March 24, 2005
by BOB DORAN
A GOOD CROWD TURNED OUT ON A Saturday evening to hear The Mammals play at The Other Side, a nightspot in Missoula, Mont., that the band's guitarist and banjo player Tao Rodriguez-Seeger describes as a "rootsy rock club."
While the lineup, including fiddle, banjos, guitars and a semi-acoustic stand-up bass, suggest an old time string band, The Mammals inject a modern sensibility shifting them toward neo-old timey. How do they fit into a rock club? "We are possibly the loudest folk band you've ever heard," said Tao, in a phone call from Missoula, "either that or we're turning into a rock band. Our material doesn't change, we just play it a bit differently, approach it from a rock `n' roll standpoint."
Tao's bandmate Mike Merenda, who also plays banjo at times, says he does not really see The Mammals as a band pushing the folk envelope. "People say we break boundaries or that we push the boundaries. I don't think there are boundaries, really. We're a folk amalgamation, and we revel in that we can't be pinned down to one genre."
As the grandson of folk icon Pete Seeger, it might seem a given that Tao would take up music. "I moved to Nicaragua when I was 7 and I didn't really play music there, but I guess it was always a part of my life because people in my family played music all of the time," he said. "I started playing full-time with my grandpa when I was around 16, but I never really said to people that I was a musician. [But] at a certain point you just have to stop kidding yourself. Music was the only thing that really made sense."
Meeting Mike and reconnecting with fiddler Ruth Unger proved to be a turning point for Tao. "Ruth and I kind of grew up together," he noted. "We didn't really know each other, but we grew up in the same circles, mostly the Hudson Valley folk festival scene," near Woodstock, N.Y., where Ruth's father, Jay Unger, and mother, Lyn Hardy, were prominent folkies. We finally got together through Michael.
"I met Mike when he was working in a music store in Amherst, Mass. I came in looking for a specific set of strings and we got to talking. The boss wasn't around so we sat down and pulled some nice guitars off the wall, shared some tunes with each other."
Mike came from an indie rock background. "I played drums and I was in sort of loud bands growing up, but on the side I was tinkering with an acoustic guitar, writing my own songs," he said.
Tao and Mike's meeting at the music store resulted in an invitation to a party at Tao's. "I told him to bring some instruments and he asked if he could bring his girlfriend, I said sure, not knowing that he and Ruth were a couple," Tao recalled. "The people at the party gathered around, paying attention to what we were doing. We figured, why not charge admission next time? It all came about fairly organically."
After a time, including a period when they had twin fiddles, The Mammals evolved into a quintet with bass and drums. As Tao points out, old time string bands did not have drummers. "Back in the day they weren't able to make the fiddles, guitars and banjos loud enough to compete against the drum kit. The thing that allows us to do it is technology."
So is it 21st-century string band music? "We like to call it `all time music' or `new time music' instead of old time music. Someone recently called us a subversive rebel string band, I thought that was kind of cool."
While many musicians eschew politics, Tao comes from a family that takes a stands on issues as a matter of course. And there's a definite political edge in the whole band's songwriting. Their latest album, Rock That Babe, includes a song by Mike lambasting "The Bush Boys," and Ruth's "Bad Shoe Blues" touches on globalization alongside a laundry list of issues.
"Artists are dangerous people, and the establishment understands that and fears them because they speak truth to people who need to hear it," said Tao. "If you are not expressing some kind of social concern, you're not being particularly honest. If we were to pretend that everything in hunky-dory and there's nothing wrong, and we just wrote happy little songs that don't mean much, I don't think we'd be true to our roles as artists or to our own urges to express what we see going on around us.
"But you have to be careful: Every single song in a night cannot be heavily political, because that gets pretty old. I once jokingly asked my grandpa, `How many songs in a night have to be heavy hitters?' He says, `Well, ideally it should be just one, one really good one.' One really good song can change someone's life forever."
The Humboldt Folklife Society presents The Mammals in concert Tuesday, March 29, at the Bayside Grange. Doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 7:30 with local "groovegrazz" band, Absynth Quintet. Tickets are $12, $8 for students, $10 for HFS members. For more information, go to www.humboldtfolklife.org or call 822-5394. For more on The Mammals, go to www.themammals.net.
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