Between the U.S. Army, Navy, the Marines, Air Force, and the Coast Guard, there are hundreds of professional military bands in existence, ranging from full-on orchestras to two stoned guys with an overturned bucket and a broken kazoo. They provide music for military funerals, celebrations, parades and everywhere else where you need a lot of noise to drown out the other servicemen complaining about how they had to be in formation three hours before the whole thing even started. I recently talked to Roy, who spent eight years in just such a band, and this is what I’ve learned:
5. The Military Has Its Own Music School
In the bad old days, a military musician was one of the most shit jobs around. They were usually placed at the front of the unit, which put them in the unenviable position of often being the first ones to get their skin flutes blown off by enemy fire. Hell, with the amount of noise they were making, even a blind person could have taken them out. Nowadays, though, playing in a military band must be the easiest, must cushy job you could get. Why isn’t everyone applying for it? Well, chances are they are. They just aren’t able to make the cut.
“There’s a school of music that is specific to the Marines and Navy,” Roy says. “All musicians in the military must pass AIT (advanced individual training) at this school … This is no different from any military occupation; every job requires advanced training and everyone must complete AIT before being assigned to a unit. The process is like this:
- 2/3-hour audition with the Army Band,
- Complete basic training,
- Upon applying for advanced training, 2-hour audition,
- Complete advanced training,
- 1-hour audition,
- Arrive to unit, 30-minute audition.”
So before you’re even allowed to look at the military’s music school, you’ll have to audition like crazy to prove you can really play and the music wasn’t really coming from an old iPod you smuggled inside your pocket. But let’s say you do get in. Then it’s pretty much just playing some sweet tunes, partying, and Alyson Hannigan pleasuring herself with a variety of instruments, right? What’s another way to say “No” while laughing hysterically?
“Classes involve individual lessons, then group settings,” Roy says. “I played in jazz bands, swing bands, country bands, rock bands, punk bands, everything. By the way I had to do the course 3 times, for drums, guitar, and sound engineering. Bah. Of course you do things like physical training, ruck marches, and all that shit.”
“I figured I was probably playing drums 6-8 hours a day 6 days a week.”
And that’s… way, hold up. The military lets you play punk? The anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian punk? The military? Well, now I have a brand-new Bucket List item: attend a military class on punk.
4. Military Bands Serve A Noble Purpose
“The purpose of military bands,” Roy told me, “is to provide support to civilians, military functions, provide good troop morale by playing in operating bases in war zones, honoring dignitaries, ceremonies, etc.” And that’s great and all but it seems like military bands basically have to compete with the old iPod that I use to cheat at music auditions. (Yes, it is full of military marches. Oh yes, it is most definitely the entirety of my sex playlist.)
But the truth is, live music simply has a kind of magic about it. A magic that can move people. Roy saw it up close many times: “After a show, I shook hands with a guy who was missing his arm. He stuck out his little claw and I shook it. This is pretty typical, but what I learned after the fact was the venue we played at was on a street named after this guy for his heroic efforts in Iraq and he’s standing here telling me ‘you really made my day with those songs, thank you so much for being here.’”
Another time, Roy spent hours with a mother and father before a show because their son had been killed in Afghanistan and they wanted to fold a flag for him. So the band took a flag from their stock and held a folding ceremony for them behind two trees and a porta-potty because “Goddammit that’s what we’re here for.” And if you didn’t tear up a little bit at this, prepare to sweat from your eyes, buddy.
“At a veteran’s home in Sheridan, Wyoming, a man bound to a wheelchair stood for the fist time after hearing the Navy Song being played.”
“The nurses told us through teary eyes that he hadn’t stood on his own for over 8 years. I remember watching him struggle to stand, denying help from his aides because he wanted to salute for his branch. The power of music is undeniable and that’s the reward for hours of work.”
3. You Get To Live (And Act) Like A Rockstar
It should be no surprise that alcohol and drugs play a huge part in the military already, but with band nerds it’s amplified to scary degrees. Oh, you don’t think Polka players could drink you under the table? Feel free to prove me wrong, but you better bring a spare liver with you. Anyway: “We drink because of the stresses on the job, to celebrate successful jobs, etc.,” Roy says.
“It was common practice that when we got into a new town, we would find the liquor store before the hotel, because priorities.”
“At 20, my friends and I would have 12 beers each and then hit the bars after a gig … There was lots of green room service, free food, drinks, whatever we wanted basically. When it came time to shows, we were treated like celebrities. We had our own transportation unit in Germany. This was a platoon of truck drivers who specifically existed to haul us around. 4 buses, 2 half ton trucks, and 4 SUVs. They waited on us hand and foot.”
Plus, there were also all the celebrities Roy and his bandmates got to meet: “I was once asked to fill in for a band on tour in Washington DC, and I ended up in a hotel green room with Garth Brooks and Craig Morgan, drinking their Bud and eating crackers until we did a 3 hour set at the hotel for some ‘private dignitaries’ … I’ve also hung out with Ms. America, Dick Cheney, and the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. OK I met them, we didn’t hang out.” Well that changes everything then. From now on, it’s only light beer for Roy and his friends. They can graduate to regular beer once they get Cheney to do a keg stand.
2. It’s The Military So The Equipment Situation Is… Weird
“When it came to replacing gear,” Roy explains, “there are literally books of rules. An instrument has a certain lifespan. The guitar I was issued when I came in was a Gibson Les Paul custom from the late 60s. We had three of these, and they belong in a museum. We found them in a supply cage UNDER A BOX OF SHIT and in no cases. Guess what? We can’t get rid of them for 50 years, and no one has any idea when we got them so they just sit there.”
Well, not to argue with Roy but he is wrong here. Replacing military equipment is EASY. All you need to do is fill out form ABCD-1. But only after you get the form ABCD-2. Which you can only get after submitting the combined forms ABCD-1 and 2 but before sacrificing a castrated goat under a blood moon with a silver knife. See? Simple.
“We got a 100k sound system to tour with, then my commander had to go out of pocket to buy all the fucking cables to connect everything because none of it was compatible.”
“The other problem is since we don’t ‘officially’ work with any brands, the Army has a hilarious way of ordering instruments. There is a request form that starts with the most basic of things and then advances through all the specs. The finance people read the specs, find the item that best matches what you think you need, and then orders it without asking ‘is this the right one?’ I have no idea why they do this.”
Let’s put it like this. Let’s say you wanted a new car, but instead of typing “BMW M5” you have to start with stuff like:
- 4 wheels.
- Black exterior.
- Black interior.
And then in the end, you get 2 bicycles spray-painted black. “I tried to order two acoustic guitars, nailed the specs and was sent two guitars by RainSong who aren’t even a fucking company any more. They are sitting near the Les Pauls last time I checked.”
1. The Rest Of The Military Doesn’t Take Military Bands Seriously
In many ways, military and high school bands are very similar: none of your peers take you seriously and you hear the “skin flutist” joke roughly 200 times a day, which I am not apologizing for. “Other Army guys don’t take us seriously. And why would they? We’re barely soldiers in their eyes.”
“A cool thing about the Army Band is that it’s one of the only jobs you have to be 100% qualified for before you even sign up. In nearly every other designation, you agree to a specific job (MOS) and then you go to basic training, then your advanced training for your job, then to your unit. In the Army Band, you’re already qualified which means SWEET you get an advanced rank. Most soldiers entering basic start at private (E1, E2), or private first class (E3). We start at Specialist, or E4,” and that, understandably, doesn’t win you many friends. People get jealous of your higher rank for, what is essentially, fingering an instrument until it orgasms a song.
“It kind of stings at first because you have a brief moment of ‘am I actually a pussy for being a drummer instead of blowing up bad guys?’” But then you pound a few beers before noon and, as if by some kind of magic, you stop worrying about that stuff.