Never A.S.S.ume

Coming up with an original band name is hard without a thesaurus and some psychedelic drugs. So when we heard that Asylum Street Spankers were coming to the Valley, we couldn't resist asking about the band's moniker. The story goes something like this:

Ten years ago, the band played some of its first shows on Guadalupe Road in Austin, Texas. Locals referred to the road as Asylum Road because that's where the state mental hospital was located. Hence, "Asylum Street." The term "spanker" is an old jazz-era term for someone who plays an acoustic instrument.

The music of A.S.S. -- a hodgepodge of musical styles, instruments and kooky humor -- proves as unique as the band's name. Listening to the Spankers' latest CD, Mercurial, draws a mental picture of a van filled from floor to ceiling with banjos, fiddles, guitars, ukuleles, clarinets, contrabasses, and God knows what else. Such a canon of roots-music instruments has led many people to label A.S.S. as primarily a swing/jazz band. But Christina Marrs, Spankers co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and singer, says that's not entirely accurate.

"I wouldn't say we're primarily anything," Marrs says. "Throughout our history, we've included every type of American music. We've never let ourselves be tied down to a genre. We play what we like, which is pretty much everything."

She's not exaggerating. Mercurial contains cover versions of the jazz standard "Digga Digga Doo," Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl," and Jazz Butcher's "D.R.I.N.K.," right alongside Black Flag's "TV Party" and the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere."

While they've embraced virtually every genre of music, it took the Spankers 10 years to embrace amplifiers and microphones. Until this year, they'd never used either in their live shows. "We started using amplification," Marrs says. "We're still an acoustic band; we don't have Marshall stacks onstage or anything, but we needed some light reinforcement, because the crowds were getting too big and the people in the back couldn't hear."

Sound modification isn't the only change for the Asylum Street Spankers. The band's lineup constantly mutates. Marrs and Spankers front man Wammo are the only remaining original members, and Marrs is the only female in a group with seven men. But she wouldn't have it any other way. "I get to see a side of men that most women generally aren't privy to," she says. "I'm pretty much like one of the guys, so they'll say whatever they want around me. Men are easy to figure out. I used to be in a band with women, and I couldn't imagine going on the road with seven women. Because making music is an intimate thing, and women are multi-dimensional, and complicated, and sensitive."

"Multi-dimensional" is a good descriptor of Marrs, who was leaving yoga class and driving her van to the shop when she spoke with New Times via phone. Before she joined A.S.S., Marrs was a single, working mother, and the transition to touring musician was difficult. "It was tough logistically, finding child care and making ends meet as a musician," she says. "It's not something I would recommend to anybody. Now I'm perfectly unqualified to do anything else."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea