Asylum Street Spankers revel in irreverence

The best form of flattery for the Asylum Street Spankers is affirmation, nothing more.

“We just love when people ‘get it,’” co-founder, vocalist and producer Christina Marrs said, the ‘it’ referring to the Spankers’ propensity to jump genres and mix and match influences and their fans’ willingness to come along for the ride.

That ride started in 1994 at an alcohol-fueled fiesta in the musical mecca of Austin, Texas. As legend has it, the Spankers’ public-address system didn’t make it to that first gig and Marrs, co-founder and vocalist Wammo, and their suddenly volume-challenged associates were forced to improvise. “We just did loud, rowdy, over-the-top musical theater,” Marrs said, “and people got into it.”

The Spankers’ all-acoustic approach, love of obscure roots music and bawdy subject matter helped them stand out in a city where everyone seems to be in a band and even the convenience stores sell guitar strings. Standard Spankers’ fare features peans to beer and marijuana, political rants and a nasty-gram to a noisy neighbor (“Leaf Blower”) complete with excruciating vocal effects. But lest one thinks the Spankers nudge close to novelty-act territory, consider that the band prides itself on sparkling musicianship and a musically omnivorous diet. Over 40 accomplished players have passed through the Spankers’ ranks with Marrs and Wammo the stabilizing center. The band has tackled country, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, jazz, children’s music – all the while remaining adamantly and militantly acoustic. They only incorporated microphones in the past six years as their popularity placed them in larger venues. The hard-touring band performs over 100 shows a year and has visited Europe and Asia.

That schedule brings the Spankers to Eddie’s Attic in Decatur on April 22 to debut their latest release, “God’s Favorite Band” (Yellow Dog Records). The new CD features gently irreverent takes on gospel music, a style the Spankers mastered over a three-year stint at a popular Austin gospel brunch. Originals like “(God Drives a) Volkswagen Thing” careen into eclectic interpretations of old-time gospel (“Down by the Riverside”) swing (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”) and even post-punk (the Violent Femmes’ “Jesus Walking on the Water”) to create a divinely inspired collection.

Fresh from an impromptu performance (“busking for breakfast money!”) at a Colorado shopping center, Marrs mused by phone on her myriad musical influences: “When I was 4, 5, 6 years old, all I did was listen to music on a little flip-top record player. When my mother sent me outside to play, I would run an extension cord. I played my parents' records – Joan Baez, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson. In my 20s I got into punk and college radio. I remember being blown away by Iggy Pop’s ‘Living on Dog Food!'"

But Marrs finally achieved transcendence after hearing blues masters Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson. “I had always loved to sing,” she said. “But after listening to those two, I finally knew what my voice was meant for.”

Fittingly, the Spankers’ next project is slated to be a blues album.

Concert Preview

Asylum Street Spankers

8:00 p.m. Thursday, April 22. $20. Eddie's Attic, 515-B N. McDonough St., Decatur.404-377-4976.