Jason Trachtenburg has the nasal and energetic over-the-phone demeanor that makes you think of an eccentric uncle who falls down the stairs on purpose, then makes the family gather around the piano for an old-fashioned sing-along, glasses askew. And that's essentially what he does. As one-third of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, he writes the songs that make the world go 'round. Well, at least the songs that make the slides go in sequential order. Jason started out as a singer/songwriter in Seattle, coffeehouse-hopping around the city but getting nowhere. "The songs I was writing as a solo artist were very much like what we do now: conceptual rock songs, societal commentary, corporate laments, things like that," he says, speaking from his Lower East Side home in New York City. Jason's wife, Tina, found a box of slides from the '50s at an estate sale in 2000 and had the idea to integrate them into Jason's show.
Soon, people started paying attention, and the addition of the couple's then-6-year-old daughter, Rachel, rounded out the family affair. "We had a song in the key of F, and I had a harmonica in the key of F," Jason remembers. "So Rachel played the harmonica during my set. But Blues Traveler already has the whole harmonica thing going for them, so she switched to drums." With Jason on guitar and vocals, Tina on the slide projector, and Rachel beating the skins, the trio began playing to a wider audience, and "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" was one of the first songs he penned from their slide jackpot, swirling an Oktoberfest-style melody around images of graveyards, cocker spaniel puppies, and chalets.
The trio realized it had to make a break for it and bite into the core of the Big Apple. "We had achieved everything we could in Seattle, as far as the music scene goes and as far as getting media coverage," he says. "We recorded our album there three years ago, but no one would touch it. We still couldn't make a living. There are bands in Seattle that have been around for 20 years, and they're still working day jobs. So we figured if we could be in the top ten bands of New York, we might have a shot at going global. We are a regular rock band, right? But we're more entertaining. It's entertainment in an indie-rock setting. And we add some social commentary, some comedy, some interesting images. The slides bring people back to their childhoods. Every show, fans try to give us slides, and we're like, 'People, we only have so much room in our '82 Suburban. '"
One man's trash is another man's treasure, indeed. The songs on their debut album, Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle, Vol. 1, overflow with anthemic keyboard solos and guitar breakdowns à la Bruce Springsteen, if he had a Vaudevillian accordion player instead of Little Steven. They're upbeat, energetic, toe-tappin' ditties filled with non sequiturs like, "European boys, European boys, European boys/Frank Sinatra is Amish." But Dad also sneakily drops some leftist science on listeners, weaving a few political threads into the songs. "Let's Not Have the Same Weight in 1978 -- Let's Have More" (a.k.a "The McDonald's Song") and "Wendy's, Sambo's, and Long John Silver's" both poke fun at America's penchant for couch potatoism and craving for greasy drive-through food. And in a country that gives annual awards for Most Obese City -- Detroit having received top honors this year -- it's easy to see why Jason picked that theme. "And Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas were like second, third, and fourth!" Jason exclaims. "Houston had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate getting bumped to number two. I think they have a weight czar now who was responsible for getting them down to number two. I saw that on television. Everyone seemed pretty excited. But we just try to put some information in the songs without being preachy, right? We try to make them fun. It's important to mix politics and humor." OK, so Jason is kind of like Mark Russell being your eccentric uncle, but replace falling down the stairs on purpose with a song about a beaver and a mongoose engaged in a heated debate about health care.
The family moved to New York City in 2001, and the cue was given for the media shitstorm to begin. The Trachtenburgs were immediately splashed across countless glossy music rags, played on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, had hipsters twitching in their skinny jeans at weekly Brooklyn gigs -- and this was all before signing with New Jersey label Bar/None (home to Puffy AmiYumi and Mosquitos). They also recently passed up a Gap ad. Obviously, the majority of the attention is focused on 10-year-old Rachel, who just landed the March cover for the debut issue of Time Out New York Kids. Tina and Jason are supportive of their daughter's ambitions and are even pushing for Rachel to be in movies. Of course, the idea of a preteen spending night after night in smoky clubs and day after day on the road may raise eyebrows as to their parenting commitment. But how cool is it to not even be in your teens and hanging out with rock stars--with your Mom and Dad! Jason knows that people are there to see Rachel play but that they're also there to see the slides, which, in a way, are like the substitute lead singer. It's what everyone's looking at, and Jason admits that without the slides, "it's like if Led Zeppelin came on-stage without Robert Plant."
True, but the slides are a little more interesting than Plant's bulging package. So what does a family like the Trachtenburgs listen to on the road? "Rachel loves the White Stripes, Quasi, and we all love Blondie," Jason says. D'oh. It's time to break the bad news: Jason is horrified to learn that Blondie recently played at Gulfstream Park, even more so when told they played while Tiny Dancer, Mr. Bojangles, and Pirate's Paradise were racing toward the finish line. But he puts it all in perspective: "Maybe it's like what we do, right? Like, we try to play gigs everywhere and anywhere -- art houses, farms, galleries." With a gig as unconventional as theirs, it's got to be pretty easy to get booked on some unsavory bills, no? "Well, I can't say what our weirdest show has been," he says. "I guess it would be that time we played at the dog track with Blondie..."
All joking aside, the Trachtenburgs are indeed living the American dream and molding a new version of the nuclear family. Only this one travels the country in an '82 Suburban, listens to ELO, and plays music that makes people feel all fuzzy-wuzzy inside. And you know what they say about a family that plays in an offbeat indie vaudeville act together.
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