Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Ex-President plays the name game

 • Dave Dederer talks about making music with Duff McKagan, Jason Finn and Jeff Wood

Unlike-some other former chart toppers, Dave Dederer's picture won't ever be found under a tabloid headline like "Bloated, broke, rock-star has-been jailed for..." Like his friends Chris Ballew and Jason Finn, Dederer has weathered the descent from The Presidents' mid-'90s stratospheric heights remarkably well.

They've all continued to play music in the town where it all started — Seattle, of course. Ballew with his Giraffes, Tycoons and the Chris and Tad Show; Finn has drummed in more bands than Hal Blaine, including a brief return to his first well-known gig, Love Battery; and Dederer (who recently became the father of a baby girl) has dabbled in several sonic excursions, the most adventurous being a trial alliance with Ballew and fellow Seattle icon Sir Mix-A-Lot in Subset.

The soft-spoken, highly intelligent guitarist's latest venture has had more names than a dummy corporation. Initially an acoustic duo experiment with another old Jet City acquaintance — former Guns 'N' Roses bassist (and current college freshman) Duff McKagan -- Dederer's brainchild has (at least temporarily) mutated into something a bit more meaty.

I spoke to the rocker/family man last week to discuss recent changes in the group's formula.

SS: I've found very little information on the Gentlemen...

Dederer: There is very little information available... to start with, there is a band in Boston called the Gentlemen, made up of members of the Figs and some Boston indie rock legend, and they've told us in no uncertain terms that we're not to use that name anymore. So I think that we're going to go with "The Gents."

SS: Not the "Capo Brothers"?

Dederer: The Capo Brothers is out, it's received unanimous disapproval from everyone that's not me and Duff.

SS: At first, you were the Uptights.

Dederer: Well, the Uptights were a different band, a band that I had that Duff wasn't in. But Jeff Wood, who is playing with us in the Gents, was in the Uptights.

SS: Are you playing a six-string guitar? [Dederer is noted for playing a three-string "guitbass" during his Presidents tenure.]

Dederer: Oh, yeah. I play a little acoustic guitar with a pickup in it, and Duff plays an actual electric guitar -- he's a rocker.

SS: So when did the Uptights end and the Gentlemen begin?

Dederer: Well, the Gentlemen began this fall, for NXNW. I was talking to a guy, Ron Sievers, who runs a little record company called Orange Recordings. My old bandmate Chris Ballew has put out a couple of records with him; Jason Trachtenburg has as well. I was talking to [Sievers] about putting out an Uptights record, and he [Orange] had a showcase at NXNW. The Uptights really wasn't happening -- I wasn't very excited about it -- so I agreed to do the showcase myself, just me and an acoustic guitar. The Giraffes -- one of Chris' bands -- and Trachtenburg was playing, so it was going to be a bunch of friends playing there.

I had been hanging out with Duff over the past few years, and he has all these songs that I like that I felt should be played in a quiet, acoustic environment. I managed to twist his arm... I had been trying to get him to do this for about a year and a half -- just the two of us, we'd learn to do some songs on guitar and play them, it would be really mellow, we'd be sitting down.

So this was a goal to work towards -- I said, "I've already got this gig booked, let's do, it." So we did it together. It was really fun, we had a good time and the songs sounded great. We had a good response from the audience, and we were asked to play SXSW, which we did. We've played seven, eight times in the last five months, we've really enjoyed it.

SS: So this a strange modern-day version of the Everly Brothers...

Dederer: [Chuckling] Oh boy, I wish. I wish our harmonies were that fabulous. For me, this was born out of a desire to hear some of Duff's songs in an acoustic environment, so we do half his songs and half my songs in a set. We played five or six gigs with two guitars, sitting down you know, real quiet. Duff's a punk rocker at heart -- he was the original drummer in the Fastbacks, as any Seattle rock-trivia buff would know -- and he wanted to hear more noise onstage, so we've got Finn back there now tiddling away on drums, and Jeff Wood is playing keys and bass.

SS: What is Wood's pedigree?

Dederer: Jeff was in Gerald Collier's band. Gerald had a really good band for about nine months and Jeff was in that group. He's in Acetelyne and one other band I can't remember -- he's just a great musician, a nice guy.

SS: With your songwriting style alongside Duff's, what is the onstage result like?

Dederer: A lot of my songs are not in the "Presidents" vein -- they're darker and more melancholy. And his songs are quite brooding, most of them. He's a sober guy, and has been for six or seven years and went through a lot to be sober. I think a lot of his songs are about that transformation.

You know what I want it to sound like, I want it to sound like some of those really good Gordon Lightfoot records that Lenny Waronker produced -- for example, "If You Could Read My Mind," that whole record is great sounding. To me, that's what I want it to sound like. It's fairly spare, it's not very loud, we do one rave-up at the end. It's pretty mellow, especially compared to the other band that Duff and I are working with now, which is scary and aggressive...

SS: Which is what?

Dederer: It's called Loaded. We're just finishing up a record that will be released in Japan this summer. Then" hopefully in Europe, Australia... we'll see if it comes out in the U.S. or not.

SS: I wasn't a big fan of the Presidents, though I thought that your last record was great...

Dederer: The one that we put out last fall? ["Freaked Out And Small."] I think that that was our best record.

SS: But from a spectator's point of view, the Presidents' career was one of the most interesting in modern rock history. Coming out of nowhere, taking off like a rocket -- you were on top of the world -- and then this gentle landing, with all of you still in music... though keeping a much lower profile. You're all very normal; you didn't develop any rock-star egos.

Dederer: I think it's because the Presidents was one of these little things that we had been doing since we were teenagers. We were just continuing to do what we had been ding all along; it just so happened that one of those things -- the Presidents -- became huge. Because we found the magic with that one combination, it became incredibly successful. We had the right thing at the right time and at the right place -- it had a life of its own. It was certainly nothing that we tried to create -- we didn't have a manager until record labels started approaching us; we didn't have a demo tape.

It was just another one of those "Hey, let's start a band" deals. Three months after "let's start a band" we were playing the Crocodile on a Friday night -- and there were like 800 people in there, with another 500 or so outside trying to get in. It was one of those magical things that you could never try to create -- or re-create... and I don't ever expect that to happen again with any other band that I'm in. As far as what we're doing now, it's just like what we were doing with the Presidents, and before the Presidents -- we're just playing music with people we like, and enjoying ourselves.

[Dederer and McKagan eventually named the band Loaded -- ed.] 

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Players emerge from underground

• The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players have become the talk of the Seattle music scene, and beyond.

By Steve Stav, for The Tablet, Seattle, April 2001.

Working-class poet. Eccentric writer of memorably eccentric songs. Vaudeville genius. These descriptions have followed Jason Trachtenburg around for years, as his act worked its way deeper and deeper into the Jet City's underground music/open-mic scene. But recent developments have been bringing him quickly towards the surface: an addictive debut CD, a brilliantly bizarre slide presentation, and a six-year-old daughter who plays the drums are all suddenly the talk of the town.

"When I went on the road with Beck, I thought, 'Oh, this has already been done, his name is Jason Trachtenburg," says former President (and current Giraffes guitarist) Chris Ballew of his old friend. "We met 9 or 10 years ago, when I saw him at the Owl & Thistle, and I was just blown away.

“Some of the songs on this new CD he was playing back then," he continues, "and the lyrics were so excellent, I was having hallucinatory experiences listening to them. I went up and introduced myself to him, because he was the kind of person I wanted to hang out with. We became fast friends. I was living with my parents at the time, and he would come over and we would do some four-tracking. I went on to play with Beck, and then was in the Presidents, and I didn't see him as much. He did open for the Presidents a lot in the early days, because he was such a great choice for it, he totally disarms the audience and screws with their expectations of what it's like to watch a performer."

Trachtenburg wound up in Seattle after unsatisfactory visits to Austin and San Francisco and upon receiving a degree from New York's School of Hard Knocks. He looks back to his college years spent in the Lower East Side (he had graduated from a Philly high school in 1987) with fondness. The starry-eyed singer learned much more outside the classroom than in.

"I was totally drawn towards being a musician," Trachtenburg recalls, the words spilling out of his mouth in a torrent. "I thought at the time, 'I'm going to make it in New York, overnight. I'm going to be at an open mic, and somebody's going to discover me.' I definitely started from scratch there. I learned a lot about songwriting, performance art, and life. I met my wife (Tina, who now runs the slide projector while she's not cooking her well-known Mexican dishes) in New York City. We first met at an open mic at the Speakeasy, on Bleeker and MacDougal Streets."

As soon as the pair arrived in the Jet City, Jason hit the open-mic circuit immediately. The couple formed a somewhat unique company, a dog-walking service called "The Dog Squad," in order to pay the bills. Though the singer quickly became known for his hilarious, social-commentary ditties (and the ancient, hand-painted Casio keyboard that he performs them with), Trachtenburg was shunned from anything resembling the mainstream. That is until last spring, when Ballew and local legend Conrad Uno recorded his anti-establishment epic, Revolutions Per Minute (Orange Records).

Ballew recalls, "We had a great time making that record, Conrad was very generous, basically let us use his studio and talents for nothing. We recorded it in two days. I played drums on that album, which was crazy, that was a learning experience. I remember while I was touring in Europe, I took my drum sticks with me and practiced every day on the tour bus, getting ready to make that record with him. I sort of pulled it off."

When it came time to play the album tracks before a live audience, six-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg eagerly took over for the equally inexperienced Ballew. The precocious child, under the tutelage of Steve Smith at Seattle Drum School, quickly proved that she was a percussive prodigy and the star of the show. "She's the best drummer I've ever worked mwith, but she's also the most demanding," Trachtenburg says of his attention-getting daughter, who's remarkably self-composed in front of an audience. Rachel explained her technique for overcoming any stage fright.

"If I look at my mommy, I don't get nervous," she says. Her father interjects, "She had this one thing, I think she's gotten over it, where she was itching on stage, I think it was a nervous thing." "No, they were bug bites," Rachel corrected him.

About the same time that Rachel was learning to play Ballew's hi-hat, Tina Trachtenburg found a slide projector and some old slides at estate sales - and everything came together literally overnight. During a whirlwind skull session, Jason wrote the instant classic, "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" for an accompanying presentation of vintage slides of the Pacific Northwest, juxtaposed with slides of an execution conducted in the land of the Rising Sun (the manic showman stops the music in order to point out the principals in the macabre affair).

After composing and correlating more songs and slides, Trachtenburg debuted his new creation at the Annex Theater to wild applause. The Slideshow Players garnered rave reviews opening for Dave Dederer and Duff Makagan at NXNW in Portland (where Rachel stole some hearts as well as the show), and proceeded to wow crowds at local venues such as the Sunset and the Tractor (the latter gig was performed sans percussion; the well-underage Rachel was somehow forbidden to perform by management) as well as a stunning CD release party earlier this month at the Breakroom, where Tina served 300 tamales to astonished guests.

Chris Ballew thinks this is just the beginning for Jason Trachtenburg, that the slides are a minor catalyst for his genius. "One of the things that's interesting about Jason, one of the most intriguing dichotomies of his personality, is the difference between his performance of a song and the song that is in his head," the guitarist observes. "His brain is way ahead of his hands. Like when we sit down and record songs, we just recorded a couple of songs in my house. They're beautiful songs, he played piano, and we added violin and delicate sounds, harmonies. He's going for something gorgeous, with that warbling falsetto that's very human. Then he gets up and plays the songs live, and totally deconstructs them, tears them apart, which is the appeal of his live show.

“What's going to happen, is his keyboard stand going to fall apart?" Ballew continues, "I look around at the audience and think, what's going on in their minds? Every time I see him live, I mentally fill in the blanks. Oh, this is where that luscious harmony goes. I'm hearing what I know he hears in his head. There's been a debate, 'Where does he go from here, deeper into vaudeville, or develop a full band and get more serious?' There might not be an answer. For now, it's great to watch him and wonder."

Originally published in The Tablet, Seattle, April 2001.

 copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav