Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

[This piece first appeared in the Eye section of The Times back in May 2004]

“Stoosh over, daddy!”

“I am stooshing! I’m stooshed over as far as I can… I don’t have any more room to stoosh!”

As familial rock’n’roll arguments run, it’s hardly Noel and Liam Gallagher duffing each other up over the last can of backstage lager, but then, this is hardly your typical rock’n’roll act. Indeed, you could say that The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players – daddy Jason Trachtenburg on keyboards and vocals, 10 year old daughter Rachel on the drums, and mummy Tina Pina Trachtenburg manning a rickety, unreliable slide-projector – are unique. Like the Wombles before them, they make good use of the things everyday folk leave behind, combing estate sales and garage sales across the United States for cobwebby boxes of photographic slides, later piecing those discarded holiday snaps together into lackadaisical narratives, soundtracked by their hilarious songs.

The Trachtenburgs’ legendary live show has tracked the length and breadth of America these past four years, building the band an impressive following (it visits Great Britain this summer, starting with a show at London’s ICA on July 8th , following a UK release for their debut album, ‘Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Volume One’ on May 17th). Already beloved of the American press and late night chat show circuit, their slideshows take in 1950s vacations to Japan, the booze-fuelled exploits of middle-aged spinsters, and the pre-Powerpoint promotional materials of 1970s corporate motivational speakers. But there’s many a mirthful killer twist – the holiday-makers in Japan who are obsessed with photographing graveyards and public executions, or the middle-aged spinsters indulging in the odd topless photograph!

“The concept of using slides and music together hasn’t been tried before, this is new territory for art!” declares Jason Trachtenburg, ‘stooshed’ over on one side of an armchair he’s uncomfortably sharing with Rachel. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Rick Moranis, had he been rummaging about in Austin Powers’ wardrobe – the family are all wearing their lurid home-made stage gear today, a look that’s very much Honey I Shrunk The Tourbus – and with Woody Allen’s nervy, sharp Jewish wit, Trachtenburg is one of those rare Americans gifted with a sense of irony, given to ludicrous, knowing exaggerations of the Family’s success and importance – at one point he describes the initial reaction to the Slideshows as “Like Beatlemania, it really was!” – which suggest his own bemusement at the Family’s journey so far.

It’s this sense of humour, this dextrous irony, that informs the wonderful ‘Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Volume One’, a suite of wry tunes in the American Vaudeville tradition – suffering only slightly from the absence of its visual accompaniment – that mixes semi-serious social commentary with giddily silly lyricism, betraying Jason’s past as a singer-songwriter affiliated with New York’s ‘anti-folk’ scene (which also gave us The Moldy Peaches), and previous work with legendary Texan eccentric Daniel Johnston.

It was while living in Seattle that the Trachtenburgs first happened upon the Slideshow concept. The Trachtenburgs ran a dog-walking service by day, Jason writing songs and Tina working with textiles in their spare time. “It sustained the family, and it gave us the freedom to continue creating art,” remembers Tina, absent-mindedly stitching together a Rachel doll – just one item of a range of home-made Trachtenburg merchandise designed by Tina – as she chats; indeed, Rachel is stitching too, as are Grandma and Grandpa Pina, along to babysit Rachel while her parents maintain the business-side of their enterprise.

“I had had an idea that we could take photographs and, using a slide-projector, choreograph them to Jason’s already-written songs,” continues Tina. “He thought it was a really bad idea, but I bought a projector for five bucks at a garage sale anyway, along with a box of slides marked ‘Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959’. One night Jason was up late, goofing around with the slides; he was so desperate for me to see this slide of an execution. He was shouting, ‘These people were obsessed with graveyards and hangings!’ And then he added, ‘Also, I wrote this song. Go through the slides, and I’ll sing along.’

“And it was genius, as my gay friends say,” she beams. “It touched me so, on so many different levels, that I knew immediately that this was it. And I said that: I said, ‘This is it. This is what we’ll do.’”

“At first I thought it was just another regular song,” adds Jason. “But Tina was convinced we had something intriguing, saying we had to submit it to talent shows before someone else stole the idea.” He laughs, and then deadpans, “Like our 78 year old neighbour is going to steal it.”

But the couple won a slew of local talent competitions with their song/slideshow composition, and Jason took to playing it as the closing number at his regular gigs. “I’d never achieved any notoriety whatsoever with my art before, it was ridiculous! People kept asking, ‘Are you gonna do the slide song? That’s all we wanna see.’”

Taking the name The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, Jason recruited Tina to operate the projector, while a six year old Rachel played harmonica, “Not for any cute factor,” argues Jason. “And she played perfectly; I taught her: you blow in, you blow out, all the classic stuff you learn from being in a band…”

Rachel is the Trachtenburgs’ secret weapon, with the dead-eyed wit and world-weary sarcasm of Joan Rivers, trapped in the body of a sweet ten year-old. When Jason, visibly taken aback by the opulence of the Omni hotel in Austin, Texas where the interview is taking place, notes that the Family are staying at the somewhat more modest ‘Quality Inn’ she snaps “They should call it the ‘Low Quality Inn’.” Rachel doesn’t think her life on the road is weird because it’s all she’s known; sometimes she plays bass (her favourite instrument) for legendary New York oddball rockers King Missile, who once scored a minor hit with ‘Detatchable Penis’, two years before she was born. She favours American candy Sugar Daddies as a pre-gig pick-me-up, and, of the Family’s competitors in the crazy topsy-turvy world of rock’n’roll, she sighs wearily and says, “They’re boring, they all dress in black and they don’t really care about their music.” She’s a superstar.

As are her parents. “Nobody would come to my shows before, I could barely get Tina to come,” remembers Jason, of his pre-Slideshow career. “Soon, we got as far as we could in Seattle and flew to New York, to make our record. The press loved us, they thought we were the best thing ever!”

A key element of the Trachtenburgs’ appeal is the semi-serious edge lurking beneath their scandalously funny folk-art. The juxtaposition of the slides forms a subtle, satirical commentary on American culture through 1950s-1970s, Jason’s lyrics critiquing the excesses of consumerism (‘Let’s Not Have The Same Weight In 1978 – Let’s Have More!’, set to liberated slides from a McDonald’s Restaurants conference), along with darker subjects (the aforementioned executions in ‘Mountain Trip…’).

“My songs come from social realities, the human condition, political causes, so putting songs to these slides made complete sense,” explains Jason. “How did things get to be the way they are now, with the United States and consumerism as these joint controlling forces? The story can be told through the lives of these anonymous Americans, and our take on their reality, pinpointing little details and nuances in their slides that can only be gathered from close examination. And a good rhyming scheme.”

Browsing incognito, The Trachtenburgs’ will tell people selling slides at garage sales that they’re being used for an ‘Art Project’; “We prefer not to explain that we’re going to make fun of their relatives now that they’re dead, because their family might not sell them to me,” says Jason. Ultimately, however, the Slideshows are an extension of a venerable family tradition.

“Way back when,” explains Jason, “Families would gather around the slide projector, and the nutty uncle would break out the slides and start showing them, resulting in the inevitable miscues – slides would be upside down, backwards. And that would often be the funniest part.”

“They still occur in our show,” adds Tina.

“Yeah, people shout, ‘It’s in backwards!’ No! You’re backwards! This is art! That’s the whole nature of our act, it’s a kooky family act.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate,” offers Tina. “I’ve had lots of people in bands tell me, ‘Oh, I miss my kids so much, I wish I could do what you’re doing’.”

“We get to travel and be together constantly, we get to have a lifelong family vacation, basically, and make our living from it,” continues Jason. “If we keep going in the same direction and making smart moves, we’ll be able to do this forever.”

And with that, Jason Trachtenburg beams a most natural and genuine smile. He knows exactly how great his Slideshow Players are, and how good they’ve got it. They’ve conquered the hearts of America; now it’s Britain’s turn to stoosh over and let the Trachtenburgs in.

(c) Stevie Chick 2004

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