Bumbershoot Music Lounge, Day 1: Asylum Street Spankers

Asylum Street Spankers

photos by Chad Syme
review and interview by Eric Mahollitz

Austin’s Asylum Street Spankers formed in ’94 as multi-instrumentalist Christina Marrs and washboard master Wammo playing country/blues throwbacks. Fourteen years later and with nearly 50 musicians having come and gone, ASS is now a bawdy, vulgar foot-stomping vaudeville act. The group has always stuck to largely acoustic arrangements, forcing an increased energy and enthusiasm in order to crank out enough sound. While their theatricality complements their songs and elevates their music into something more, everyone involved is a seriously talented musician. With enough personalities on hand, a lot of groups could stumble through a decent vaudeville set, but this group encompasses the genres core elements, including swing, jazz and comical elements, with conviction and, dare I say, panache. For their most recent release, the band spent two weeks performing a live revue at NYs Barrow Street Theatre, capturing the best of the group’s lengthy catalog in its purest form. Don’t miss their performance tonight @ 6:45PM on the Starbucks Stage.

True to form, the group started 7-members strong in radio show fashion with hushed vocals laid down over a raucous melody. For their second track, Wammo stripped away his signature washboard, taking the mic and leading a country revival rendition of their amazing Winning the War on Drugs. Next, Christina Marrs slowed things down, executing a little back-porch baladeering. Not a group to remain quiet for long, the lengthy track wasn’t without its adrenaline rush transitions. After each track band members switched positions, passing lead vocals from one to the other and showcasing the individual as well as group talents. One of the subtler highlights to the set was Marrs soft, breathy vocals cooing over brushed drumming and an old jazz/blues melody that was absolutely transporting. A slight change of pace followed with Charlie King announcing his favorite prison song. With King on the jug and Wammo back on the washboard, the song was full of organic instrumentation and no contemporary prison song would be complete without ripping on the current administration. The audience couldn’t have asked for a greater opening to the Bumbershoot weekend.

Following the set, we sat down with Christina Marrs and Wammo for a little question-and-answer session:

KEXP: Your band has a lot of different musical styles and backgrounds coming together. How do you reconcile that in the recording process?

Wammo: Well, I guess it just depends on whether the record has a theme or not. We’ve done some records that have themes and some that don’t. Most of ours do, so in the recording process the writing process comes first. We individually write songs and then bring them to the group, and then every once in a while Christina and I will collaborate on a duet. So, most of the time for the recordings it’s already pre-set. We’ll decide we’re going to do a reefer tunes record, a sex record or a kid’s record.

KEXP: Who’s the jokester in the group? You all seem like fun-loving, easy-going folks, but where does the comedic element come from?

Wammo: I think everybody’s funny. Christina tends to do more serious stuff than I do, but I also write serious songs and she writes funny songs. So it just switches over — there’s always a gray area. So it’s hard to say this guys a jokester. It just depends on the day — who’s in what mood and how high they are.

KEXP: And you’ve got a double-disc live album coming out pretty soon. You’ve done live albums in the past. How does the new one compare to the old?

Christina: Well this one was recorded over two weeks at a theatre in New York. We did a show called What? And Give Up Showbiz?. It was a musical revue we did off Broadway. The show was a collaboration on one aspect of the Spankers — our theatricality. The show had good lighting cues and scripted dialogue, which is unusual for us. There was a lot more storytelling and a theme to the show, whereas during most of our shows we play songs and improv inbetween and joke around with the audience. This was definitely a more scripted show with the central theme. The set was culled from 14 years of being a band so the songs on the record are from our entire history. And it’s a double-disc set, so that makes it different right there.

Wammo: And it’s out now.

Christina: Maybe not in stores, but we have it on the road. I think it hits stores on September 30th.

KEXP: Speaking of your 14-year history, you’ve had so many lineup changes. How does the current lineup work and how does it compare to lineups you’ve had in the past?

Christina: Well, it went from being on the older end of the spectrum to being on the younger side. We’ve got a bunch of young guys in the band now. We’ve just got a great band right now. We’ve always had a lot of great musicians, a lot of talent.

Wammo: Except for that one guy.

Christina: Yeah, we just have a lot of young blood right now.

Wammo: It’s a boy band now. We’re the next NSYNC.

KEXP: So you’ve got songs with title like Beer, Boogers and Shave ‘Em Dry. I’m wondering if you’ve ever dismissed a song for being too crass?

Christina: I don’t think we would ever do anything that was hateful or sexist or racist, or anything like that.

Wammo: Except for that one song — the hateful, sexist, racist song that we use as an encore every night.

KEXP: Can I find that online anywhere?

Wammo: Yeah, it’s just called the The Hateful, Sexist, Racist Song.

Christina: We’ve cut songs because they weren’t working out musically. And we’re never shy about taking any song from any era and making it our own, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. So we’ve definitely tossed songs out not because of content but because they weren’t working out musically.

KEXP: OK, and you guys have two more shows today — one for the kids and one for a general audience. Do you approach the kid’s show differently at all?

Christina: Well, we don’t say cocksucker…or motherfucker.

Wammo: Too much.

Christina: We, just say it backwards. Um, well we have a children’s record so we play a lot of songs from that record. It’s a tough crowd. Those kids have short attention spans.

Wammo: They’re all hopped up on Ritalin.

Christina: And sugar. But that really is the only difference — we don’t use curse words. But musically, we like to think that the music we wrote for the children’s record is just as accessible as any of our other records and is appropriate for people of any age. The key difference is subject matter and language.

KEXP: Well, that’s all I’ve got. It was a great show, and I look forward to seeing you at least once later on today.

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