An average record by the Asylum Street Spankers sounds a lot like a well-preserved collection of old 78s, and the band brings their love of old vinyl with them on their current tour, landing at IOTA on June 18.
The Austin, Texas-based collective more than dips their toes into traditional American music. They swim in the stream of popular music, with covers of Woody Herman, Robert Johnson and Benny Goodman songs.
Those covers make sense, given the Spankers’ modus operandi. They play totally acoustic shows, with no electrified instruments and few microphones, incorporating clarinets, washboards, musical saws, banjos and ukeleles. It’s a sound that got its start when the Spankers formed in 1994, playing a pickup jam at a shindig on the Llano River in West Texas.
It also fits in well in IOTA’s smaller space, said Wammo, one of the few constant members of the currently seven-member Spankers. "IOTA is a pretty good room," he said. "But we’ve played for 1,500 people without microphones. It just depends on the acoustics of the room."
How does a musician start playing offbeat instruments, like the washboard or the musical saw bowed by Christina Marrs, one of the co-founders and mainstays of the band along with Wammo?
"Christina and I are both self taught," Wammo said. "It doesn’t take much to teach yourself to play washboard."
As for the saw, he said, its introduction to the band was a bit serendipitous. "A saw guy sat in with us, and he was terrible," Wammo said. "So Olivier, our guitar player at the time, tried it, and he was better than the guy. Christina started messing around with it, too. She really liked it, and started playing it."
There are other sounds and instruments that offer the same kind of allure. "There’s always gonna be an instrument, when you run across it, that you want to play," Wammo said. "I’d love to play the hurdy gurdy. But I don’t know how it would apply itself to a Spanker live show."
SPANKERS’ SOUND DOESN’T stop with the sounds of early-20th Century Americana. Spanker records and shows also incorporate covers of AC/DC and Spinal Tap, tributes to Tin Pan Alley and Tom Waits. Most of the "traditional" songs on their records, meanwhile, are originals, not covers.
"We don’t do very many covers," said Wammo. "Except for, like, old covers, like ‘Tight Like That,’" a Leadbelly tune.
When the Spankers hit the road, they have a few covers of classics in stock, he said, until the band burns out on it. Christina Marrs, one of the co-founders and mainstays of the band with Wammo, occasionally flexes her falsetto on "It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie," a Fats Waller classic.
But no song has a guaranteed place in a Spankers’ set. "We’ve had songs everybody wants to hear, but we’ve been diligent about being slaves to popular opinion," Wammo said. "We always try to have something new and fresh."
New and fresh on this tour is a surprise cover, he said, an unexpected offering from a band that hews close to the roots of American popular music. "I don’t want to give away the joke," he said. "But it’s by a band you wouldn’t usually associate with the Spankers."
WAMMO ESCHEWS COVERS entirely on his just-released second album, "Faster Than the Speed of Suck," a concept album he describes as "a movie for the ears about how commercial radio in America sucks."
A couple’s road trip to New Orleans serves as the backdrop for the album, released at the end of April. As the anonymous man and woman drive, they veer up and down both bands of the radio dial, looking for something palatable anywhere on AM or FM, and finding little of merit.
Stanley Smith, Spankers’ clarinetist and occasional vocalist, also released his first solo album, "In the Land of Dreams," last month – like Wammo’s album, on the Spankers’ own Spanks-a-Lot label. Smith’s album almost sounds like a musical history of the last 20 years, with songs that sound like a meeting of the Neville Brothers, John Prine and bluesman Taj Mahal.
In addition to solo records, the Spankers will release an expanded version of their 1996 debut album, Spanks for the Memories, and the band just finished work on their fourth full album, due out in September.
"The title of the record is, ‘My Favorite Record,’" Wammo said. "It’s about how much we love vinyl. There’s only one cover, a Willie Dixon song called ‘Insane Asylum.’"
LIKE DIXON’S BLUES forefathers, the Spankers embrace innuendo and double entendre in their songwriting, although they’re not below including single entendres too. They’re not afraid to work blue, or green.
The last full-length Spankers’ album was called "Spanker Madness," and the cover, like the title, spoofed posters for the early anti-marijuana film "Reefer Madness."
In the songs, the band continued the theme, singing mostly original songs focusing on the often-overlooked pleasurable side of drugs.
In his song "Winning the War on Drugs," Wammo condemned the national effort to stamp out recreational drug use as a futile waste of money. On "Wake and Bake," Marrs and Korey Simeone sing a lovers’ duet about the joys of getting up and getting high.
The content of the album meant skewed press coverage, Wammo said, with most interviews focusing on the theme, and not the music. But it also drew a mass of new fans for the band.
"‘Spanker Madness’ opened up huge avenues for us," he said. "‘War on Drugs’ was one of the highest hits on Napster."
While the band embraces a modern attitude towards drug, and Internet, use, the Spankers haven’t traveled too far from the sound that got them started. As in the past, they will continue to play acoustic sets, and will even provide the soundtrack for the Buster Keaton film "Steamboat Bill Jr." at the Knitting Factory in New York City.
"It brings us to a whole different audience," Wammo said. "We enjoy paying homage to the old masters, especially Keaton and Chaplin."