Mattvaughan Black is fiddling around.
He’s sitting outside of Cafe Rose Nicaud, and while telling stories of his adventures as Mr. the Turk in the New Orleans Bingo! Show, he starts pulling things out of a gym bag. He recalls meeting Bill Cosby backstage at the Playboy Jazz Festival as he gets out an old Speak and Spell that he has repainted so that the letters resemble alien characters. He remembers running from the front of the stage to the back of the Hollywood Bowl through the middle of the crowd while the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performed, and at the same time connects a length of plastic tubing to a metal donut—not the scientific term, I recognize—and he connects that to the Speak and Spell. He laughs when he remembers seeing security coming for him and panicking, while he pulls out one cable that he runs from the Speak and Spell to a foot pedal, and he sticks another in the pedal and the jack of a small, practice amp. Security explained that they had come to help him make his way back to the stage, and as the story ends, he switches on the Speak and Spell, puts the tubing in his mouth, and makes a noise—a sonic squiggle, perhaps the sound that corresponds to the alien alphabet’s character. He blows in the tube and fiddles with the Speak and Spell’s toggle switches to create the semblance of a melody out of the bleeps and blorps.
“This is one I’m working on,” Black says of the pile of electronics on the table. On the ground behind him is the first instrument he Frankensteined together, one he dubbed “The Jazz Blaster.” It’s a megaphone with some electronic stuff—again, not the scientific term— attached to it, and that exists to modify the sound generated by the kazoo that serves as the instrument’s mouthpiece. In a touch of whimsy, there’s also a superfluous tuning peg attached.
“A lot of these look like they do more than they do,” gesturing to the toys around him.
Black is the inventor and driving force behind the Noisician Coalition, a loosely knit marching band dressed in red, black and white that plays his homemade wind and percussion instruments, some of which are elaborate and some of which are Kentwood water cooler jugs made into shakers. And by “play,” I mean “make noise” because his instruments are imprecise pitch-wise, as are most of their players. Black has tried unsuccessfully to learn a number of conventional instruments, so he emulates a musician, or maybe he is one, depending on your definition of “musician.” When the Coalition marches, as it will daily during Voodoo, it makes a beautiful racket.
Black is the face of the Noisician Coalition, but he shares credit for the idea with Clint Maedgen. One day they were talking and Maedgen said they ought to start a megaphone parade. He didn’t do anything with the thought, but Black remembered it. “The next year, about a month or so before Mardi Gras, I show up with a horn and go, ‘We’re going to have a bullhorn parade!’ I pretty much bullied and suckered half of Bingo! and Liquidrone to be the band. It started with seven of us; we left the bar we were stationed out of and walked around for about an hour and a half, and by the time we got back we had about 80 or 100 people.” The idea has evolved past its simple first thought, and he has more than 40 megaphones. “People give them to me,” Black says. Black has made or remade between 75 and 100 instruments. “It evolved from hanging out with Clint Maedgen and all of his weird crap,” Black says. “I’d try to top him, and he’d be like, ‘I never even thought of that.’” He still has his entrée into the world of rebuilding—a souped-up toy turntable—but he claims no special knowledge or skill. “If I was trying to do this in late ’80s/early ’90s, I wouldn’t have known where to go with it. Now you just need a couple of days to spend on the Internet and you can find it. You get to see what other people are doing, or what other people have done, and then you get some other crazy idea and you have to figure it out.
“I just look at myself as a thief. I go out and find other people’s good ideas and I take them. I made this, but I didn’t invent it. I might’ve invented putting this piece and this piece and this piece together, but all those things already existed. All I’m doing is putting little puzzle pieces together.”
Essentially, Black has created a marching band dominated by synthesizers, and it’s no surprise that they require regular maintenance. He says that the users of the electronic instruments tend to baby them—unlike the percussion instruments—but at the photo shoot for this issue’s cover, many noisicians brought their instruments back to him in need of repair. When he works on them, he rarely simply fixes them. At coffee, he points to the Jazz Blaster. “This has been changed a thousand times,” he says, pointing out additions, refinements and modifications that took place in the repair process. “This is not what it used to be.”
When Black talks about the Noisician Coalition and his instruments, he does so with a mix of pride and self-deprecation. He knows he has started something cool, something that’s more than just a good art prank. As chaotic as the sound can be, it also has the same charms as drones, where the unplanned interplay of tones and overtones become hypnotic and seductive. There’s an avantgarde dimension, and the Coalition is democratic as it lets the skilled and unskilled alike take part in music-making. Like the Bingo! Show, the group is good theater as each member makes his or her own costume based on the colors black, red and white—“My wife says they’re the only colors I react to,” Black explains—resulting in something with a coherently incoherent look as road warriors and mad professors and gothic dolls play Rube Goldberg instruments side by side with a punk air of confrontation. You can trace the proud, historical lineage for the ideas that validate the Noisician Coalition as well, but Black still ends many thoughts with statements like, “It just keeps on getting dumber every year.”
But dumb and stupid aren’t the same thing, and he knows it. He may not name drop the group’s intellectual forefathers, but he understands what he’s doing. “My favorite instrument is the giant mob of people,” Black says. “I’m looking at them while I’m building all this stuff, but it’s almost looking at it in a Raymond Scott way, without being as controlling as he was. These people, you can just put something in their hands and say figure it out, and they figure it out. You tell them it’s okay to suck, and everyone knows it’s okay to suck, and then they let it all go. After about half an hour of everybody sucking, the chaos theory falls into place and it starts to work.”
Not surprisingly, Mattvaughan Black loves Mardi Gras. He dresses up in both of his professional gigs—in a fez and eye patch with the Bingo! Show, and in his black and red bandleader’s outfit, complete with a stuffed crow with an X’ed out eye on top of his hat. Out of costume, he has a theatrical streak as well, including a blond stripe of hair in the front of his otherwise black hair. Fat Tuesday is an occasion for temporary self-reinvention, and Black reinvented himself in a sense when he decided to turn his first and last name—Matt Vaughan—into one word and take his wife’s name as his last name when they married. “Everybody called me Mattvaughan anyway,” he reasons.
He remembers well the bullhorn parade on Bacchus Sunday that was the genesis of the Noisician Coalition because the memory is tied to one of his worst Mardi Gras experiences. He became so sick after it that he missed Lundi Gras and Fat Tuesday. “That was actually the first Mardi Gras I missed in over 18 to 20 years,” he says. “I lived over in the Bywater, and I opened up the doors to my bedroom and I could hear the screams. I just cried.”
The group’s first few parades during Mardi Gras season were easy. When you’re only seven strong, the cops don’t notice you, even when you attract a crowd. The year after Katrina, almost anything went. This year, the Noisician Coalition had a banner and published its route on the Web including its official starting place at the R Bar. “The actual band started at the base of Frenchmen,” he says. “So we’re going around the bend on Royal Street, and right as I turn around the bend, I can see the R Bar. I see a mob of people filling up the entire intersection, all dressed in red, black and white, waiting for us. When we finally left the R Bar, we made it pretty much to Esplanade before 14 cop cars showed up and followed us. We were being quiet. We stopped playing. We started whispering. We’re going down two blocks, whispering, ‘Shh, don’t talk. Nobody talk.’”
At the cover shoot, one photo Black insisted on was of the band chasing him, and since the Noisician Coalition has been an outlaw parade, the members have always known they might have to run. One year, he and his lieutenants handed out a photocopied page to everyone that said simply, “If we’re sicced, be prepared to run” And while the noisicians have rarely had to flee, they haven’t been popular with the cops, either. One Fat Tuesday the Coalition was 200 strong outside One Eyed Jacks when a state trooper rolled up. When he went inside to tell the bar to make them disperse, everyone including Black’s parents took a few stealthy steps away from the club, then took off running. When the trooper finished yelling that those people had to go, the bartender asked, “What people?” and the officer turned to find an empty street behind him. “I think it was Ryan from One Eyed Jacks who said he had this look like Yosemite Sam, like, ‘Oooooh, that damn rabbit!’” Black says.
These days, the Noisician Coalition’s official Mardi Gras activities include marching in the St. Ann’s Parade on Fat Tuesday and with the Krewe of Box of Wine on Bacchus Sunday. Like any self-respecting independent parading organization, though, the Coalition entertains thoughts of a bigger stage and trying to be in an official parade. “I toy with trying to either do Muses or Krewe D’Etat,” Black says.
Voodoo remains his favorite time to parade simply because it’s the most hassle-free. Still, one of the most memorable parades took place when some of the noisicians went to Bonnaroo. “Fifteen to 20 of us, and at one in the morning, we stormed the festival grounds,” he says. “We’re going through dark zones, trying not to screw up anybody else’s gig and get too close to their tent when they’re in the middle of their heartfelt ballads. Then I realize I keep tripping over stuff and wondered why people left out these big, giant backpacks. They were kids who’d passed out; they’re gone. When we saw them, we’d surround these people, and when they woke up, they were like, ‘Ohmigod!’ This one guy opens his eyes and he has a half-terror, half-confusion look on his face, and he gets up and runs away. You know he’s pretty sure he’s hallucinating. Of course, everyone followed him, then he gets in a fight-or-flight mode, and I get everyone to stop. I walked up to him and hugged the guy and he hugged me back, and that made everything alright. The band starts up and he dances with his blanket as a cape. He starts leading the parade!”
So far, the Noisician Coalition has been a rogue presence wherever it goes. But as beautiful as an off-the-grid existence can be, the desire to share your cool thing with the world is hard to shake. Mattvaughan Black hopes to join the festival circuit next year in some limited way, and he’d like to record the Coalition. “They’re actually learning songs,” he says with a mix of pride and amazement. “Some of the people I’ve been working with, maybe 90-95 percent of the people that are in our thing, before they came into my crew, had never played an instrument before for real.”
The question is how to do these things without losing the guerilla element of the Noisician Coalition, without losing the freedom that accompanies not worrying about consequences. It’s something Black is trying to deal with. He has made an effort to reduce his place as the center of the group, letting people hang on to their own instruments and making them responsible for them. The upside of that has been that many have become more proficient in their chosen gizmos, but he still finds himself doing repairs. But the Noisician Coalition has grown into an entity all its own. “I’ll have people I don’t even know show up in full colors with some crazy thing they built, and I have no idea who they are,” he says. “It’s gotten out of my control in some ways, but I feel lucky I still ringmaster it just enough without killing the magic of what it is. I’ve had people trying to convince me to make it have structure since the beginning, but then it would just be a band with weird instruments and it loses this thing where people can go, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of that.’ Where else is it okay for you to just show up and freak the fuck out, and not worry about it? That’s pretty much what it is—it’s like dancing when no one’s watching. That’s exactly the whole concept.”
The Noisician Coalition marches on the Voodoo grounds when the mood strikes Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and it will appear with the Bingo! Show in the Bingo! Parlour Friday, October 30 at 6:45 p.m. and Saturday, October 31 at 2:45 p.m.