With a name like the Asylum Street Spankers, preconceptions are almost impossible to avoid. And in this case, they’re probably accurate.
From the wry humor and social commentary of their breakaway YouTube hit “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV” to Mommy Says No!, their award-winning children’s album, the Spankers have made a career of defying labels. And with influences spanning Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, vaudeville, swing, old-time country, early jazz and even punk rock, this band is everything their name suggests and more.
But Wammo—the Spankers’ harmonica/washboard player and vocalist—has a simpler take: “Someone once told me that there are only two kinds of music: belly-rubbin’ music and butt-bumpin’ music. I think we play a little of both.”
Formed during a substance-filled night of partying and song swapping in 1994, the Spankers began as what Wammo has called an acoustic “throwaway band,” playing Texas dives and street corners, including the Guadalupe Street drag (also known as Asylum Street) from which they drew their name. Within a year, however, their zany blend of humor and classic musical influences had landed them a number or regular gigs in Austin, and soon the Spankers were playing theaters around the world.
Since then, the band has released seven studio albums and two DVDs, toured the United States, Europe and Japan, and even founded its own label, Spanks-a-Lot-Records, much to the surprise of Wammo.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be around 14 years later,” he admits. “But this band has the tenacity of a cockroach. It became the side project that ate everyone’s life. And now here I am with that same band, off Broadway.”
Wammo is referring to the Spankers’ latest endeavor, a musical review titled What? And Give Up Show Biz?, which the band debuted earlier this month during an eight-night residency at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre. The performance—featuring skits and stories in addition to Spankers tunes—is a sort of “greatest hits show,” he says, designed to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at life in a touring band.
“We’re trying to explain that it’s not all partying and glamour and rock-star behavior,” he says. “The Spankers are an absolute grassroots band, completely independent, doing everything on our own, running our own record label, printing our own T-shirts and CDs. We’re trying to give the audience an impression of what it’s really like on the road.”
It’s the Spankers DIY ethos, after all, that Wammo believes has been the secret to their success. For a band steeped in old-time music and unapologetically crude humor, signing to a major label is practically the “kiss of death.”
“You might put out a song that becomes a hit, but then they never know how to follow up,” he says. “It’s more profitable for a label to get one hit out of an artist and drop them, basically turn them into a one-hit wonder. I don’t think we would have stayed around as long as we have without doing it all ourselves.”
So how do you follow up an award-winning children’s album and a critically acclaimed musical review? With a “real, honest-to-god musical,” Wammo says. “We’ve written our first draft of Act 1, and we have the whole thing outlined.” Live recordings of the New York performances are also in the works.
In the meantime, parents and children alike can catch the Spankers on tour. Though the show includes some adult language, Wammo says kids are still welcome.
“Sure,” he says, “sometimes people bring their kids. And if it’s an adult night, we might even say from stage, ‘Hey, we’re doing our adult show. If you have a problem with bad language, go ahead and take your kids out of here.’ But almost always, the parents stay, the kids stay, and everybody has a blast. It’s important to remember: there are no bad words, just bad intentions.”
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Asylum Street Spankers
what: Acoustic-powered retro act
where: Grey Eagle
when: Wednesday, Jan. 30 (8 p.m. $15. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)