LAST DECEMBER, when Austin’s famed counterculture band The Asylum Street Spankers played American Legion Post 135 on Forsyth Park, they were enjoying increased notoriety from a high-profile video for their satirical tune “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV.”
That tongue-in-cheek clip racked up 400,000 views on YouTube within two months, and put the Spankers in front of tons of people who’d never heard of the group before — despite the fact the band has been around since 1994, and had released close to a dozen albums.
The audience in the large, 1940s-era ballroom that night were treated to a spirited, hushed concert (the Spankers are known for playing quietly, barely amplified, and for relying on their crowd’s help in maintaining a respectful, listening-room environment) that touched on jazz, country, boogie-woogie, ribald early blues, Old-Time Americana and even rock & roll — all filtered through the group’s skewed, irreverent sense of humor and penchant for utilizing anachronistic instruments, such as the washboard and saw.
Their return appearance this upcoming Tuesday finds them out in support of Mommy Says No!, an award-winning album that’s billed as their first “children’s” record, but which is instantly recognizable as an Asylum Street Spankers collection through-and-through (albeit with less of the off-color references which pepper their past releases).
I spoke with band co-founder and vocalist Christina Marrs from her home in Austin where she was in the process of baking both an apple tart and a sweet potato pie for a family gathering.
This band is constantly evolving. How are the Spankers different from last year?
Christina Marrs: Well, last December’s tour and that show was a bit unusual in and of itself, because our fiddle player had abruptly quit and we were toying with a short-term substitute guy. The band we’ve been touring with now we’ve had for nine or ten months, so it’s a little more solidified. We’re missing our fiddle player. But, we hired a dobro and mandolin player. This band is an organic process. People come and go and we adapt accordingly. I always like to say that we constantly recreate ourselves in our own image! (laughs)
Why is it so hard to keep fiddle players?
Christina Marrs: Fiddle players are kind of like horn players. They’re a lot less common than say, guitarists. (laughs) Like horn players, they tend to be able to play with a lot of different types of bands, so they freelance a lot. It’s hard to find the ones that will actually go out on the road and tour. Plus, many of them play strictly in the country or bluegrass genres. Versatile or jazz fiddle players are much harder to come by.
You’ve gone through several lineup changes over the life of the band, with some members falling in and out of the group over time. Austin’s filled with amazing musicians. How hard is it to find talented folks who fit in?
Christina Marrs: Well, like you said, there are a lot of amazing musicians in this town and at some point most of them have been in this band. (laughs) It’s all about finding somebody who’s weird in the way that we’re weird! Most musicians are quirky and a little strange. We’ve had some who were definitely strange, but not in the same way we’re used to! You can’t have a group of people spend hours in a van together and not have some tension. It’s more like an instinctual thing when you meet someone and find out whether you can be friends.
What do you look for in new members?
Christina Marrs: I truly think you can tell if someone can really play or has the chops for this job within a few bars. It’s pretty evident when someone has that kind of versatility. Personality-wise, it’s a gut feeling. Things that may be a red flag might be wives and kids. Not that that’s necessarily a deterrent —Wammo and I both have a spouse and kids— but I do think the number one reason people leave a band is a girlfriend or boyfriend that doesn’t want them on the road anymore. We usually ask people we hire to give us at least a year’s commitment. To bring in new players any more than that can be really disrupting.
What prompted you to make a kids album?
Christina Marrs: Not any one thing really. It was kind of an idea that we’d talked about half-jokingly for years, because we’re known for our blues and our bawdy side. We’re a kind of adult-oriented band, so we though it might be funny if we did a kids’ record. For years now, we’ve been doing a Harry Nilsson song called “Think About Your Troubles” from the animated movie The Point. I’m a big Nilsson fan and that’s one of three songs on this album that are covers. One’s by Nirvana and the other is an old jazz standard. That song was probably the jumping off point. It’s a very clever number and not the kind that talks down to kids or insults their intelligence. I believe that thinking about one’s troubles is something kids do a lot more than a parent maybe gives them credit for. Our goal was to make a record that was ostensibly for children, but also very enjoyable for adults. Kids tend to listen to things over and over again, so we made this with our adult listeners in mind. I think sonically, it’s one of the most gorgeous records we’ve ever made. It’s my favorite Spankers record. We wanted to have a record that was kind of like the old Looney Tunes cartoons where there was plenty the kids could laugh at, but a lot of jokes would go right over their heads for the older folks to enjoy. That’s the same thing you’ll find in the work of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss.
Will your Savannah setlist differ much from the concert you gave hear last time?
Christina Marrs: Well, I’m sure there will be some new stuff. We do have some favorites that have been in the set for years. They remain popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere. We’ve been around for almost 14 years, so we have quite a repertoire!
Is political satire as much of a part of your repertoire now as it has been in the past?
Christina Marrs: You know, the political stuff has never been a big part of what we do. Truly, we only have a couple of songs that could be called political satire: I’ve always thought that with the Spankers, the only way we can deliver a political message of any kind is with humor. I mean, we’re really preaching to the choir! (laughs)
How would you describe your band to folks considering attending the show who’re not familiar with the Spankers?
Christina Marrs: Well, it’s always so hard to describe this band aptly to anyone. We don’t fit neatly into a box. I guess I’ll just say that you’ll likely come not knowing what to really expect, and you may leave not knowing how to easily describe it, but you’ll be praising it to your friends. It’s a very fun time in a lot of different ways. I’ll leave the detailed descriptions of what we do to the music writers of the world.
Front row: Nevada Newman, Christina Marrs, WammoBack row: Josh Hoag, Charlie King, Scott Marcus