A Q&A session with new Kilties Director Mike Phillips

Kilties (Racine, WI)
Photo by Francesca Colombini

by Beth Myers Landbo

The Kilties’ board of directors recently selected Mike Phillips as executive director. Although a Midwest native, Phillips is no stranger to the West Coast. Phillips has most recently has spent time on the West Coast as president and one of the founders of the River City Regiment, but his involvement in the drum corps activity goes back several decades. A former marching member of the Cavaliers, the Renegades and the Kilties, Phillips has also been included in past strategic planning and Web site design meetings in support of the Blue Devils.

Building on a cornerstone of the Kilties’ history and worldwide fan base, Phillips wasted no time in setting forth a three-year plan that promises to bring the corps into national contention once again. Phillips’ plan sets the goal of the Kilties landing in one of the top five spots at the DCA Championships for the corps’ 70th anniversary year in 2006. For the shorter term, Phillips is working on specific plans to bring the corps into the finals of that competition in 2004, rising up several spots in 2005.

Phillips recently took time to answer a few questions about his initial impressions, first orders of business and long-range plans for the future success of the 68-year-old Kilties organization.

Beth Myers Landbo: Tell us why you applied for this position?
Mike Phillips: I was on the West Coast, and my main reason for wanting to come back to the Midwest was to become closer to family, and as the drum corps gods would have it, the Kilties were looking for a corps director at the time that I was making that decision. I marched in Kilties, am from the Midwest and have been involved in the activity since 1967, so I appreciate the history of drum corps in this area. I really like the idea of bringing the Kilties to the next level. I enjoy helping the senior corps activity in general, and this was an opportunity to continue to do that after being on the West Coast with Renegades in their earlier years then getting RCR (River City Regiment) on the right track in Sacramento. I also started Blue Grass Brass in Lexington.

I enjoy running the show and helping groups be successful. I want to be able to play a roll to help keep drum corps alive and to thrive. The Kilties are such an institution in the Racine area, which is traditionally known as the drum corps capital of the world. It was a perfect match.

BML: Did you know immediately this was something you wanted to do, or was this decision something you had to ponder for a while?
MP: I had to ponder it for a bit, because I know that the Kilties have been, in my opinion, transitioning from being more of an alumni corps to a corps that wants to compete. I was not interested in being the executive director of an alumni corps. I love the competitive aspect, and all that brings with it — a team coming together to work hard toward being as good as we can be. After several phone calls, I felt comfortable that the Kilties were ready to make that transition. I felt the timing was right for me in terms of background, career, understanding of the activity and understanding of the Kilties. It felt right.

BML: What kind of preparation did you do before you met the membership of the corps at their 2003 awards banquet and, the following day, at their 2004 open house?
MP: I put on paper what my objectives would be. It took some time to figure out what I wanted the Kilties to stand for. I tried to come to grips with how to address the corps. Originally, when the Kilties came together as a senior corps, it was to park and blow, do some parades — I don’t know if their initial focus was to be competitive. So, I tried to figure out, “How do I resolve the challenge of some of the members wanting to follow the original focus and now the more vast majority of corps wanting to take it to the next level?” I didn’t want to leave anyone behind. I picture the Kiltie organization as being a big umbrella that should accommodate any level of involvement.

I got my thoughts together on that and just really tried to get my mind together on what type of program would be true to the Kilties’ past but also be true to the Kilties’ future. I really feel that we don’t necessarily need to rehash old classics to be successful. We need to start creating new classic tunes and shows that people talk about 20 years from now — just like we celebrate Kilties glory from the past now.

I tried to think organizationally what might have to happen to help the corps go to the next level. This is an ongoing process. Actually, the 30-hour drive (from California to Racine) was excellent for me, not only in terms of introspection of myself personally as far as taking on this role and relocating, but it gave me a chance to talk to myself about these ideas and formulate them further. There was something about the driving and having that private time that really allowed me to crystallize my focus. Part of that crystallization was to identify what my priorities would be. I honed in on five key points:
* Improved color guard and overall visual design are very important.
* Raising the performance level of the percussion section.
* Improving the technique and overall caliber of the brass. We have a lot of people to work with, but that doesn’t do us any good if we are not playing together with style and balance and just good basic horn playing.
* Unity of program. We need to be sure all three sections of the corps are competent and orchestrated into an integrated package. We need smart design that features selective exposures for each section and yet they are seamlessly integrated. The guard should not be a mere backdrop but integrated into the visual package.
* We are the Kilties. We wear kilts. We have a Scottish heritage that needs to be part of the show and we do it in a way that is competitive and entertaining. I don’t want to lose the entertainment factor. You won’t ever need a libretto to understand our show. The crowds love the Kilties, but the program needs to go up a notch to be taken seriously as far as the competitive aspect.

BML: What was your impression of the corps after meeting the membership?
MP: I was pleasantly surprised, to tell you the truth. I came into this with my eyes wide open. I knew that the Kilties took a big hit when Royal Airs formed. That’s not a knock against RA, but I was impressed that the Kilties had survived that. That was something that may have taken other corps out of the picture. I was really worried about the organization after that. I enjoyed seeing pride in everyone that they not only survived but had a huge rookie class in 2002 and another wave of new members last year. There’s something going right here in terms of recruitment. I enjoyed seeing all of the fresh faces. When I marched the Kilties, our average age was 48. I knew we needed fresh blood to survive. Now, the average age is 38. That’s an incredible difference in a few years. It looks like the average age will again trend down in 2004.

I was impressed by the unified focus that the members had about wanting to be better. There was a genuine excitement and momentum that the Kilties organization was going to grow, not just in terms of creative program and participation but as an organization. It was refreshing to see that. I personally feel fortunate in terms of timing of getting involved with the Kilties now. We are only going to go up from here with the type of attitudes I saw at the open house. It is a great beginning pallet to work with.

BML: What’s your first order of business?
MP: I need to fill in the staff. For the most part, the corps was waiting for the new director to come on board to allow director to compete that task. I expect to be announcing final staff selections very soon.

Hand in hand with that priority but perhaps more strategic in nature is getting a grip with the program design. The program design has to take a big step forward. I need to corral the creative design crew to say, “Here’s my expectations of how our program should work.” And unity of design is in the forefront of priorities. The challenge is how to get people who will be driving the creative design to pool our ideas because, just logistically, we have someone on East Coast and someone from Minnesota and someone here in Wisconsin. My initial contact with the creative staff has left me very impressed with their credentials, experience and capabilities. But, being a senior corps we have limited rehearsal time. That creates extra pressure on the design team to get it right the first time. I have complete confidence in our creative staff to do just that.

The Kilties are known for entertaining the crowd. I want an impact, a sort of “wow factor,” every 30 seconds or so in the show. That can be a visual impact, a horn impact, a guard feature or a percussion feature, but something that carries the audience along and keeps them captivated throughout the whole program.

BML: Can you give us some insight as to things in the bigger picture — your visions of the corps in 2004 and beyond?
MP: Frankly, I want to bring the corps back to respectability in national competition. The fact is that the judging community doesn’t take the corps seriously at this point. And there’s probably a good reason for that. I want to stress that it has nothing to do with the drive and passion of the corps — it is more a design issue and one of proper focus and instruction.

This is a three-year labor of love to turn this around, but it isn’t going to take that long. It doesn’t mean we are not gaining respect all along the way. I think the first year of 2004 is the beginning of the future for the Kilties. We have to be prepared and have to make a statement that we are for real. We are beginning our journey of excellence to the Kilties’ future. That three-year goal is to get the corps into national prominence by getting us into the top five at DCA. The Kilties 70th anniversary is in three years and that is the target. There will be a monumental metamorphosis that this corps is going to go through. But I’ve been around long enough to know that these things take time. I have the love for the Kilties and for drum corps in general to have the patience necessary to bring the organization to that point.

BML: Can you detail the milestones of your three-year plan?
MP: First year: Kilties are a finalist at DCA in 2004. That means we are in the top 10. We might be 10th or ninth, but the goal is to make it into finals. To go from being last in our class to being eighth or ninth or 10th will be quite a feat. Second year: Bring the corps up two or three notches — from 10th to seventh or from ninth to sixth. Third year: For our 70th anniversary year, we will have the program, design, education and performance level of the organization that allows us to hold our head high and truly be the “Mighty Kilties” again. We use the term “Mighty Kilties” now, but for me, the word “mighty” is yet to come.

BML: What does the corps, as it stands today, have going for it?
MP: Recruiting: Bill Roetzer and whoever has been helping him do the recruiting has been doing a wonderful job.

Showmanship and appeal to the crowd: So many corps just mechanically play and march. The Kilties reach out and touch the crowd. When you are in the stands you know they are playing to you and for you. They go about showmanship with almost a reckless abandon. The challenge is to keep that cocky, almost cavalier, attitude but execute at a level that a mature horn line, percussion section and guard should be executing at. Out East, you’ve got to execute; you’ve got to play the show. My challenge is the burden of focus that is required to execute can sometimes impede the showmanship, and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need to prepare our music well in advance and get the visual show committed to muscle memory so that the mind is free to entertain and connect with the crowd.

A sense of Kilties: There is a sense of pride and dedication to the history and what the corps stands for, and it’s strong. I have some work to do to bring all the clans together, so to speak, to get behind how we communicate that sense that we are the Kilties. One of my ideas is to have the corps brought onto the field with bagpipes for every show. After bringing us onto the field and perhaps taking part in our on-field warm-up, the pipers can then take their place in our American squad and again pipe us off the field and join us as we troop the stands. We’re Scottish, and we’re the Kilties. That’s something we don’t want to hide.

BML: You talked earlier about the Kilties being a big umbrella, under which everyone is welcome. Can you expand on that?
MP: I am going to start an arm of the corps called the Kiltie Klassics. I want to give the memberships a choice between performing with the competitive faction of the corps, or performing with the a group that exists to just go play to the crowd in an alumni park-and-blow sort of way, do parades, etc. And there is nothing wrong with either side of this equation. They will both be valid parts of the organization.

You only have to turn to groups like the Caballeros to see how well it works. You have both a great competitive corps and an outstanding alumni corps. Or look at the Renegades, they have this mini corps that goes out to gigs and makes money. I played in the first Renegades mini corps that won the DCA mini corps competition. I watched carefully how they orchestrated that. They reeled in large corporate gigs with McDonald’s and made a substantial amount of money for the corps.

I asked myself, “What can we do here in the Kilties to start to grow the organization, to get more people involved at whatever level.” I came up with the idea of the Kiltie Klassics. They will be the keepers of history of the corps. Musically, they will always know Syne, Scotland and Chattanooga Choo-Choo. I don’t look at it as a step down from the competitive corps by any means. It’s a whole different idiom of the Kilties organization. For someone who is maybe up in age, has physical problems or who doesn’t have the time to commit to being in a competitive-level corps with, there is another place you can go and still play, get in front of the public and have a good time with drum corps. And membership in the competitive corps doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t perform with the Kiltie Klassics.

The Kiltie Klassics will be our main public relations arm. That is a very important aspect. The goal and objective is to be more in tune and responsive with the local community. They will be a sort of “hit squad” for spontaneous things like grand openings, playing a fanfare for a ribbon cutting, or for playing Christmas carols. And there will also be a higher-end gigging group of the very best players to play at paying gigs and to make money for the corps.

I’ve put Kenny Norman in charge of the Kiltie Klassics. I had a nice long meeting with him, and he is thrilled to help organize this aspect of corps. I’ve given him full creative control of the Kiltie Klassics. We will see a lot of interesting things happening — not just with the gigging group, but also with the alumni group. That is an aspect of the corps that will grow every year. It is a new arena. A new opportunity to play, have fun and do whatever the group wants to do. I told Kenny, “Here’s the ball. Now run with it.” I did tell him that I wanted this to mobilize quickly — within four months. This will be a year-round organization with the idea of being able to mobilize as needed to serve the community.

BML: Anything else you’d like to add?
MP: Only one thing: It’s good to be home.