From their humble beginnings in 1994 as a drunken lark, to their current status as perhaps the foremost artists on the Old-Time acoustic Americana revival, Austin, Tx.’s Asylum Street Spankers have weathered many changes.
Those include changes in lineup (plenty of great pickers, wheezers and singers have come up through their ranks), changes in repertoire (they long ago graduated from mere country blues monomania to incorporate gypsy jazz, swing, Vaudevillian hokum tunes, and snarky political broadsides), and changes in fortune (they’ve gone from playing free shows and busking outdoors to forming their own indie record label and touring Europe and Asia).
Over the past twelve years, the group has released seven official albums, numerous singles, concert DVDs, side-project records and a children’s album. Plus, recently, one of their satirical concept videos emerged as an international sensation on YouTube.
That’s quite a journey for a band that partly made a name for itself by refusing for years to amplify their voices or their instruments. The Spankers became known far and wide for playing curiously contemporary anachronistic music completely unplugged, and for being so captivating that noisy crowds would uncharacteristically shut up and listen in rapt attention to the band’s every note.
These days, the band often employs minimal amplification, having graduated to clubs and theaters that are simply too big for them to fill with lung and muscle power alone — but they remain true to their roots, utilizing iconic period instruments like washboard, banjo, ukulele, fiddle and even the musical saw (!).
Just back from a tour of Japan, the group makes its first-ever stop in Savannah this upcoming Tuesday night in the Grand Ballroom of American Legion Post #135 on the Southern end of Forsyth Park. It’s a beautiful performance space which has recently seen visits by alternative rock legends Cracker and Grammy-winning bluesman John Hammond. As with those past shows, this gig is being presented by local independent promoters Tiny Team Concerts, in tandem with this newspaper.
We caught up with founding member Wammo (no last name given) for an extended chat in advance of the show, and it turns out he’s looking quite forward to showing our city what they’re made of.
“I love Savannah,” the multi-instrumentalist and singer offered. “My wife and I have visited there and Tybee Island many times. This should be a great time.”
What follows is a condensed version of our interview. For the unexpurgated text, go to www.connectsavannah.com (where you can also register to win a pair of tickets to this 21+ show).
Connect Savannah: Looking back to when the band first started, how far did it seem it could possibly go?
Wammo: About half a mile. That’s as far as I thought we’d go and that’s as far as we did go. We started in a little restaurant in South Austin and a year later we played the Austin Music Awards at the Palmer Auditorium about a half mile down the road.
Connect Savannah: How far can it go now, without straying from its original intent?
Wammo: Well, the band started out as a side project for most of us. It’s the side project that snowballed and turned into a monster that ate up our lives. The “original intent” flew out the window after the first year or so. This band constantly changes, so there’s no telling what’s gonna happen.
Connect Savannah: Of late, many other acts have embraced the same basic catchall-acoustic-hodgepodge that you guys virtually minted. Do the Spankers ever feel like elder statesmen of this growing Vaudeville/swing/hokum blues revival?
Wammo: What’s unique about us is that we write original songs that sound like music from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. An obvious example is “Winning The War On Drugs.” It’s completely influenced by the song “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” which was written in 1948. However, the words are obviously steered toward a more modern theme. The elder statesmen of our musical style are folks like Spike Jones, Fats Waller, Blind Blake and Bessie Smith, but we pull our influences from everywhere.
Connect Savannah: How has life on the road changed since you first left Austin? Would you describe the touring lifestyle at your band’s level as comfortable?
Wammo: The older I get, the less comfortable it becomes. I love travel, I love the road, but this is a hard life. We travel in vans for an average of about six hours every day. Some days it’s two hours, sometimes it’s twelve. We unload the vans, set up the stage, check the mics, choke down some food and then the fun begins. The people show up, the beer starts to flow, we get to play music and they actually pay us to do it. Not much, but enough to keep ourselves alive. Then we pack everything back into the vans, drive to the hotel and unload everything into the rooms. The next morning we load everything back into the vans, slam down some breakfast and it’s back on the highway.
Connect Savannah: Are there any hard and fast rules to being a Spanker that members dare not break even under pain of torture?
Wammo: Every morning each Spanker has the choice of doing a shot of whiskey, a bong hit or being the band’s sex slave for the day. Some of the guys like to do all three at once so they can have a couple of days off. Sometimes the rookie members will complain a little but when Christina puts on her prison guard uniform, they know she means business. Nevada (guitar) likes to dress like Boss Hog. Scott (drums) is more into the Tarzan/Conan thing, actually he likes anything that ends in “an.” He’ll come down from his hotel room covered in marzipan and flan. Sometimes he dresses as Uzbekistan. It’s really hard for him to get in the van in that outfit. Sometimes he actually dresses as the van, then one of the guys will eventually try to drive Scott around. That’s always good for a laugh. As for me, I like the simple things. You know, wearing my Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman outfit and my raw veal boxer briefs. The same stuff everyone does.
Connect Savannah: You shrugged off your metal roots once you were exposed to punk through the Sex Pistols. Now you channel that energy through music that’s much, much quieter, but no less intense.
Wammo: I never shrugged off my metal roots. Hell, I bought The Essential Judas Priest CD on the last tour. I became enamored with punk rock and new wave in 1979 but that doesn’t mean I stopped listening to Black Sabbath. I tuned out from metal when all of the MTV hair bands showed up. At the time it was the antithesis of my Scratch Acid/Butthole Surfers/X/Black Flag/Dead Kennedys mentality. Now I go back and watch all those cheesy ‘80s hair-band videos and I fuckin’ love ‘em. My favorite show is Metal Mania on VH1 Classics, and without a doubt, the funniest metal video ever made is Dokken’s “Breaking The Chains.” It’s the Citizen Kane of unintentionally gay metal videos.
Connect Savannah: Your tongue-in-cheek video for “Stick Magnetic Ribbons On Your SUV” has gotten worldwide acclaim. It’s obviously a poke at shallow U.S. citizens. But, you had to know plenty of folks wouldn’t get the joke, and see it as a swipe at the Armed Forces themselves. What sort of response have you received?
Wammo: The response has been, for the most part, very positive. At the shows, people come up and thank me for writing the words to that song. They laugh and applaud — because the song is funny. That’s the bottom line, it’s funny and it makes you think twice. Every once in a while someone will storm out of a show or tear up one of our bumper stickers, and that’s cool too. It’s still a relatively free country.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever played an American Legion Post before?
Wammo: We’ve played American Legions in the past. All of the folks have been really nice. They are one of the few places we’ve played where the majority of the audience can keep up with me, beer for beer.
Connect Savannah: What’s the best part about being an Asylum Street Spanker?
Wammo: Not having to rape the environment, rob, screw over or kill anyone to make a living. Plus we get to spank people on stage and the drinks are usually free.
Tiny Team Concerts and Connect Savannah present Asylum Street Spankers 8 pm Tuesday at American Legion Post #135 (1108 Bull St.). The show is co-sponsored by Annie’s Guitars & Drums and The Sentient Bean. Tickets to this 21+ show are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Charge online at www.tinyteamconcerts.info, or buy with cash at Primary Art Supply, Silly Mad CDs, Angel’s BBQ, Marigold Beauty Concepts, Le Chai Wine Gallerie, Annie’s Guitars & Drums and The Sentient Bean.