The Asylum Street Spankers are incredibly difficult to classify, even for the members of the Austin-based band. The problem, of course, lies with the Spankers themselves, a group that's everything and nothing at once. It's a bluesy, jazzy, folky, even nostalgic outfit; it's also none of those things. The contradictions and confusion often lead people to lump the Spankers in a seeming catch-all category: swing band.
Just make sure you duck if you ever call the Spankers that in person.
"When people call us a swing band, that's what makes me cringe the most," says Christina Marrs, singer and ukulele player. "We've taken great pains to let people know that we are not a swing band. Because if we were, we probably wouldn't be playing much anymore."
The Asylum Street Spankers
McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk
Perform two shows on Friday, December 15 (713)528-5999
The fact is, the Spankers are playing as much as ever, particularly away from Austin, where the band spent its early years as a club phenomenon. But wherever it plays, the group does indeed swing. It just happens to do other things, too. (When you think about it, actually, the best music always defies a simple description.)
"I still, after all this time, have a hard time describing the Spankers," says Marrs, one of the two original members of the act through which some 30 members have filtered since its founding in the mid-'90s. "When you tell somebody, "Oh, well, we do old music styles,' they think we're some nostalgia band. You just really never know what to say. Well, we're not a blues band, but we do some blues. We're not a swing band, but we do some swing. And we're not a country band, but we do some country. Then you tell people you're an acoustic band, and it conjures up images of the fool-on-the-stool thing. So it's kind of hard."
It's especially hard when the Spankers weren't formed as a band, per se. The group started almost seven years ago as a weekly meeting among friends, centered around Marrs, neo-bluesman Guy Forsyth, singer/ actor/ukulele player Pops Bayless and slam poet/spoken-word artist/musician Wammo. They played acoustic instruments only, with no amps or PA system and with a rhythm section of an upright bass and a snare drum, all of which persuaded, if not forced, audiences to listen. The music was originally just old songs they wanted to play, the audience be damned. The band's moniker was a hybrid: Asylum Street was the former name of Guadalupe Street, which ran in front of the Austin Outhouse, a now-defunct dive bar where the Spankers got their start. It was located just a few blocks south of the Austin State (mental) Hospital. The Spankers tag was a natural, the outgrowth of a racy service the musicians provided for audience members: a paddling on their birthdays.
It somehow seems fitting that Marrs's favorite description of the Spankers is "inspired lunatic brilliance." Not only does it fit, but since it eschews mentioning music, the quote also doesn't toss the group into any stylistic bin(s). And as a bonus, it appeared in Rolling Stone.
Soon after forming, the Spankers started attracting key members, like carny barker and singer Mysterious John, jazz clarinetist Stanley Smith (still a Spanker) and guitarist Olivier Giraud of the Austin Euro-swing band 8 1/2 Souvenirs. Fiddle and Dobro later were added to the acoustic guitars and ukuleles. The group's neo-vaudevillian approach -- passing around the lead vocals, playing a variety of styles and hybrids, hamming it up on stage -- caught on with Austin music fans. Within a year or so, the band landed three regular and well-attended (read: well-paying) weekly gigs. What had started as a lark -- and had grown into a side project for members like Forsyth and Giraud -- became a legitimate vehicle for Spankers like Marrs to make a living. Large audiences would gather in hushed silence to appreciate musicians playing without, as they would tout at the start of every set, "demon electricity."
The Spankers have issued four albums now, the latest, Spanker Madness, being the group's speakeasy statement for the new prohibition era of "zero tolerance" and "just say no." The CDs have been a mixed blessing for the members; the discs have expanded the band's appeal outside of Austin, which in turn has forced the part-time Spankers, the ones with their own bands, to sever ties. As with any group so large and diverse, musicians have come and gone with alarming regularity, the excuses ranging from personal ambition to intragroup conflicts. The old songs now have been augmented with originals, giving the Spankers a rich repertory.
The Asylum Street Spankers of today are not the group one might have seen five years ago, or even two years ago. Yet there's a spiritual thread that unites all the lineups (11 people at its largest, eight at its optimum, seven currently). "We've accumulated a lot of members over the years," admits Marrs, who shares "original member" status in the group with Wammo. "People sit in with us, and it's like, "Oh, you've got to be in the band.' "
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At one time the Spankers were something of a Best of Austin revue, drawing members from the blues, swing, country, rock, jazz and even theater worlds. Now that the Spankers are primarily a road band and play Austin only a few times a year, the current lineup includes (gasp!) one New Yorker and an import from Los Angeles. "Through all the changes, we seem to keep re-creating ourselves in our own image," Marrs insists.
What's more, the Spankers still manage to surprise the many folks who haven't heard them. "We still have that effect on people. As we tour around the country, we still hit new audiences and new markets. And it's just like being at one of the first Spankers shows in Austin, where all you see is these people, their mouths gaping, just stunned by what they are seeing," Marrs notes.
"I guess a lot of that is the all-acoustic aspect of the band, and the fact that we're not miked up. And I guess when people sit down and actually watch a band, they get a lot more than when they are sitting around talking and a band is playing in the background."
The Spankers certainly reward the careful listener. There's a lot going on inside and around the band's sound, so much so that Marrs continues to be stymied by the process of telling people what the group is all about. "You don't want to describe it in a way that makes people think it's real hokum or just this nostalgia band," she says. "So it ends up in these long-winded descriptions. Well, we do old musical styles, but we bend them to our will. We do old songs, but we do some new songs. We're all acoustic, and we don't have any amplification. So it is a hard band to describe. So I just say, 'None of the above.' "