Percussionist Gregg Mervine started the Eastern European-flavored brass band West Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006. The band emerged in West Philadelphia from the music scene at the whiskey and beer spot Fiume. What started as a weekly jam session turned into a 15-piece rotating band that has made indelible imprints on the city.
Many different musical backgrounds, abilities and influences come together to form a melange of Bulgarian, Serbian and Macedonian folk music that makes you want to get up and dance with each show.
Michele Zipkin spoke with Gregg on July 5, 2016 at the Green Line Cafe at 45th and Locust streets.
How does the band work with so many rotating musicians?
GM: We have a lot of people. The Majority of the people in the band do music full time, through a combination of playing gigs and teaching. Because one band is not enough of a stable project, guys are playing in several bands. We often have conflicts. Because we have enough people, we can pretty much make a gig work. We have fourteen to fifteen people who are in the rotation, who we can call upon. We’ll play with as few as six. If we’re called to do some park event, a lot of times they’re put together by neighborhood organizations with limited funds. So we might call half the people. We can play with seven and it still sounds pretty good.
How did the band form?
GM: I started the band, on the corner of 45th and Locust, at Fiume. I’m the only original member left. I spent the last six years living in Brazil with my wife. So I was administering some things from afar, and putting together an album. I’ve been back for about a month now. Originally one of the members was a bow maker, doing mostly violin bows for pretty serious clients. His name is Jacob. Bow-making took him to Thailand somehow, and now he’s living in a cabin working six months out of the year making bows and traveling. One guy was working at a coffee shop here while his wife was in medical school. One guy was a neuroscientist. This is a random collection of people that knew each other from the bar, or the community here.
We started having weekly potlucks. I was playing bands in New York that were doing this music. And I thought it was really phenomenal, and there was no one doing anything like this in Philly. That wasn’t even my motive, I just loved the music. The New York guys would call me constantly to do subbing. I was learning the music from all these different bands, and I wanted to do something like this, but do it differently than each of these groups was doing it.
So then I got people together. We started having potlucks on Sunday, different people brought food and beer, and we jammed a little bit. So that’s kind of how it started, that’s kind of how things happen in general- if you offer food and beer, people will come and get their instruments out at the end and learn some tunes.
How did WPO gain popularity?
I had been doing it for a number of years. I was connected to the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, and they were one of the first people to call us and said that they were doing their annual winter pageant, would we like to come and be the band for the performance. So that was our first real gig- partnering with these local grassroots organizations that were doing a lot of community work. People we knew from living in the area. At the time, everyone was not quite professional musicians- they were just happy to play.
But then it got going, once I saw that the band was playing well, I set up a monthly party at the Tritone. We started on a Sunday night. That grew over the course of a year, because I started getting the word around. After that, we did a record, which was a big step. We started becoming a serious band, we did some touring. We did an arts festival up in Maine, through these networks of small community arts organizations that were doing stuff over the east coast. It started out very humbling.
Once the band started getting noticed by the musical community in Philadelphia, musicians started coming to us and saying, ‘This is so cool, I want to be a part of this.’ So then we started adding more people to the band. Half of the players who are in the band now kind of came in that second wave.
How do people’s different musical backgrounds and tastes mesh together in the band?
At the time, it was pretty much inspired by the spirit of the bluegrass band at Fiume. There was a banjo player there who was playing banjo with us because he was my roommate. I was like, you’re awesome at banjo, have you ever heard these Romanian guys play Cimbalom? I asked him if he could imitate it on banjo, and then he went to his room, and was like, ok I can do this. I really loved when he played banjo, but then he gave it up because it was a volume issue. Then he switched to trombone. But there was this really interesting time when he would bring both to the gig.
Our first album, we had four songs that were kind of hybrid brass and strings, and then there’s two or three tunes that are just string songs. There are two songs that are just violin and drums. The original stuff was very diverse.
There are some guys who are technically more experienced musicians. We added more brass instruments, we got louder. And eventually the string players started complaining that they couldn’t hear themselves. We traded our upright bass for a tuba and the upright bass guy became the drummer. It was this whole transformation process. Because once we started doing higher energy music, we realized there’s another energy to the brass, even though the violinists were always the best musicians in the band. They were really the heart and soul of it for a while.
I played lots of Klezmer music for many years, so I had kind of a vision. And there were very few people doing Klezmer in Philadelphia, just Susan and Elaine Watts, they had a group called The Fabulous Shpilkes. Susan was singing in another band that I had.
WPO is not a Klezmer band. But this weekend we did two weddings and they were Jewish weddings. We do that, but that’s not our sound. Our sound comes more from the Serbian brass bands. One of our favorite bands is from Macedonia. We have a Bulgarian singer, and I like a lot of Bulgarian brass bands. We take what we like. One guy in the band is married to a Serbian woman, and he loves the Serbian stuff, so he’s always bringing that. And I first fell in love with the Bulgarian and Macedonian music. And then we have all these jazz musicians, and we started writing original music. If we take those ideas and influences and try to do something that we enjoy more, that’s going to be more interesting, more honest.
Why has Philly worked for WPO?
GM: In the beginning it was this community vibe that allowed us to start. If I tried to start the band with the musicians that are in the band today, I don’t know if they would have stayed with it. I don’t know if they would have had the patience to build something. Once we got started, it was a community project, and then other people wanted to be a part of it.
We started playing clubs too. We liked playing North Star because the stage was a little bit larger and we could fit everybody. We were playing Tritone, which was awful acoustically, but fun. It was a weird bar, because it was totally alternative, and it had a lot of free jazz groups that worked there and an avant-garde jazz orchestra that would play there weekly. There were occasional punk rock shows and there’d be some reggae crews that would come in and do reggae night. It kind of had an identity by not having one. It was a weird place but it worked because it was very mutable, and we could just take it and say it’s going to be a Balkan party.
I remember Dave, the owner, saying to us that in the slow months, it was our night that kept the bar open. We were the one night it was packed. We would average about 120 people a night. It was a tiny place with a minimal sound system. They owned like four mics. We made a semi-circle, and the drums would always be out in the audience, which was cool, and I think the audience liked that too. That made it easier for us to hear each other too.
Do you feel like you belong to a particular scene in Philadelphia?
GM: We partner more with a few bands from New York who are also brass bands doing world music. Our most direct connections are with those groups. We also have some good relationships with other kind of offbeat bands like Johnny Showcase. We do a New Year’s show with them. Some of our horn players are the horn players for Johnny Showcase. They’re like a psychedelic funk band from the ‘70s. It’s like if guys from the ‘70s were in a time capsule and ended up today and didn’t realize thirty or forty years had passed. We also work with Martha Graham Cracker a bit. All these groups are high energy, party, have fun, be a little mischievous, so I think it’s that.
There were no real bands to have fun and dance. At the time it was singer-songwriters, punk scene, rock, the indie scene- Dr. Dog- that whole scene was kind of strong. That was the scene. It wasn’t like, go out and have fun and dance. If you wanted to dance you could go to a club with a DJ, but as a drummer I thought, what happened to music and dancing?
So that’s why we started it. It was kind of an acoustic dance band and I think there were a lot of people who realized that that was a cool thing. WPO and Johnny Showcase are the bands that, that’s our goal. There’s now the New Sound Brass Band. We played a show with them. That’s what they do as well.
In the fall, we’ll have our official ten year anniversary, even though I was the only one who was there. The other guys came six to eight months later. It’s been a slow evolution. We’re going to try to invite some of the original guys back.
What is your idea of success?
GM: I feel like as far as a band that just plays Philly, being a large group, it’s hard for us to tour. We’ve been successful hosting weekly and monthly events; to be able to continue playing in a city this long and to have a cool following. We’re doing a new album this year. Our first album was in 2008. We always kind of thought, should we just be a village band for the neighborhood- that was the original intent- or should we be a band that has some kind of regional or national impact?
Once we started getting calls for festivals regionally, we decided to travel. I think for us, being successful is having gigs here that are satisfying and really fun to play; playing all the parts of the city, playing the local festivals and playing weddings. The music we play from Serbia, the material they play is wedding music. We have songs that are called Wedding. So it makes sense that we can bring that element.
How does the band interact with the audience?
GM: It’s supposed to be interactive. We can play on a stage, but that never feels right to me. I always like to be in the audience, moving with people and feeling the vibe.
From: Northeast Suburbs of Philadelphia
Start of Band: 2006
WPO Members: Petia Zamfirova- vocals, Adam Hershberger- trumpet, David Fishkin- saxophone, Larry Goldfinger- clarinet, Jimmy Parker- sousaphone, Larry Toft- baritone, Elliott Levin- saxophone/flute, Dan Nosheny, baritone/sousaphone/accordion, Steven Duffy- baritone, Chad Brown- percussion, Patrick Hughes- trumpet, Haley Varhol- baritone, Koofreh Umoren- trumpet, Francois Zayas- percussion, Gregg Mervine- percussion.