If you've never seen The Asylum Street Spankers, they are a must for anybody that considers themself an appreciator of music. I was introduced to them (practically against my will) last spring, and have been ever grateful for the turn-on. The Spankers don't use any type of amplification at 95% of their shows, and combine theatrics, comedy and jaw-dropping musicianship to give their audience a new dimension in live music entertainment.
I can't say enough about the musicianship of the band members and arrangements of their songs. Their 1930s feel is not only attributed to the choice of acoustic instruments, but it's more the arranging that really defines their sound. Singer Christina Marrs has a voice that ranges from the 20's flapper sound to sultry blues and plays a plethora of instruments including banjo, ukulele, tenor guitar and musical saw; Wammo is a poetic genius as well as a master on harmonica, washboard, nose-whistle and kazoo; Clarinetist Stanley Smith is the patriarch of the group and also plays guitar and melodica; Korey Simeone is an incredible violinist, vocalist, songwriter, dobro guitarist and (when he's not being a Spanker) a talented actor; Paul Schlichting is their drummer who doubled on playing tap-dancing shoes with his hands during the opening performance with Matt the Electrician, PB Shane is one of the best stand up slap-bass players I've ever seen...a total natural that makes it look easier than it is; Nevada Newman on dobro guitar and vocals; and a new mandolinist (his info isn't listed on their website yet) who doubled on banjo and fiddle, filling out an already amazing acoustic orchestra.
I feel very fortunate to have seen the Spankers with clarinetist, Stanley Smith. Kidney failure has caused Stanley to need dialyses, which de-facto means that he probably won't be touring with them any longer. Also a talented singer and songwriter, Smith's dixie-land style has been such a huge part of the sound of the Spankers since 1991, that he will be sorely missed on tour. The performances that night at The Tractor were incredible but the highlight of the evening was the 22nd birthday spanking of a masochistic fan. At her request, she was given the traditional spankings with a paddle on stage from various band-members (Wammo even broke part of the paddle on one swat!) and in Spanker tradition, the audience joined in with the counting and cheering.
I saw Stanley's last performance in Seattle to two sold-out shows at The Tractor Tavern, which is where I was able to get together with Spanker co-founders, Christina Marrs and Wammo. I had some help on the interview from one of our writers, Kelley Guiney. This is dedicated to you, Stanley. Thanks for so many great years of music and helping to enrich the lives of people all over the world...that's an accomplishment in life that not many can claim.
HotBands - Hi Christina
Christina Marrs - Hi
HotBands - I know your biography is on your website, but for the sake of our readers, give a brief synopsis of how The Asylum Street Spankers came into being. Who were the original members, how did it all happen?
Christina Marrs - It formed in the spring of 1994. Guy Forsyth knew a bunch of us. We all didn't necessarily know each other, but we came together through Guy Forsyth. He just knew the right people to put together this kind of band. Here it is 9 1/2 years later and we've gone through...you know, I don't even know anymore...I've lost count...thirty-five, forty people in and out of the band through the years. We always seem to manage to re-invent ourselves in our own image.
HotBands - I was telling somebody today about your band, and I described you as The Harlem Globetrotters of music. When I was a kid, before the NBA is what it is today, The Harlem Globetrotters were the all-star band that focused on having a lot of fun. I see your band in the much the same way...each of you are masters of your respective instruments that seem to be drawn to something outside of the seriousness of professional music. I mean...you're band is really a lot of fun! It's real entertainment beyond just the music. How would you describe your sound? You're not necessarily a blues band and you're not really a vaudeville act...but kind of.
Christina Marrs - It's true that if you hear one song on one particular record, it's not going to give you a clear picture of everything we do. You might hear the jazz song on the record, or the country song, or the blues song, but we draw from mostly early American roots music, but we also draw on a lot of popular culture with contemporary themes in our music, so it makes it hard to describe. There have been a couple catch phrases that I've enjoyed, one was 'post modern jug-band' and another was 'Hee-Haw for Hipsters'. But once again, if you try to describe The Spankers in a three-word catch phrase, you're going to be missing something...its a little bit of everything, and after nine years, we still don't have a catch phrase we feel is totally accurate.
HotBands - You said that Guy Forsyth had what it took to bring together 'this type of a band'. What exactly is that type of a band?
Christina Marrs - Guy and Wammo had the original concept for the band as an acoustic jug band. Guy was the one that knew all the players. I don't know if we really had a clear-cut vision of what we were going to do, but as it turned out, we were a bunch of friends that got together that liked a lot of different kinds of music and liked playing acoustic. We never let ourselves be limited to one genre or the other...if we like a song or a style; we're going to play it. The thing that gives us the old time sound is the fact that we use acoustic instruments, ukuleles, banjos, dobros, and the fact that we play acoustic 95% of the time helps give it that old sound.
HotBands - Why do you choose not to use amplification?
Christina Marrs - To keep it pure and real. To break down that fourth wall. With a show, it's obviously a show and it can be very theatrical...when you put a mic in front of an instrument, you alter the sound of that instrument. The same thing goes with the voice...when you put a microphone in front of a voice, it changes the voice. It's not just a matter of making it louder; it actually changes how it sounds. When you have a group of acoustic instruments working together unamplified, nothing is fighting anything else...you can hear the ukulele and you can hear the banjo too. All of the voices blend and it's a very natural sound. We do have to mic up once in a while for very large audiences and festivals, but then you're at the mercy of the sound-guy, and most sound-guys these days don't understand the dynamics of an acoustic instrument, let alone an acoustic orchestra, which is what we are. If you put a mic in front of every instrument and turn it up, it doesn't sound the same, and we dig the way it sounds. It's more engaging and more personal with the audience as well...they have to pay attention.
HotBands - Was there a point when you all got together and said, "This is it"? Was the chemistry instant, and how long was it until you knew you wanted to do this for a living?
Christina Marrs - The band started out as a side-project for most everybody. The people that were involved were already in a lot of other bands, and all wanted to do something different. The story goes that somebody forgot to bring the PA to the first gig. This is my first band...I had never played professionally before this band, so I didn't know what was up with the PA...that was somebody else's job. We played the gig anyway, and it just felt so right, and the band picked up a lot of momentum the first year. I don't think anybody at first thought we were going to make a living off of this or had that intention. Even the original Spanker, Guy Forsyth, after 3 1/2 years into it that given the choice between the two, and it had come down to that, that he would rather pursue his solo career. So it wasn't right for everybody. For me, it's the perfect band because we play all different types of music and I like to play all different types of music. I don't want to be stuck playing the blues or any certain type of music.
HotBands - How many CDs do you have out?
Christina Marrs - I think we have five or six full-length and a couple EPs.
HotBands - You just got back from your first tour of Japan?
Christina Marrs - Yes.
HotBands - How did that go?
Christina Marrs - Oh, it was wonderful! We played for some amazing crowds and the hospitality was overwhelming. We played only one festival...it was mostly club gigs. We played at a couple temples and shrines. We played in a Japanese Noh theatre where we had to wear traditional ceremonial socks called 'tabi' that you have to wear if you're going to step onto a Noh stage. It was a really amazing gig...the hospitality, the food, everything. And they are very efficient...I don't think we made one U-turn or got lost going to any gig.
HotBands - How about Europe? Have you been there?
Christina Marrs - Yes...four times I think.
HotBands - How were you received? Were there any favorite places that you played?
Christina Marrs - We were received very well. I liked Scandinavia a lot...especially Copenhagen because they have Christiana. I don't know if you know what that is...it's a little township within the city limits of Copenhagen that is self-governed. Basically, squatters took over a WW2 military base and have been squatting there since the 1970s, and now they are a self-governed township of about 1000 people with their own restaurants, grocery stores, artisans, beauty salons...and they have an open-air drug market, so it's very very cool.
HotBands - You guys do a lot of songs about drugs and sex, so was that your angle when you started?
Christina Marrs - The drug songs all pretty much come from our album Spanker Madness. We've always had old reefer tunes in our set...songs we pulled from the 20s and 30s. Originally, we set out to make an EP of our own original reefer tunes. We went into the studio and cut five songs and decided that we had a lot more to say on the subject, so we went back and made it a full-length record, so it was obviously a theme record. The same goes for the sex songs...we made two four-song EPs that were sexually explicit, but these aren't genres that we invented...these are genres that have existed forever...especially in blues and jazz. Blues especially with the sexual metaphors and innuendos, and reefer tunes were in abundance from the 20s to the 40s in jazz, so it's not like we invented the genres. It's part of American culture and roots music, and it' s fun. Music tends to be not as much fun these days, you know? A lot of it is dreary, depressing, angst-riddled, and it's nice to have fun. Laughter and happiness is a huge part of the range of human emotion, and should be express through music.
HotBands - Wammo just showed up, and I want to get some of his perspective on the formation of the band as well. Christina and I were talking about how you and Guy Forsyth formed the band. I also understand that you were involved in national poetry slams and toured with Lollapalooza. Give a lowdown on how you came into that and how this came about from your perspective, and also why did Guy leave?
Wammo - You know, that's a really good question...very involved, so I'll start....
(we're sitting on the back of a loading dock behind the Tractor Tavern, with the rear legs of Wammo's chair millimeters away from slipping off the dock and into the dumpster)
HotBands - Look out man! You're about ready to fall off the dock!
Wammo - (looking back and scooting forward) Thank you! Wow...that would be funny... "How did Wammo die?" "Oh, he fell in the dumpster and broke his neck during an interview...that's the way he would have wanted to go." Okay, poetry; I got into poetry back around 1988 because I had a girlfriend who went to a poetry reading and I went with her. I read some of the lyrics from my band and they really seemed to like it, so I kept writing. I had always written poetry, but had never done a reading. I did my first national slam in 1991 in New York and beat 20 New York poets. I won $15, and since I didn't have any money in my pocket, it was awesome.
I met Guy and Christina at the same time at the Dabs hotel, which is basically when we all became friends and the night the band started. Guy and I were hanging out bitching about how loud our bands were; I was in a grunge band.... oh shit.... I just said the 'G' word in Seattle! Let me rephrase that...I was in an 'alternative band' and Guy was in his blues band. My ears were ringing and I was beginning to suffer from the early stages of tenitis because everything was always too loud. I suggested to Guy that we should start a jug band and he knew everybody...Christina and all the original Spankers. We had a couple of rehearsals, made a mixed tape of old timey songs; we all learned them and started playing gigs. It took about two weeks...and here we are nine years later.
Kelley - Forgive me, I'm not that familiar with your music...
Wammo - That's okay, neither am I.
Kelley - You have a lot of traditional music as well as original stuff. Do you ever think of combining them?
Wammo - That's basically what we do. We write original music with a traditional theme.
HotBands - I'd like to talk about the Internet and how the Internet has affected your band. You came about as a band right about the time the Internet was launching. Has it always been there for you, or is it something that you've only recently started using to help with your marketing? Are you planning on pursuing a major record deal or do you like maintaining total control of your music and merchandise?
Christina Marrs - Well, addressing the first part of the question; we've only recently, like in the last couple of years, started selling our merchandise online. It's been a real boon because we got popular on the Bob and Tom show, a radio talk show that is syndicated to a lot of smaller towns. I think Austin, Columbus and Indianapolis, where they are based out of, are some of the larger cities, but they are popular in a lot of the small towns throughout the mid-west...places that we would likely never go. Anyhow, the Bob and Tom Show started playing 'The Scrotum Song' daily...it's still their biggest requested song, so we got this whole new demographic, that is Internet based sales and we can't keep these records in stock! We had something like 15,000 hits to our website the first day that they played us on their show.
As far as pursuing a major record deal...I want to point out that we're all for file sharing. That kind of stuff doesn't bother us at all. We have downloadable MP3s on our site...special live stuff that we don't release on CD.
Wammo - We miss Napster!
Christina Marrs - We do! They were good to us! For a band at our level...you know? If you're a band like Metallica I don't know if you're really missing all that revenue and they definitely don't need the exposure. But for us, it introduced us to a lot of new fans that found out about us on the Internet: "Hey listen to this beer song, it's really funny"...stuff like that helped us out a lot.
Wammo - 'War on Drugs' was one of the highest rated songs on Napster
Christina Marrs - So, at least at our level, it's a very good thing. I think real music lovers are going to go out and buy the CD. They might download a few songs but they're going to want to have the product. So as far as pursuing a major record label deal, I don't think that would ever happen for us. First of all, were just not commercially marketable enough for it ever to be lucrative enough for us. It's much more profitable for us to have our own record label, handle our own distribution, sell our own stuff... we make more money.
HotBands - Do you make more money selling CDs or touring?
Wammo - It's a combination
Christina Marrs - It's hand-in-hand...if we didn't tour, we wouldn't sell as many CDs, and if we didn't sell CDs, we couldn't afford to tour.
HotBands - Do you sell most of your CDs at the shows?
Wammo - We sell quite a few online as well.
Christina Marrs - Umm...online and in stores, but it is a combination. Without the CD sales, we wouldn't be able to tour and without touring, we wouldn't be able to sell the number of CDs that we sell, so it really goes hand-in-hand.
Wammo - I used to be signed to a major label, and I have made more money with our own label than I ever did with a major.
Christina Marrs - We were signed to a few smaller indie labels, and in every situation we got screwed. It's not going to work for everybody...we got to the point where we had to borrow $20k to start our own record label and produce our own record. For a band starting out, if somebody like an indie label offers you a deal, you should probably take it because they're probably going to offer you a little tour support, and that's a lot of capital to come up with. Putting out a record costs a lot of money, and it's also distribution. If you're an unknown band, it's impossible to get distribution. Without distribution, your record's not in stores. For us, it was the right time to start our own label. We had reached a level of success where it worked for us. We are now totally independent...we're self-managed.
Wammo - It's all in-house...booking, merchandise, T-shirts...everything. Christina's husband is our manager, and he does the lion's share of the work.
Christina Marrs - We do everything ourselves, but it's not the perfect arrangement for a band starting out with their first record.
Wammo - Unless you have some capital behind you. If one of the band members' dad is a dentist and can loan the band 10-Grand, great! I would advise any band to put out their own stuff as soon as possible because making $14 a record you have to sell less records than if you're making $1 a record which would be a very generous major label deal for first time bands.
Christina Marrs - And that's after they've re-couped the costs of the album, and some of them will easily spend a couple of million dollars on a record without any problem. Between manufacturing, promotion and hiring a publicist, we'll spend about $15-20 grand a record. Thats a lot for us, but still pretty low budget. Distribution is still the key though. If people hear about you but can't go into the store and get one of your records, youre screwed.
HotBands - How do you feel about people recording your shows?
Christina Marrs - Hey it' free. You pay to come in; I don't care if you tape the show.
Wammo - As long as they give us a copy. That's my only request.
Christina Marrs - Yeah, as long as they give us a copy. We have a major archive and have our shows recorded pretty much every night.
Wammo - I've never gone to any record store and seen 'Asylum Street Spankers Bootlegs' for $30 or anything like that, so it's not like I'm missing any meals because someone records us.
Christina Marrs - The people that like us enough to record our shows still buy all the records so it's not a big deal to us.
Wammo - That's exactly right. They still buy all our records, so we're happy our fans are recording and trading our music and having fun rather than us sitting on it and hoarding it to ourselves and trying to sell it to them later.
HotBands - Where do you see The Spankers going next? You've had something like 35 members over the years and it must be a hard life-style that isn't right for everybody. When you have a parting of ways, is it usually amiable? I have a friend that asked me to ask you about Pops.
Wammo - (laughs and shakes his head) You're asking me about one Spanker that wasn't an amiable split, but we have TONS of people that we've had fun playing with over the years that still play with us as honorary Spankers.
Christina Marrs - Leroy Biller was our guitar player for a while, and he quit the band because his wife didn't want him out on the road anymore, but he produced our last two records and Guy Forsyth went out on tour with us last year and played on the last two records. But, you're right; a lot of people left the band because being out on the road all the time is a bitch.
Wammo - A hard job.
Christina Marrs - You get to where you want more of a home life but we always seem to find the right people for the band at the right time. We've had a couple of false-starts, but most of the time we find the right people and it all comes together again and every person that comes into the band brings something new to the table so it keeps it fresh.
HotBands - Where from here with the band? What's the next step?
Christina Marrs - We want a TV show...a variety show with musical comedy. We're recording at Comedy Central right now, so that's our next major ambition.
Wammo - I have a CD coming out and so do The Spankers...both already in the can.
Christina Marrs - We also recorded a DVD shoot last night at our show in Portland. We'll be putting out a DVD soon with some
Kelley - Is the songwriting collaborative too?
Christina Marrs - Sometimes. We do a lot of writing on our own but sometimes we collaborate. Wammo and I write most of the material but Korey writes some, Stanley writes some, Garret as well. Stanley came along about a year into the band.
HotBands - I heard he has a problem with his kidneys and he is on dialyses.
Christina Marrs - We were able to find a dialyses clinic in Portland and fly him in for the shows on this trip. We wanted him on the DVD so we could have kind of record of him being in the band.
HotBands - So this will be the last show in Seattle for him? I'm very glad I had the opportunity to see this performance
Kelley - Wammo, what is your solo material like?
Wammo - Well, it's quite different from The Spankers. My latest solo record is...we'll it's hard to say it's like anything because it's very diverse. It's a movie for the ears...it has actors on it...you just kind of have to listen to it.
HotBands - When does your next CD come out?
Wammo - We don't know yet. It was supposed to come out in October, but we may push it back to May. It's hard to release a record...there's a lot of work behind it.
HotBands - Television is the next hill to conquer. You're limited on the size of your crowds because you choose to do things completely unplugged
Christina Marrs - We mic up when we have to.
Wammo - Totally. We mic up for festivals...if you're going to play for 5000 people, we don't say 'well we can't because we don't use microphones', we go ahead and use microphones...we're not total idiots.
Christina Marrs - When we have to, we do...we just prefer not to. If it's a manageable room...we played for 1500 people unplugged in a good room.
Wammo - When we play Carnegie Hall, we will play without microphones.
HotBands - Is that next week?
Wammo - I think it's in two weeks.
HotBands - In closing, is there anything you want to say to the Internet world? Any advice, tips for new musicians, etc?
Wammo - Don't buy SUVs, recycle, don't vote for Bush, smoke pot, drink beer, use a condom, be nice to each other. Those are some pretty good guidelines.
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