This all started back in Seattle, where Jason would spend his days tending to their dog-walking business and his nights in the local clubs, playing guitar and singing.
I was the AV guy in high school: 16 mm projectors, record players, videos—all loaded on a cart and rolled down the hall, put together with my fat ass, dorky hair, and clothes—classic geek. Like all geeks, I wanted to be Angus Young, but I believe the closest Angus and I ever got was vinyl—he recorded on it and I played it. Turns out I was closer to rock stardom than I thought. My instrument, the slide projector, is the hot new instrument, especially in the hands of Tina Pina Trachtenburg.
Tina, along with her husband Jason (vocals and guitar/keyboard) and their nine-year old daughter Rachel (drums), are the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. Last month, they played to a packed house at the Mad Art Gallery. As Jason and Rachel played a loopy set of songs, Tina showed the slides (meticulously timed) that inspired the songs.
This all started back in Seattle, where Jason would spend his days tending to their dog-walking business and his nights in the local clubs, playing guitar and singing. One day, Tina picked up a packet of slides and a projector at an estate sale. Obsessed with the anonymous family’s tale they told, Jason wrote a song to go along with the slide. Thus, “Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959” was born, and next came the coordination of the family into the act (Rachel started on harmonica and moved to drums). What was one song at the end of his act soon became the act and a hot ticket around Seattle. The Trachtenburgs decided to move to Brooklyn, and soon they were appearing twice a week at local clubs to sellout crowds, opening for They Might Be Giants and becoming the first unsigned act to appear on Conan O’Brien’s show.
Talking with Jason Trachtenburg can be somewhat disorienting. He has the look, mannerisms, and enthusiasm of the guy who rhapsodizes eloquently—too eloquently—about how good the tofu at Whole Foods is. There is a part of him that knows this act is part unique art rock and part Second City TV skit, but he is as earnest as can be. He declared that the TFSP was “formed as a necessity to save entertainment. We have had it with all the sorry, sad, monotonous, predictable music out there. We have been commissioned by a higher power, whatever that means, to bring entertainment back to the masses…and good songs.” No small job this band has set up for itself.
Using the slides-as-inspiration method, he has come up with songs like “Fondue Friends in Switzerland,” “Eggs,” and the irritatingly memorable “European Boys.” The songs are good and fun and any thought that they might not hold up on their own without the presence of the slides or the nine-year-old drummer with pigtails and poise were dispelled the first time I put it in my CD player. The songs fall somewhere into They Might Be Giants territory and, like TMBG, carry all sorts of underlying messages. According to Jason, the band has raised audience expectations. “Some of our songs can be interpreted three or four different ways depending on how you look at it. There are many different levels,” he said, adding, “We are really deep.” He theorized that the recorded output of the band must be strong. “People say ‘Is it going to be OK without the slides?’ Then I feel defensive and we have to prove ourselves, moreso than almost any other band out there, by making the best CD possible.”
Though they are unsigned, TFSP have talked with several labels, including Bar None, Minty Fresh, and V2. Signing with V2 would put them on the same label as the White Stripes, who have turned out to be fans. They showed up at their concert in Detroit and Spin ran a piece comparing Rachel’s drumming style with Meg White’s.
Some of the slides shown during the performance edge into people’s private lives. During one song called “Look at Me,” the mundane slides show the lives of two women as their friendship takes them through war, marriages, and life. Suddenly the slides take a detour, as one of the women appears topless. The Trachtenburgs walk that thin line between an invasion of privacy and a shot at immortality. “I think, for some of these people, we have made their lives worth living,” Jason said. “Their life was meant to be immortalized in our song. That was the whole purpose of it. Not working for Boeing.”
While we talked, Rachel Trachtenburg was running around the gallery, chased by a person wearing a cheesy fake mustache. He turned out to be her drum teacher. It is sometimes easy to forget that this girl is nine. She has amazing poise, whether staring out into the audience while keeping a steady beat, or reacting (sometimes disdainfully) to her father’s joke-heavy stage patter. One minute she is Ringo Starr and the next you realize that her father is carefully making sure that her equipment is put away for her. Having once been nine, I think this must be a totally cool life for a kid. But the more adult me wonders if this is any kind of life for a little girl. Wouldn’t she rather have a nice, “normal” life?
“As fate would have it, our real life is the exact same thing as the show,” says Jason. “Rachel is brought up in this environment where everything we do is part of our act and that is normal for her. We wouldn’t work in a traditional situation.” That is not to say they don’t have their moments. Jason went on to say that there are time when he would want himself or Tina to be a better parent, or Rachel to be a better child; this is true of all families. However, he noted, “There are those times during the day that we do these miraculous things together. Totally full of synchronicity and universal connectiveness parenting, music, rock and roll, slideshow situation…” At that moment, in his normal earnest way, Jason Trachtenburg was nothing but a proud parent, content to have combined his family and his musical passions all into one basket.