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."
Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players • Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Vol. 1 • 2001 • Bar None Records
Originally published in The Tablet, Seattle, April 2001.
copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav