For fans of alternative radio, it doesnt get much better than WFMU. For decades, that longstanding bastion of independent freeform music broadcasting in the Hudson Valley has offered adventurous listeners in the New York City area some of the wildest combinations of recorded sound to ever hit the airwaves and , with the advent of internet technology, folks from all around the world can now hear live streams of their unpredictable programming.
One of WFMUs themed programs is Antique Phonograph Music. Every other Tuesday night, a collector of rare and vintage analog devices spins ancient recordings made on 78 rpm discs, wax cylinders and wire transcriptions. Its a scratchy, tinny, and compelling trip down memory lane to a place most of us never experienced firsthand.
So, when the host of this show breaks a decade-long tradition to have a modern-day group play live in the studio during one of these broadcasts, you know they must be something very special. Said the host of that momentous occasion, They are a Vaudevillian ragtime-blues and hillbilly swing band. Thats quite a mouthful, but it certainly does The WIYOS justice.
This Gotham-based trio has over the course of the past few years made a tremendous name for themselves as sincere devotees of Old-Time music. That is, the type of music that was popularized when the recording industry was in its infancy (and before).
Their joyous, exuberant sound draws on rural blues, hot jazz, early swing, and Appalachian jug-band music of the 1920s and 1930s for inspiration but they are far from a nostalgia act, peddling tired, rote interpretations of old hokum tunes, methodically memorized from fragile lacquer and multiple-generation cassettes.
The WIYOs are very much a band that exists in the here and now despite their insistence on mining the works of the past to create a body of their own work that hopefully will last far into the future.
Named after a notorious Irish gang which terrorized New York City in the late 1800s, the band (made up of fingerpicking guitarist Parrish Ellis, standup bassist Joe DeJarnette and washboard man Michael Farkas) find a tremendous amount of freedom and room to move about in the strange amalgam of sounds and subjects that is the hallmark of popular music from that era.
It was a blissful time before moneymen had yet to realize they could use demographics and marketing to niche-market different types of music to different types and classes of people. Back then, pretty much everyone listened to whatever was available. The choices were far fewer, and the publics tastes were much more eclectic and forgiving.
Thats why country tunes, yodels, jazz strides, novelty songs and so-called race records had an almost equal chance across the board of being smash successes.
The WIYOS are on some level into all that stuff. Way into it. These fast friends are as comfortable putting on airs by resurrecting a high-falutin Gershwin number as they are gettin down in the comparatively unrefined passion thats the calling card of a Doc Watson or Skip James blues.
Ellis, a Virginia native who migrated to New York specifically to find kindred spirits with which to play rural blues, says when it comes to the influence of musical greats like Stephane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt and Bix Biederbecke, the passage of time has no bearing on the capacity of the material to enthrall.
I think were exposing people to music thats never really gone away, he told me once. It was drinking, dancing and party music in the 20s and 30s, and we feel like people can and do enjoy it just as much today. We not on a mission, or anything like that but we are passionate about the music, and when we perform, we try to make the crowd that passionate as well.
There is certainly no shortage of people who agree that the band is succeeding at that goal. An increasingly well-received act on the folk festival and nightclub circuit, theyve built up a large and loyal following in our area. This weekend theyll play two very different shows within a few yards of each other.
Friday night, the group (which has always appealed to children as well as adults) will play a set geared to kids at their regular haunt The Sentient Bean (off of Forsyth Park). Two nights later, theyll be the featured act for The Sons of The American Legion, Squadron #135s Sunday Night Concert Series. Held around the corner from The Bean, that early evening show is geared to adults, and also features a Memphis-style BBQ dinner. All proceeds will be donated to a variety of local charities.
Michael Farkas spoke with me from somewhere on the bands seemingly neverending tour.
Connect Savannah: What is it about the style of music you all play that drew you to it (and keeps you interested), as opposed to a more modern genre?
Michael Farkas: This music has an intensity and passion that all of the bandmembers really relate to. We each came to it in our own way. Parrish was steeped pretty deeply in the Piedmont blues. Joe was the only six-year-old of his generation who not only owned a Victrola, but turned the crank and was fascinated by the music and spinning labels. I was into big band-era swing, and grew up listening to a lot of the American songbook that my father played on the piano.
Connect Savannah: Do you have to be careful not to lapse into parody while trying to revive and celebrate these anachronistic types of music?
Michael Farkas: No, we dont worry about parody because we have a deep affinity for the style of music. Its in that spirit that we approach the material, so it doesn't feel old in our hands at all.
Connect Savannah: Do you think it's harder to earn notoriety and success by playing music thats out of the mainstream or can it actually be easier?
Michael Farkas: Harder! But were planning on a big publicity blitz after we exhume the bones of Fats Waller, Uncle Dave Macon and Harry Langdon. I plan to attach their skulls to my washboard. Through secret and exhaustive research, we believe them to be a perfect tri-tone.
Connect Savannah: Describe what life is like on the road for The Wiyos?
Michael Farkas: We are very intimate with our mini-van its our third and have clocked in a lot of miles! The WIYOS have seen the inside of most of the Waffle Houses and rest areas up and down the Eastern Seaboard. We have slept in cars, bars and parking lots... On mountainsides and by the sea... On floors with dogs and cats and talking birds... In Medieval castles and at coffee kiosks in Montreal malls. Not to mention motels and hotels of all shapes and sizes. Our favorite venues are festivals and listening rooms.
Connect Savannah: Do you find theres a particular age group more likely to appreciate what you do?
Michael Farkas: After three years its pretty apparent that this music really appeals to people of all ages. We see a lot of the older generations in the front row. Thats obviously because they already have memories and associations with the music and its very clear that, well, the music speaks to them.
For kids, we amplify some of the physical bits. I loved Bugs Bunny when I was a kid because it was so funny and at the same time subversive. I remember my folks laughing at parts that I didn't quite get and thinking...That wascally wabbit! That taught me that if one satisfies people's desire for the ridiculous, they will accept your idea of the sublime...
Connect Savannah: What albums are in constant rotation in your van?
Michael Farkas: Anything from the early part of the 20th Century that we can get our hands on gets a lot of rotation in our van, but of course we have our contemporary favorites too Elvis Costello, Radiohead, Wilco... Lots of CDs from bands that we meet along the way, Tuvan throat singers... You name it The WIYOS run the gamut!
Connect Savannah: What's the biggest misconception people have about you?
Michael Farkas: That we are vegetarians.
Connect Savannah: I know you have a strong local following here. Why has your work has struck such a chord here?
Michael Farkas: Yeah we do have a strong local fanbase and I'd have to say the good folks at The Sentient Bean have been incredibly supportive within their community.
Connect Savannah: What are the short and long term goals for the band?
Michael Farkas: To continue doing what were doing, and along the way build our audience. That way well be able to stay in the game as well as grow artistically.
Connect Savannah: Do you think European or Asian audiences would be as receptive to your stage show?
Michael Farkas: We just returned from touring Western Europe in July! It was a great trip. Folks there were quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what we were up to. Well go back next Summer.
Connect Savannah: How do The WIYOS wind down after a show?
Michael Farkas: I hide behind a rock and eat soup. Joe tends to his stamp collection, and Parrish recites passages from Finnegans Wake.
The WIYOS play an ALL-AGES show at 6 pm, Friday at The Sentient Bean, and a 21+ show at 6:30 pm, Sunday at American Legion Post #135 (1108 Bull St.). That event benefits local charities.