The heart of the beat
Before reading on, check out this video, courtesy of Diggable Monkey, of Camille Denny performing with MarchFourth at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland:
Camille Denny's first foray into music began at age 7, when her guitar-playing father tried to teach his daughter how to pick and strum like her old man.
Whatever six-string genes he'd hoped to pass on, however, simply didn't translate. But when a professional drummer moved in next door, Denny's musical education took a sharp turn, one from which she's never looked back.
"I went in and sat down, and I could play a beat," Denny recalled. "Mom and Dad were like, 'Oh my God, no wonder you can't play guitar — you're a drummer!"
Today, Denny is one of three drummers in the beloved MarchFourth ensemble, where she focuses on snare drum and cymbals.
As anyone who's caught the Portland-based show band juggernaut — formerly known as the March Fourth! Marching Band — in the past two years can attest, Denny is also a powerful vocalist who projects a natural, fiery charisma onstage. Among the band's high energy, horn-and-percussion-driven rock and R&B, circus-like theatrics, intricate dancing and elaborate outfits, Denny can be found belting out songs like Earth, Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire" or Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" while ably commanding her waist-mounted percussion kit.
"I'm the only one who can sing that high," Denny said of her five-octave range. "My bandmates said, 'You can sing anything!' so now I'm stuck with all the high parts."
When the 19-member band takes a break from wowing audiences around the world — or at Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival, where it was a headiner last July — Denny resumes a relatively quiet life in Gresham. She's lived there with her grandparents Celia and Leif Madsen for the past six years.
"I like it. It's quieter," she said. "I have such an excuse for not going out or doing things: 'I am 180 blocks from downtown (Portland)! I don't want to do it.'
"I like to stay home when I'm off tour," she explained. "My brain needs to recharge."
'Confident and aggressive'
A Southeast Portland native, Denny graduated from Oregon City High School in 2013. She first began fueling the percussive talent she'd discovered by taking lessons at 9 years old.
Four years later, she'd progressed enough to join the Portland chapter of School of Rock. The for-profit after-school education program for kids and teens teaches music and stages concerts based on classic and contemporary pop/rock music themes.
Taking part in shows highlighting the styles of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, thrash music, women in rock, and R&B, Denny found a comfortable niche. She remained with School of Rock until aging out at 18, when she became an instructor.
"I'm still the loudest drummer to come out of that school," she said with an electric grin.
Remaining active in music with bands like the all-female Madame Torment, school and studies quickly took a back seat to creating and performing.
"Early on I realized" music was the path, she said. "I had problems in school, paying attention and getting good grades."
Denny's mother, Kim Combs, took an optimistic look at her daughter's situation.
"We said, 'Thank God she found something she's good at,'" she recalled. "We wanted to keep her interested."
A brief period of disenchantment was broken when Combs, who worked in the concert production business, took her daughter to an Aerosmith/Lenny Kravitz concert. Kravitz' drummer, Cindy Blackman, reignited Denny's percussive passion.
"It took a while before she was confident enough," Combs said, remembering a manager saying he was "waiting for her bubble to burst. It finally did."
Taking part in a "History of the Blues" revue, the Camille Denny that MarchFourth fans know and love came to life.
"That's where she got confident and aggressive," Combs noted. "I was working shows and would take her to as many as I could. She would network and meet all the drummers."
While Denny was touring with a Prince tribute band, March Fourth's former snare drum player Will McKinney recognized Denny's magic. He gave her first dibs on his position when he retired and she turned 21.
"I never saw them play," Denny admitted of MarchFourth, which Portland musicians John Averill and Dan Stauffer started in 2003. Still, she joined in and quickly became one of the gang — and all that entails — in a band that at one time swelled to 40 members.
"There's 14 guys and five girls," Denny said of the current lineup. "We party, but everybody is very responsible. We play a lot of festivals. We get into some shenanigans, for sure."
In a band with six lead singers, youngest member Denny still easily distinguishes herself.
Taking the lead on show-stopping tunes around mid-set, "they kinda treat me as a secret weapon," Denny said. "(Fans and friends) say, 'I didn't know you could sing like that! Where did that come from?'"
Bandleader John Averill, who wasn't aware of Denny's vocal ability when she joined, has enjoyed watching the musical growth of March Fourth's newest member.
"We don't really know what someone has until they've been in the band awhile," he said. "We usually bring people in for a specific role. Then we found out she could sing and it was like, 'Wow, this could be cool.'
"Camille definitely brings a lot of fire and energy," Averill added. "She's got great stage presence. She's really talented — she's also really young. If she keeps working at it, she'll go pretty far."
Denny, who just joined another band, Los Angeles-based Michael Grant and the Assassins, plans to move to L.A. next year while maintaining her role in MarchFourth, which is now working on its fifth studio album.
"Everyone's looking forward to it," Denny said.
Despite its larger-than-life reputation and shows, MarchFourth does have the off night here and there, though not probably for the reasons you might expect.
"When we get too much sleep — are too well-rested — it does not go over well," Denny said, flashing a sincere smile. "We're too calm and relaxed.
"We already wear crazy costumes, so why not have musicians who have only slept six hours in the last 48?"
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