The Jason Trachtenburg Interview

Today is the day to invent a unique polymer substance.

I was up late a few weeks ago, as I tend to be, and was watching a re-run of Conan O'Brien. As my dear Conesy tends to do, he was featuring a musical group I'd never heard of, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. Basically, it consisted of a dad on a piano, a nine year old girl on a drumkit, and a mom showing a series of slides on a screen, of which the dad and daughter were singing. It was a song called "Look at Me," and it was sweet, funny and thought provoking all at once. And I'm not the only person who thinks so, either. If you haven't heard of this family yet, you will soon.

I immediately looked these folks up on the internet and contacted them. Now, the Mr. Trachtenburg is not the first musician I have interviewed, but he was an important first; my first phone interview. It was very dramatic, figuring out how to use the tape recorder, and I figured that if for some reason it didn't work out, I'd just scan my notes from the interview and call it a day, but fortunately it didn't come to that. I hope that I did a good job of interpreting Mr. Trachtenburg's pleasant conversation into something that represents him and into something you enjoy reading.

The Jason Trachtenburg (of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) Interview: Around Twenty Questions.

Can you tell me when the Trachtenbergs first decided to put together a musical group?
I was a singer songwriter for many many years, since '85 or '86, I was getting nowhere. I had tried everything, for fifteen years, the right networking, you know, all that stuff. I couldn't help but feel like my dream of having a career in the arts might be passing me by. So, my family and I like to go to estate sales and stuff, and by accident, we bought a slide projector for $5, and some slides labeled "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" for 25¢. You know, for no reason. In the back of [my wife] Tina's mind, she thought my act might need some spicing up. It obviously wasn't working on some level. You know, you could be the best singer songwriter in the world and that's not going to guarantee you a career in the arts, just with all the politics in the business and these warehouse-style music companies.

We weren't necessarily thinking about using those slides, but maybe taking pictures of topics I wrote about in my songs, you know, anything like cellular phones or the politics of nutrition or auto insurance, or toothpaste.

So anyway, a few months later I was playing around and I was curious and broke out the slide projector, and to our surprise it worked.

Then I looked at the slides. It was an older couple, and I was interested in looking at their unique approach to their trip. I had been conditioned to turn everything I saw into a song. I can't fix cars, I can't hang pictures, I can't do carpentry, I've got nothing at all to fall back on, but that's what I can do.

So I wrote "Mountain Trip to Japan," and I didn't really think anything of it. We played it at the end of a show, but it became pretty obvious that there was so much more interest in that one song than all my other material put together. So we were like, "Okay, we've definitely got an art rock concept here."

Then, for whatever reason, I thought we needed to make the song more interesting. It was in the key of F, and the one harmonica I had was in the key of F. Although I had played harmonica before, it got in the way, you know, it was bulky and everything. So then I thought, my daughter Rachel, who was six at the time, has a real genuine interest in music. She has a certain sonic tonality and she could identify anything on the radio that she heard; we had to drive a lot, so we'd always have the oldies station or punk rock radio on.

Long story short, she liked music. So we thought, "Let's get Rachel in the band," you know, we've got a harmonica, all she has to do is blow in and out with the right emphasis on the right notes" (no offense to harmonica players out there.) And she was good! She knew how to listen, she understood the code of ethics of jamming, when to turn it up, when to pull back. I had been with so many other musicians in my time and none of them worked out and Rachel was just as good as them. I was like, 'okay, she's got the job.'

I was never like, "Oh, this will be cute, I'll put my daughter in the band." I needed the sonic quality of a harmonica player and she sounded good.

So suddenly, we began winning these talent shows like there was nothing to it, where we had never won anything before, and it became pretty obvious that the "Rachel factor" was a big part of our success. People liked that we were a family band.

So I began writing more material and I thought, "We need a beat." I got together a couple drum pieces, showed Rachel a simple beat, and you know what, she sounded great! It was sonically what I had wanted and I knew I could work with her since we're obviously really close.. I was like, "Where have you been all my life?" This was it. She naturally had this history of rock n' roll in her conscious and she was ready to go. She knew instinctively where to lay down the beat. I think kids are more in tune anyway. So we eventually got her a full kit. And that's how it is today.

Is it hard to come up with new stories for the slides? I have a feeling that if I were to try it, every song would sound like "Look at Me."
Well, we have a backlog of about five to ten thousand, all of which are choice. I have seen more bad slides than most people do in a hundred lifetimes, and they really anger me! You know, just like scenery shots or bad photographic skills. People will send us these bad slides and say "Oh, you have to use this," but they have to be interesting people doing interesting things or government slides. I love things that are internally from the government or from corporations; they're just amazing, they write themselves.

I generally put them in the order but they're usually all from the same collection, but sometimes you might have to change them around to fit the rhymes. A lot of times, once you just get the first or second lines done and figure out the rhyme, the song takes care of itself. Part of our concept is just how the pure randomness of it dictates where the song goes. I like to go to the ultimate of surreal and obscurity.

What was it like touring with They Might Be Giants? Did you learn a lot?
I did. On that tour, I feel like we became a professional band. They've been so lyrically and artistically respected for fifteen years and I felt a really strong kinship towards them. They really are trying to raise the level of artistic integrity. They work really hard on their records and that made us want to work hard on ours, and our first slide show record will be put on their record label, Bar/None. We're considering doing something like a DVD or a CD-Rom so you can see the slides as you listen to the music.

What was it like playing on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"? Did you get tons more exposure? What's next for you?
Conan of course is so cool for having us on his show and it was a good start for us but I think we could do a lot better and I want to do it again. I was so nervous, though. I mean, we'd been on public access before but this was like my first time on stage. I'm more confident this time around. I was pacing for three hours before it was taped even though I was in front of an audience, of, what, 100 people? The worst part was though is that if you look very closely at that tape,. I have sort of an unfortunate mullet going on, and I'm like, " I worked twenty years for this?" I'm not going out like this!
We talked to Letterman; actually, they called us! We might do Conan again, too, but Letterman would be nice.

What music are you listening to now?
I listen to a lot of my friends' groups. I know that's what everybody says but it's true. There are so many amazing songwriters and musicians out there who won't get their music out there. I feel like so much of what's popular is watered down, pure crap, schlock and dreck.

I love the White Stripes, and we identify with them because I really like them musically because it's a real family, the way they market themselves is phenomenal and it's hard to tell who's who, are they a real family or not? Although who really knows with them?

Do people often ask you about Rachel, about if she gets enough time to be a kid and have fun and see her friends?
Well, make a point to go back out to Seattle several times a year take her to see her old friends as much as we can. I would love it if she had more friends her own age. She would rather do that than anything else. But unfortunately in New York, it's hard to find kids and it's so isolated. It's hard when parents are even trying to separate their own lives from kids.

Does all that practicing and performing together get to be a strain on the family?
Well, we'd be together all the time even if we weren't a musical group. We're always together and we try to be with her all day long. I love her so much it makes me silly and I embarrass her and she'll be like "Daaad."

How much do you practice?
Not nearly enough. We don't practice at all. I mean, when we were going to be on Conan, we were like monkeys on Prozac, we had to make sure that we knew it, and we had to cut the song down to three minutes and play it faster than we usually played it. It all paid off, though, because in the end we knew the song backwards and forwards.

How often do you perform?
We do a lot of shows-at least one show a week in New York. May 12th we're doing a benefit at the Bowery poetry club, May 23rd we're doing a show at Fez, May 30th a show at Shiné and June 6th at Southpaw. [Editor's note: You can find more tour dates here.]

In Papermag magazine, you say that "Pop music is the only form of music that matters." How come?
Any one specific genre is going to bore me to death. I cannot listen to a whole album of genre without falling asleep. Bluegrass, zydeco, blues, country, alt-country; you're just selling yourself short and selling your audience short. You think that's what they want to hear, but in reality, people just want to be entertained. People want diversity in the life, in their friends, in their entertainment, and also in their music. As a band, we try to touch on every genre along with pop, which in the end is a great melody mixed with an upbeat kind of intriguing, unpredictable chord pattern.

Your show is often referred to as being in the vaudeville style. How is it so?
I think when people think vaudeville, it's a situation in which the life becomes the act, and they needed that to survive and using whatever's at your disposal. That's kind of what we're doing it.

Is your music political? What are you saying in it?
We're completely political; music has to be, otherwise what's the point? There's so much going on in politics today, like with the Bush dynasty going on; forget about the Kennedy dynasty, this is a Bush dynasty. This is serious stuff, and so few are benefiting in the name of financial gain, and they're so blatant about it. I think American has so much potential, though, I mean, where else could we do this act? At the end of the day, I think everybody wants to do the right thing, but I still can't believe that not only are the Republicans in power, they got into power through Banana Republic ways. Because we get a lot of material from government sources (they're just throwing this stuff away here), I'm just interpreting it word for word, and it's inherently political in nature.

Are all your songs humorous? Or would you say that a lot of times you get laughs in unexpected places just because of the setup of the group?
You have to mix humor with entertainment. That's the ultimate in civilization, when you can mix humor, music, politics and entertainment, all at one. That's civilization at its peak, like the Renaissance. You reach a wider audience when you make your message fun, anyway, Michael Moore does a good job of that. We don't like shoving our politics in people' faces, anyway, we don't want to tell people what to do. We respect people as individuals. And you know? I think that in his heart, George Bush Junior might be okay, he might be a real person. I think aside from all those people telling him what to do, he's just a goofball.

Will we ever see your wife Tina on stage or will she alwyas be the Slide Projector Lady?
She will always be the Slide Projector Lady. Tina is a huge influence on our act. She'll come up on stage at the beginning and say hi and end of the act and we'll introduce ourselves. She designs our costumes, too, but she's not a performer, she has no desire to be onstage.

Is it true that she cooks for your audiences?
Well, we had been to a bunch of CD release parties, and you know what, they weren't parties at all. You know what makes a good party is food. There can be a party with the most terrible people in town but if there's good food, I would go to that party, and if there's a really fun party with a lot of people I like but no food, I'm gone. So we'd think, "Hey! It's a party!" And Tina would make 300 vegetarian tamales. But it's really difficult and people started to go "Hey, where are the tamales?" and I was like, "You know, I appreciate the enthusiasm, but the preparation is just way too much."
They broke a lot in the early days. The technology is so sketch. These things, I swear, are just built to break. But now we always carry two projectors, backup lenses, backup bulbs, and if they both die, oh well. The show always goes on, even if I've had to run home and get a backup projector. But that hasn't happened since we started carrying around an extra projector.

What's an average day for the Trachtenburg family?
We definitely have a routine. I wake up pretty early, I like cooking a big breakfast in the morning and watching Rachel sleeping, and then I go talk on the phone and do interviews, what have you, on the phone for five or six hours while Tina homeschools Rachel . And then at night there's usually a show that we're playing or a show we're going to.

How do you like New York compared to your home town of Seattle?
I think I'm gonna get a t-shirt made with "I" and then this heart, and then "NY."

I think people might like that.
I think I might sell those for like $5 in Times Square.

Do you guys ever get called the "Royal Trachtenburgs"?
Oh, from that movie? Thank god no. Any comparison in Hollywood makes me cringe. When people compared me to Rick Moranis, that caused me more stress than if they said the music sucks, because then at least they're listening to us. I heard it was a good movie though.

It's about a family of geniuses.
Well, I'll take it then.

Okay, now I'm going to ask you a question that I ask everybody that I interview. How does it feel to be the 59th person interviewed for
I can't believe that everybody you've interviewed has been the 59th person!