THE ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS
Wammo is at the lower left
An Highly Subjective Appreciation, Part 2
by Michael Layne Heath
2. Wammo Speaks!
Originally this was to be a sort of potted oral history of the Spankers; however, reaching out to some of the principal members online came to naught. Except for Wammo.
So, seeing how he had been my gateway into the world of the Spankers, I took the chance to pick his brain, however briefly, about the band and life after the group's implosion.
The artist known as Wammo has moved on in more ways than one. Now a family man with a wife and young daughter, he resides in suburban Pittsburgh, PA., far from the artistic and literal hotbed of Austin. All told, it was pretty gratifying to discover that, with all the changes, he still remains a most creatively driven dude.
"You're taping this? Oh, you're taking notes. Cool. You know, journalists have gotten what we say very wrong sometimes. Once we did this interview where Christina [Marrs] said 'we don't want to sound like a Smithsonian recording.' And when the article came out, it read, 'like a Smithsonian accordion!' And we didn't even have an accordion player in the group!"
One fine Saturday afternoon in 2014, after several false starts due to cellphone wonkiness on both our parts, Wammo and I are having a trans-continental chat. We begin at the beginning.
"The Spankers got started when my friend Guy Forsyth and I were sitting around one night, complaining about how loud our respective bands were. So we thought, 'why not go the other way and start a jug band?' So Guy pulls out all these CD's of old 'hokum jazz,' blues and jug band music that he had kept in a bookcase. We're listening to them and I ask Guy, 'You got any Washboard Sam records?' and he says, 'No, but I got a washboard!' At the time I couldn't afford thimbles for it, so instead I ended up glueing pennies to the fingertips of these cheap gardening gloves. I played the washboard to Guy over the phone and he said, 'that's it! that's the sound!'
"Guy then gave me a 60-minute cassette tape of all this old music, which I proceeded to copy to a 90-minute tape, adding a half-hour more material on my own, then gave copies out to people I thought would want to be in the band and play these songs. These ended up being people like this local Austin guitar player we knew named Snakeboy [now sadly deceased], but also people like [ukelele player] Pops Bayless, and Christina Marrs [whom Forsyth had already met, while busking outside a coffee shop where Christina worked]. That became the original Spankers."
When asked if he looks back with any surprise or amazement that the Spankers lasted as long as they did, considering their inauspicious beginnings, Wammo says, "That we lasted as long as we did isn't much of a surprise to me, really. I think our longevity as a group, that the Spankers did last for 17 years, was ultimately due to our tenacity. Being very tenacious about continuing this indie, grassroots music scene we had created for ourselves.
“If anything, the band breaking up was more of a surprise." Four years on, it still appears to be a sensitive issue for Wammo, who only allows that "I had no say in it. Just an email one day saying 'the band's breaking up'."
Similarly, I ask if he felt the Spankers, despite the consistently solid chops of its many lineups and range of musical styles covered, weren't taken as seriously as they should have, due to the novelty aspect of their more popular tunes.
"Not really. I think we struck a good balance between the incredible musicianship and the variety of our songwriting styles. It's just that some people thought of us as a funny band from our appearances on The Bob and Tom Show. Before the FCC crackdown after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl appearance, we were that show's #1 requested band.
"But we always had very serious songs too, even on the kids' record" - meaning the Spankers' Mommy Says No! disc from 2007, which swings wildly and enjoyably between the energetic title track (described by its composer Wammo as 'Baby's first Hardcore Punk song'), poignant originals like Christina Marrs' "Sidekick" and a sweet cover of Nilsson's "Think About Your Troubles."
In the Spankers' travels around the country and the globe, among their favorite places to play, Wammo includes New York City (where the group enjoyed a brief 2008 off-Broadway run with their revue What? And Give Up Showbiz?), Houston, Rochester, Boulder and my own San Francisco.
He also singled out Dayton, Ohio ("always fun - I'd throw up the devil-horn hand sign and yell 'DAAAYTON!'"), Tokyo ("we always rocked them"), and the "very kind" Pacific Northwest as being prime Spankers tour stops.
As to his involvement in the nascent Poetry Slam movement, during which he was a two-time National Slam finalist, Wammo recalls: "There was a great synchronicity at work. We started the Spankers in April '94, and by July I was doing Lollapalooza, which meant I was gone for a long time, traveling from New Orleans to the West Coast."
Wammo's Lollapalooza adventure would later inspire "Salty," an fuzztone-soaked mashnote to fellow tourmate Kim Deal which eventually turned up on Fat Headed Stranger, his 1996 debut music/poetry disc for NYC spoken-word label Mouth Almighty.
"When the tour got to New York City, I literally kicked in the front door to the Mouth Almighty offices, and said, 'You got my demo? I want a record deal!'" By the time of 2002's radio-dial-surfing themed followup Faster Than The Speed Of Suck, however, working with Mouth Almighty had become "a frustrating experience... a person in charge at the label was constantly trying to edit and rewrite my material. He even went so far as to try and put his own voice on my record!"
Asking him to describe his approach to the writing process, Wammo says, "Basically, I write when the Muse bites me on the ass. I'm a real catching-lightning-in-a-bottle type of guy; when I get an idea for a song or a poem it's like a flash. And sometimes when I write to a certain theme, like cars, as I do a lot of writing, something else would come out of me that had nothing to do with cars.
“I remember I had once tried to write a 'serious love song,' but halfway through, I came up with 'Two On One'" - a rude and definitely un-serious song found on 2002's Dirty DItties EP, alongside tracks like Bob and Tom Show favorite "The Scrotum Song." "I wrote and finished that in ten minutes, and never finished the serious love song!"
When I comment that his method reminds me of Keith Richards' 'incoming!' approach to songwriting, Wammo agrees, but adds, "The difference is that I don't have a Mick Jagger to finish the song. It just cracked me up to read the part in Life where Keith says about 'Satisfaction,' 'I just came up with the hook, and Mick filled in all the other bits!'"
Given the limited time we have to chat, and there being so many Spankers songs I want to ask about, I limit myself to two. One of them is the tune that first hipped me to their uniqueness as a band, "Antifreeze." Placing Dadaesque lyrics atop a Appalachian backwoods chassis seems a pretty subversive move, I offer.
"Well, that's me... I'm subversive by nature, as are all those bands you compared it to: Butthole Surfers and They Might Be Giants, who I love. I actually MC'd a Butthole Surfers show back when they were called The Dick Gas Five. This was in 1983, at a barbecue in San Antonio; they were gigging with a group called the Smart Dads," an early version of what became the notorious Texan Cow-Punk mob The Hickoids.
"In fact, Jeff Smith of the Hickoids helped inspire me to write what became "Hick Hop" (the perennial Spankers live favorite, tho originally recorded for Speed Of Suck): another good example of me not being a purist.
“Jeff was one of my best friends growing up in San Antonio; he was responsible for me not becoming David Lee Wammo! At the time I was the frontman of a Heavy Metal band that did Van Halen covers, complete with leg kicks. But I was getting frustrated with Metal, and Jeff and I would drive around town; he'd ply me with beer and bong hits and play me the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones. At first I didn't get it, as it didn't seem too melodic, but after while it just clicked - punk rock really did change my life.
"A few years later, the Hickoids were kind of falling apart and Jeff said to me, 'maybe I'll do something like... Hick Hop, instead!' About two years after that, I was working on Speed of Suck, sitting up with my notepad and Sharpee one night, and remembered what Jeff had said. After that, the words just flew onto the page! It was like taking dictation.
"This was of course way before people like [current black Nashville country-rapper] Cowboy Troy... I'll never forget the next day, playing 'Hick Hop' for Brian Beattie [of Austin band Glass Eye, who worked with Wammo on SoS] for the first time. He practically did a back flip!
"But "Antifreeze" was actually a pre-Spankers song of mine, it was on the demo I did for Mouth Almighty. I recorded it at the home studio of Barbara K from Timbuk 3."
I tell Wammo about my appreciation of the way Spankers music seemed to imply that 'hey, the B-52s and Black Flag [both of whom they covered] and Ice-T are just as vital a part of American music as Bessie Smith, Bob Wills and Louis Armstrong.' It also seemed as if such cognitive dissonance was something the Spankers actively thrived on as a band.
"I could not agree with you more! As a band, we were never purist. We never set out to be old-timey types playing old-timey music. We were punk rockers in our thirties who got sick of playing music that made our ears bleed... but that didn't make it any less intense, or me any less so. In fact, I think what we were doing as a band was as hardcore as anything any hardcore punk rocker was doing.
"We liked to fuck shit up, and always enjoyed breaking from the norm. I understand the need to historically preserve music in a certain fashion, but if you come see me perform, it ain't gonna happen.
"Even now I listen to new stuff that a lot of my friends can't stand...like Skrillex! He's brilliant: totally fun, his music has great hooks and makes you want to move your ass! What more do you want from your music?"
Wammo has had a new solo disc, Dadass (inspired by his experiences as a first-time dad to daughter Cecilia, now five), in the works for some time, but it's presently taking a back seat to various made-to-order song projects. People come to him with a song idea, and for an online fee, he'll craft a song around it. Some of the resulting tunes - all recorded in his home studio - can be heard on Wammo's Soundcloud page (www.soundcloud.com/billydave-wammo).
"Being entrusted to people's stories has definitely inspired me to write songs I'd never come up with on my own. Stories like the one that inspired the song 'First Love Forever Love': about a Houston couple who first met as teenagers in the mid-'60s. At the time, the boy's parents wouldn't allow him to see the girl, because he was Chinese and she wasn't.
“So they'd have to create ruses to see each other, like telling their parents they were going to the local department store to buy the latest Beatles single. They were both Beatles fans... and since this was 1964, they had a lot of chances to meet up!" The entire, quite touching story can be found linked to the song on the Soundcloud website.
Wammo has also been working with a local playwright, Don Zolidis, setting one of his plays, The Brothers Grimm Spectacularthon, to music. "It's all 209 of Grimm's fairy tales squished into two hours, and it's a full-on musical comedy." Also in the planning stages is a series of instructional videos about writing songs, recording demos (using technology like Garageband) and assembling a home studio.
There has been at least one noticeable impact on Wammo's life since moving to Pittsburgh: not being able to indulge his lifelong passion for collecting records (as he famously rants in his poem "A Real Gone Guy": "That's right... vinyl! Right in the groove, baby! Like a trip to the dentist: painful and vibrating!").
While he admits to checking out Spotify "pretty much daily," Wammo also maintains that "records sound sooo much better! Back in Austin, friends and I would have iPod duels, comparing their sound to a vinyl record of the same song, and people were always amazed at how the vinyl sounded.
"Now most of my vinyl is in storage, crates of them... and it drives me crazy! There's days when I wake up and wish I could put on that Joe Cuba Sextet record with the amazing scream!"
A BEGINNER'S GUIDE
The Internet Music Archive, since I first heard the Spankers in 2007, has amassed even more recordings from up till their 2011 demise. At the risk of getting Deadheadish, the casual fan is pointed to an early Electric Lounge set (dated 1996-02-21), with many of the early Spankers turns of the period firmly in the setlist – “Lullaby Of The Leaves," “Sugar In My Bowl," “Jerry The Junker," "'I'm Starting To Hate Country," “Funny Cigarette" - some choice Violent Femmes and Tom Waits covers thrown in too.
An excellent mid-period set from St.Louis' Off Broadway club in March 2005 is also a good starting point: https://archive.org/details/Spankers2005-03-26.flac.
Spankers discs can be had via their website at http://asylumstreetspankers.com/. Start with 2009's final studio bow GOD'S FAVORITE BAND, their 1996 debut SPANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, and 2002's MY FAVORITE RECORD and work outward from each vector.
On the DVD front is Sideshow Fez, a 2004 gig recorded in Portland, Oregon that features a good representative selection of the band's catalog up to that point, with such added attractions as a surprisingly on-target B-52's cover and the filthiest version of “the Hokey Pokey" you will ever hear in your life. There's also Re-Assembly, filmed at UT Austin's Union Theater the following year; it amazingly rounds up Spankers from their 1994 beginnings forward, and is all the more entertaining for it. Both can also be had via the above Spankers website.
Wammo's three solo discs – Fat Headed Stranger, Faster Than The Speed Of Suck and Lowriders On The Storm – are all ostensibly out of print, but can be had in the usual online sources if you know where to look. His official website is wammobaby.com.
Fellow Spankers alumni Guy Forsyth and Nevada Newman – to name but two – also have their own solo work out and available, at:
This article is dedicated to Nik Cohn, and the memories of Derek Taylor and John 'print the legend' Ford.
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