by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher
It’s no surprise to readers of Drum Corps World that memories of the San Francisco Renegades are some of the most noteworthy aspects of Drum Corps Associates’ growth and popularity over the last decade. From their first appearance at the Labor Day weekend championship in 2002, the group has presented some of the most unusual and thought-provoking productions among the two-dozen all-age corps that have annually populated the competitions in Scranton, PA, and Rochester, NY.
“Dark” seems to be the theme moving through the corps’ design and musical ideas, but always with an extremely strong group of people who demonstrate talent and determination, sometimes unequaled. Their ranks are drawn from not only the Northern California alumni rosters of corps like the Blue Devils, Santa Clara Vanguard, Freelancers and Mandarins — as well a nearly all the other corps that have graced the fields in the San Francisco Bay area over the years — but they’ve even had members who hail from the Southern California region and points East, all the way to the Atlantic Coast.
Chris Nalls, the current director of the corps, and Lolita Tabujara, the corps’ assistant director and drum major, offered to chat with me. I thought it might be intriguing to delve into their minds and find out what makes the corps tick.
Steve Vickers: How did this whole idea of having a then-senior (all-age) corps from the West Coast come about? Who were the key people at that time?
Chris Nalls: It all started in the late 90s with a small group of folks that decided to start an all-age corps on the West Coast. Some of those pioneers decided to go out on their own, forming a corps that was to be called either the Barbary Coast Corsairs or the Renegades.
I think they made the right choice.
The original team included Director Brandon Wilson (snare drummer) and Mike Nash (French horn), who designed the Renegades’ logo as well as the trench coat uniforms the corps wore from 2002 to 2007.
After performing in parades and local events for a few years, Lee Rudnicki and I came on board. This was in 1999 and we decided on a three-year plan to turn the corps into the most famous in the country. This involved doubling in size every year and playing field shows that would delight the performers as well as the audience.
SV: How many different junior corps have been or are represented among your membership over the years?
CN: All of them, pretty much. Plenty of folks from the Northern California corps. We also have a thriving community of imports — folks who fly in for camps from all over the country — as well as members who make the eight-hour drive from Southern California corps like the Anaheim Kingsmen Alumni and the Velvet Knights.
SV: You’ve had some great success competing against the long-established corps in the Northeast. How did it feel when the corps took the field at Lackawanna Stadium in Scranton, PA, back in 2002?
CN: To be honest, we were all a little worse for wear. The corps traveled to the East Coast on a red-eye flight, arriving Thursday morning. On Friday night, we hosted Pizza Orgasmica, a party that will live on as one of the most infamous events in the history of drum corps . . . definitely in the history of our corps.
Anyway, we took the field in the heat of the day, wearing our black trench coats. Facing a crowd wiped away a lot of the fatigue and we made finals in our first appearance.
Over the years, there have been many memorable performances at DCA — the multiple standing ovations and the interaction with our fans — who are the best in all of drum corps — have been amazing.
My most memorable show would have to be prelims in 2005. We started our show with a reverent hymn, Ave Maria by Hans Biebl. The show started with me playing a French horn solo. Throughout the season, a variety of interruptions had occurred — motorcycles, trucks, screaming babies, you name it.
At prelims, as I began the show, an ambulance came through the gates of the stadium with lights flashing and siren blaring. It made me laugh to myself, but had no effect on the corps’ performance. We were used to it.
LT: My favorite Renegades show is also from 2005. Granted, I may be a little biased because it was my first year with the corps, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life. The corps delivered a very strong performance that year in Scranton. Despite potential mishaps from outside elements (ambulance speeding onto the field during prelims, blaring motorcycles and screaming babies during our ballad at other shows, etc.) the corps performed as if none of that mattered.
SV: Some of your strongest soloists have come from the Blue Devils. Name a few of your main people and where they got their start?
CN: Our main soloist is Larrie Dastrup. He performed in the Blue Devils from 1979 to 1981, and surely ranks among the best soloists of all time.
In recent years, Bonnie Ott-Thompson, legendary mellophonist of Blue Devils and Stockton Commodores fame, has been performing with the corps. We also had Doug “Pooh Bear” Kenyon on baritone. He was featured in the 1981 Blue Devils classic, Dindi, which was played by Larrie Dastrup on soprano the previous year.
Our current head horn instructor, Rich Duarte, has been a featured soloist on both soprano and drum set, and I can’t leave out the amazing Roland Garceau, who performed with the Blue Devils in 1994, as well as the Brigadiers, winning Best Soloist in DCA. I have been known to pick up a mellophone or French horn on occasion as well.
And this is a short list — we have been blessed by many amazing players over the years.
SV: Making the trek to Scranton and Rochester is no small undertaking, especially financially. What kinds of fund-raising do you do to fill the coffers each year?
CN: Everything you could imagine. The majority comes from member dues — our folks pay their way, for the most part. The leading fund-raisers for the corps are performances and events, followed closely by souvie sales. Our guiding principal is diversity. We make money from a variety of sources. It is very tough to get a bingo game going out here, due to laws and other limitations.
We have some very generous donors who help us as well. Thanks to all of them. Anyone who would like to join the ranks of supporters should visit www.renegades.org/donate and help the Renegades keep the sound of the G bugle alive — groups like ours that play the traditional horns are becoming very rare in competition and we are committed to keeping that sound alive.
SV: Obviously you’ve also had some outstanding staff members designing and teaching the shows through the years. Which ones have been there all along and stand out as the backbone of the organization?
LT: There are so many people who have made this corps thrive to what it is today. Only to name a few: Chris Nalls, Lee Rudnicki, Dave Watrous, Jay Murphy. Those are the names that pop out to me right away, though there are so many people who have made the Renegades strong, it would be unfair to say only a few are the backbone.
SV: During the early years, the corps was usually on early at Northern California shows, even before the smaller corps. I know that caused some real challenges because members had trouble getting to shows after work, allowing little or no time to properly warm up, especially at shows on Fridays. How has the relationship changed the last few years?
CN: Actually, when we first took the field, we went on late — just before the Open Class corps. We also got paid. This was changed to make us go on first. The change truly hurt our corps.
The Renegades do not get as much rehearsal time as the junior corps. Our members have jobs and children, so we only get together on weekends. Making us go on first cost us in terms of rehearsal time and exposure.
We have had some success through putting on our own shows, but we are still on first at the majority of the shows in California. Rumor has it that appearance fees may be making a comeback and that will help. But I would rather go on later so the fans can see us.
SV: You’ve run a series of “Loudest Drum Corps Show” concerts. Those events led to your running a DCI show now. Has that been successful for the corps?
CN: Always. The “Loud Music Symposium” indoor concerts and “LOUDEST Show on Earth” field shows not only make money for the corps, but they give us a forum to introduce audiences to a Renegades-style show.
We have had rock bands, steel drum orchestras, the Stanford Marching Band — groups of every kind. We have also showcased talented young performers like Joey Pero and Adam Rapa, having them as emcee performers.
SV: What’s in store for fans in 2010?
LT: Excited screams, thrown babies, old men crying — from the crowd. The corps has put together a show this year called “Renegade Planet; A Space Opera.” Featured are some old favorites, but of course with a different spin that only the Renegades can deliver. I’m truly excited for this year’s show and we know our audience will love it, too!
SV: Thanks for taking time to do this interview. You’ve got a wonderful thing going and I wish you both — and the entire membership — best of luck in 2010 and the future.