Music » Music Features

On the record with The Asylum Street Spankers



It's Dixieland. It's Tin Pan Alley jazz and it's the blues. It's lonesome, Dylan-esque, ragtime wallowing in the bluegrass. It's Sunday morning redemption from Saturday night's temptation. It's truly inspired and lyrically insane. Listen:

            "I'll read Bukowski in the gutter

            With a hooker on each arm

            And a wine bottle up my ass,

            I'll make you smoke the majesty

            Of my impending mullet,


            I'll suck the formaldehyde out of the jar

            Holding Kurt Cobain's brain

            While using Hemingway's shotgun barrel as a straw,

            Before I let you touch my soul."

                                                                                                --- "Wammo's Blues"

            Hidden deep in the recesses of the lunatic mind lays a lucid, not-so-crazy desire to clarify and share the joy, to sing out loud, to revelate.

            Upon first encounter, the all-acoustic Austin, Texas, collective known as The Asylum Street Spankers seems gonzo, oddball in the extreme. However, upon further examination, a profound respect for beautiful music emerges, permeating the band's madcap, counter-culture subversiveness.

            "We started out just playing music we liked," says vocalist Christina Marrs. "We didn't start out saying, 'We're going to be a blues band or a skiffle, ragtime jug band.' It just sort of came together."

            The band came together eight years ago in Austin, more as a jam session than a band per se. The concept was to play music on acoustic instruments with no amplification. None. Nada. Truly unplugged. Audiences were going to have to listen.

            The good folks in progressive metropolises like New York City, San Francisco, and Copenhagen don't need it spelled out.

            "Usually it's in the more Podunk towns that the audience doesn't get it," says the Spanker's self-described spoken-word legend, scene maker, poetic provocateur, rock musician, irresponsible drunk, DJ, instigator, cultural troublemaker, and singer, Wammo. We spoke via speakerphone so he could complete his a.m. bathroom ritual --- which included fielding questions with a mouthful of Colgate.

            "We have to use different guises to get them to shut the hell up," Wammo says. He won't elaborate. "I won't give away my tricks, 'cause I may need 'em [in Rochester]."

            "It's almost never a problem," Marrs says of talkative audiences. The Spankers win over slack-jawed fans rapidamente with their riveting presence and dexterity. At times, the blue lyrics, obscure references, and vintage approach may come off as a lampoon, even when the band is being sincere. This ambiguity tickles Wammo.

            "People can say it's a parody or serious," he says. "Either way, they're both right."

            The band whips up an acoustic flapper frenzy with banjos, fiddles, washboards, saws (easily one of the most lonesome sounds you'll ever hear), and singer Marrs' Helen Kane/Betty Boop voice.

            It's the band's transgressive defiance, beat-poet aesthetic, and overall irreverence that keep them from simply being stamped with the retro label. The Spankers' diversity is so cohesively stylized that the band can be used to describe its own sound: they play Asylum Street Spanker music. It's music that has been anchored by three or four core members and complimented by a revolving cast of upwards of 30 musical characters that "just kinda flow in and out," Wammo says.

            "Do you know how hard it is to keep a seven- or eight-piece band together?" asks Wammo. "It's fucking impossible. If we imploded every time someone left, we wouldn't have made it eight years."

            Wammo is a full-blown vinyl junkie with "six turntables in different states of repair lying around the house." It's this love of the medium that spawned the band's latest, aptly titled CD, My Favorite Record (Spanks-A-Lot Records). Virtually every Spanker platter so far has embraced a specific theme: Christmas (A Christmas Spanking), the joys of recreational drug use and the absurdity of America's war on drugs (Spanker Madness), and sex, sex, sex, (Dirty Ditties).

            My Favorite Record kicks off with a haphazard drop of the needle into dusty grooves. What follows is a journey --- no, make that a romp --- through an acoustic landscape with cheerful lunacy and aplomb. Songs like "Monkey Rag" and "The Minor Waltz" boogie and sway with pre-war abandon, while "Mountain Town" and "Antifreeze" wax a little more folk-contemporary. Marrs' little-girl voice on the lusty torch song "Breathin'" sensuously threatens to unglue and unhinge the sturdiest of Lotharios. My Favorite Record is an offbeat celebration of life. The double entendres fly throughout, as if fired from a shotgun by a blind man.

            "When you sit at home and play your 78's, every two songs or so is a different style," Wammo says, shedding light on the source of some of the band's historic diversity. "After we came up with the title track, we realized that we were really shooting for a real love of vinyl." But this isn't just wishful thinking or stubborn nostalgia; Wammo's stance is also rooted in sonic bliss.

            "I still think it's a better medium, though it's not as practical as digital," he says. Sadly, most guys can't cruise the streets late a night spinning records on a dashboard-mounted turntable. Then again, some can.

            "My friend Miles has one in his '59 Dodge. It'll play thirteen 45 records," Wammo says, then admits, "Actually, it doesn't really function, so he gutted it and put a CD player in there."

            Despite their devout RPM reverence, at this point, none of the Spankers' recordings are available in this black, shiny format. So what's up with that?

            "I'll tell you what's up with that," Wammo says with a raised voice. "It's fucking expensive and there's not a huge demand for it."

            The onstage amalgamation of musical styles, political leanings, lustful urges, and literary debauchery makes the Spankers unique, their pure acoustic delivery refreshing. Maybe it's too high-brow. Perhaps it's too low-brow. Maybe the TV got to you first. You may not get it. So what?

            "If you want to try to get it, come to the show," says Wammo, "and shut the hell up."

Add a comment