To start with, rather than the cliché “Why a Christmas album?”, I’ll go with the cliché “Why a live Christmas album?”
For a number of reasons; obviously it’s a lot less expensive to record that way than having to go into the studio. Aside from that even, most of the Spankers’ recordings that we’ve released have been live recordings. There’s only been [recording] in the studio on two occasions, for Spanker Madness and for Hot Lunch. Even our first CD release, Spanks for the Memories, although it wasn’t recorded in front of a live audience, it was recorded essentially live around one microphone. We’re just real comfortable recording like that. So much of what the Spankers do is the live experience, and hopefully that comes across a little better in a live recording than it does in a studio recording.
You’re more comfortable in that setting than going into a studio and dealing with amplifiers and mikes and all that stuff?
It’s not that the studio intimidates us. It is wonderful to be able to go into that studio, especially we did do so many live recordings, to be able to take that time and overdub some vocals and get everything the way we want it, it’s a luxury that you don’t have when you’re recording live. I guess it’s just that we are comfortable recording live, and I don’t know how many bands are comfortable doing that, but for us it’s kind of old hat.
Why only the one original Wammo tune? Why not some more typical Spankers’ out-there sort of humor for the Christmas songs?
I don’t know. Maybe because it’s a slightly more reverent subject? I don’t know. It’s not something I would automatically think about—if someone told me I had to I could probably write a Christmas song, or a holiday song, but I just don’t think that the subject matter is something that inspired us to write a slew of Christmas songs. I don’t know if the world needs more Christmas songs! (laughs)
So when the idea to do the album, there was never really a question of, “Let’s write something original for it,” it was more “Let’s just pick our favorite tunes and do those”?
I don’t even know that it was ever really conscious. From my side, I was personally just concentrating on finding tunes in that genre that I liked to do. I like singing other people’s songs, you know? (laughs) I don’t have to write all my own songs and only perform those. Wammo’s been going through a lot of that in the last couple of years, where he doesn’t really like singing other people’s songs anymore, he wants to do all his own stuff. But I still say there’s a lot of fun to be had in taking a song that you know and breathing your own life into it. I really enjoy doing that.
Were there any songs that didn’t make it into the album or into the shows that you would like to do for the Christmas project?
There was a couple things that didn’t make it onto the record. We did a version of the Pogues’ “Christmas in New York.” There’s something about it, I think was just … it didn’t make it on the record. (laughs) I don’t know; I think part of it was we didn’t feel we were doing the song justice, and there was another glitch in that every live recording we had of it had something wrong with it, to the point, you know, that it just didn’t make it on.
I think we did a lot of cool songs, we found some other cool songs in the process that we didn’t end up recording for one reason or another. I think there was a song that we discovered and thought, “God, what a great song, this is so great, I can’t believe I haven’t heard anybody do it,” and then found out shortly afterward that the Squirrel Nut Zippers had, in fact, covered that song for their Christmas record. So we were like, “Well, you know, we don’t really need to follow that up.” So, you know, it’s a pretty natural process for finding tunes we like.
It’s pretty much the album you intended to do from the start?
Yeah, I think so. It’s just another theme record for us, and we’re pretty familiar with that.
To get back to songwriting: where I first came to notice you guys was with Hot Lunch, which I believe was all originals.
I think it’s got a couple covers on it, but it’s mostly originals, yeah. And Spanker Madness was the next record and that’s all original with the exception of one song, but that had been in the Spankers’ repertoire for many years so we kind of felt obligated to get it down. (laughs)
So, given that this band is so big, and so fluid in its membership, how do you “assign” the songwriting duties? Do you write when you know you have an album due, or do songs just accumulate?
It’s a little bit of everything, really. Wammo and I are the principle songwriters, and Stanley Smith and other people in the band in previous years also wrote, so we’ve always had a lot of songwriters in this band. The songwriting process I guess is unique to each individual and it’s also unique in each situation, how it comes into the band. When we recorded Spanker Madness we set out a goal of each person to write a couple of reefer tunes. When we had enough work to do an EP – originally we were going to do an EP – I think the subject was so inspirational to some of us (laughs) that we ended up with more songs. We said, “Well let’s make this a full-length record,” and I had to go back and write two more reefer tunes. So I ended up writing four and Wammo ended up writing three, and then Stanley wrote one and Korey [Simeone] wrote one and Guy [Forsyth] wrote a couple, so we did have a lot of input there.
We do write sometimes when we know we’re going into the studio and we have a purpose in mind. But a lot of times songs accumulate. We all live so spread-out that when we get together it’s usually at the start of a tour, and that’s the time when the new material gets worked up. “OK, I wrote a couple songs between this tour and the last one, we need to get ‘em going.” So it’s a little bit of everything really.
Does stuff ever come out of improvisation or stuff you just toss out at rehearsal?
Yeah, it certainly does. We’ve had songs that were entirely improv’ed. We have songs that we did on a lark and ended up being our most popular songs.
Was “Hot Lunch” one of those?
No, I think that was a piece that Leroy [Biller] and Eamonn [McLaughlin] – Leroy being our guitar player, and Eamonn being the violin player – they got together and specifically wrote that. And that’s just another example of someone in the band who’s not a singer, another collaboration. So there’s a lot of creativity in this band, there always has been, even as the members come and go.
We get our material from a lot of different inspirations, and it comes together in a lot of different ways. Wammo and I just wrote a song recently that—we joked about writing a country song, a ballad with the catchline “If you love me you’d sleep on the wet spot.” It was a running joke for a couple years, and I finally wrote it down to a melody and wrote the bridge, and then we got together and wrote a verse, and then I think six months later we got together and wrote another verse and a bridge (laughs), and it was just this evolving process where the song is finally ready.
Is it difficult to be in a band with, as you said, so many people that come and go? Are you and Wammo kind of “in charge” when all is said and done?
I guess what it comes down to is it’s not exactly a democracy, but as far as decisions about people coming into and leaving the band, we try to involve as much as input from other people in the band as we possibly can. At any given time in the Spankers, there’s Wammo and I, who’ve been here all along, we’re in our eighth year, and Stanley, who’s been with us almost since the very beginning. And then there might be someone in the band who’s only been with us for three months, or six months or a year. So you can’t really have a true democracy where you put everything to the vote when you have the varying levels of seniority. Certainly [with] major decisions I at least like to get input from the other people; these are the people that you have to work with, and we like to have kind of a feeling of family and for everybody to feel like they have some kind of say and involvement in what goes on.
I noticed that Pops Bayless isn’t on the Christmas record. Is he away for good?
Pops Bayless hasn’t been in the band for a couple years now. He was on Spanker Madness; he quit the band before we’d even mixed the few songs that we had. It was after he left that we decided to turn the EP into a full-length, so we had two different sessions for that record, and if you look at that record there’s two different bass players on it. (laughs) One did the first session and one did the second session, and I think each session produced five or six songs. We actually ended up cutting one of Pops Bayless’s songs because he quit in the middle of it all. It was the first time that the split from the band wasn’t the most amicable one (laughs), so we did cut one of the songs he’d written and sung on the album, and I think he does a banjo track here and there. Nothing real major, but his name is still credited on that record although he’s just playing a rhythm instrument or two on a couple tracks. Him and Mysterious John quit at the same time, and they have another band in Austin now called Shorty Long, and that’s what they’ve been doing for the last couple years.
I was thinking how remarkable it was that all of you not only share musical interests, but similar humor interests as well. It seemed to me that a sense of humor would be a must-have if you wanted to be in the Asylum Street Spankers, as well as being a good musician.
I think that’s certainly true. We always seem to find the right people, and I think it’s remarkable that we do; it seems like we always find just the right person. “This person’s a born Spanker; they were meant to do it.” It gives the band some solidity; we always seem to manage to recreate ourselves in our own image. At one point it was just Wammo and I left after five years of consistency in terms of the key personalities; we had quite a lot of changes in terms of bass players and we’ve had quite a few lead guitar players come and go, but for five years it was essentially the same front people. And at one point the whole band just fell apart, to the point that we were just assuming we were disbanding. It was just Wammo and I left; Stanley had even quit the band. But when Pops and John quit the band, Stanley came back on board, so Wammo and I kind of said well, we have Stanley, we have you and me, we’ve proven before that we can always find another bass player, we can always find another guitar player and a drummer, and there’s always gonna be the right people out there. It’s just a matter of finding them, and we’ve been really fortunate.
Do you tend to find them all within the Austin community?
We try to, but in the past couple years we have had to look outside of Austin, and even outside of the state. We have a guy in the band now who lives in New York and a guy who lives in Seattle. Our new guitar player, Mike Veteri, and I both live in Houston, and there’s only three members of the Spankers left in Austin.
I noticed that you guys are on Bloodshot now. Is that working out well?
So far it looks like it’s gonna be a really good thing for us. It’s just a distribution deal, so we still have to pay for our recording, but they pay for manufacturing, which is nice. We have our own record label, but we don’t have a ton of capital. Every time you put out an album you have to come up with 15 grand, 20 grand, [it] puts a strain on an operation like ours (laughs). We have to find that money somewhere. So that helps a lot. And mostly it’s just nice to know that your records are a lot more available to people who walk into a record store, and that’s really hard to do when you’re not on a major label or an indie label with good distribution. So that’s where the Bloodshot thing is really going to help us; it just helps get our music out there. Also they have a good reputation, so it turns people onto us that may not have known about us otherwise. I know that quite a few writers have contacted us that may never have before.
Your performances are famous for the no-amplifier, “music as God intended it.” Did that start by accident, or was that a dogmatic thing: “We will not have amplification!”?
The stories vary. (laughs) The legend has it that the PA was forgotten at the first gig, that the person who was supposed to bring the PA forgot, so we played anyway, and we said “Wow, this worked fine.” For me, the Spankers was my first band; I’d had possibly as little performing experience as you could have to be fortunate enough to step into something like this. So for me, using a mic/not using a mic, I was probably more comfortable as a singer not using a mic; I hadn’t done it a lot. So it was very natural for me.
I think for almost everyone else in the band who were working musicians at the time, it was a treat to get up there and not have to set up a PA, not have to deal with the sound guy, and not have to go through that extra three or four hours’ work that setting up and breaking down a PA system entails. So for them, that was just a novelty, like “Wow, this is great performing like this; we can all hear each other, it’s not too loud”. I think the bottom line is that, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s intentional or not, I can’t recall the discussion, if we ever had a discussion about PA or not; my role in the band at that point was … it wasn’t even something I would have thought of, a PA, you know? (laughs) So I don’t really know, but the legend has it that it was forgotten and it worked so well that we decided to make a habit of it. I think for our second gig we did bring a PA out, and it was kind of an experimental thing, and it was decided that, yes, definitely, we don’t want to use the PA.
Do you ever see yourself getting popular enough where you’d be playing bigger venues, and you would need to [play with a PA]?
Yeah, we do see that in our future. Obviously being able to play in front of more people or having large crowds at your show, I think that’s something every band strives for, and we have seen our audience grow quite a lot over the years. But on the other hand, the idea of having to compromise that in any way is kind of disappointing to us. There is just something so truly magical in the sound of wood and wire, not amplified in any way other than natural acoustics. It’s just a sound that people aren’t accustomed to hearing all the time, it’s a sound that instantly takes you back in time; it reminds you of a different time, even if you’re not old enough to remember it. It’s like hearing a player piano for the first time, or hearing Hank Williams played on a hand-cranked Victrola; that’s a sound that’s so completely unique, especially living in the time we do now, where for 50 years now, we’ve become so accustomed to hearing electric guitar everywhere, electric bass and all kinds of synthesized sounds, and it’s just a real treat to hear that actual sound of wood and vibrating strings that you just don’t get to hear. I think any time that you amplify that, it changes it, it distorts it somehow.
We’ve been experimenting with very ambient amplification, kind of like bluegrass bands would do, where you have sparse mics set up, and [it’s] just a matter of placing yourself a little closer to the mic if you’re soloing or singing or whatever. And that’s worked real well for us: I think that’s a technique that allows you to be louder and still sound like an acoustic band. We did a very sparse mic setup at Rosskilde Festival; that was in front of about 5,000 people, and I think we used four or five microphones for an 8-piece band. That’s pretty great; that’s a lot better than having every single vocal and instrument close-miked. You get into that kind of situation with us, you’re looking at 12 mics, you know. And that’s just too much. (laughs)
Does it affect the performance at all, if you know you have to play amplified?
It does if the mic placement is such that we’re not free to move around. For me especially; to be able to hold an instrument like a ukelele or a banjo or some smaller instrument precisely where it’s going to be picked up by the mic, and singing at the same time, it means you can’t turn your head and look at the person sitting next to you or have any kind of interplay with them, because you have to think about staying on the mic. It’s kind of restrictive, kind of like being bound to one spot, and that’s so not what the Spankers are about. But with the ambient miking, it’s just like playing the way we normally do; we don’t have any kind of mic interference, so it works out well. There are some great omnidirectional microphones out there, so it’s not that difficult to do. Obviously we can’t stand up there and say we’re an all-acoustic band without any amplification if we have some amplification. I don’t think you can expect people to be absolutely quiet. Once they see those microphones, the spell is broken a little bit. It doesn’t seem to hurt us; we can still play in front of 5,000 people amplified and still have ‘em like us. It’s not quite as intimate, but it still works.
Tell me how you started to play the musical saw.
We had someone come to one of our [gigs] in Austin years and years ago, when Olivier [Giraud] was still in the band; he was one of our guitar players in the early years, [and] also a guitar player for 8 1/2 Souvenirs, a great, great Austin band for many years, a really amazing band. But he did the Souvenirs and the Spankers simultaneously for a few years. And we had this guest come, he said he played the musical saw so we let him sit in with us. Well … he was definitely making noise on it, but he wasn’t really playing it. I’d never heard a musical saw at that point, so I didn’t realize at that point you could actually play distinguishable melodies on one; I thought that’s just what you did with a saw.
Well, Oliviet saw this guy do that, and he said, “I can do that!” So he goes and buys a saw, and within a few weeks he was playing some really amazing stuff on it. I thought, “God, that’s just so amazing.” I picked it up once, I couldn’t get it to even make a screech; it looked like the most impossible thing in the world. Guy Forsyth went and bought himself a saw, so then at one point we had two saw players in the band; Guy started playing around with it. They both quit the band at around the same time, Guy and Olivier, and for a while we didn’t have a saw player and I thought, “This isn’t right; we’ve gotta have a saw player!”. (laughs) You get used to it, you know? When these guys left I tried to encourage Pops Bayless and I tried to encourage Wammo, “Somebody please learn how to play the saw.” Nobody ever did, so that’s when I said OK, well, I’ll give it a shot. And I did, I’m really glad that I did; I sure enjoy it. It’s not like we use it a lot, I may play saw once during the whole show, but it’s still nice to pull it out.
What’s the most important thing that you need to know if you’re going to play the saw?
It’s basically the same principle as shortening or lengthening a string on an instrument. The shorter the string, the more tension on it, the higher the note’s going to be, and the same applies to the saw. If you look at that blade as a string, the more curve you have in it, the more tension you’re putting on it, you’re effectively shortening it. So the more curve, the higher the note; the less curve, the lower the note. Most important I guess: the saw is not a very precise instrument. (laughs) It doesn’t have frets or keys or anything, so it’s all just playing by ear, and it’s real easy to make a mistake. (laughs more)
So be fearless, I guess.