Instruments from the past. Music from the future.
Primate Fiasco was an American band from 2005-2017. It started as a New Orleans style street brass band compiled of Tuba, Banjo, Trumpet, Clarinet, and eventually Drums and Sax. The style slowly evolved from traditional swing covers to funk/rock originals. In its final years, it was leaning heavily into EDM and heavy funk with prominent lyrics. The final instrumentation was Tuba, Banjo, Accordion, and Drums. What had started as a sidewalk busking act had become a major festival late-night stage act.
The band released five studio albums, one of which received a Grammy Nomination, and the other four with national radio play. They'd toured from Maine to Florida to Arizona with the bulk of their fanbase from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. While the folk, pop, rock, and jazz scenes regularly interacted with Primate Fiasco, it was the festival jam scene and their own oddball cult following which dominated the band's history.
The conceptual goal of this band was to force the moment. Music and gatherings have become something like idol worship in modern times. People are often caught up in the thought of being somewhere rather than the actual experience of being somewhere. We get more focused on the name of the artist than the sound. We label and sub-label until music becomes a social order. Primate Fiasco repelled genre labels. When you're walking down a city street and suddenly a bunch of acoustic instruments shower a group of strangers with thumping trancing disco, you're not thinking about fashion and status. You're feeling how vibration can become emotion and how you're not separate from the strangers around you. That was the goal.
WHERE'D THEY GO?
A statement from Dave Russo, founder and front-man -
" The heart and soul of this project was street performing, not stage shows. Nothing gave my life meaning more than popping up unexpectedly in a crowd of people to turn it into a spontaneous dance party. People from all walks of life dancing like lunatics together in a food court or campground atmosphere, that was my happy place. I also liked messing with heads. They see a small marching band and hear something more like a DJ. It's a subliminal message about the dangers of labeling. Sure, I enjoyed playing on stage too, but that was more a logistical necessity. The street shows were my purpose.
Around 2010-2012, we started seeing less dancing and more cell phone filming, but there were still enough people living in the moment to play to. By 2015, it was 90% cell phones and 10% dancers. This was the dawn of Instagram and viral videos. No one wanted to be caught dancing like a lunatic. The phone-tographers would stand back to get the entire scene in the shot, and the dancers would stand back even further to not be in the shot. It resulted in countless videos online of a bored looking band with weird instruments quietly playing to what looked like an empty space. Sometimes someone would wander in front of the band, realize there was a firing squad of cell phones behind them, and then scurry off.
Other bands, from the biggest to the smallest, also have this complaint about phone-tographers. But it's a minor detail to them. They are on stage playing normal guitars etc. The cellphones only really come out when they play their radio hit, or when a celebrity guest sits in for a song. For us, we were trying to ambush regular living spaces with ancient shiny instruments. There was no way of avoiding the phone clog, even in the lowest point of a jam.
I had very little enjoyment left. My life had become a selfie backdrop for people who, instead of living in the moment, chose to document the moment with the same footage as the people on either side of them. While we had climbed into the biggest and most exciting festivals, we rarely popped up in the campground anymore. This had become a 9-5 for me, primarily doing it to keep my bandmates paid.
On tour, we used to break up a drive by wandering onto a public place with our instruments. After a half hour of dance party, we'd jump back in the van. This was mainlining the happy feels for me, but it was also justified in the name of publicity. I think it was West Virginia State University when this ended. We were in the main courtyard at noon. Thousands of students flowing by. They would stop, take a 10 second video, and then walk away typing. About 5 minutes in, I stopped playing and looked at my phone to see if my theory was correct. Sure enough, there was a long list of instagram tags from 1m ago saying things like "I caught the @primatefiasco secret set in the courtyard #brass #flashmob". I put my phone away. Then I put my banjo away. For the record, you didn't catch Primate Fiasco. You walked by Primate Fiasco and your avatar made it look like you were there. You might not know what it means to "be there". I don't fault you for this. Your generation is the victim, not the culprit.
The last hurrah was Peach Fest 2016 in Scranton PA. We played our stage set in late afternoon and then attempted to play some street sets on the strip in the water park area. Unfortunately, the cell phones made it pointless the way they usually do. I had a stubborn and desperate idea. We walked our instruments right into the middle of the crowded wading pool (Picture a knee deep waterscape of fountains and slides, jammed with about 500 raverhippies on a hot day). My plan was to find the one little spot on Earth where people didn't have their cell phones with them. It felt like old times. (See footage of that set here)
Later that night, in between the Les Claypool / Sean Lennon set and the Trey Anistasio set, a thunder storm disabled the stage for about an hour. A packed pavilion of about 20,000 people were trapped in silence. We left the backstage, brought our instruments into the center of the crowd and ripped as loud as we could for about 40 minutes until Trey was able to start. There is very little footage of this. The desperation of their intoxicated boredom put us in context when we started playing. They could actually feel, in the middle of the concert seating, the difference between stillness and Primate Fiasco. People were too busy dancing to be bothered messing with their phone. It felt like 2006. I knew while I was standing on those chairs looking out at my tribe, this was a goodbye hug. It was a good run.
We continued to tour for a year and occasionally attempted a street jam. But it was 2016. People can't see or hear unless they're also posting it. In 2017, I pulled the plug. I blamed the usual suspects; money problems, creative differences, the sudden death of my best friend. But I don't mind saying it now. I could have navigated those problems just as I always had. But my original mission had been thwarted. The empath in me was there to welcome people into 3D, and instead they forced me into 2D.
I don't think technology, or even social media, is a bad thing. I think it's an amazing new frontier where artists will thrive. It was just bad for Primate Fiasco. And should a solar flair knock out all electricity worldwide, or a pandemic causes us to tire of all things virtual and start seeking to "be there", perhaps I'll regain interest.