WAMMO: Yes, you played right into my hands. We change the answer all the time. We hate the question. It’s absolutely the worst. It’s the question we get asked the most so we put it in our band history on the website. Usually when I talk to members of the press I always say just go ahead and check the website but since I’m here personally with you I wouldn’t do that kind of thing. The truth is that we met out at the Dabbs Hotel. Christina (Marrs) and Guy (Forsyth) were there together and I was out there with my girlfriend. It was either late 1993 or early 1994 and we had a great night carousing, drinking and songwriting, and singing and fun. Guy and I became friends. We were both complaining that our bands were too loud and so we started a jug band. Guy called Christina because Christina has a great voice and it all just kind of steamrolled from there. This was a side project that just kind of snowballed into the monster that paid everyone’s lives.
CHRISTINA MARRS: And the band name came from…
W: “Asylum” comes from Guadalupe Street which was known as Asylum Street, which goes by the state hospital which used to be the state asylum. They used to call it (the street) Asylum. And “spanking” is an old jazz term for playing your instrument vigorously. But we still like the other connotation of spanking as well. So you didn’t ask me how the band got started. Ok, that’s probably the next question.
AD: What’s the best story you ever made up about the name?
W: Now that I think about it, I don’t actually make up stories about the name; I make up stories about how the band got together. I’ve told press we got together at an orgy-that got in print. Also another one that got in print was that we had a five car pile up here in Austin and everybody pulled their instruments out of the car to see if they were ok and we sat down on the corner and started playing on the street and we made enough money to pay for the wreck.
AD: I’ve heard that ya’ll didn’t used to have any sort of amplification. Tell us why.
W: Well the whole concept of using amplifiers is reserved for electric bands. But using a PA, we didn’t use a PA at all for the first ten years of the band or only for really specific situations. 97% of the gigs, or even 99.85% of the gigs, we use absolutely no amplification whatsoever. The reason for it is that the very first gig somebody forgot to bring the PA and we were playing outdoors at a café over on Barton Springs. We decided to go ahead and play anyway-just screw it, we’re going to play-and we ended up loving it. The audience loved it. And we realized people have been playing that way for thousands of years so why not do it? It was fun and you don’t get the interpretation through the microphone; you just get the actual sound that we are producing. We did it in so many clubs here in town; we had residencies at Sholtz’s and Outhouse and Electric Lounge and Café Brazil and Continental Club where we played without any amplification and people could hear what we were doing. We had to finally change when the audiences got so big and the venues got so big that people were saying, “Hey we spent twenty bucks to come see you and couldn’t hear the band and I’m a big fan, this is the sixth time, I’ve seen you-and I was disappointed.” We don’t want to disappoint our fans. So when we were playing a lot of festivals and stuff like that we were like, well we better figure out how to mic up and get a sound man because that’s what we need to do. And if we are going to do that we might as well keep practicing at it. So we started doing it at the same clubs we used to play at without any electricity. It’s turned out that we really love it now. But we loved it back then when we weren’t using any amplification.
AD: We also heard that you are looking for a new Spanker. What rigorous trial will you put them through? What talent must they possess? And does everyone vote the person in? Is there a democracy in the Spanker makers?
CM: We did just hire somebody. He played his first show last week: Charlie King. He moved out here from LA to be in the band. We’ve been thinking about adding back the seventh Spanker because up until about a year ago, we’ve never been as small as a six piece-six is as small as we have ever been. And because of the way the last person quit, he kind of left us really hanging, we’ve talked about going ahead and adding another multi-instrumentalist just in case somebody else quits-at least we’ll have a net.
AD: Is there a hazing?
W: Just a little bit. You know, “Try this mint sauce at this sushi restaurant” sort of thing. We usually don’t haze people too bad. We just kind of give them the rules up front: hygiene is very important for a touring band; you’ve got to stay clean; you’ve got to use deodorant; shower. Nothing like being trapped in a van with a band member that has bad body odor. And you would be surprised how often that happens. It has come up quite a few times. And then it’s the exact opposite: it’s the guy that wears cologne. We had a guitar player who would put it on right before we were going on a four hour drive. We are in the van for four hours so what do you do? Put cologne on.
CM: A Spanker has to be freakishly talented and that’s about all the requirements. Obviously they have to be able to get along with the other people in the band. And we’ve had people in the band that were weird but they weren’t our kind of weird. Because we’re weird but you’ve got to be weird in the same way or it doesn’t work. But as far as instrumentation, you know, golly, we replaced a clarinet player with a piano player and we replaced a piano player with a banjo player-so I’m open to anything. In fact, one of the girls that we are going to audition next week is a trumpet, trombone, and accordion player, and we’ve never had any of those instruments in the band. But when I think about it, I think, wow you know what trombone would be cool at? Or we could do some really cool things with accordion. So you know, I never thought we would have a piano player in the band, I never thought we would have a five string banjo player in the band and we’ve had those things. You see that everybody brings something new to the table so I think when you’ve found the right Spanker you know it and it’s not determined by what instruments they play or how old they are or that they wear their shirt tucked in or out. I think that we have been doing this long enough that we were able to interview Charlie on the phone and we listened to him play over the phone-we never met him-and we just knew. He’s sitting there playing and we just said, “Hey this is it, this is the guy.” And it was just little things-instinctively I knew-from the communication; little jokes he made. He came down here and the first rehearsal was the day of the show last week and it was just like, “Yeah, we made the right decision. No question about it.”
W: Every time we add somebody they change the temper of the band which is a beautiful thing-it keeps us on our toes.
AD: Who makes the decision for a new person?
CM: It ultimately comes down to us two. I’d like to at least get feedback from the other guys in the band. I’m not comfortable making a decision that everybody else in the band would be opposed to so we at least run things by them. And when it came to hiring Charlie, we basically decided that we were going to hire him and then we asked everybody else “Is this cool?” I mean if he had come down and everybody was like, “We can’t play with this guy” we would have put him on a Greyhound but everything worked out just fine.
AD: Tell us about your album. Do you have any experience with children’s albums? What gave you that idea?
CM: Our manager gave us that idea. He said we should do a children’s record. Although it was something that we talked about over the years-a kids’ record would come up every once in awhile-we’ve done some other theme type records before. I have some experience with kids’ music and I have two kids so I know that most of it is this horrid, awful stuff that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Even the stuff that is supposed to be hip kids’ music is often intolerable for the parents. Maybe it’s not all middy and you know, kids singing in unison-when you’ve got the eight year olds all singing in unison, that’s always horrid-but even the artists who are supposed to be hip is not something I would want to sit around and listen to. So when we decided to do a children’s record obviously it was going to be a Spankers record first and foremost, but it was going to be a record for all ages. No cow songs, no ABC songs. I think what we ended up with is a record that is really for adults that kids are going to really like. I’ve had so many parents tell me, “My five year old loves your music, just loves your music but he got in trouble for singing “The Scrotum Song” at school.” There is something about Spanker music that kids really dig but a lot of our music, a lot of our albums and songs, have had drug references or sex references or cuss words that weren’t exactly appropriate for kids. So this record is clean; it’s squeaky clean. But it’s not in a box. There are a few songs in there that are absolutely, specifically for kids. There are other songs in there that are more reflective or contemplative of childhood in general. So I think that it’s a really good balance of stuff kids are going to like to listen to and parents are going to appreciate and not get sick of listening to over and over again. And now when people come up to the merch table and ask me, “What’s your favorite record?” The kid’s record is right up there. Every once in a while you get the, “I don’t want a kid’s record” but you don’t understand, it’s not kid’s music-it’s a great record that your kids can listen to.
AD: Do all of you guys write songs or how does that work?
W: Pretty much all the stuff that you hear me sing I wrote. Christina writes a lot of her own songs. Nevada writes a lot of his own songs. When Stanley and Guy were in the band they wrote their own songs. We try and encourage as much original songwriting as possible.
CM: I would say our live show is probably about 70% original, 30% covers. But our records tend to feature maybe one cover and twelve originals. Live, you have to fill a lot more time. But when the band started out we pretty much did cover songs. We did country blues tunes from the 20s and 30s. But people kind of came into their own in writing original music in these genres and these styles and what eventually became the Spanker style.
AD: Do ya’ll ever write together as a group?
CM: Absolutely. Wammo and I have written a few duets. You know, we’ve collaborated on a few songs. There’s often a lot of collaboration when it comes to arrangements: maybe somebody comes forward with lyrics and a melody and the rest of the band works on putting it together to form a piece. But we’ve had a few songs that were written in large groups. My Favorite Record had four different writers in the band. We wrote it in the studio as a group effort. We had already decided to name the CD My Favorite Record and while we were in the studio we decided we needed a title track and we all just brainstormed and came up with that.
W: Tell them why we named it My Favorite Record.
CM: Because when people come up to the merchandise table and would say, “What’s your favorite record?” I wanted to have something to hand them. And also, when the DJ plays it on the air it’s “Here’s Asylum Street Spankers from My Favorite Record.”
AD: How is your reception in other parts of the planet?
W: It’s great. It depends on what part of the planet you are talking about. I mean it’s different in Tokyo then it is in Magna, Utah. We have a pretty strong following in three continents.
AD: And how about the United States?
W: That’s one of them.
AD: I mean, what kind of feedback do you hear most of the time? Is it always positive?
W: Well, no. Most of the time it is completely positive. Since we did “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV,” that has caused some controversy and we’ve had some people get irate and angry about that. That’s pretty much the only song.
CM: Every once in while someone will email us and say, “Well you guys are obviously extremely talented individuals and I really like your music but I just don’t see any need for such crass language.” That’s happened more than once. I would have to say our audiences in the states like us for different reasons than our audiences in Tokyo. The Japanese audience will love us and go pay the American equivalent of $50, $60 dollars to go see the Spankers play but they don’t understand a word we are saying. And so they like the band for a whole different set of reasons. When you think about English speaking audiences being able to grasp the nuances, the jokes, the double entendres, the pop culture references, and all that kind of stuff, that’s completely lost on the Japanese audience. So they are getting something completely different out of the show. And seeing a bunch of singing Americans is an idle thing for a nation where 99% of the people on the island are Japanese-cause they do like to stare at Caucasian people.
W: I was huge there. I was huge in Japan.
CM: And I’m 5’3″. I’m tall in Japan.
AD: What is the best and worst thing about being a musician and creative soul in Austin, Texas?
W: The worst thing is housing. Austin, as supportive as it is to its live music and live music clubs, I still have yet to find an organization that helps musicians find housing. I think we really need that in this town. This town thrives on the local music scene yet most musicians can’t afford to live here. I think that’s a big issue as far as what’s going on here. But there are so many positive attributes of living in Austin that it outweighs the housing issue. Obviously this town has an amazing live music scene where you can go see live music not just every night, but every afternoon. Sunday afternoon, you can go knocking around and find somebody playing live music-original live music.
CM: You can go into a dive on a Monday night and just stumble in on an audience of twelve listening to the best musicians you’ve ever seen or heard-it will blow your mind. Stumble in, there’s a $4 cover, twelve people in the audience, it’s a dive and there are these amazing musicians on stage-just amazing talent. But like Wammo said, the cost of living, with our tech boom, and when Silicon Valley, California types came to Austin it sucked. Property is cheap here, relatively speaking. I’m sure it seemed that way when they were selling off their million dollar bungalows on the west coast and coming here and it’s ten times as much house for a quarter of the money. Now there is no cheap rent here; it is really, really hard. I had to move to Houston for about a year and a half when it got really bad because I could not find anything I could afford. I have two kids and an office out of the house and there was nothing. Two rental properties in a row the landlord decided to sell because their investment was obviously paying off. It’s a tricky situation.
W: It’s a big issue in this town. This town financially thrives during SXSW and if the Austin musicians who play here in town regularly can’t afford to live here then the clubs aren’t going to be able to survive as well because to keep a club open it’s really important that you have regular business and that people come in every week and every night. If the clubs can’t survive here in Austin then SXSW is going to suck. The whole thing is going to end up in a hotel somewhere because there’s not going to be any live music venues. So it’s really important that Austin takes care of its live music venues that play exclusively in Austin. We’re not even in that category anymore. We make most of our money on the road.
CM: Emphasize most.
AD: 90% of the musicians in this town have to leave to make money.
W: Which is a crying shame. It wasn’t always that way. We survived very well for three years just playing regular shows in Austin.
AD: So do you think there is a solution? What do you think they need to do?
W: I would say that probably the best thing I can think of is some organization like SIMS or HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians) that is dedicated to finding low income housing for Austin musicians. Where Austin musicians can own their own homes; get tax breaks for Austin musicians so they don’t have to pay the outrageous property tax that you have to pay here in Austin; and relatively cheap housing so that the scene here can be really fruitful.
AD: It makes sense. The city makes so much money off musicians.
CM: For a band like the Spankers, there is really no reason why we couldn’t just pick up and move to any other place and do what we do. We don’t rely on Austin for our income. Only recently have we begun playing a weekly residency here at Ruta Maya. Up until about a year ago, Austin was just another stop along the tour. So there was really no economic incentive to live here. We had ties here: friends, family that kind of thing. We could easily live anywhere else and conceivably pay several hundred dollars less in rent or buy a house for cheaper or whatever.
W: Pretty much all over the nation we could buy houses for cheaper.
CM: It’s not that Austin is a music city-that’s not what keeps the Spankers living here or based out of here. It’s mostly, like I said, friends and family. I’ve been here my entire adult life and I don’t want to leave but there is no economic incentive to live here.
AD: What has been the best addition to our town and the worst loss since the Spankers started?
CM: We’ve lost a lot of really great clubs: Electric Lounge, the Outhouse, Liberty Lunch. I was really sad to see those go. Cheap affordable housing-I was sad to see that go. When I first moved to Austin, in the summertime the town would empty out and the rents would go down. You could get cheaper rent in the summer because nobody was here. It’s so amazing to me that that was just what, 18 years ago? You’d ride your bike down the drag and it would be a ghost town down there. Now you can’t give up your apartment, you’ll never get another one.
W: I would say the best addition to this town has been Red Volkaert. He’s a guitar player; he does a residency at the Continental Club. I would say he is the best addition to Austin since we’ve been a band.
CM: I need to give kudos to SIMS as well because that was a big addition. You could only have dreamed about-back when we started-free mental health counseling and the clinic plan. I got to see a dentist. Finally someone recognized that Austin musicians contribute so much to the local economy and decided to set up a foundation to give something back and recognize that musicians can’t afford health care and dental care. I think that is definitely a step in the right direction.
AD: Do you have a secret to your longevity in this business?
W: It really has been just pure tenacity. There are many times that either Christina or myself could have just thrown up our hands and just said, “f**k it.” And it’s come close a couple of times but even after all these years-it will be 13 years in April-I still adore playing music with this woman. She is amazingly talented and never stops surprising me, so that’s why I’m in it.
CM: I think one thing that has contributed to our longevity is our ability to change. Switching over to using microphones when we needed to; the ability to bring new people into the band and recreate ourselves and our own image around what they are bringing to the table; not allowing ourselves to get pigeonholed as one type of band. Back when we started, the swing craze was going full swing and I can’t tell you how many gigs I turned down because it was like, “We want you to come play our swing night and swing dancers come out and it’s just swing, swing, swing.” I would just tell them, “We’re not a swing band. We don’t like to have people dance in front of us when we are playing.” But because we were old-timey or whatever that whole thing tried to latch onto us but we didn’t want to latch onto it because where are all those bands now?
W: They didn’t understand that we were a whole theater band experience not just a dance band.
CM: So not letting yourself get pigeonholed and allowing yourself to change. This is not the same band that it was thirteen years ago. In a lot of ways it is similar but in a lot of ways it is very, very different. I don’t know, what if the Beatles stayed the same? I think that’s key: just letting yourself go with it and keep evolving.
AD: What do you think of the scene that you all started?
W: I’m so removed from what’s going on here locally that I don’t really see it. There are a couple of bands that play old-timey music but we didn’t invent that genre. The Spankers were unique because basically we write original music in an old time theme. But we don’t even stick to old-timey music anymore. You listen to some of our new songs like “Leaf Blower” they have no old-timey feel whatsoever. Lots of critics have called us “genre defining” in the past and I think that’s one of the reasons we stand out. Like Christina said before, one of the reasons this band has been able to stay together so long is that it is impossible to pigeonhole. You can’t put a band together that is just like the Spankers. The Spankers were an accident. We were just a happy collage that just fell in place.
CM: A happy organic accident for sure. People without the sophisticated ear to be able to really discern say, the difference between, say, us and…
W: Don’t say any names.
CM: I won’t say any names but some of the other bands you might be tempted to compare us to. You might here a ukulele or a clarinet or an upright bass and it makes them think, “Oh well they are like them.” But I can’t think of another band, I can absolutely not think of another band that does as many different styles of music as we do. Because we do it all: we do country, we do blues, we do tin pan alley, ragtime, gospel, rock, punk rock, hip hop-the Spankers do anything we can do with our instruments. We don’t even let the instruments limit what we can do musically because on one of our records we did a straight up B-52’s cover, straight up. We didn’t change a note, but we did it all with acoustic instruments. And so, we don’t see the instrumentation as limiting and we never set out to be this kind of band. We’re not purists-we’re not interested in sounding like some Smithsonian archive accordion. We don’t care if they wouldn’t have gone to the flatted fifth in the 1930s in this style or this progression. It doesn’t matter; it’s music.
W: The other thing is that those other bands that you mention that might sound like us, I bet you most of them have a member that used to be in this band.
CM: Once a night we may sound the way they do all night.
AD: Last question, give us some wisdom for an artist just starting out.
W: Go into porn.
CM: There is no shortage of open mics around town. Go out and find people you like to listen to and see if they will play with you. I could certainly say from experience there is nothing like playing with other people, especially people that have more knowledge and experience than you do.
W: And also, if you are going to put a band together, it is more important to put a band together with people you can get along with than with people that are musical badasses. You can learn how to play together but you can’t learn how to get along.
CM: And if your band has a lead singer, you suck.