The Asylum Street Spankers, Sounding Off The music of the Asylum Street Spankers hails from the early 20th century, but many of their lyrics are modern enough to be too naughty for NPR. Key players Christina Marrs and Wammo tell Jacki Lyden about their "postmodern jug band."
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The Asylum Street Spankers, Sounding Off

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The Asylum Street Spankers, Sounding Off

The Asylum Street Spankers, Sounding Off

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Unidentified Man: We're the Asylum Street Spankers from Austin, Texas, playing music the way God intended it, without the use of demon electricity.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHRISTINA MARRS: OK, guys. So are we ready to hit it?

Unidentified Man: I hope so.

Ms. MARRS: Let's go.

Unidentified Man: Let's do it.

(Soundbite of music)


The Asylum Street Spankers are named after a street in Austin, Texas. They're one part revival band, one part satire and one part performance art troupe. They pull their material from the kitchen sink of American culture: "Robinson Crusoe," Paul Revere, covers of the hard-core punkers Black Flag and old-time jazz.

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) So where did Robinson Crusoe go...

LYDEN: There's a little bit of Betty Boop, a little bit of bluegrass and an entire zoo of instruments, including a musical saw, harmonica, kazoo, mandolin and ukelele. Also, they've got seven people. Two members of the group stopped by our studio the other day: the band's singer, Christina Marrs, and the guy in the big cowboy hat who calls himself Wammo. And, yeah, he insists that's his real name.

Thanks for coming in, Christina Marrs and Wammo. Hi there.

Ms. MARRS: Hello.

WAMMO: How's it going?

LYDEN: It's going pretty well. It's going pretty well. It's good to have you in town. Name all the CDs that you've made. Can you do that?

WAMMO: I can, I think. There was--the first one that we did was called "Live," which is out of print. And then "Spanks for the Memories" was our very first record and then "Hot Lunch." And then we put out a bootleg of the Strawberry festival, which we've just re-released. Then we did...

Ms. MARRS: "Nasty Novelties."

WAMMO: ..."Nasty Novelties" and then "Spanker Madness"...

Ms. MARRS: And "Dirty Ditties"...

WAMMO: ..."Dirty Ditties"...

Ms. MARRS: ...and the Christmas CD.

WAMMO: ...and then "My Favorite Record," which we titled because people always walk up to the merch booth and say, `Which one's your favorite?' So we said, `OK, we'll just call this one "My Favorite Record" and just slide it forward. There you go.' And then...

Ms. MARRS: "Mercurial."

WAMMO: ..."Mercurial."

LYDEN: And spanker, other than being a member of a British rugby team, is a...

WAMMO: It's one who plays his instrument vigorously.

LYDEN: You spank it.

WAMMO: Yeah.

Ms. MARRS: Exactly.

WAMMO: Also, someone who likes to smack other people on the butt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Listening to this and thinking about your titles and thinking about your performance, you--I know that you've been described as a sort of a post-modern jug band and Hee-Haw for hipsters and all that, but you know, I think of Spike Jones listening to this.

WAMMO: Well, that's a big influence, for sure. Spike Jones was incredible, and, yeah, we certainly have listened to a lot of his music.

Ms. MARRS: We've definitely incorporated some Spike Jones ideas into some things. But the thing about any Spanker record is not you're not going to really find two songs that sound the same.

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) We're gonna have a TV party tonight. All right! Oh, we're gonna have a TV party, all right. Tonight! We got nothing better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

LYDEN: Now I know you get this question a lot, but listeners are going to be wondering if that's your real name. And I guess you have legally registered it, right?

WAMMO: No, I have not.


WAMMO: I also tell people I was conceived on a Slip 'N Slide, but it's a big lie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well--and you won't reveal it now, right? We can just get that piece of business over with.

WAMMO: Yeah, let's just get that over with.

LYDEN: OK. We'll get it over with.

Ms. MARRS: I'll tell you later.

LYDEN: And you are the son of an opera singer?

WAMMO: It's true. My father was Metropolitan Opera star William Walker; sang for the Met for 18 years, was on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" 60 times.

LYDEN: Sixty times.

WAMMO: Six-zero, yes. And...

LYDEN: Would he come out and just--and sing?

WAMMO: And sing and be interviewed and tell stories and sing more.

LYDEN: Whoa. So what did he sing to you when you were a little boy?

WAMMO: All kinds of stuff. It was great because I always got to stay up late when Dad was on TV. That was the only time when I was a little kid we got to watch TV late at night. And I saw him on TV with James Brown, Frankie Avalon, Loretta Lynn, Colonel Sanders, a host of different celebrities, and he always had stories about them.

LYDEN: Where Doc Severinsen and Clark Terry still there?

WAMMO: Doc was there. As a matter of fact, I was forced to play the trumpet that Doc gave my father--he gave him a sterling silver trumpet--and I really wanted to play drums in the high school band. And because Doc Severinsen had given my father this trumpet, they forced me to play it, and I hated it. And I was last chair. And my band director said, `Well, I guess, you know, some people just don't have any musical ability whatsoever.'


WAMMO: And I'm just want to tell you, Mr. Sargent(ph), that I made it, pal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) We don't care. We got nothing better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews. No one talks about anything else. We don't want to know. We're dedicated to our favorite show.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARRS: (Singing) You know it's a sin to tell a lie. Still you keep saying `I love you.' It may be true. I wish I knew. So I'm giving fair warning to you.

LYDEN: Are you deliberately channeling old stuff, Christina? I'm thinking of Betty Boop. Are you trying to reach back for something really American, really classic?

Ms. MARRS: We're not purists. You know, we're not even revivalists. I think what we do is--there's a lot of genre-bending going on. And there's a lot of taking old musical styles and musical trends and merging them with modern influences and pop culture references. And, you know, we don't want to sound like a Smithsonian recording. It's kind of...

LYDEN: Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: ...although I don't think that would be so bad.

Ms. MARRS: This is the--yeah, the Helen Kane voice, known to most people as Betty Boop, I guess. But Betty Boop--interesting story--was actually the creation of the Fleischer Brothers. And they stole this woman, Helen Kane's--they stole her persona, her entire act, and they put it into an animated form and called it Betty Boop. And, of course, she died unknown and penniless and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: But, you know, her sound goes on and on.

Ms. MARRS: And they hired an actress, Mae Qhestel, to imitate her for the voice of Betty Boop.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: What I like is the sense that there's not--I can't think of much that's off limits to all of you. I mean, you seem to just not only have a lot of fun, but kind of reach into the musical grab bag of popular culture and you're not afraid of anything.

WAMMO: Absolutely. And we--as a matter of fact, one of the things we love to do is take either a popular or an obscure song done by another artist and completely twist it around.

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) Now here's a little story I got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well. It started way back in history with Ad-Rock, MCA and me, Mike D.

Ms. MARRS: On this record, we do a Beastie Boys cover, side by side with all of these things from, like, "Some of These Days" from 1910, you know, or "Sin to Tell a Lie." So--but, yeah, I don't think anything's off limits for us. I think that's what gives us its broad appeal--is that there's a little bit of something for everyone.

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) Pulled out my jammy, aimed it at the sky, yelled `Stick 'em up!' and let two fly. Hands went up and people hit the floor. He wasted two kids that ran for the door. I'm Mike D, and I get respect. Your cash and your jewelry is what I expect. MCA was with it, and he's my ace.

WAMMO: I like to boast that we get both kinds of blue hair at our show.

Ms. MARRS: That's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: That's a pretty good line.

Ms. MARRS: That's absolutely true.

WAMMO: It's true. There'll be somebody with a Mohawk with his grandma. It's always really great.

LYDEN: Wammo and Christina Marrs, both members of the Asylum Street Spankers, thanks for being with us.

WAMMO: Thank you so much.

Ms. MARRS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS: (Singing) We did the Beastie, Beastie Boy Boogie. The Beastie, Beastie Boy Boogie. The Beastie, Beastie Boy Boogie. Ad-Rock, Mike D, MCA--huh!

LYDEN: For more songs, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of song)


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