David Byrne meets his team, Les Eclipses, at a Winter Guard event in New Jersey earlier this year. (Jake Naughton/BAM)
Unsurprisingly, how you sell has more to do with which famous musicians are on board, than how creative the Winter Guard routines get. (But boy do they: a Hitchcock homage, a PSA on child abduction, and a redemption story set in a mental asylum are among the themes explored by the teams in Contemporary Color.) Given his collaborative spirit and influential nature, Byrne didn’t exactly struggle to get ten musical acts — including St. Vincent, The Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Money Mark, Nelly Furtado, Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes, tUnE-yArDs, Kelis (who ended up co-writing a song now performed by Zola Jesus), Lucius, and more — on board with his vision of live-band Winter Guard.
“When David Byrne is on the other end of the phone and he’s excited about something, it’s pretty much impossible to say no,” says Tom Krell, who records emotive electronic ballads under the moniker How To Dress Well.
To give you an idea of how “epic” and “sweeping” the music for Winter Guard routines can be, consider Krell’s approach for his Mechanicsburg, Penn. team: “I think that my music is way less dramatic than their performances! So I actually tried to tone them down a little bit — to dial back the screaming sadness to make the performance a little bit more impressionistic and open.” Krell incorporated “really big heavy drums” and choral elements, via the Pacific Boys choir.
The composer Nico Muhly — whose piece features recordings of This American Life host Ira Glass asking their Winter Guard team Alter Ego questions like, “What were you thinking here in the routine?” — says he “knew literally nothing” before Byrne took him to a noisy bar to have The Winter Guard Conversation.
“I thought he was describing a pagan ritual like something out of The Wicker Man,” Muhly says. “All the symbolism of the guns and the swords and the flags — it felt very ‘other’ to me. Then I realized that all of this was happening like, in Connecticut! And Jersey! So I took myself to YouTube and watched 14,000 videos.”
The musicians’ openness to learn about Winter Guard can be seen in clips posted online in the lead-up to Contemporary Color. (The Ross brothers, documentarians with a talent for capturing homespun American realness, are chronicling the entire process for a future documentary on Contemporary Color.) tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus appears downright giddy when she meets her team, New Jersey’s Emanon Winter Guard, for the first time. She owns her newcomer status through a self-deprecating rifle-tossing lesson from a girl in face paint and a body suit. She gushes over the team’s embrace of robotic dance moves, which end up greatly influencing the direction of her song.
tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus with her team, Emanon at the 2015 WGI championships. (Rebecca Greenfield/BAM)
Herein lies the real challenge: the musicians must write new songs tailored to the “length and vibe” of routines performed by their assigned teams all season long. This requires dialogue back and forth. One of Contemporary Color’s producers, Chris Giarmo, who has a history with high school Color Guard but “comes from the Brooklyn theater world,” serves as a moderator between the teams and the musicians as they compromise.
“There are nerves on both sides,” Byrne assures. “It’s a completely new, untried area so you have to discover it and adjust as you go.”
For his own piece, Byrne went “pretty straight ahead” with a gospel-tinged inspirational ballad for Montreal’s Les Eclipses, with help from Jess Wolfe, the next-level vocalist of Lucius (see below).
“Their routine is more abstract, but the direction of a song [I was already writing] seemed to capture the feeling, as I imagine it, of a lot of the kids who are in Color Guard,” Byrne says. “They’re a little bit of the outsiders, and they sometimes feel ostracized. Not all, but some. In this world, they’re the heroes. The kids are in tears half the time. They are so passionate, and you want to go with that.”
And so emerges David Byrne’s real motivation for pursuing Winter Guard, which he dubs a “new art form emerging out of mainstream America, that should be encouraged.” He’s not the only one who finds the less obvious aspects of Winter Guard appealing.
“One of the things I love about it is that it feels like genuine community activity,” Muhly says. “Most of the videos aren’t fancily shot archives but rather, phone videos from the performers’ parents, or supportive rival teams. It is really heartwarming to watch this kind of teamwork; a lot of artistic endeavors, particularly in classical music, are very competitive and individualistic, so this was very moving to see.”
Byrne has “no real interest in how they judge their own competitions.” Winter Guard’s precision serves only to inspire “wow” moments “when you see a whole basketball court of flags moving in synch, from side to side.” He jokes that he could envision Contemporary Color’s model becoming a franchise that’s creatively beneficial to local musicians and high school teams in towns across the country.
“You can have something that’s really pushing some boundaries, and be accessible and reach a pretty large audience at the same time. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he says. “From time to time, we think, ‘Oh, all the popular stuff is really crap, and it’s just catering to the market, and everything else has no interest in the market whatsoever.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, is it?’”