Christina Marrs wants to give you a Spanking. But this is not some random ass-whupping or a personal kink. It's as much about respect as it is punishment. "We're not a joke band," Marrs says of her Austin group, Asylum Street Spankers. "Our problem is being written off as novelty band. We do a lot of funny material, but it's certainly not all that we're about."
Since 1994, the Asylum Street Spankers have been dispensing a mix of the sacred and the profane, blending jazz, blues, gospel, country and virtually anything else that crosses their path into a raucous gumbo that's part minstrel show, part tent revival and part old-time hoe-down. Songs like "Everybody's Fucking But Me," with the line "I just can't seem to get laid/ my plumbing's all covered with rust," or the "The Scrotum Song" ("Scrotum, scrotum -- its my wrinkly tiger skin/ it's the thing I keep my testes in") have earned them a dedicated cult following and God-like status on Satellite radio.
But their latest release, God's Favorite Band, is a live, straight-up gospel album, or as straight-up as the Spankers can manage. You won't find "God Drives a Volkswagen Thing" ("it changes color/ when he changes his mood," singer Wammo proclaims,) in most hymnals, but the rest of the selections, including "Down By the Riverside" and "Wade In The Water" are gospel staples.
It might seem an unseemly Spanker choice to those who have only followed the band on record, but Austinites know of the Spankers churchy past life. "We started out having a lot of gospel material in our set," Marrs says. "We did a Sunday gospel brunch here in Austin for about three years every Sunday up until the time we started touring a lot and just couldn't keep up with the weekly residency."
But don't go looking to put any Spankers up for Sainthood because gospel is a part of the program. "It's just a genre that we really admire and a lot of fun to play," Marrs says, adding that gospel music doesn't have to be limited to a religious audience. "It's like listening to Edith Piaf. You might not understand a word of it but that doesn't mean you can't be moved by it or get something out of it."
Marrs calls gospel "the genesis of all American roots music. If it weren't for gospel music in our unique history as Americans, we wouldn't have jazz, R&B, rock 'n' roll."
There's all that and more in the Spankers' sound. And even though some of the material might be frivolous, the level of musicianship in the band is impressive. Marrs covers guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, musical saw and percussion. Her vocal talents span the spectrum from a Betty Boop--like squeak to the brassy blues bellow of Bessie Smith. Wammo, the Spankers' other lead voice, is a combo of the punky energy of skateboarder/reality TV star Bam Margera, the vocal bombast of Meatloaf and the wise-ass delivery of magician Penn Jillette (Penn and Teller.) Guitarist/mandolinist Nevada Newman adds a Ry Cooder feel to the proceedings.
Despite the broad brassy scope of the show and the bombast of Marrs and Wammo, the Spankers are an acoustic band. "We're a deceptively quiet band," Marrs says. They miked up five years ago, but a Spankers show still requires an attentive, sit-down audience to work best.
In its introduction the Spankers tell the crowd they're attending an unamplified show and they need to be quiet and usually put programs on the tables explaining the situation. But not everybody gets with the program. When some front row loudmouths at a recent show wouldn't shut up, Marrs "Spanked" them. "I chastised them in the nicest way possible," she says. "We're not gonna turn up so loud that you have to scream at each other just to talk. We insist on doing it the way we want to do it."
Although Wammo and Marrs have been doing it their way with the band since '94, the Spankers has always been a revolving door band. "We're just very difficult people to work with," Marrs says with a throaty laugh, before admitting that the 180-day-a-year touring schedule is the real reason for so much turnover. "So, life interferes," she says. "Some people just can't handle touring." The current lineup consists of founding members Marrs and Wammo, guitarist Newman who has seven years in, Morgan Patrick Thompson, string bass; Mark Henne, drums and percussion; Shawn Dean, violin, fiddle; and David Long: mandolin, banjo, guitar.
And even though Marrs' roles in the band encompasses Webmaster, multi-instrumentalist, mistress of ceremonies and vocal range rover, she still gets Spanked by her fans. "I play five different instruments in the course of the night, but I don't think anybody ever remembers that," she chuckles. "I'm always gonna be remembered as the girl -- the softer side of the Spankers." But as long as she's got control of the microphone, she's still in charge of her own destiny.
"First and foremost, I'm a singer," she says proudly "That's my legacy."
The Asylum Street Spankers brings its Salvation and Sin tour to the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 14. Tickets are $12 and $15. Show time is 9:15 p.m.