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More monkey business from the Spankers

Wammo formed the Asylum Street Spankers with fellow singer and multi-instrumentalist Christina Marrs in Austin in 1994. The group performs Sunday at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale. (Contributed photo)
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CARBONDALE The Asylum Street Spankers have an extremely well-developed inner child. The Austin, Texas, ensemble routinely displays a disregard for the musical rules that more mature acts generally obey.For instance, their sound, rooted in pre-World War II swing, mixes in bits of ’70s-era metal. And like a lot of young ‘uns, they have a thing for monkeys; their official logo of a monkey appears all over, including on the cover of their latest CD. In addition, the band’s 2002 CD, “My Favorite Record,” opens with “Monkey Rag.” And the Spankers love the kind of naughty joke that goes over great with kids. (Consider the acronym of the band name – probably not a coincidence.)Which doesn’t mean you’d want little Johnny listening to the Asylum Street Spankers, who appear Sunday in Carbondale. The band tends to take their naughty-9-year-old sense of humor, and apply it to adult themes. “Whatever,” from “My Favorite Record,” purports to be about social activism and high-minded philosophy – but there’s a twist: “We can discuss Camus/ Whatever I can do/ To get in bed with you.” Parts of “Wammo’s Blues,” also from “My Favorite Record,” would probably just confuse a kid: “I’ll make you smoke the majesty of my impending mullet.” “D.R.I.N.K.,” from the 2004 CD “Mercurial” makes the case that the key to a healthy – or, at least, bearable – existence is booze.As for the 2002 EP “Dirty Ditties” – well, a parent would risk jail just letting his child see the song titles. “The Scrotum Song,” “Two on One” and “If You Love Me (You’ll Sleep on the Wet Spot”) are the ones that can be printed here; the other is forbidden by written corporate policy.Not surprising, then, that the Spankers’ first kids’ CD, “Mommy Says NO!” is not your standard children’s singalong record. In fact, if you didn’t look at the song names, it might take a few listens before you even realize it was meant for kids. (Asked what distinguishes a Spankers’ children’s album from the band’s adult-oriented material, Wammo, the band’s co-founder, said, “It doesn’t have the word ‘c__ksucker’ in it.”)The 45-year-old Wammo says the idea of making a children’s album would never have occurred to him. “Mommy Says NO!” he explains, originated with the band’s manager. Wammo took it as a challenge – “The Spankers can do any kind of record we want – we’re a great band,” he boasted. And the most important part of that challenge was to make a record that wouldn’t cause parents to threaten their kids with a timeout when they begged to hear their favorite song for the thousandth time.”Most music for children is really mundane, and panders to their innocence and has nothing that has anything to do with the real world in it,” said Wammo by phone. “We decided we weren’t going to talk down to kids.

“We designed the record like they did the old Looney Tunes cartoons, with jokes for adults and kids going on simultaneously. Parents have to deal with their kids playing the same song over and over. We wanted to give the parents a break.”At the same time, Wammo – and the rest of the core of the Spankers, which includes singer and multi-instrumentalist Christina Marrs, and singer-violinist Sick – recognized the necessity of including the elements that appeal to kids. “Kids are a tough audience. It’s hard to keep their attention,” said Wammo. So there are topics that relate to the children’s universe: lunch boxes and bicycles, boogers and superheroes. On the other hand, the music pulls few punches from the band’s usual revved-up combination of offhandedness and sophistication.”Mommy Says NO!” seems likely to appease both of its intended audiences. “You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox,” a sly number about covert romantic motives, is a hard blues, broken up by a silly rap about bologna and rubber baby-buggy bumpers that veers to the edge of four-letter words. “Training Wheel Rag” is a young bikers’ lament, spiced up by some hot violin by Sick. The title track captures the inner punk of a 4-year-old: “All I want to do is go outside and play/ … Want to eat ice cream and candy all day/ But Mommy says, ‘No!'” “Boogers,” with Wammo slipping into crooner mode, is pure musical comedy, using word play and gross-out imagery for the kids (and references to Bob Dylan and Quiet Riot for the adults).The CD is hardly all humor; the songs also address kids’ fantasies, realities and anxieties. It concludes with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” The relatively gentle take – a lullaby by Spankers’ standards – is an odd combination of comfort and bad advice: Who wants to tell his child to focus on what’s bothering him?”It’s about being a kid – playing, superheroes, boogers,” said Wammo. “The problems of being a kid, what kids face.”Wammo doesn’t have kids, though he notes that Marrs has two. Still, there is plenty of the kid – funny, obnoxious, sly and uncooperative – in him.”I never let go of my inner child,” says Wammo, who, in our conversation, was alternately surly and insightful. “We are a playful and irreverent band, for sure.”

Those qualities have already earned the Asylum Street Spankers a kiddie following. Wammo said that there are often a number of kids at their shows, at least those who have, in his eyes, “cool parents.” “And as long as they don’t mind adult themes and adult language, it’s fun,” he said, adding that the Spankers have been doing some kids-oriented shows since starting to record “Mommy Says NO!” “There are no bad words, only bad intentions.” Growing up in New York, Wammo didn’t know much from kids’ music. His father was an opera singer – lead baritone at the Metropolitan Opera from 1962-80 – who exposed his children to classical sounds. Wammo’s older sister was a ’60s teenybopper, who turned little Wammo on to classic rock – “The Beatles were gods for me,” he says – as well as fluffier pop. His first record was a greatest hits collection from Sly & the Family Stone. At 8, instead of being soothed by Rafi, he was terrified by the duo of Plant & Page.”My sister gave me a 45 of [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ And it scared the shit out of me,” he said. “I asked the next day, ‘What’s wrong with that woman? She sounds like she’s in pain.'”In the late ’60s, Wammo’s family left New York for San Antonio, and the 9-year-old Wammo’s musical world exploded. San Antonio, he soon found out, was “the metal capital of the world.” By his early teens, Wammo had traded in his dad’s classical and his sister’s classic rock for harder sounds. In ninth grade, he listened to nothing but Black Sabbath, with a slight sprinkling of Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin for variety. At 16, he began fronting metal bands that covered the songs of AC/DC, Steppenwolf and Van Halen. In the late ’70s, he embraced the then-current form of young person’s protest music, punk.At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Wammo made another turn, and listened to ’80s New Wave – B-52s, the Pretenders and Talking Heads – as well as the relatively advanced form of punk played by Southern California’s Black Flag. At TCU, he drifted to the college radio station, which specialized in a limp form of jazz represented by Chuck Mangione and George Winston. Not surprisingly, the sounds he was made to broadcast didn’t win him over.”It didn’t have enough edge for me,” he said. “So I explored the jazz library, and discovered Miles and Mingus and Monk and Art Blakey. Going backwards, I got to Fats Waller.” In Waller, an early 20th century pianist with a hefty dose of comedy in his performance, Wammo heard a kindred spirit. “That changed my perspective – that playing music could be so playful and creative and fun. That guy had all that.”



But Wammo wasn’t ready to steer his playing in that direction. Upon moving to Austin, in the mid-’80s, Wammo founded his first band that played original material – Oboyo, a ska-thrash-punk band. He then moved on to industrial music – “raw, beating on metal stuff” – before he joined the rock band Poi Dog Pondering as a member of the touring group. When he returned to his own music, he formed W.O.R.M. – for Wammo’s Organic Rubber Machine – which he describes as “really loud, like an alternative band.”It was the volume as much as the aging and the resulting refinement in taste that led Wammo to change gears radically. “My ears were starting to go,” he said. “I got the idea to put together a jug band.” After meeting Marrs at a drink-and-drug-filled party in 1994, the two formed a group to play free gigs and busk on the streets of Austin. Within a year, the Asylum Street Spankers and their crazed, anything goes take on swing and Dixieland had become a hot item in the thriving musical scene of Austin. The Spankers have since released a handful of albums and DVDs.”It was the side project that snowballed into this monster that has me in Boise, Idaho, at the moment,” said Wammo, who also released the 2005 solo CD “Lowriders on the Storm,” a bizarro take on classic guitar rock.One of the few forms of music Wammo has not become acquainted with was kids’ music. Prior to making “Mommy Says NO!” he purposefully stayed away from other children’s CDs.”We specifically wanted to do something all our own,” he said.The Asylum Street Spankers perform at 7:30 p.m. at the Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale. Tickets are $20, available at Sounds Easy in Carbondale and from KDNK; call 963-0139 to reserve tickets.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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