Leaving their mark

So it’s the 21st century, and no doubt, you think you’ve heard it all — every style and sub-style of music there is to hear, from watered-down classical to teeth-baring punk, at every place from gourmet grocery stores to back-alley dives to mega-concert stadiums. You’ve heard it, and moved on — been there and done that, to exploit a 20th-century cliche.

And thus, any line about a new band with an incredible sound only makes you scoff and don your best world-weary face. Well, indulge me for a moment, and imagine this …

Someone tells you about some old-timey band from Texas you just have to go see, and you oblige — arriving fashionably late, of course, as is the connoisseur’s privilege. Upon entering the club, your highly trained musical senses tell you something’s wrong, that things are seriously out of place. Though deeply attuned to the happenings on-stage, the crowd is completely silent. And the room itself is strangely devoid of the normal club sounds: no obnoxious loud-talkers, no clink of beer bottles, no chair legs scraping the club’s concrete floor.

It’s as if making a sound, any sound at all, would be an unforgivable offense to one’s fellow patrons. At first you’re puzzled, unable to account for this sinister behavior in the normally rowdy crowd. Then, slowly, you begin to hear what the fuss is about.

On the surface, the music is no different from anything else you’ve heard recently: kinda jazz, kinda blues, kinda bluegrass, kinda old-time country — same old post-modern nostalgia.

But there’s an odd force, an unworldly clarity behind these songs that makes them something more. Then it hits you: There isn’t a single amplifier to be found, anywhere in the room, and even the singer performs sans microphone. Somehow, with that observation, the experience morphs from nearly alien into something pure, unaltered by even the slightest hint of electronic amplification. This is the way music used to be, you realize, and suddenly, all the stories your grandparents told you about how music (along with everything else) was better back in their day finally ring true. In fact, you may never listen to music the same way again. You move closer to the stage. The band seems to sense your wonderment, and smiles. Later, you find out that these conversions are so common they’ve had to invent a term for them.

They call it “getting spanked.”

The Asylum Street Spankers formed in 1994, the result of a wild weekend party attended by some of the best musicians ever to dwell in Austin, Texas. The party spawned plenty of music, but for lack of a single amplifier, the motley collection of players was forced to make do with just their instruments.

The result was more electric than anything they could ever have plugged in. Since that time, the Spankers have toured nearly nonstop, pausing just long enough to record four albums. Their roster has included, at various times, more than 30 members. But the two constants — vocalist/saw-player Christina Marrs and singer/washboard virtuoso Wammo — have managed to bring out the best in whoever plays with them.

Taking their name from a deserted street across from the University of Texas that once boasted not one but several state mental hospitals, the Spankers have since tried to redefine the word that defines them. Remove your mind from those nefarious avenues, please: To these cats, the term means “someone who can play an acoustic instrument both vigorously and proficiently,” and the practice of such “spanking” has gained the band a loyal following of fans, who have come to term themselves “Spankheads.” Naturally.

Trying to define the Spankers’ sound is harder. After much cajoling, Marrs, in a recent interview, came up with this: “I’d say … [it’s] kind of a hodgepodge of early American music genres.” But she adds: “[Describing our sound is] very difficult. I’ve been doing it for six years and I still don’t know how to [do] it.”

Coming out like a ’40s-era countrywestern band for one song and embodying the soul of ’20s jazz in the next; downsizing into the ultimate jug band — complete with washboard and musical saw — soon after, and then oozing an island vibe (where did that ukulele come from?) in the next musical breath, the band didn’t capture the Austin Music Awards’ “Best None of the Above” award for the last four years by accident.

The Spankers’ songs hit on such dubious subjects as UFO attacks by copulation-minded aliens; the virtues of wild, bawdy sex of whatever sort; and the joys of marijuana use. In fact, some of these lyrics would make even a hard-core music thug blush. Yet the Spankers are so persuasive that even the decidedly conservative rag Christian Woman Today acquiesced: “If one can look beyond the absolutely filthy subject matter and lyrics contained within Nasty Novelties [the Spankers’ second album], one may delight in the exemplary musicianship.”

Which leads us back to Marrs: “Well, I think, you know, the best part of [playing live] is that it kind of forces people to pay attention and listen,” she drawls, with a distinctive Texas twang. “We all know what it’s like to go to a music venue or a nightclub and hear the music, because it’s unavoidable and inevitable. … But it’s quite another thing to sit down and listen. People are paying attention to what’s going on, and it creates a little bit more interaction between the band and the audience.” But because of the limitations of acoustic music, the Spankers must choose their venues carefully, Marrs explains: “When you don’t use amplification, it’s a shock to club owners.”

The group’s last album, Spanker Madness (Spanks-a-Lot Records, 2000), is thematically laced with drugs, partially inspired by a recent trip to Amsterdam. Marrs says that “Spanker Madness was originally gonna be, you know, five or six songs, a kind of a little novelty record for our hard-core fans, and we had so much fun doing the first part of it that we went back and recorded a second half, and made it a full-length record.” And that’s a good thing, because even if you don’t care to inhale the one-track material, the musicianship alone makes for a stimulating listen.

Does it bother Marrs that other bands with similar musical ideologies — say, The Squirrel Nut Zippers — have embraced amplification?

“[Not] at all. It [just] makes it a little bit more difficult to get people to understand what you’re trying to do.”

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