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vol 5 - issue 10 (jun 2003) :: interviews
TRACHTENBURG FAMILY SLIDESHOW PLAYERS
interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by fphatty lamar

DON'T KNOW WHO THE TRACHTENBURG FAMILY SLIDESHOW PLAYERS ARE? WELL, YOU BETTER LEARN QUICKLY, BEFORE YOUR FRIENDS LEARN ABOUT THEM FIRST AND YOU'RE LEFT OUT IN THE RAIN. DESTINED TO BE A HOUSEHOLD NAME, THE TRACHTENBURGS HAVE TAKEN THE IDEA OF PERFORMANCE AND MUSIC, PLACED THEM IN A CREATIVE BLENDER, AND SERVED US ALL A BRAND-NEW DRINK. SO SIT BACK AND LEARN WHAT JASON AND RACHEL TRACHTENBURG SERVED TO OUR VERY OWN WAYNE CHINSANG.

Wayne: If someone didn’t know what the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players were, how would you describe it to them?

Jason: The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are a conceptual art rock band. And the concept is that we take slide collections of deceased strangers that we find at estate sales or thrift stores, and we tell their life story in a song, while showing the slides. We set people’s lives to music, via their slide collections. And it’s not just people, either; we do internal government and corporate slides, too.

W: Is it necessary for a person to be deceased for you to do it?

J: Often times people aren’t willing to let go of that stuff until they’re dead. They usually just sit around in boxes. And the same thing with corporate stuff. It’s all supposed to be hidden, but those slides go obsolete, so they just toss it. And then we end up getting it somehow.

W: I know that you’ve been playing music for a long time, but how did the idea for this concept come about?

J: It was really just by accident. In Seattle, we used to like to go to estate sales and buy stuff. And then, one day, Tina bought a slide projector and a box of slides. She had conceptualized to have slides accompany my art and songs. So then we just started to put them into a song.

W: How did Rachel come into the mix? I guess we should preface the question by telling the readers that your daughter, Rachel, plays drums for the band, and she’s nine-years-old. So how did her being a part of the band come about?

J: It was by accident. She’s just always been with us a whole bunch. And it was just a natural extension of our life. So it just made sense to have her be a part of it. She just, generally, appreciates music. Everyone loves music. One of the reasons I would break up a lot of my old bands in the past was because I just couldn’t deal with the other cats and their personalities. But with Rachel, she’s with us anyway. So she may as well be in the band.

W: I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians before, and a lot of them were turned on to music at a very young age. But the two last musicians I interviewed said they had no musical influence as kids. Were you doing music from a very young age, the way Rachel is now doing it now?

[SOMEONE PICKS UP THE PHONE ON THE OTHER LINE]

J: Yeah. I was into it, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I would just sit behind a keyboard and play notes. It was just an interesting thing to me. It just seemed so conceptually fascinating, that I didn’t even want to think about it. Then I got it in my head in my early teens that only certain kinds of people could play music professionally. Regular people just couldn’t do it. To do it, you had to be better than everyone else. So, for awhile I just didn’t think, realistically, that I could be an actual songwriter, on any level. (pauses) Is there someone on the other line? Hello?

Rachel: Yeah.

J: Rachel’s on the other line.

W: Hey, Rachel. How’s it going?

R: Good.

W: Good.

R: (TO TINA, WHO IS IN THE ROOM) Press, um, this for play, mommy, and then you press this for stop, and these two for the changes, and I forget how to open it. Okay.

J: Okay.

W: Okay. (laughs)

J: I took some guitar lessons, and I was heavily influenced by a friend of mine named Rennie Pincus. And then I realized that I could be an influence on the history of entertainment. Anyone can step on up and alter or affect the path of entertainment. So we decided that’s what we’re gonna do. As a regular songwriter I was not able to do that. It just wasn’t working out; I was in it for 15 years or so. But I couldn’t make any progress. Artistically, I felt that I was coming out with good stuff. But there wasn’t any impact on the larger landscape of entertainment. So we started this slide concept completely by accident. We just put the slides in the projector, and set them to music. That’s what I do. I set things to music. That’s also my only skill. I have no other abilities. I can’t fix anything, hang a picture, or ever unscrew anything. I have no degree; no aptitude. I mean, I could do service industry jobs or something. But when we started to do the slide thing, I would write the songs with no intentions of trying to affect cultural entertainment. Every song is based on something, and these just happened to be based on slides. So I didn’t really think much of it. And then we started playing it at our shows, and the audience’s response was suddenly unlike anything I had ever experienced before. We played it three or four times, and I realized, “Jesus. We’re really on to something here.” So we played a couple talent shows, and we won those. And then we decided to take it a little bit further. We decided to become a whole band based on this one concept, and call ourselves Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. And Rachel had then become a big part of the band; she started off on harmonica, but had switched to drums by that point. At first, we had two or three songs with slides. But then we decided to just write as much material as we could. And, soon enough, we had a whole set worth of slides. There was a gradual shift from regular band to slide band. But we haven’t looked back since. Now we have two whole sets of slide material, and we’re working on our third.

W: That’s great. What I think is so great about it is that music--

J: Hang on one second.

W: Sure.

J: (TO RACHEL) Can you hang up, Rach?

[JASON TAKES A CALL ON THE OTHER LINE]

J: Hello?

W: Yeah.

J: Okay. We’re back.

W: Okay. What I was saying was, I think what’s so great about what you guys do is that there is this whole idea of what music is supposed to be. That’s why there are so many cookie cutter bands out there. One person does something that is innovative, and then you get a lot of stuff that trails behind it for years and years.

J: I know. I foresee a whole slew of family slide bands coming out after us.

W: (laughs) Yeah. That would be awesome. Not for you guys, of course. But I think it would be hilarious if someone tried to mimic you guys.

J: How could that not happen? How can that not be the case? That’s what happened in Seattle. We had been doing Seattle for about two years, and we totally made a lot of progress. And then we realized that we had to take it to the highest level before someone else did the exact same thing.

W: Exactly. Because all it would take is one person to try and do it above you.

J: Completely. And who’s to say it can’t be done? I think we can take this so much further than we’ve taken it; even if it just meant going to a rehearsal studio once a week.

W: Right.

J: But that’s up to all of us to do, and none of us are motivated to do it yet. But we’ve got to take it to sharper levels of professionalism of musicianship, performance, and slide choreography. That being said, this is definitely the beginning of a concept. We’re at the ground level of a situation. We’ve been doing it for three years now and where we are now from where we were then, in overall performance, it’s definitely improved. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We have a lot more potential.

W: Definitely. I was telling someone yesterday that I was doing this interview today, and they hadn’t heard of you guys. So I explained the concept to them, and they were just in love with the idea. They latched on to the concept. And I think humor is a very compelling thing as well. Even though I wouldn’t categorize your stuff as straight-forward comedy, there is definitely a humorous slant to it. The weirdness of the imagery of people you don’t know, mixed with the music makes it funny. Have you guys been labeled as a “funny” act?

J: Well, when we first moved to New York we realized that we were getting put into the comedy scene. Then we realized that wasn’t our full potential. We can’t go in that way. Because once you go in, that’s what you’re going to be remembered as forever.

W: Right. I think comedy is so hard to do. Like Tenacious D; they’re funny, but once they put that first album out there and everyone heard it, it’s gonna be hard to follow it up.

J: Right. And they’ll always be known as comedians and not musicians. We want to be known as musicians, first and foremost. When we moved to New York we realized that things we did then were going to affect us for the rest of our lives. And we’re still in that position. I tell ya, the next couple years are going to be really crucial for us. So we got out of that scene. We started to strictly just play rock clubs and music rooms. And we do art spaces and other non-traditional spaces, like theaters.

W: I saw that you guys are playing at the Warhol in Pittsburgh.

J: Exactly. Museums-- hang on one second.

W: Sure.

[JASON TAKES ANOTHER CALL ON THE OTHER LINE]

J: Hello?

W: Yeah.

J: Okay. Sorry.

R: Hello?

J: We’re back.

R: Dad, was that Carmen?

J: That was Carmen, yes.

R: Did she sound okay?

J: She sounded okay, yeah. (TO WAYNE) Okay.

W: Yeah. I think it’s a good idea to stay out of comedy venues because it seems very limiting. I don’t think you’d be reaching the right audience in comedy clubs, either.

J: Exactly. You know, we’re very proud of our musical songwriting. That’s our number one thing. And if we can add humor to the songwriting, that’s just one more level of intrigue. And if we can add social and political commentary into it, that’s another level of intrigue. And if we can do it as a family unit, that’s also intriguing. So, so far, we have our concept; we know what we’re doing now. It took us a couple of shows to figure it out, but we’ve really realized that we’re on to something. And the fact that the media in Seattle, at least most of it, helped us realize that we were on to something, gave us some validation to move to New York and move this to the highest possible level.

W: I read the article that David Cross wrote about you guys, and that piece is just glowing.

J: He really gets it.

W: Yeah. The weird part about that article is that I printed it out almost a year ago, but I hadn’t heard of you guys yet. And then when I first heard of you guys, I was like, “So that’s what he’s talking about.” But the way the article is written, it makes it very obvious that you are in it to win it; that you are art in its purest form.

J: Thank you.

W: No problem. So you guys recently played SXSW.

J: Yeah.

W: And you played Conan in January. Those were both very big things for you guys. So how was it going from a small, intimate venue, to doing something like SXSW or Conan, which are both huge things?

J: Well, everyone has got to start somewhere. For many years I played total dutch shows. And with doing the Slideshow thing, it’s been snowballing. Right from the beginning, unnatural things were happening that are considered unprecedented in entertainment and art. We couldn’t believe what was happening. I was just going out and doing my thing, and with, generally, no consequences. So, when things started happening, we knew we were on to something. And then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. National press and magazines were coming to us for stories. And then, when Conan happened, it was an extension of the whole thing. A lot had led up to that, but it was just another piece of the puzzle. We had become a national act as a result of Conan. And we were huge in all these different cities we went to. We would go to all these different cities where we had never played a show before, but we were selling out shows. And people knew who we were. So we’re just getting it rolling, as far as that goes. And we just want to take it as far as it can go, maintain artistic integrity, and keep making good records.

W: Is the level of celebrity that you’ve achieved bizarre for you? Like being able to go out and be recognized?

J: No. If it doesn’t happen, then we feel like we’re not doing something right. We get down in the dumps. I know that sounds stupid. But we like it; it gives us validation. And you get to meet some really nice people, too. It’s helping me interact with people better, which is a skill that I’ve been lacking in over the years for various reasons. But it’s giving me an opportunity to get comfortable with situations and communicate properly with other people in a give-and-take.

W: Kind of along the lines of being able to meet cool people, when we spoke last night you said you just got done doing a few shows at some universities.

J: Yeah. We love doing college shows because you’re not supporting this bar/alcoholic infrastructure. When you play a bar show, you’re basically saying, “I support Anheuser-Busch and all of this alcohol consumption, and the marketing of it.” And the bar is saying to you, “Even though you’re bringing all these people in, you’re not getting one penny of this, even though we’re making hundreds of percents profit margin on this stuff. Oh, and by the way, we’re taking 50% of the ticket price, too.” But you know what? That’s the way it is. (laughs) That’s the system. The only way to get around it is to play in art spaces and theaters. But, we love rock clubs. They make you sound and look good. They’ve got lights and good sound equipment. So it’s always a bit of a give-and-take. But we’re definitely learning how to work the system, and how to work these clubs. Every day I learn so many ways to do things differently.

W: So, I know you ran into a problem at one of the universities. Care to share it with our readers?

J: Sure. We were over at St. John’s University in Annapolis, Maryland. We had a wonderful show. All the kids were there, and it was great. So Tina was talking to some kids there, and she was telling them that we’d be staying at a local hotel in town. And someone said, “You don’t have to do that. There are visitor rooms in the dormitory.” So we were like, “Really? Cool.” So we went to sleep in this room in the dorm. Then security came and said, “You don’t have official permits for this room,” which we didn’t. So they told us we had to go. And I said, “We have a sleeping child over there. And we’re getting up early and leaving because we have to get the rental car back to the city by noon. Please, just let the little girl sleep, and we’ll leave first thing in the morning.” But they wouldn’t go for it. So we had to wake Rachel up and pile into the car. And we had to get back into the city so early anyway, so we decided to just drive back to the city that night.

W: That’s horrible.

J: It was kind of rough. It was just so dumb. Even if the system was in place, there could be some bending on the given circumstances. I think that really says something about the academic system that is in place there.

W: Well, it’s just ironic that the people that invited you there are the same people that are kicking you out.

J: Right. It just came down to the fact that they couldn’t bend their rules. It’s just an embarrassment. We were really disappointed with the way it worked out.

W: So, does anyone in the band do any other type of art? Visual art?

J: Tina does a lot of visual art. Her and her mother design our costumes. And Tina also does a lot of our--

R: I know how to sew.

W: What was that?

R: I know how to sew.

W: You know how to sew?

R: Yeah. And I paint pictures a lot, I guess.

W: What do you paint?

R: I don’t know. I just paint pictures of people, and I draw a lot. Stuff like that.

W: That’s nice. I went to art school, so I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, too. I went for drawing originally, but ended up in photography. And now I do this paper, so you never know what you’re going to get into.

J: Absolutely.

W: So, have you guys ever been approached to do commissioned work?

J: Yeah. We’ve done a couple of private weddings. But I think we’re going to get out of that because we can’t set our schedule like that. We can’t say we know where we’re going to be in three months, because we don’t. We want to be constantly touring. So I think we’re going to get out of the wedding business. We’ve done a couple of them, and we’ve gotten some material from them. It’d be easier for us to cancel a show, but you can’t cancel on someone’s wedding. So we’re not going to take on something we can’t do.

W: Do you guys have a problem with Rachel being as young as she is, and getting her into clubs and bars?

J: Only in Seattle. No where else.

W: Weird. So what’s next for you guys?

J: We’re going to start putting out records, just like all the other bands out there. We’re going to become recording artists. Every year or two there will be a new Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players album out. It will start this September on Bar/None Records, which is one of my favorite indie labels of all time. And we’ll also be putting it out in the U.K. on Showbiz Records. Right now, the focus is on the live act, the family concept, and the slides. But we also want to be known as serious recording artists. Not “serious” serious, but--

W: Taken seriously.

J: Exactly.

W: Okay, last question: do dogs have lips?

J: Yes. They have black lips.

R: Yeah, they do.

W: That’s what I say, too, but some people say they don’t.

J: No, no.

R: No. They do.

J: We’re looking at ‘em right now. Right, Rach?

R: Yeah.

W: Well, good. I’m glad your dogs have lips.

J: We’ve got two of them, and they both have lips.

R: I’m not sure about Emma, but Rags does.

J: Hmm.

W: What were their names, Rachel?

R: Emma and Rags.

W: Right on. Well, I really like what you guys do. I think it’s really amazing, so keep up the good work.

J: Thank you very much. Same to you guys.

VISIT THE TRACHTENBURG FAMILY HERE.


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