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An interview with the San Francisco Renegades’ Lee Rudnicki

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher
publisher@drumcorpsworld.com

One of the most intriguing drum and bugle corps to come along in a very long time is the San Francisco Renegades. The organization kind of snowballed from an idea to reality in a relatively short time and, over the past few years, has become a very competitive corps in DCA senior competition.

Lee Rudnicki has been an integral part of the corps’ growth and he brought some very unique marketing ideas in the groups’ early years.

For anyone who has seen the corps at the DCA Championships, they have one of the most powerful brass sections, they play totally recognizable music and visually have lots of variety to spice up their productions.

Steve Vickers: How did you first get involved in the activity and what corps did you march with during your junior years?

Lee Rudnicki: I originally got involved in drum corps because my high school band director, John Bender, was an alumni of the Reading Buccaneers and a huge Santa Clara Vanguard fan. In fact, our band uniforms were modeled after the Vanguard and we usually played music that had been played by either the Vanguard or the Buccaneers. So, I naturally grew up being a fan of both corps and I didn’t have any real concept of the difference between junior or senior corps.

The first live drum corps I ever saw was the Buccaneers, when they rehearsed at my high school (Crestwood). I remember being completely overwhelmed by the powerful sound of the horn line. I was instantly sold on the idea of marching with the Buccaneers some day.

The first time I saw junior corps was in the summer of 1982, at the West Chester University band clinic. Two guys from our high school drum line, Ken and Pete Sherry, were in the Crossmen that year, and talking with them in the parking lot after the show I felt like I was talking to rock stars.

Later that summer, Dave Cooper, another local band director, took a large group of students to the DCI Championships in Montreal. I was at ground zero in the audience for the legendary SCV bottle dance and right then and there, I loudly announced to everyone in our group that I would one day march and teach the Vanguard.

In retrospect, it was a pretty silly thing to do, since I was in eighth grade and had only been drumming for a year and a half, but it all mysteriously worked out and I have friends in Pennsylvania who laugh about that incident to this day.

A few years later, when I actually got good enough to try out for a drum corps, I joined the snare line of the 1983 Reading Buccaneers. It was a dream come true for me, especially with Ken Sherry and Robby Robinson teaching the drum line, but it was a very difficult year for the corps in general. In fact, we took the stage at our first winter concert with 17 horns, a handful of drummers and a ham sandwich.

But the Buccaneers persevered and we somehow ended up with a full corps and a fifth-place finish by DCA. That year, I learned what the power of belief and optimism could do for a drum corps and what is possible when you refuse to let a dream die, even when things look incredibly grim and hopeless.

All of the great Buccaneers corps in the years that followed owe a debt of gratitude to the leaders and staff of the 1983 Buccaneers, as many other corps would have folded under similar circumstances.

In 1984, I joined the Crossmen and I had a good time touring the United States for the first time and learning from some great instructors, like Mark Thurston. The corps got back into DCI Finals after falling out in 1983, so the year ended on a high note.

Unfortunately, the revelry was not to last, as 1985 brought disaster to the Crossmen in the form of bad Spanish music, a uniform designed after a snack food and a tour that had more misery than mere mortals should be expected to endure.

We ended up in seventeenth place and, needless to say, I left that summer intending not to march anywhere until I could get the money to move to California and march with the Vanguard.

I joined West Chester University’s band to keep up my snare chops and I marched next to Tom Aungst, who taught the Garfield Cadets. One day, Tom and Cadets’ bass drum instructor, Steve Keifer, showed up to my dorm room, told me to grab my sleeping bag and literally dragged me out the door to a Cadets’ camp.

The intense rehearsals were very difficult, and initially, I doubted that I would survive the season. Although at first I hated every minute of being with the Cadets, somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I was in the middle of the greatest learning experience of my life, our show and staff were brilliant and I had a lot of great friends in the corps.

To this day, I look at my experience in the Garfield Cadets as being one of the primary reasons I was able to get through law school. I poke fun at George Hopkins, but the guy has   created an absolutely incredible organization.

In 1987, however, it was time to accomplish my dream — a dream that started in the mayhem of the 1982 Vanguard bottle dance. I said goodbye to my many friends in the Garfield Cadets and at West Chester, and I moved out to California to march with the Vanguard and study with Ralph Hardimon.

At the end of the summer, Vanguard lost the DCI title to the Cadets by .1, which I think is technically called “poetic justice.”

In 1988, I returned to SCV for my age-out year and became Vanguard’s center snare and the drum line section leader. With a majority of the corps aging out after the 1987 season, we had a rough winter and an even rougher early-season.

We debuted our “Phantom of the Opera” show wearing black capes and green pants, and proceeded to get beat by the Blue Devils by approximately 700 points. However, we were on a mission and the show was magic. We improved quickly and we were surprised to beat every other corps we competed against that summer, until DCI, when the Madison Scouts pulled off the drum corps equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and captured the DCI crown.

There were many tears and laughter in the Vanguard drum line when they announced that we had won high drums, which was a pretty cool way to age out.

SV: Moving on to your instruction career, what corps have you worked with and in what capacities?

LR: I returned to the Vanguard as a snare tech in 1989 and won another high drum title and a DCI Championship despite the random overage English guys who were kinda-sorta trying their best to get us disqualified. I then took the 1990 season off from drum corps to try to get my rock band career going.

In 1991, I returned to the Vanguard staff and had the amazing experience of working with Scott Johnson for the first time. Scott and I co-wrote the battery book for the “Miss Saigon” show, and that summer was one of the most creative experiences of my life. Scott was open to anything and everything, and we had an incredible amount of fun trying out new sounds and techniques for the battery. We even wrote some music on a napkin in a Denny’s one day!

Scotty Sells wrote one of the most bizarre and innovative books I have ever heard for our pit and we ended the season with a genius collaborative percussion book and, for me, my third consecutive high drum trophy with the Vanguard.

In 1992, I taught the Blue Devils for two strange and random months and then moved to Los Angeles to intern at a record label. I returned to the Vanguard staff in 1993 to co-write the book with Scott again, and then became the percussion caption head in 1994 when Scott returned to his home with the Blue Devils.

A quick phone call to Ed Teleky at 3:00 AM the day I got the gig started a unique percussion writing partnership of sorts, and the season spent designing Vanguard’s “Red Poppy” show was a great one. The “Not-the-Nutcracker” 1995 season was one of those unfortunate drum corps years that you want to forget, despite having a lot of great kids in the corps.

Forty-eight hours after the 1995 DCI Finals, I was in a classroom listening to a lecture on contract law. Over the next three years, I went to maybe one drum corps show. Instead of drum corps, I spent my summers studying international law and business in Ireland and the Czech Republic.

Frankly, it was a nice break, and I met a lot of amazing people from all over the world. I spent the summer of 1998 taking the California bar exam, which was not so fun.

A few months later, I answered an advertisement to write drum parts on RAMD for a drum corps I had never heard of — the Bay Area Renegades. I went to a rehearsal in the winter of 1999 and the rest is history.

After being the percussion caption head of the Santa Clara Vanguard, attending an ensemble music rehearsal with only two horn players and five drummers was a humbling experience.

SV: I know you’re an entertainment lawyer and you now live in Southern California. How has your educational background fit into the corps world?

LR: Well, my legal background gives me the tools to do some very productive business development work on behalf of the Renegades and DCA. For example, I was able to help negotiate the deal that made the Renegades’ appearance in North Carolina possible last year, and I also re-structured DCA’s contract for the recording of the DCA Championships along the lines of a traditional major label recording agreement, which was key, from a business                perspective, as it instantly gives every DCA corps and the video company a mutually beneficial financial incentive to work hard to increase sales and visibility of all the DCA corps — a win-win situation for everyone.

I am currently working on television, film and music projects, and I hope to get the Renegades involved in all of the above at some point.

SV: Turning to the beginnings of the Renegades, what role did you play in the formation of the corps?

LR: Absolutely none. The Renegades were founded in 1996 by a group of seven people who were determined to “be” a drum corps, whether anyone wanted them to or not. They were doing parades and other small gigs long before I showed up.

I came onto the scene in 1999. I went to a rehearsal in San Francisco and I was hooked. Although the corps was not very good (putting it nicely), something kept me at rehearsal that day. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something very special about the Renegades.

Despite the chaos, the corps obviously had a great deal of heart and they looked like they were having fun. At that very moment, I decided to teach the Renegades. I don’t know exactly why I did. Maybe something clicked in my head and I realized that drumming was missing from my life. Maybe in the span of 20 minutes the Renegades taught me that drum corps could be fun again.

Once I decided to teach the Renegades, I had one immediate problem. Although the corps was small, I certainly couldn’t teach a whole corps by myself — especially a horn line. I needed reinforcements and I needed them fast.

That night, I called Kent Cater, the Vanguard’s award-winning bass drum instructor, and Chris Nalls, a talented horn instructor who I also knew from Vanguard. Although the corps had little money for instructors, Chris and Kent both thought the name “Renegades” was cool and they agreed to join me on the staff.

I wrote a book about the incredible events that followed, “The Renegade Journal,” which you can get at http://www.cafepress.com/renegadejournal.

SV: You brought some interesting strategies to the table . . . the “Evil” theme, the “7” trademark and the “Loud Music Symposium.” Marketing is obviously one of your fortés. Tell our readers about what these intriguing things have meant to the Renegades’ progress.

LR: Well, the answer is simple. We had no choice BUT to be innovative with our marketing. Despite the corps’ constant improvement and the huge number of drum corps alumni who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, it remained difficult for the Renegades to recruit new members.

One issue that we faced — besides the fact that the corps was small and not very good — was that there hadn’t been a viable senior corps in California for many years. Unlike the East Coast, with its strong and long-established DCA senior corps circuit, you were expected to permanently “age-out” when you turned 22 in California.

No senior corps existed in California and to even think about marching after you aged-out was not socially acceptable. In fact, it was considered fashionably idiotic.

For the Renegades to succeed, we needed to break the negative stereotype that West Coast drum corps fans held of senior corps. Somehow, we needed to make joining a senior corps a “cool” thing to do in California.

We knew there was absolutely no reason that music performance should be taken out of your life just because you turn 22, especially when most professional musicians are not even taken seriously until well past that age. We just needed to make people realize that.

When we mapped out the future of the Renegades, we knew that no one will likely ever out-Vanguard the Vanguard. Ditto for the Blue Devils, The Cadets and every other world-class drum corps with a strong identity.

Our mission was to create a unique identity that might borrow a few characteristics or tunes from world-class drum corps, but would not result in the Renegades being seen by fans and potential members as a wannabe or “cover corps.”

To attract new members, the Renegades needed to be perceived as something new and not just an organization around for people to relive the so-called glory days of marching in a junior corps. Since the corps’ name was “Renegades,” and chaos and controversy followed it at every turn, we defined the Renegades’ “marketing image” as controversial, exciting and way off the beaten path of traditional drum corps.

We weren’t going to run away from controversy, we were going to embrace it. To this end, we launched a marketing campaign that promoted the Renegades as “evil.” No, the corps did not sign a pact with Lucifer. To us, “evil” simply meant the Renegades were a rebellious, exciting and urban/cool type of drum corps.

SV: Any idea how many different corps are represented among the corps’ membership?

LR: I have no idea. I literally cannot think of any corps off the top of my head that has “not” been represented in the Renegades over the last seven seasons.

SV: How about the corps your design and instructional staff have been involved with?

LR: I wouldn’t even know where to start, except to say that almost all of us have either taught the Vanguard or the Blue Devils at one point, and all the corps that Frank and Shirley Dorritie have worked throughout their careers would probably fill up this entire page.

SV: Almost since the beginning of the corps, the size of each section has been near capacity. What do you think are the reasons you are drawing such talent to the Renegades?

LR: First, marching in the Renegades is a lot of fun. Frankly, I have had some great times in drum corps, but I never had as much fun as I have had in Renegades. I think you would probably get this same answer from most of our members and staff.

Second, we make performing music fun and rewarding. You don’t need a music textbook or a three-hour lecture on Russian history to appreciate the Renegades’ show. There is complexity in our show design, to be sure, and we have some of the best show designers on the planet on our staff, several of whom still teach Vanguard and Blue Devils.

But above all, the Renegades are about figuratively dragging the audience out of their seats and making them a part of our show. If we don’t electrify the crowd, then we have failed, and I don’t care what the score is.

In 2004, during the “Triumph of Evil,” we got SIX standing ovations during our show . . . twice! There is no trophy on this Earth that I would ever trade for that experience and I think the fans would say the same thing.

One other corps that understood this philosophy perfectly was the Bayonne Bridgemen. In fact, when we explained our creative direction to the corps in the early days of the Renegades, we told them that we are out to be “Bridgemen without the comedy.”

SV: What’s on tap for 2006? More tunes to get strong audience reaction?

LR: The 2006 show is tentatively titled “Stairway to Heaven.” It opens with Adventures in Time, a hot and relentless jazz tune made popular by Stan Kenton that just screams for a nuclear horn line to play it.   We follow this up with “Stairway to Heaven” by the band Led Zeppelin.

This was definitely not on the forefront of our repertoire list until Chris Nalls found a brilliant recording of the London Philharmonic playing it that just blew us away.

The final production of our 2006 show is Tocatta by the band Emerson Lake and Palmer, which we plan to Renegade-ize, if you will.

The corps will be much improved from 2005. Key Poulan joined the corps as our brass arranger and most of the horn line is returning from last season, which is scary.

The Renegades’ color guard will return to a theatrical approach, of sorts, that we last took in 2004.

The drum line has had an exciting development, with the addition of former SCV percussion caption head Murray Gusseck to the staff on a full-time basis. Blue Devils drill designer Jay Murphy has signed on board for a fourth season of writing our drill.

All in all, we are looking forward to another great year for the Renegades, but louder, cleaner and more exciting than ever.

SV: You took your “Loud Music Symposium” on the road, so to speak, last summer when you presented an eastern version on the weekend of the DCA Regional in Winston-Salem, NC. How did that go over?

LR: It went very well and was a great opportunity for all the DCA corps to hang out in a non-competitive and extremely loud atmosphere. Frankly, I think DCA needs more events like this throughout the summer.

One of the more memorable moments of “LMS South,” besides announcer Fran Haring’s shirt, was seeing a member of Renegades’ color guard cry during Buccaneers’ concert (she was in Vanguard when they played the same music).

SV: I understand you’re adding another location this year in Southern California. Is that in conjunction with Dream?

LR: Yes, the tentative plan is to hold “Loud Music Symposium Los Angeles” this summer, in conjunction with So Cal Dream. I started working with So Cal Dream this year as a program consultant and we are looking for ways for the Renegades and So Cal Dream to work together to help get the West Coast senior corps scene to thrive.

“LMS Los Angeles” seems like a natural place to start and the Renegades are touring Los Angeles this summer for some DCI shows, which hasn’t happened in a few years.

SV: Any word on whether or not there will be additional senior or all-age corps on the West Coast in the future?

LR: God, I hope so. Three corps does not make a circuit!

SV: Anything else you’d like to add?

LR: Seven.

SV: Thanks for doing this interview. I’m sure the DCW readers have learned a lot about you and the Renegades.

LR: Thanks, Steve.

This interview originally appeared in the issue of Drum Corps World dated December 2005.

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

The worldwide staff of writers and photographers provide show reviews during the season and interviews, feature articles, news and human interest stories during the off-season. The photographs that appear in the magazine are provided by 27 staff members who are scattered around the world. The publication covers World and Open Class Drum Corps International corps, Open and Class A Drum Corps Associates corps, alumni, mini-, parade and standstill units, as well as the growing activity in Europe, the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and South Africa.