2003 was quite a year for a band that showcases a nine year old drummer and another member who basically works a slide projector. In addition to plenty of underground buzz, The Trachtenburgs have earned praise from New Yorker, Spin, Village Voice, NPR, Entertainment Weekly and were featured on the cover of Pollstar. And not for being the first to incorporate visuals into a music act, but for the multi-ringed circus they subtly create within each performance. On the surface, a real family, the eccentric Trachtenburgs, purchase vintage slides from estate sales, and put those slides to music. Simple enough. But when you look a bit closer, a revealing look at the typical American family, changing through the decades, comes into view. What a typical family is exactly, and which family we’re talking about – yours, theirs or the slides – may just be the punch-line.
As we look back at all of the artists we’ve gotten to know over the past year, perhaps no band epitomizes the culmination of music, culture and life more than the Trachtenburgs. The first family of indie-rock, father Jason, mother Tina and drumming daughter Rachel, are an art-house, retro-tinged, conceptual trio, elevating contemporary society’s voyeuristic curiosities into simple, pop-rock operas. It’s The Partridge Family with multi-media, Woody Allen on American Idol, reality television for the 1950s.
Before we closed out the year, we got a chance to talk to Jason Trachtenburg about their debut record released this fall, Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Vol. 1, dipped into some politics and found out what lay ahead for America’s favorite family in 2004.
The Slideshow Players are gaining a lot of momentum now, but prior to performing as a family band, you had your own solo career going as a singer-songwriter.
Yeah, like the rest of society, I was the singer-songwriter guy…but everyone and their aunt is a singer-songwriter. So even though I thought I was coming up with good songs, and making progress as an artist, I wasn’t even close to being commercially acceptable. Even as a singer-songwriter. I was way out there, pushing things further and further off the radar. And when we started the slideshow thing, it became apparent that it was feasible that this could be an artistic reality.
But the origin of using slides came about even back then as a solo performer?
Yeah, Tina went to an estate sale and purchased a box of slides and a projector, with the intentions that maybe I would like to start putting slides in my act, even though I wasn’t really up for it. I said ‘there wasn’t any precedent for it, so I wasn’t gonna do it.’ But of course, whenever you say that…(laughs). So she bought the slides from some couple, they had died, and it told about their trip to Japan in 1959. They went to see the mountains – as fate would have it – and I wrote a song about it. So we played the slides as we did the song, and it just seemed to make sense.
When writing songs now, does a single collection of slides dictate a particular song, regardless of how random the content, or are you combining various collections and building a song around them with a preconceived story in mind?
We do both. Sometimes we do a hodge-podge song that’s all over the place based on the randomness and the obscurities in the individual slides. Other times we get a collection from one specific event, or one individual, and then we tell their life through that song. So there are conceptual pieces and there are fact-revealing anthologies.
This art form your creating is kitschy and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also quite indicative of societies obsession with voyeurism, much the same way reality television has honed in on our desire to peek inside the intimate normalcy of people’s lives. We’ve blown celebrity so far out of proportion that the mundane lives of strangers seem much more interesting.
Yeah, I think that fiction as a genre is pretty pointless. I’m into things that tell some sort of real story, or at least based on someone’s interpretation of what that reality is. Whether it’s real or not (laughs). At least trying to be conceptually real anyway. And if it wasn’t for the slides, I don’t think the act would have gotten as far as it has. Other acts have incorporated multi-media and slides and pictures, and the more and more we’ve gotten into [this], we’ve been informed about every other act that incorporates visuals. And we have our own concept, and it is an art form, but I feel it can be expanded much further than what we’ve done. We’ve expanded it, but I think someone can come along and expand even more. We’ve laid down the groundwork, but many before us laid down the groundwork to make it possible for us to do what we do, both artistically and commercially…hopefully (laughs).
The ironic twist to your performance is that you’re an atypical, contemporary family telling stories of atypical families from the 50s, 60s and 70s. A time when family, and domestic life meant something quite different than it does today.
We only pick vintage slides from the 50s, 60s and 70s because I feel like – of course if we get something from before then that’s good too, but that was the high point of that particular media. Anything from the 80s…[they weren’t using the same methods of] photography developing, they don’t use the same kind of colors they used to use back then and that’s why [older] visuals look like they do…all the pictures from that era. There are three things; the aging process, the chemical process and the film itself. They were all different back then and it created these colors that may or may not have really existed, yet in these pictures they really capture that era in a retro way. The way the media wants to interpret retro and the intriguing factors thereof. Everyone loves retro…well I do anyway.
Like those greens and pinks you always see in old pictures?
Exactly. It’s the colors. ‘Cause it was more expensive to do back then, so they tried to cut costs. The photo developers used cheaper and less vibrant colors and developing methods. And it ages differently. So we’ve gotten a few 80s slides and we did 80s songs, but I felt like we were training for Phil Collins or Simply Red or something. Like we were trying to be Wham (laughs). So I can’t go down that road.
And there’s another level to the show, because we’re seeing the unscripted banter, the daily disorganization and the intimate interactions of your own real family on stage, while you’re telling the stories of other real families from another time.
Right. And there’s another level of irony in our name, Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The two middle words are “family slideshow.” We’re a real family, but we’re interpreting the lives of other real families, and there’s something quite bizarre about that. And it will never end. We have thousands of slides collected and obviously there are millions more out there. People are just throwing this stuff away and eventually they’ll be obsolete. That being said, tons of them have already been dumped. If we could have access to all of the slides already dumped…but all we can do are save the ones that haven’t been. I should walk around with a sign that says ‘Save The Slides.’
But there are actually at least two or three things going on at any given time. The dynamic with our family interacting, with the dissection of these other families, in a rock ‘n roll setting. And it’s like three concurrent wheels at the same time, whereas most bands are lucky if they have one. Even the best band ever maybe had two, and we’ve got three, maybe five concurrent entertainment mechanisms of machinery spinning at one time.
Rachel, being so young, does she have any sense of the lyrical portrayals she is singing? Because some of the content is pretty heavy.
I feel that children can be politically aware, or they can be completely disaffected, just like adults. I don’t even know half the stuff I’m talking about half the time. I’m making these cultural references as told through the slides, and I literally don’t know what I’m talking about (laughs). But I have my own interpretation of what I would like to be talking about. I feel I know what’s right and what’s wrong in the grand scheme of things, politically and hopefully socially too. I feel there is a major problem as a result of corporate greed as far as keeping people down. The corporatization of the world, as told through America, or America as told through the world, is keeping culture down. They’re killing culture by commercializing everything. There’s no real culture left anymore. We go to these different cities, and with a few exceptions, they’re all exactly the same. It’s all the same chains, all the same stores, you can get the same stuff everywhere. There’s no individuality anymore in American commerce. And then you look at the products that they’re actually selling, and nine times out of ten, it’s harmful in one way or another, especially when talking about food products. And even regular goods, it’s usually such crap. The only place to get anything decent is vintage stores and thrift stores. Most of the stuff out there is just junk…just made to fall apart. it’s just disposable.
Like your song about the McDonald’s corporation report, which is scary as hell.
Exactly. That’s real stuff, that really goes on. And we got these slides and we tell about what goes on at a McDonald’s board meeting in a six-song rock opera. So there are two things going on right there. We’re exposing this part of society that was definitely meant to be hidden, never meant to be shown to the American consumers. We also have government slides, military outtakes that were never meant to be shown to the public. I have various charts, graphs, internal government slides that we can’t even decipher yet ‘cause the writing is too small, and I need to have it blown up. But I have internally released, secret government documents and stuff, but it’s really no big deal, they’re just throwing this stuff away. And I’m prepared to make this stuff public as told through song, and there’s no looking back (laughs).
You also incorporate slides depicting the civil rights movement and the blatant ignorance of our country regarding basic human equality. And those images, ironically combined with a pop song, remind you that it really wasn’t all that long ago.
Yeah, I can’t believe how recently all that was. Especially, only like twenty years ago, when I was coming of age, it was all that more recent. Now we’re forty, fifty years from that age of America, and there were several major events in the ’60s that completely killed any possibility of the populace gaining any real control of their reality. Whereas I think things became pretty clear at various times in the 20s, the 30s and the 60s when people raised their voices, and what they really tried to do, they got shot down pretty hard by the internal workings of business and the government. Specifically with the assassinations of Kennedy, King and Kennedy. And with the 40th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy one, which was by far the most complicated of them all because it was a coup d’etat. Internal government workings took out the elected leader, and it’s pretty well proven at this point. And what’s making it more obvious is the fact that [the network mea continually do stories] saying Oswald was a lone assassin. Of course that’s their story. They’ve got too much to lose. They have to keep propelling this lie, ‘cause they can’t let this information out. A lot of it is out there already, but mainstream media, and most of America, more than 50% of America will repeat word for word what they hear from the mainstream media treating it as the truth. When in fact, it couldn’t be further from that. It’s just a business, and when you look at the business of reporting, and Pepsi and oil, and the people behind that, like Cheney and Nixon, and behind that, the wars, it becomes pretty obvious who’s really running this country here. And the people have completely lost their voice. We’re not even close to determining our reality of the world as told through the majority populace.
Your new album has multi-media capabilities, so a Quicktime slideshow accompanies selected tracks, but the record on it’s own, is this something to listen to when your just hanging out in the living room with friends?
Well, I want to make each of our records better than the previous one. I think we have a strong record here, but I think our next one could be even more of a listening experience. This one, I tried to make it a listening experience, first and foremost, but I think we can work with the medium of recorded music even further than we did on this record. We recorded this going on three years ago, so I’m definitely ready to take it to the next level. We made a music video actually, for our song called “Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959.”
Do you intend to release it on the majors, like VH1 and MTV?
Oh, of course. We want to raise the bar of music videos. We want to completely up the standards of that medium, which could definitely use it. It’s pretty sad what gets passed off as a hit now. Hits used to have integrity in the 60s and 70s. Unique songs would break through. These days, the only songs that become hits are pre-manufactured, industry ideas. It has nothing to do with the movements of where rock is going or where the consciousness of the artistic community is. It has to do with what the industry packages in attempts to make huge amounts of money off manufactured hits, and they’re not even hits. And it’s in all the fields. It’s in rock, it’s in R&B;, hip-hop, country, every aspect of the industry is corrupt.
With your distinct format, and the use of multi-media, you could certainly take this in numerous directions in the future.
Well, we want to be recording artists. We’re going to keep releasing CDs. We’re not going to become a comedy act or a novelty act, you’re branded for life that way. We want to be recording artists making an album every year, maybe two a year, just keep putting them out. The CDs will be interactive, where you can play them on your computer and there’ll be a slideshow that goes along with it. We’re not going to do DVD though. I won’t put our live act out on a commercially available product at this point, because that will sabotage the integrity of the live act. And everyone will be like, ‘well this is what it is.’ Whatever night that was, people will think that’s what it is, but in reality, every night is completely different. A big part of our shows is the in-between banter which is completely unique at every show. So at this point I want to just stick with CDs with the slideshow, and people have to come see the live show to really understand what we’re really all about, just like any other band.