Profile: The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
By Dominic Auslio
Came a time in the 60’s and 70’s when the standard for torture-some boredom in suburban America was being dragged to your neighbors’ house for an evening of cocktails and a slideshow from the family’s latest vacation.
It was a foregone conclusion that the cocktails need be stiff and in bottomless supply. Flip through any family oriented sitcom from the era on TV Land (like The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family) and you’re bound to find TV dad’s like Dick Van Patten or Robert Reed hamming it up, their face contorted with grimace, perhaps painfully self-aware of both the lameness of the humor and the execution of a joke that had become almost instantaneously cliché.
Times change, of course. We move on. We get hipper. We look back at such silliness as, say, Bugle Boys and ask “What the hell were we thinking?”
It’s part of the cyclical nature of our cultural trends. Humorists, scribes, bards, and historians alike are here to document these moments for us.
Initially, we move on with one eye over the shoulder, looking back, evaluating with our lens of presumptuous enlightenment, making such cliché elements of Americana the subject of satire and abuse. There is a shelf life for satire, though, and a small window for satirical opportunity. Once that window closes and the expiration date passes, what then becomes of these moments, these things we first found novel, then mercilessly poked fun at?
Well, we forget them. We move on to the next thing. Anything left is buried, deep within the ground, to be dug up later and re-examined as curios of a time inconceivable in a modern context. Inconceivable, that is, until someone comes along with an innovative eye and sets those clichés on their ear.
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players illustrate this concept in practice: the dusting off of stereotypes and outdated technological wonders for complete re-inhabitation and re-invention.
Many of you may already be familiar with the Trachtenburg act. They started out, not so long ago, here in Seattle. The recap, straight from their official bio:
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are a domestic trio (dad Jason, mom Tina Piña, and 12-year-old daughter Rachel), who play quirky indie pop songs in the key of un-ironic, good, clean fun. Think They Might Be Giants meets the Partridge Family — with one major catch: All the songs’ carefully rhyming lyrics come from the vintage slide collections they’ve found at estate or garage sales that accompany their performances. What’s more, from their retro fashion sense to their disavowal of modern conveniences, the Trachtenburg Family themselves are a charming relic, a vintage throwback to simpler, and more self-sufficient, family-oriented times. Just like their music.
Tina Piña and Jason met at a Greenwich Village open-mic in 1989. After reading about the so-called grunge capital in Newsweek, the pair later relocated to Seattle by way of Austin and San Francisco. They had a daughter, Rachel, and ran a dog-walking business while Jason worked Seattle’s open-mic circuit, sometimes playing as many as three sets a night. When his eccentric Indie-pop was failing to find an audience, Tina suggested he augment his act with slide imagery. Jason now admits he pooh-poohed the idea, but Tina wasn’t deterred.
On a subsequent dog-walking trip with Rachel, she found an old slide projector at a garage sale, then a box of slides from a random family’s 1959 mountain trip to Japan. One morning in 2000, Tina awoke to find Jason had spent the entire night writing a song to accompany the slide presentation (appropriately titled “Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959”). Six-year-old Rachel was recruited to play harmonica on the track (she later moved over to drum duties), Tina was appointed projector operator/backup singer, and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players were born. “We’re a family, there’s a slideshow, and we’re players in the industry and just in life,” Jason explains. (Caryn Ganz)
In a sense, the Trachtenburgs are archaeologists and anthropologists of pop-culture.
But that’s only part of the story and a disservice to their uniqueness. The aim of the Trachtenburgs’ endeavor isn’t a one note joke at the expense of a time fallen by the wayside. Instead, it’s an appropriation of something vaguely familiar – that late 50’s early 60’s veneer of innocence and wholesomeness – into something entirely fresh and new.
Throwback? Yes. Stylistic as hell? Definitely. Intended as an ironic sucker punch at such a sensibility? Not in the least.
It’s a big risk to incorporate elements that, in lesser hands, could easily become schticky. It’s also the willingness to take such risks that usually leads to something truly unique. The end product has been wildly well received. Since re-locating to New York’s East Village in 2002, they’ve befriended the likes of Regina Spektor and Nellie McKay and won over the alt-folk scene. They’ve attracted numerous famous fans including The White Stripes’ Meg White, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, comedian Eugene Mirman, and filmmaker John Waters (who describes the act as “The Lawrence Welk Show gone insane.”)
In 2003, they became the first unsigned band to appear on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Coming full circle from their Seattle coffee house days, the Trachtenburg Family killed at Bumbershoot back in 2005, garnering a standing ovation, and prompting comedian David Cross to write, in complete sincerity, “They are brilliant. They are nothing if not love itself.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not one to argue with David Cross.
Perhaps if Tom Bradford or Mike Brady had been fortunate enough to live next to the Trachtenburgs, those evenings with the neighbors wouldn’t have seemed so painful. Then again, were it not for the Bradfords and Bradys of suburbia documenting every precious detail of their lives through slideshow photography, the Trachtenburgs of today might not even exist.
I’m glad things worked out the way they did. If the Trachtenburgs are inviting you over to bust out the photo album and home movies, you best accept the invitation. You probably won’t even need that stiff drink.
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players play the Crocodile Café on Saturday, December 8.