“My favorite records kind of have a feel from beginning to end. They flow well, or maybe they evoke some kind of mood. It's kinda like an audio history of music in general-or recorded music at any rate. It's a great all-around Spanker sampler.”
Christina Marrs is talking about My Favorite Record, her band's wonderfully ambitious and appropriately-titled romp through the canon of Americana folk, bluegrass, ragtime, roadhouse blues, novelty tunes and thrash jazz. Woefully afraid of being pigeonholed, the Asylum Street Spankers take the terms acoustic and eclectic to dizzying new heights on My Favorite, mixing rags, ballads, spoken-word and dixieland in a kaleidoscopic confluence of influences and forms.
Take, for instance, the opener, “Monkey Rag,” which elevates a helium-voiced Marrs' and partner Wammo's gravelly scats to the level of retro-kitsch without losing credibility. The song jumps and swings with simian abandon-nostalgic style-jacking notwithstanding.
“It's a record about music,” Marrs explains. “It didn't really start out that way, but when the songs started coming together we started noticing a theme of sorts. We didn't realize we were making a theme record, but in some ways it turns out we did.”
Marrs is one corner of the Spankers' musical love triangle, a collective of underground, acoustic savants based out of Austin, Texas. Guitarist-harpist Guy Forsyth and spoken wordsmith Wammo round out the band's core. Wammo is the band's gifted idiot-genius, a former punk poet whose indie rock aesthetic is best captured on the album's second track, “Antifreeze” (which name checks Jesus Lizard and Sonic Youth).
The Spankers have been putting out records since 1996. But the hook, for many of their fans, is the amazing lack of amplification utilized by the sometimes ten-or-more-piece band. It's “music,” the Spankers claim, “the way God intended it.”
“We are very anti-electricity, or at least anti-electrically-aided music in general,” says Marrs, whose earthy, understated conversational tone belies a fire-breathing, barrelhouse vocalist onstage.
“Doing a show without electricity does have its advantages actually. People will come up to us and say, ‘I love it, I could actually hear the ukulele even though there were seven other instruments going on.' And that's the beauty of acoustic instruments, they do kind of mix themselves. You can hear the subtleties of each instrument, as opposed to just sticking a microphone in front of each of them and trust a sound man to equalize everything for you.”
In a band full of show-stealers, Marrs consistently grabs both critical and audience attention with her encyclopedic, anthropomorphic vocal stylings-making like Betty Boop one moment, then busting into Bessie Smith blues the next. It's easy to picture her sitting as a little girl for hours on end in front of a vintage Victrola spinning antique 78s.
“That's kind of accurate. Of course, I'm not quite that old,” she laughs. “That's how I played when I was a little girl. I listened to records. If my mom told me to go out and play, I'd take an extension cord and the record player outside with me!”
My Favorite Record is the Spankers' seventh release on their own label, Spanks-A-Lot Records. Many of their discs are from live shows, but this was a totally in-studio affair.
“The studio is obviously much different from what we do live,” she says. “Probably 98 percent of our shows are performed [without amplification]. But you know, in the studio, you get to sweeten things up, you get to add this, add that, get things just the way you want it. It's a wonderful luxury, I love it.”
Though Marrs admits the Spankers' live act is what the records are really advertising.
“We've done quite a number of live recordings with this band, and I think they're great, for this band in particular, because it's hard to really translate what we do unless you actually go to a live show-the records are such a small part of it. So, live records are a good way for us to send somebody home with a part of us.”
Marrs says the band is envisioning yet more ways to share their off-kilter endeavors with the world.
“We've got plans for a gospel EP, a children's record, plans for a record of some our favorite covers that we do live,” she says. “But one of our biggest goals right now is we're trying to get a TV show. We'd like to do a half-hour, hour musical-comedy-variety show, with the focus on the music, but also have some short skits, animation, etc.
“Kind of like a Hee-Haw for hipsters.”