Christina Marrs of the Asylum Street Spankers on why the band is calling it quits
After a seventeen-year run, Austin's Asylum Street Spankers have embarked on their final run, which they've affectionately dubbed the "Spanks for Everything" tour. During its storied history, jazz-folk act has gone through some fifty members and now tours as a seven-piece. In advance of the band's three-day run in Colorado -- tonight at Avogadro's in Ft. Collins, tomorrow night at the Walnut Room and Sunday evening at Oskar Blues -- we spoke with the band's co-founder Christina Marrs about how the economy was a big factor in calling it quits, and how the band initially built its fan base.
Westword: I've read that you're deciding to throw in the towel after seventeen years partly because of economic reasons and not being able to sell as many CDs as you have in the past.
Christina Marrs: Well, this economy has just hit us hard, like it's hit so many people. You know, we didn't really notice a huge [decrease] in attendance, but we did notice a little bit. I think being one of those groups that comes through once a year or twice a year, when people are tightening their belts, they might think, "Well, it's the Spankers. I saw them last time. Maybe I'll skip them this time and go the next time." It's mostly that everything is just more expensive out there: gas, hotels, our payroll is up, and not to mention there's this industry-wide shift away from people listening to their music on CDs.
It's not just affecting us. A lot of bands out there are talking about that effect. CD sales, I don't think people realize, are so much of touring bands' bread and butter. You can't tour without selling CDs, and you can't sell CDs without touring, so they're really symbiotic. Once you're missing part of that, it's a huge disruption in our income. It's a lot of money to suddenly find yourself not having in working capital anymore.
I would imagine you know people in other bands who are encountering the same thing.
Yeah, this economy has definitely been rough on a lot of people. I hear from venue owners that their top drawing bands are breaking up because it doesn't make sense financially. And the venue owners are hurting, too, and when the venues start tightening their belts, then they're prone to lower our guarantee. It all just ties into everything. We just got to the point where we were financing the band on my line of credit, and I can only go so much into debt before I have to face the fact that it's not a sustainable business model, at least in this economy.
Was it a tough decision to stop touring?
Well, you know, it wasn't all that tough when you're carrying a huge pile of debt. It was the only realistic choice. I think there have been times over the years where we've gone, "Is this every going to pay off?" The Spankers are a very fringe sort of band. We're so not commercially marketable. I think that we've managed to keep it together as long as we have and as long as we did successfully, I think that's an incredible feat in and of itself. I didn't feel defeated. I think we did a bang up job for as long as we could.
Especially not being part of the whole major label thing as well.
Yeah, that's what I mean. We were entirely grassroots, do it yourself, like I said, on the fringes. Very underground kind of band. We did it all ourselves, and we made a living at it for a long time. When you stop making a living at it, it's pretty much a no-brainer. I'm gone 120-150 days a year and without an income to justify that there's not a whole lot of incentive for me to leave my family.
How did you guys initially build your fan base?
We were in a college town with a huge college fan base and then moved and went onto other places. We had an instant fan base wherever we went.
Early on the band's career, what was it about the older stuff from the '20s and '30s and the Tin Pan Alley stuff that you were really drawn to?
I don't know. It's hard to put my finger on it. It certainly wasn't the first music I ever got in to. It's not the only music I listen to. I guess I kind of met the right people who had the same kind of interests at the same time. The rest of it kind of happened organically. We just got together, and we played the music that we liked. We had this all-acoustic instrumentation, and as the years went on, we never really focused on any specific era or genre. It was just almost like anything goes.
One of the things that I always loved about this band is just kind of not being pigeon holed into one thing. It was certainly never our intention to sound like a Smithsonian archival recording or anything. And we never were really concerned about having authentic...
To an untrained ear, someone who is not immersed in this kind of music, it might sound like we're evoking a specific time or era. But for people who are really into fringe music, we're not an authentic band. People didn't play tenor banjo on ballads. One of things that I always like about this band is just kind of the willingness to play the music that we like.
You're doing a few dates in Colorado. You guys have a pretty good fan base here. Do you have any particular fond memories of playing here?
What I remember the most is that we used to go to these tiny little towns on top of some winding road in the middle of nowhere and still have crowds. It was like, "Where are these people coming from?" Colorado's all about the scenery. It's always beautiful there. I lived in Denver briefly when I a kid, basically, so I always liked going into Denver and checking out the old haunts.