CARL FINCH: I got started in the Baptist Church children’s choir. The conductor of that choir at the Church pulled my parents aside and told them that they should get me piano lessons. So I started piano lessons when I was pretty young, 7, I think. So I took piano lessons and then went to play guitar and then went to play rock and roll in high school. When I went to college I decided I needed to get serious so I got a degree in advertising art and then I got a masters in drawing and painting and thought I was going to teach college. While I was working on the masters I kind of collided with the idea of getting the band together to do the things that I was doing. I was working with sound installations—I had evolved away from painting and I think I also realized I wasn’t very good. I excelled as a conceptualist so anything could be the medium in that case. I always leaned towards sound. One thing that I really loved was the idea of leveling music out to be on the same plane and the way I saw to do that was to put as many different styles together. That was the whole bottom line concept—to totally even the whole playing field with music so you could eliminate the notion of having to label one style cool or not cool.
AD: How did that go from a concept to a band?
CF: It was divine intervention. I just literally stumbled onto people that were malleable and open to the idea and also intrigued by the idea of playing Polka as a rock and roll band and then expanding from there and playing other types of ethnic music but as a rock band. Everybody dug that idea. But I literally stumbled on these musicians in 1979 and became friends with three of the guys that just happened to be adept at something that would be important in the band. The first horn player was already into Irish music. The bass player who was also a French horn player is a guy who had been around for a few years and always wanted to get a band together with me. The drummer was this kid that I discovered when he was playing in a punk band and I liked his energy and he turned out to be really interested in Mexican music. That was the core of the band right there. I made some changes in my life and at the time was trying to think about the bigger picture and I do believe in a lot of ways that this is what people mean when they say that if you set yourself on a course doors open. There are just too many things in this band that worked in a way that could only be called mystical.
AD: What drew you to polka music?
CF: The main reason was that polka music was the one style that was always the butt of the joke. It was unfairly categorized as the butt as the joke and I thought that was the one style that needed to be liberated from that and be able to stand on its own as a musical forum. It was the hardest one to work into the mainstream.
AD: Beyond the challenge, did you personally relate to it?
CF: Only in a devious way really. I grew up in Texarkana and it wasn’t really hard to be the coolest kid there. I listened to what I thought was the coolest rock and roll and prided myself on being a step ahead of the average kid in town in terms of the scene and what was going on in the rest of the world. In a way this was more of a way to say, “Screw you” to the industry. Here’s something that you can’t touch at all, you have no control over this at all, and not only that, you’ve gotten it so wrong for so long. So any vindication is pretty mild—I don’t really have a crusade going on–I just always thought it was interesting that this style of music was labeled the way that it was and yet I could hear this incredible power in the music that seemed to be just forgotten from a mainstream point of view. And really from my perspective it made perfect sense—it was totally unexplored territory.
AD: What have you learned about the music business as a result of taking on the “butt of the joke” and successfully making a career out of it?
CF: In terms of that specifically, what I have learned is that there is a notion that is totally perpetuated by media that has nothing to do with the music industry. It’s just a handful of people with a lot of power that choose to perpetuate this idea because they can’t think for themselves and they choose the easiest joke. Unless you are deeply entrenched in this world you can’t really feel the brunt of it but if you are in the polka world and you realize that some of these people have been fighting this battle forever where some hot shot rich ad executive or some CEO of some company comes up with some goofy concept that perpetuates this whole idea. If you look at how it has been done from a commercial advertising perspective it is all pretty vaudeville and slapstick—it’s not even inventive from a humor point of view. It’s funny, I know so many people in the industry now that have completely helped the attitude towards Polka music. We play for young people all the time that if they are punks or whatever they are not jaded. No one that I ever see in front of me with my own eyes has this perception yet it’s amazing that it is always inevitably the thing that the corporate world and larger media uses as a joke. It also amazes me how quickly we have been accepted in any aspect of the industry that we have ever penetrated. They are totally cool with it.
There is a lot of obvious stuff attached to it from a social and historical perspective and you can see how people put other groups of people down and have derogatory names for it. All those things got locked into it: the music, the dress, the screwed up English. It’s something that could have gone away at one time if it wasn’t perpetuated. I realized that this was an absolute disconnect between mainstream media and every other human being on the planet and that these guys are the most clueless when I saw something where they would make fun of an accordion yet the hippest musicians at that time were all using accordions. For us it’s an odd dichotomy because we see something so different from the business when we play. If we scream, “Let’s polka” the crowd generally screams louder than if we scream, “Let’s rock.”
By the way this is the as much as I ever sit around and think about this. The only time I ever get to express this is if someone asks me the question. Otherwise, I’m not sitting around plotting some evil scheme to topple the corporations. This is my opportunity to put my two cents in.
AD: I’ve had a chance to listen to your last album, Polka’s Revenge. There is such a range of polka styles on there. How did you go about choosing the different styles?
CF: Polka is divided into so many different styles—there are probably 100 different styles around the world and 10 major ones. Everything there represents a polka. Generally, concepts for the records are mine and I tend to spend the most fully extensive out-of-control time listening to music. I just can’t stop listening to music. Even after we play somewhere all night and have to get in some vehicle and drive for five hours I will spend the first three hours listening to music. I’m the one that is listening to music and will hear something and think that it would be a cool thing for us to do. I’ll bring it in and then we will kind of talk about it and I might have a basic arrangement idea. There is no shortage of good stuff out there, I’ll tell you that.
AD: You guys seem like you are nonstop and I know you’ve been touring for a long time. Has that gotten more comfortable over the years?
CF: We’ve got our formula down. Many, many years ago one of the first luxuries we gave ourselves was that we would never share a room with each other. The first 10 years we did and finally we thought, “Well we’re making enough money and we want to make it nice so let’s just do this.” And we never went back. So with that in mind you always know you have 8-14 hours in a room with no one else bugging you. That helps you keep your sanity. When we’re really touring heavy we apply a lot of logic on the wear and tear of the band. We try to fly to a location and squeeze a bunch of shows together and then fly home the last night. From the comfort perspective we are pretty close to making it as comfortable as it can possibly for everybody.
AD: Has winning two Grammys changed anything for you?
CF: There is an air of legitimacy that goes with it no matter what. There are only a handful that are given out every year and we have two that have been made of the not very many from the time they started. Every now and then it hits me that I actually have a couple of those things in my home. It’s humbling. Even in my own cynical way I can think that there are people that sincerely dig us and actually listen to the record and actually chose what they thought was the best. So I try to think of it in the most positive way. We’ve been nominated lots of times and I went once and didn’t dig that too much. Not my cup of tea. I’d rather stay home and find out on the computer or have someone call me. If you don’t win that’s great because nobody is upset with you. But then you are all they way out there and you didn’t win. It’s a lose, lose situation.
In terms of the Grammys, everybody has a lot of respect for that so the fact that we can say that we won these and we did that definitely carries with it some automatic respect that it didn’t before and a lot of legitimacy within the field itself which was very important to us. We don’t want to be a joke or a novelty version. We want the people in the polka world to dig what we are doing and see that our innovations are respectful of the form and in keeping with how the music has evolved.
AD: When you hear that “Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World” what do you think?
CF: It’s filled with more musicians willing to play for nothing than any other place in the world. Maybe you couldn’t have a scene with so much music without people willing to play for nothing. A lot of Austin musician friends make a lot more money outside of Austin than they do in Austin. But on the other hand there are a lot of venues every night with people playing music. I think without a doubt you guys should hang onto the moniker. Denton has their own version of that too. There is enough support of musicians in this town to be a bohemian and suffer for your art. There is a lot of support here for that. I remember when Brave Combo was more a concept than a way to make money we were doing all kinds of stuff to make money. I’m all for people paying their dues I just think it’s funny that everybody knows Austin is not the greatest town in the world to play in if you want to make money.
AD: What’s next for you?
CF: I don’t know if you know who Click and Clack are of Car Talk on PBS. Well PBS is producing a primetime animated sitcom that will be starting in June of 2008 based on their show and they are using one of our songs as the theme song for it. And then they just recently asked us to score the thing. So pretty soon we are going to have to be doing studio and live performances hand in hand and that’s going to be tricky but it’s a really great opportunity for opening some doors that we’ve wanted to open.