We talk to a couple members of Toronto's only "Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Punk-Super-Party-Band," the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, about their transition from local offbeat buskers to international folk sensations.
The 14 members of the traditional folk-music collective Lemon Bucket Orkestra aren’t afraid to march to the beat of their own drum, or sax, or sousaphone, or flugelhorn, or button accordion, or—well, you get the picture.
Locally renowned since 2010 for pop-up concerts in unexpected spots—anywhere from street corners to the Island to Union Station to Air Canada flights—the Lemon Bucket Orkestra is now hitting bigger (and actual) stages. They played the closing weekend of the 2012 Luminato Festival, have a spot coming up in this year’s Nuit Blanche, and just completed a 15-day tour through Romania where they impressed audiences with their high-energy, half-naked, mohawked performances of the country’s traditional music.
The collective will release its debut full-length album, Lume Lume, in October, and Torontoist spoke with Mark Marczyk (violin/vocals) and Os Kar (savage drum) about staying true to their signature guerilla-style performances and traditional sounds.
Torontoist: Where does this passion for klezmer, balkan, and gypsy folk music come from?
Mark Marczyk: My background is Ukrainian, so that was my starting point. But I’ve always felt superficially Ukrainian; I didn’t feel connected to it growing up. Then I travelled through Eastern Europe and the UK and took a course in language and culture…. I met klezmer bands, I met gypsy bands, and bands from the Balkans, and they invited me to play the violin with them. I hadn’t played since I was a little kid, but they didn’t care. They were stoked about having another player.
Os Kar: It’s in our hearts…. For me, I felt a connection with the passion that you play it with; I felt a connection with the kind of music I grew up with in Mexico. It reminds me of mariachi in a way. It’s just really good music—what is there not to like, you know? For me, it’s like a fresh breath. I was playing with rock bands and I just wanted something completely different and new.
How did that translate into the Lemon Bucket Orkestra?
MM: We toured with the band Worldly Savages through Europe, but that just wasn’t enough. We started teaching one another songs at the after-parties, and those ended up becoming more legendary than the actual shows. We’d be up to all hours, playing music and creating songs…. In Toronto, I had heard about various bands that were playing this music, but I didn’t see any folk music around these amazing diasporas I thought Toronto had.
OK: After touring with Worldly Savages, we realized this was something we wanted to keep doing forever—which is playing traditional, old music, and just playing together because we had a good chemistry. We knew we could work together; we knew we could tour together. We decided to form Lemon Bucket Orkestra as the band we all envisioned.
Why are you so dedicated to keeping the music so traditional?
OK: It’s mainly not really done nowadays. It’s mostly really old people who play this style of music, and the way they do it is kind of boring and not appealing to young people. I think one of the reasons why they like us in Europe is that we’re playing music that, for them, is old and boring. They grew up learning that it’s not that cool. And this band from Canada is paying homage to their music, saying, “Hey kids, listen to your own thing, it’s great what you have going on.” Because a lot of people like to go for Britney Spears and what America puts on the radio. They’re not really proud of their own music, but when they see us it makes them give it a second thought.
You’re now known for your pop-up concerts in weird locations. Were they always part of your vision for the Lemon Bucket Orkestra?
MM: I think it just evolved from busking, which is a huge, important part of our lives. Playing on the street gives someone an unexpected birth of celebration. We want people to join us, and pick up their heads! You live in a city with other people!
OK: There’s something about bringing something new to someone who’s not expecting it. It’s people who are just walking down the street and going about their days; we really like to touch them and just brighten up their days. And a lot of it is that we really just love playing all the time and simply cannot stop. When it comes to things like the airplane, we just didn’t have anything to do and we were going to be waiting for 20 minutes—for us, it’s another opportunity to practice and to play.
Do you have any favourite off-the-cuff shows you’ve played?
MM: There have been so many great ones. In Romania, we came across this abandoned train station and immediately pulled over and filmed a video of us playing a song about waiting for the train. That was amazing. There was no one around, it was just for us, but it was really meaningful.
OK: Our favourite gig to play here in Toronto is La Palette restaurant. Those gigs, we never promote them—they’re like a secret. We want new people to see us, people who are walking down Queen at 1 a.m. coming out of the bar, and look over and see us jumping on top of the bar at La Palette. We like to create that kind of emotion. There have been a few times where we empty out into the street and close it off for a few minutes.
Do you have a preference between playing stage shows or playing on the street?
OK: Definitely randomly in the street. As a band, we’re more used to the guerilla-like performances. Sometimes on bigger stages it’s harder to make the connection to the people. We feed off a lot from the people—the crazier people go, the crazier we play, as well. You don’t get that same energy exchange when you’re father away from the audience, it’s just harder to feel that connection. It’s really nice when you start playing and people start gathering all around you and come closer and closer—it’s like we are all part of the party.
MM: I don’t want to sound too pretentious, but in our music we play something that’s been around for hundreds of years—we pay homage to it, but we reinvent it based on our different musical and cultural backgrounds so it will speak to other people. That’s why we try to find existing spaces and reimagine them. You know, “What if Union Station were a place of celebration instead of a place of transit?” I don’t see us stopping any time in the near future.