“You don’t know what Waffle House is?!?!,” asks an incredulous Wammo, leader and co-lead vocalist of the calamitous all-acoustic Austin ensemble the Asylum Street Spankers.
“It’s basically the IHOP of the South,” he explains. “We have one song that has a joke about Waffle House, and sometimes that joke doesn’t fly in the North. That’s pretty much the only one that’s localized that people don’t get all over the country.”
If you’ve never heard the Spankers before, two things immediately strike you about their work: the raunch of their sense of humor — which at first might seem just plain lascivious, until you tune into its underlying daring and wit — and the authenticity with which they recreate various classic forms of roots music. The band, which also includes fellow mainstay Christina Marrs and an ever-changing lineup of band mates, is also masterful at re-casting modern songs in a sort of reverse-reincarnated form. Imagine, for example, what the raw intelligence of Black Flag’s “TV Party” or, say, the Beastie Boys’ bone-headed teenage-nihilist anthem “Paul Revere” might sound like after having been sent back in a time machine and filtered through the rural America of the late 19th and early 20th century, and you’ve got the picture.
Well … almost. It must also be said that, on both their original material and covers, the Spankers nullify the distinction between parody and tribute. It’s an ability worthy of high honors: How many bands can you think of who can successfully elicit laughs spoofing many different styles, yet also capture their essence — and even convey a high measure of respect for those styles as inspiring art forms to be valued and preserved? Throw in brazenly irreverent lyrics, cutting social criticism, a keen eye for pop culture, and an audacious live show (which Wammo insists audiences stay hushed for) and you’ve got one hell of a new mix.
“I think we walk the tightrope very well,” Wammo says. “I don’t think we push away any traditionalists, nor do we upset anyone who’s non-traditional. It’s very, very rare that we get a complaint about our lyrics.”
Arguably, that’s because, though he is widely celebrated in the press for openly hailing the virtues of sex, drugs, general debauchery, and — let’s not forget — beer (in a fixation that nearly rivals that of the Replacements and Guided By Voices), Wammo comes across as more than just another shock-jockey intent on ruffling feathers because he can. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same man who pens lyrics such as “Bang your head in a fury/ wring your hands in fear/ take your big vacation/ wish you were beer/ like the president with a bong/ like diamond in a goat’s butt/ like a girl scout on a Harley/ like a superhero on the john/ like a Steinway in a Dumpster/ I’ll sing you my whiskey love song” readily reveals his analytical side in conversation.
Wammo says that social commentary has “pretty much always” come easy for him. Asked to discuss what has him riled up lately, he answers soberly: “Most [high-profile] people are afraid to discuss their views about what’s going on in our country in the media. Most people are afraid to say we’re in a stupid war and we should get out of it. And that the behavior of our government has been abhorrent. I’m not a real celebrity. I don’t have that much power. I don’t have that much of a media voice — but there are people who are, and have media voices, and I don’t hear them doing s••t.”
On the other hand, can Wammo find any silver lining?
“Ooh, that’s a tough question,” he answers, taking a moment to give it some thought. “It’s so funny — like most people realize, it’s so much easier to point out the negative than the positive. … I still think America’s a beautiful place. It’s incredibly diverse. It’s a [culturally] rich country. And we have the ability to make this world a better place if we just wanted to. I’d love to see that happen.”
One thing that doesn’t seem to agitate Wammo much at all is the Spankers’ revolving-door personnel situation, which he’s often stated was never intentional, but which he and Marrs resigned themselves to years ago. He also stresses that most departures from the band have occurred amicably.
But surely it must be difficult to rehearse new lineups all the time?
“Actually,” he says, “it’s nice, too. … Because, like, you’ll lose a guy who plays banjo, and you’ll find a guy who plays clarinet. So suddenly you’ve got this whole different voice in the band. Or vice-versa. We had a clarinet player and then we switched to a piano player. And then the piano player quit and a guy who played banjo/mandolin showed up. The next guy might play slide guitar. You just never know.”
So the question remains: After 10-plus years, why haven’t the Spankers managed to hold down a steady lineup?
“Not everybody can do this job,” Wammo answers earnestly. “We’re an independent band that travels all over the world, and we pay for it ourselves. And we don’t make a lot of money. And we play little, tiny, crappy clubs all over the place. So it’s not like anybody’s getting rich off this. It’s a lot of hard hours, a lot of riding in the van, setting up your own gear and lugging your own stuff around and sleepin’ in people’s houses and crappy hotels and staying away from your loved ones.”
What keeps Wammo’s resolve going strong, then — a sense of mission to spread Waffle House-consciousness across the globe?
“You know,” he answers in a fit of laughter, “we don’t even eat at the f•••in’ place. So I’m not really on a real Waffle House trip to make sure that they are well-recognized.” Still laughing, he notes, “We don’t have any corporate sponsors.”
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
The Asylum Street Spankers play the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Wednesday, Dec. 14. 9 p.m. $10. 232-5800.