A 9-year-old drummer. The band has a 9-year-old drummer. The thought alone conjures up visions of corporate-controlled kiddie-pop sibling-band disasters like Hanson and the Jackson 5. But when was the last time a tot-toting ensemble -- or any band, for that matter -- pulled off an exceptionally creative performance concept? Enter the most buzzed-about band on the indie rock circuit: The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a quirky art-rock trio that purchases vintage slide collections from estate sales and writes songs about them, turning each performance into a bouncy, tongue-in-cheek slide show. "We try to humorously examine the vintage lifestyle choices of anonymous strangers from the '50s, '60s and '70s by turning their slides into indie vaudeville art," explains lead vocalist Jason Trachtenburg.
As the band name implies, the Slideshow is indeed an endeavor of kin: endearingly offbeat singer/father, Jason; the funky, affable costume designer/slide-projectionist/mother, Tina; and their drummer/daughter Rachel.
While talking with the family backstage at July's Bonnaroo music festival, Rachel calmly blew bubbles and wiggled her bare feet, while her fantastically left-wing, Rick Moranis-look-alike father eagerly listed the many evils of American society: processed food, the government and television.
"Organic produce will save the world," asserts Jason. "Anything processed is just a poison that helps the infrastructure keep going."
Hard to believe that just moments before, these two had been onstage presenting their oddball multimedia spectacle to a packed tent of 5,000 fans. As weird as it sounds (and actually is), their concept actually works; the band has appeared on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," been branded "the best-known local act of the new millennium" by The New Yorker and played sold-out shows across America. Not bad for an idea that, by all rights, shouldn't have ever made it past the initial "wouldn't that be interesting" inspiration.
The whole slide concept started in Seattle in 2000, when Jason, then a struggling musician and professional dog-walker, purchased a slide projector and a box of slides labeled "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959," from an estate sale for $5.25. Inspired by the odd images captured in the photos, he impulsively composed a song to accompany the slides.
"As soon as Jason performed that song for me, I was like, 'Oh ... my ... God. This is it, this is it!'" says Tina, who convinced Jason to incorporate the song into his solo act.
When Jason's audience also responded well, he and Tina recruited their musically inclined daughter, then 6, to play harmonica. Rachel soon moved to the drum stool, Tina became the slide projectionist and costume designer and the trio instantly became a local success.
"The original projector was a disaster," Jason remembers, chuckling. "We always had to stop in the middle of shows and fiddle with it, or the bulb would burn out. Some nights I would have to race home to get a spare one."
With the old days thankfully behind them, the band now enjoys a more comical problem: dealing with die-hard fans that insist on donating thousands of old family slides at every show.
"Everyone thinks their families' old vacation pictures are perfect for our songs," Jason says, yawning. "But our favorite slides are either the very personal ones or the business and corporate ones."
A self-described mix of slapstick and political commentary, their current set contains such masterpieces as a six-song "rock opera," featuring slides from a corporate McDonald's meeting in 1978. With verses like, "We need more advertising to tell our story/ and to keep hamburgers before our customers," their lyrics teeter between the ridiculous, satirical and surprisingly poignant. The resulting audience is easily comparable with that of "The Simpsons:" They either "get it" or they don't.
"The pencil-protector crowd seems to identify with us the most," admits Jason. "You see the same type of 'intellectual' rock fans at our shows that you do at shows like They Might be Giants."
So ... does Rachel "get" any of the subtle irony in their songs?
"Rachel understands some of what we sing about," Jason says slowly. "But wait -- I don't even know what we sing about sometimes! Not all of our songs have real meaning."
Besides her unusually sophisticated taste in music (Polyphonic Spree, Langhorne Slim, Frank Sinatra), Rachel is a giggling, imaginative kid. When not on tour, she attends a public school in Seattle and loves to play with friends, eat pizza and go swimming. "The hotel pools are my favorite," Rachel adds, grinning.
In September, the band released their first interactive CD, "Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Vol. I," on Bar/None Records. Although the "enhanced" CD does contain some nifty features, it doesn't hold a candle to the experience of attending a live show.
According to Jason, nothing will keep them from delivering a top-notch performance.
"If Jeb Bush tries to rig our performance like he did the election, he'll be holding our slide screen!"
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