The Asylum Street Spankers' van was heading west somewhere between Phoenix and Flagstaff when I rang Christina Marrs, the band's saw player (and vocalist, tenor guitarist, banjo and uke player) on her cell.
We began with talk about Asylum Street, a thoroughfare in Austin Texas. "It's the street that goes by the asylum. They call it the state hospital now, and they call Asylum St. Guadalupe or The Drag. But if you look at an old map of Austin, you see the asylum way out on the outskirts of town and one little road that goes out to it. Now of course, it's quite central.
And in the beginning, you and Wammo would busk on that street?
Well, yes, but we'd take a whole 10-piece band out and busk.
That was a long time ago...
Almost 14 years ago.
So the whole group would play in the street?
We were all acoustic, so we could take our instruments with us where we wanted. We didn't need any amplification. We could play anywhere. If the electricity went out, we could play in the middle of a storm. We didn't use any kind of amplification for 10 years. Of course we played a lot of places besides playing on the street too.
Was it always this sort of neo-jug band vaudeville thing?
But your own songs...
When we started out we did a lot more covers, old country blues, jug band tunes, that kind of thing. Original songs started getting added to the repertoire, but we still do old tunes along with our own. Our records tend to be mostly original, but the live shows include older stuff and even more recent stuff that isn't ours.
As I asked my next question, the van's talking GPS system broke in offering directions to some place they'd picked out for a late breakfast. Christina shifted into co-pilot mode. After a brief discussion of what happened when the band last toured Europe and did not order the proper GPS chip on time, we resumed our interview.
What was the thing you were doing off-Broadway in New York?
It was kind of a musical review. It was like our regular show, but with lighting cues and some scripted dialogue. Some kits, humorous commentary on the life of a touring musician, the less glamorous side if the life.
And what is that?
The things people don't think about, the countless hours spent in the van. Utter boredom. It's like a tiger cage. It's like jail, the company's lousy and the food sucks. All there is to do is read and sleep.
I talked to Dave Alvin once about touring. He sees the time spent playing music as a pleasure -- the job part is what's in between: getting to the shows, schlepping gear, staying in motels.
That's definitely work. The fun part is what people get to see. They get to see us on stage, playing the music we love, enjoying ourselves. That's the fun part and that only lasts...
At this point Christina started laughing uncontrollably...
Look at those chickens running across the road. Why? Why? Why? They're running across the road, there's three of them. Oh my God.
Everyone in the van seems to be in stitches.
Now there's the joy in life on the road.
Right, right, the utter insanity of it. But yeah, that is the work part. And people don't see the drudgery, the mundane day-in-day-out bullshit you have to deal with.
People don't realize that a chicken crossing a road could be the highlight of your day.
Three of them! But why?!
That's a good question.
One that people have been trying to answer for millennia.
When I visited your website I was immediately drawn to your YouTube of the Yellow Ribbon song. (A parody update of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" that suggests you " slap a magnetic ribbon on your SUV .") Is that the current political side of the Spankers?
We actually haven't been doing that song for the last year or so. It was a very topical song, and while I know we're still involved in a war, and people still strut in their vehicles, they don't put ribbons on them so much any more. I'm sitting in traffic right now and I don't see any. You still see a random ribbon here and there, but not so much. There are still people who still want to hear that song, but I think it's had its day.
Do you regularly keep on top of the news with that sort of topical material?
You know the political stuff is not really a huge part of our repertoire. They're kind of few and far between really.
Thinking back, my introduction to your music was through a CD called Spanker Madness that mostly focused on pot and the war on drugs. Do you see that as political?
I don't know. There were a couple of tunes dealing with the illegality of marijuana. You can't really do a whole record of songs about marijuana and not touch on the fact that it's frowned upon. On the flip side, it's become this mundane part of American life. Everybody knows about marijuana. Everybody knows someone who smokes it. They joke about it in TV comedies and in every media form really. I opened up
magazine once and they had one of their little graph charts showing what percentage of the population uses different types of drugs. Cocaine was such-and-such percent. Heroin was such-and-such percent. Under marijuana it said, 'everyone.' It was tongue-in-cheek, but you know it was
magazine. It's become a common shared theme of modern life. People know about weed and most people are pretty accepting about it.
But as far as the Spankers being political, it only happens when the opportunity arises to he humorous about it, to have fun with it and make fun of the situation, that's really the only time we're ever going to get very political. With our crowd and our demographic, it's just preaching to the choir. And I personally don't like political music that lectures you.
What do you see as your crowd and your demographic?
Oh, I'd say the average age is probably about 35, but that spans a lot. We like to say we have both kinds of blue hair at our shows. But it's probably people who are a bit more liberal, left of center.
Well, you'll fit right in in Arcata.
I'm sure we will. We love Arcata.
Our conversation drifted through a few more topics, including talk of the next Spankers' album, a live double disc thing drawn from their off-Broadway run, but nothing else earth-shattering. So we'll end here with a reminder that you that you can spend April Fool's evening with the Spankers at Humboldt Brews. See you there...