A Rare Conversation with Odd Banner

Interview with Odd Banner, founder member of Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra

by Farid Eff.

I am sitting in the Cafe Heim, in the Santos neighbourhood in Lisbon. It is a well loved unashamedly hipster establishment and I am nursing an Espresso Tonic, a shot glass of high quality tonic water with ice and then a double espresso is poured into the mix, topped with a slice of lime. It sounds a bit strange, but its perfect for this warm Portuguese afternoon.

I am waiting for Odd Banner, multi instrumentalist, performer and founder member of the Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra.

Suddenly he is there. I don’t know how old he is but he looks in good health. He sits down, orders a mineral water and we get down to business. I have a lot of questions and it is extremely rare for one of the rather mysterious, inscrutable Forgotten Fishes to put his head above the parapet for a question and answer session. So I am excited and curious. Without further ado, here are the questions and answers,

Odd, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

You have a second life outside of the Fish as a successful painter. There’s lots of questions we could ask about that. How much does visual art inform Forgotten Fish? I saw one concert that seemed to be based on the costumes of Oskar Schlemmer. If you had to identify the Fish project with one art movement which one would be the best fit, Bauhaus? Situationism? or…?

I always feel my roll in the FFMO is more about the visual than musical. I think I’m the most untrained “musician” in the group. My interests came more from the visual aspects of theatre and spectacle. I believe the visual aspects of the FFMO project are equally as important and defining as the musical. The Oscar Schlemmer inspired costumes seemed a natural choice for us. Schlemmer designed outlandish costumes for his ballet. We took the look and ran with it. But I guess if you consider all the many costume and visual choices we made over the years, I’d say the art movement which best describes the Fish is Baroque Dadaism (with a Maximalist approach).

Was it a big stretch for you personally in terms of the learning curve, musically, or in the art of stage work, performance art, theatre? There can’t be many bands where members have to take on so many disciplines.

I have definitely enjoyed a great learning curve, musically speaking. The Fish project has opened my eyes to different kinds of music from all over the world. Working together with Makmed the Miller turned me on to all sorts of music I’d never known about. And he also introduced me to the wonders of the Nobo Sprits cookie. Delicious. I’d also say that practicing regularly with Gaelic Punkt profoundly advanced my clarinet chops. Every performance is a learning curve in theatrics. I think we always make the effort to challenge ourselves in performances.

I’ve seen audience members being seriously moved emotionally at some shows, even tears. That might surprise people who think Forgotten Fish is a rather ironic dry humorous night out. What can you say about that?

Crying is just laughing upside down…. We are always trying to look at musical performance theatre from a different perspective. I think we walk a fine line between serious music and theater and ironic kitsch…. profound beauty and banal absurdity. The audience shouldn’t know exactly what to think. I can remember after one of our first performances there was a long pause before the audience reacted. Frozen in some absurd costume, I thought people just hated it. But I later realized that they were flabbergasted. What they’d experienced was so weird in a way that they couldn’t react for a while. Was it over? Was it beautiful? Was it comic? WHAT THE HELL WAS IT!? I think we get this a lot.

Apart from the time it takes away from your painting career, what do you find the most difficult aspects of putting on a FFMO performance?

Planning and preparing for FFMO shows is never anything but inspiring to me. Sitting around with other orchestra members, throwing out ideas is a collaboration I never get when I am alone painting. Fish shows are always a great foil to the solitary studio practice I normally keep. 

I suppose the difficult part would be dragging everything around for days to set up a performance that will last an hour. Then dragging it all away again. We often use 20 or 30 instruments and car loads of props, costumes, 200 broken umbrellas, bushels of decaying flowers, boxes of baby dolls and odd machine parts, crates full of theatre lights and cables and that damn unliftable piano harp. We do it all ourselves and it is always an enormous effort. But (most always) deeply satisfying.

Many shows, so many different atmospheres, looks, which one do you think has been the most successful, and which was you own personal favourite and why?

It is hard to pick one. I loved making all the costumes. I think the newspaper suits we used looked fantastic. And the tall, 2 meter gnome hats were an accomplishment. But I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say Hear No Evil was my favorite. The sort of Santeria look and feel went very well in the secret upstairs room of that old bar in Amsterdam. It really became the ritual it pretended to be. The format of the performance was also a new and interesting way to work; 9 performance of 3 songs for an audience of 6 people. Each performance had a different set and order. I believe we played very well that long night and were comfortable in our costumes (which is sometimes a problem in our performances). I think all the elements blended together extremely well on that night. 

For me,  the other topper was Ukiyo – The Floating World. We had the advantage of performing on a “real” stage in a real venue (Amsterdam’s Paradiso) with professional lights, etc. It was an ambitious and very beautiful performance. And we had those wonderful Ninjas helping out to make Kabuki theatre magic.

FFMO seems to require a very specific kind of person to join its ranks. How was the process for recruiting new musicians into the band.? Some players, (like the late Przemek Miler for example) don’t seem to be musicians at all. What are the artistic and musical requirements when recruiting?

Well, it is always a challenge to find just the right person to fill the many shoes one has to wear in the FFMO. Once, we set out to find a female accordion player (because we thought it would look good). We found one sitting on a park bench. She was lovely and quite a good musician. But she just didn’t get the project. She didn’t understand why we played anonymously (with bags over our heads or odd costumes). A while later we met another female accordionist. She was in a band made up of 7 female accordionists!! We figured that’s where they all were and gave up trying to fill that spot.

It goes without saying that musical ability, while cherished, is not the most important requirement. People have to “get it”. We ask a lot from our members; rehearsing, being roadies, making costumes, and generally being willing to look ridiculous and or/absurd to make the performances special. Somehow it also seems of great importance that we all enjoy eating baklava. 

Can you say something about the provenance of all those incredible costumes.?

A lot of work goes into the making of FFMO costumes. Once we settle on a theme for a performance, we set out to find and make costumes that would best suit (and/or contrast) the theme. From the very beginning, both Makmed and I always kept a notebook full of ideas for performances and costumes. We could always dip into that. But then sometimes other ideas would present themselves… like the Oscar Schlemmer performance. 

In general, I set time out to do research for each idea, looking into different imagery pertaining to any given theme, then develop ideas that way. Or we would just find something we want to use and make the costumes and the theme of the performance around that. For Ukiyo – The Floating World , we found a bunch of old sails (from sail boats). I gave everyone a sail and a few images of traditional Japanese kimonos and everyone came back with these fantastic kimono parodies… some more traditional looking than others. It is all very organic. Everybody has a hand in making their own look and in the entire look of the performance in the end. We all help each other with costumes and makeup and it’s a most wonderful collaboration.

Am I right in thinking that before Forgotten Fish you played in a klezmer band with the great Alec Kopyt? And your colleague Gaelic Punkt also played clarinet in klezmer band before joining. Were you the main influence for bringing Klezmer tunes into the Fish? There are a few aren’t there?

This is true. I played for a few years with Alec Kopyt. We played Klezmer, but also other gypsy music, some greek Rembetika and other gangster drinking songs from Odessa. Back then I only sang and did percussion. But I had an old great uncle in a Klezmer band back in the 1930s. After he passed away I got sent his clarinet. As soon as I opened the case, I could find a way to get music out of it. But it took a while to get anywhere near good enough to play with others. 

There was a resurgence in popularity of Klezmer music and Yiddish culture in the early 90’s. It was around. So I wouldn’t say I’m the only reason these tunes seeped in to the FFMO, but I was very comfortable with that kind of music. I knew it from my childhood as well as playing with Alec. Anyway, it is quite infectious music.

All the Fish seem to have to play many instruments, whether they have the talent for it or not. What did you have to play and how did you feel about that?

I play clarinet, penny whistle and ukulele mostly. Some percussion and other noise making (like tuning radios). I love playing any of it. The collaborative quality of making music together always thrills me. I must take my hat(s) off to Makmed who is really the musical director of the project. Makmed comes up with all the arrangements. He takes time out to sit with me when we learn a new song and sort of play my part on a saz or bouzouki. I record it, listen a few times and then could play it on whatever instrument. I can’t read music, so that’s how I get my parts.

What was the most impractical, uncomfortable costume you had to wear?

Oh boy! Well… I’d have to say it was not one costume…. but 2! In more than one performance we set ourselves the task of wearing one costume underneath another. Then, halfway through the performance we would dramatically take off the one, revealing the other. It’s hard to play and hear when you’re wearing one costume… and more so when wearing 2. I guess it was the Pest Laboratory with the giant wedding dresses and the mummy bandaged heads underneath the hazmat suits which was a huge challenge. 

I always feel that Gaelic and I have it worst. We both play blowing instruments as opposed to strings. You have to have your mouth free and clear for that so special attention has to be taken for masks with mouth holes. I thought it would be easier when we used facepaint instead of masks, like with the Pekin Opera look used in the Dome of Shang. But between nerves and the hot theatre lights, I sweat like crazy. I’m still trying to get all the grease paint out of my clarinet !

People sometimes ask me ‘Is it true the band once played an impromptu concert in a launderette one afternoon in Amsterdam? Unannounced.’ That was a crazy idea. How did that come about?

I don’t know anything about that… it may just be a rumor. At the time I was in Romania observing a strange festival of old soldiers wearing sacks over their heads and Turkish peppers for noses. Very strange. I made drawings and took notes for future FFMO performances.

Do you get nervous during gigs? Before gigs? Is it fun to play with the Fish, or hard work and the pleasure comes in the sense of achievement afterwards.?

I am sometimes nervous before a gig. But once we get going, I’m all into it. Mostly I find it very pleasurable… a lot of work and concentration, but with great reward.

So what are the pros and cons and differences between the solitary, isolated (to an extent) life of a painter, and the chaos and social whirl of putting on a Forgotten Fish show?

In my studio alone I have total creative control more or less… to a point anyway. That is to say sometimes things just happen and I like it or I don’t. Is that being in control?? It is a powerful and satisfying thing to find my own voice in a painting or drawing… but also can be quite lonely, isolating and removed. With the FFMO everything is a whirl of collaboration. It’s inspiring to be around others and creating something together. Of course there are egos and disagreements to contend with from time to time. And not everything happens the way you want or think would be best. But in the end the decision is made by the entire group.. what we all do on stage and how we interact happens somewhat organically and creates the whole. In my studio, it’s all me.

The band seem mysterious, a bit unfathomable. What is the biggest secret you would care to reveal about FFMO that would surprise people.?

I’m not sure I’m at liberty to divulge everything. Especially the more controversial “time travel” stuff. I suppose the most surprising thing to reveal is that the FFMO are actually a recreation of an orchestra that existed in the 12th, 16th and 18th centuries… there were different iterations with only a few of the same core members. When the FFMO founding members “encountered” the original members of L’Ensemble Oublié we were compelled to resurrect the ideas they were working with. Have I said too much already? I’m not sure I can really explain all this without first discussing it with the original members of L’Ensemble Oublié… and we both know how difficult that can be to do. So probably the rest is left best unsaid.

Which tunes did you most enjoy to play? When it comes up in the set list you have a feeling of eager and joyful anticipation.

I always enjoy playing the Cuban number, Aurora en Pekin. In earlier versions I play clarinet. But later we began to sing it. I love singing and have a low sonorous voice. I think it lends itself to the lower harmony. It’s magic to me when a harmony rings out.  I always enjoy that number. I also always love playing the Russian Farewell March.. I think it is our most uptempo piece and is always a raucous blast to play. But really I like all of it.

Ok Thanks a lot Odd for that insightful and profound interview.

About makmedthemiller

multidiscipline artist
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