature is accentuated by colorful costumes, which are personally assembled by the members themselves. Carroll says there's no steadfast Mucca Pazza dress code. Instead, members are encouraged to wear outfits that "embrace the wacky." If you have an old marching band uniform collecting dust in a closet, the group is always open to donations. "There are some uniforms that have been in the group since day one," Carroll says. "So you can imagine the smells that emanate from them."

One of the best places to see Mucca Pazza is at the Tour de Fat festival, where the group has played multiple times over the years. The band's high-energy, theatrical performances have been so successful that Tour de Fat organizers have brought the band to Austin, Los Angeles and Nashville festivals, too. The Chicago edition of the event will be the only Tour de Fat that Mucca Pazza plays in 2016, but the group will also play a gig at the new New Belgium Brewery in Asheville, North Carolina later this summer.

With more hot weather in the forecast this weekend, you may see Carroll sweating as he joyfully keeps the beat during Mucca Pazza's Tour de Fat set, but you won't see him complaining. For him, being a part of the genre-hopping marching band is (still) a dream come true. "It’s never been hard. It’s always a fun challenge."

Mucca Pazza will perform at Tour de Fat in Palmer Square Park on Saturday, July 9 at 1pm.

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