It all started off as a “crazy experiment,” says Thomas Burhorn, trumpeter and bandleader of the German techno marching band Meute. Would it be possible, Burhorn wondered, to play electronic music with only wind and percussion, “while still sounding electronic?” After writing the first sheet music in 2015, sourcing secondhand uniforms from eBay and assembling a group of 11 professional musicians who would have the chops to pull it off, Burhorn organized a “flash mob” concert on the streets of Hamburg.
Turns out his experiment wasn’t so crazy after all. The crowd loved the band’s infectious energy and incessant beats, and a video of the performance went viral. Since then, Meute — which means “dog pack’” or “wild gathering” in German — has become what Hamburg-based radio producer Stefan Gerdes describes as “one of Germany’s biggest musical exports.” The band, which is working on its third album, has played at festivals and clubs throughout Europe (they’re extremely popular on the European festival circuit) as well as Africa and Asia. And they’re currently in the middle of their first North American tour.
Meute has transcended genres by attracting fans of pop, jazz, rock and techno.
Which is surprising for a Hamburg-based band. The city has always had a huge live music scene (it played a pivotal role in the Beatles’ rise to global domination) but it is rare for its acts to become famous outside of Germany, according to Gerdes, let alone beyond Europe.
But that speaks to their universal, catchy music — tunes that bring a new dimension to already-anthemic dance hits like “You & Me” and “Hey Hey.” In some cases, Meute’s YouTube versions have more views than the originals but they are still first and foremost a live act. The mix between sounds “so fat that the ground moves,” and the “very natural playing,” says Gerdes, is a whole-body experience.
Of course, Meute owes much of its success to the skill of all 11 members behind the instruments — tuba, saxophone, xylophone, lyre — and sound guy, Torsten Langsdorf, who Burhorn describes as “incredible.” But it has also taken loads of dedication to the cause (being such a big group meant more travel and money issues, especially in the early days) and physical commitment (such as near-permanent welts on the drummers’ backs) to get where they are.
At the end of each show it does feel like they’ve “run a marathon,” says Burhorn. “But in a totally positive way. We feed off the crowd’s energy.”
Meute has transcended genres by attracting fans of pop, jazz, rock and techno. And they’re versatile too. Their acoustic roots make for wild street performances and their big sound is ideal for club gigs and outdoor festivals.
And it’s a project that makes perfect musical sense, says Gerdes. Burhorn and company haven’t just given the traditional German Spielmannszug (marching band) a modern makeover, they have also “returned jazz to its roots.” When jazz started in New Orleans it was a “massive street party,” he explains, but somewhere along the line, this infectious energy has been lost. Modern jazz gigs, he laments, can be rather staid affairs where both the (aging) audience and the (aging) players are “nailed to their seats.”
But there’s more to the musical history lesson. Techno is influenced by funk, Burhorn explains, which was inspired by R&B, which would never have come about without jazz and marching band music from New Orleans. We are, he says shyly, “both the beginning and the end of this long loop.” There is a long-standing tradition of hip-hop inspired brass bands — Hot 8 Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Lucky Chops, to name a few. Meute takes this style a step further and melds it with European techno and bona fide ’70s uniforms.
Luckily you don’t have to understand all of the ins and outs to be able to enjoy Meute. When the band starts to play — and the players’ hips begin to sway — all that’s required of you is to dance.
Meute is touring North America with three remaining shows in October.
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