Thirty minutes into the interview, Wammo has to go on stage. “We’re about to start,” he says from his cell phone. “But if you want, call me tomorrow night after 10. My parents should be in bed by then.”
His band, the rowdy Texas octet known as the Asylum Street Spankers, is playing in San Antonio tonight — an hour’s drive from their home base, Austin. Wammo will head back for a family birthday party tomorrow. His brother turns 40 and he’s bought him a guitar.
It’s easy to envision someone with a name like a cartoon sound effect as the life of any party. That’s Wammo, and the music his band plays certainly is a ball. Sex, drugs and other staples of rock ‘n’ roll excess dominate the lyrics, but don’t expect mosh pits at their shows. The Spankers play acoustic blues and hot jazz — well, sort of. Their genre-bending formula mixes the clarinets and fiddles of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley with the guitar picking of country-western, blues and roots-rock. Mark Keresman of Jazz Review once described them as “a cross between R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Tom Waits and The Squirrel Nut Zippers, with a touch of the mutant/eclectic sarcasm-rock of Camper Van Beethoven and They Might Be Giants!” Wammo listens to the comparison and agrees, but he feels it’s incomplete. “It’s hard to put icing on that cake — I think the closest anybody ever came [to describing our sound] was . . .” He hesitates before saying, “Somebody once called us a postmodern jug band. I liked that.”
An apt description, since jug bands don’t usually mention B-movie monsters, bong hits or mullet-style haircuts between banjo and musical-saw solos. Nor do they name-check Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Kurt Cobain in a single song. Words like “nostalgia” and “novelty” don’t even scratch the surface, he says. Perhaps “sardonic party music” is a better fit.
Wammo founded the Spankers in 1994 with vocalist Christina Marrs. He now plays the harmonica and washboard, and handles songwriting and vocal duties. A poetry-slam champion and former punk/metal musician, Wammo proudly states, “We are as irreverent as any punk rock or hip-hop act.”
The Spankers use pre-World War II music styles to deliver new-millennium entertainment, and in the process they’ve earned a fan base with no generation gap. “I love that we get both kinds of blue hair at our shows,” he says with a chuckle. “Everywhere we go there’ll be some kid with a Mohawk and black fingernail polish who’s brought his grandparents.”
Spanker gigs are wild and sweaty affairs, which boil over with off-color humor, sing-alongs and plenty of booze. But this is no free-for-all. Every Spanker — the name refers not to kinky S&M but to skillful string-picking — has obvious talent and showmanship. Marrs, for example, may be belting out gutbucket blues one minute, but quicker than you can say Betty Boop, she has squeezed her powerhouse voice into a sqeaky chirp.
In keeping with the tradtions they toy with, the band prefers not to rely on a PA — a fact that makes their command over unruly audiences even more impressive.
“We’ve played 1,500-seat theaters with no amplification whatsoever,” he says, but the venue’s dimensions determine whether or not they’re unplugged. “It’s all in the acoustics,” he states. “Size isn’t as important as acoustics.”
A new Spankers “best of” compilation disc might be called “Sideshow” (Buffalo Records), but seeing the Spankers live easily classifies as the main event. Unplugged or not, these guys are wired for sound.
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