As I enter The Dakota Tavern, Lemon Bucket Orkestra are getting ready for sound check. The 17-piece band is scattered across the venue. In one corner of the bar the horn section are going over a difficult riff, while in another the string players are dueling on violins. Beside the stage, percussionist Os Kar is drumming on a table, and Ring Leader Mark Marczyk is doing vocal exercises. The venue has been decorated with oversized streamers, and throughout the venue people are having conversations in Ukrainian, Romanian, and English. Later that night the band will play the first of three sold-out shows to celebrate the release of their second LP Moorka, an album of re-imagined Slavic folk songs that the group learned on their last European tour. But even before the concert officially begins, Lemon Bucket have brought their own atmosphere to the tavern, and I watch the scene unfold for a long time before I introduce myself to the band and see how many members are available for an interview.
Lemon Bucket Orkestra began in 2005 as a busking project by vocalist/violinist Mark Marczyk and accordion player Tangi Ropars. Both musicians had been in and out of various bands for years, but neither had found an outfit that represented what they wanted out of music. The idea for Lemon Bucket started in a Vietnamese restaurant after a lot of complaining and even more alcohol.
“We were like ‘fuck the music scene in Toronto.’ We can’t find any anyone to play with. We can’t find any type of community we feel represents us,” Marczyk explains. “We wanted an assertive style of traditional songs, so we decided to create it. We ate some noodles and decided to make an Eastern European folk orchestra. ”
Marczyk and Ropars put together a quartet that learned traditional Ukrainian and Romanian songs while incorporating elements of punk rock, jazz, and funk. Early in their career you were as likely to find Lemon Bucket playing a sparsely attended house party or an impromptu show on the streets of Kensington Market as you were to find them in any traditional venue. The band played anywhere and everywhere they could, and their unique blend of music caught the attention of Toronto’s Eastern European communities and many of the city’s street performers. Lemon Bucket saw those early audiences as an opportunity, and they began cultivating different relationships and inviting people to participate. Basing their operation out of Marczyk’s west end home, which the group affectionately dubbed the Owl’s Nest, the band began adding members and incorporating theatrical elements into their live show. As the concerts became more elaborate, more people started paying attention.
“We put a lot of effort into making the shows an event and not just a concert,” says trumpeter Michael Louis Johnson who joined the band after a late night session at the Owl’s Nest. “It’s something that you partake in. You’ll dance. You’ll sing. You might even get bashed in the teeth. It’s a different type of fun. Hearing Eastern European folk music in a rock club or punk rock context takes people out of their heads and into a different thing.”
Over the course of the band’s five-year career I’ve seen Lemon Bucket play dozens of concerts. I’ve watched them lead parades down the middle of Toronto’s Queen Street West. I’ve seen them perform with clowns and stilt walkers. I’ve watched the band sell-out bigger and bigger venues, get nominated for a Juno, and create viral videos on YouTube.
That level of success is an achievement for any band, but particularly for a band that plays Eastern European folk music and has dozens of members. “When you say you play Eastern European music people can be kind of skeptical,” says singer/percussionist/belly-dancer Stephania Woloshyn. “There is an energy to what we do. People dance. There is a mosh pit. People body surf to our music, which is not what you typically think of when you think of Eastern Europe.”
It isn’t just the band’s energy or their unique style that’s drawn me to Lemon Bucket’s concerts; it’s the atmosphere. By consciously drawing from so many different sources, Lemon Bucket have created a space that invites people of different ages, cultures, and perspectives to their shows, and while it would be easy to speculate on what any of that means on a broader philosophical scale, the result is a fucking great party. The band sings music in a language that I don’t understand, but their goal is clear: They want people to have a very, very, good time.
“It’s about intention,” says Marczyk. “We want to play respect to the traditions as they’ve been for many years. We also want to re-imagine what those traditions would be like in different contexts. Not least of which is the streets of Toronto. We want to be a part of the tapestry. That intention, the genuine intention of being something bigger than ourselves, I think that’s what draws people to us.”
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.