Monday, February 02, 2004

I recently wrote an article on the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players for City Link Magazine in Fort Lauderdale. A week after the article appeared, I received (through the magazine) a very nice letter from Jason Trachtenberg's dad. I don't usually get letters like this, so I thought I'd share it. (And, in case you're curious, the article it refers to is below.)

Dear Mr. Getlen,

I would like to thank you for the beautiful article you did on the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. I felt that you went beyond most of the other writers to provide an great in-depth look at their lives and music. I depend on the media for much of my contact with the band even though I am Jason's dad and Rachel's granddad. They spend so much time on the road, I get less opportunity to see them than I would like, but articles such as yours make my day. My time is coming. Next weekend, they will be in Maryland, Philadelphia and New Jersey so I will OD on their performances while I have the opportunity. In another week, they are leaving for a tour of Australia. I don't think they are taking the infamous '83 Suburban on that trip although it would probably perform fair dinkum in the outback.

Lollipops and unicorns,

Milt Trachtenburg

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
By Larry Getlen

Rachel Pina Trachtenburg spent this past New Year’s Eve much like any other ten-year-old girl – dressed in a silver pantsuit looking like the spawn of Ziggy Stardust, playing drums at a club in Brooklyn behind her father as he sang songs inspired by slides taken in the 1950’s, as a crowd of appreciative hipsters drunkenly cheered her on.

OK – so maybe her childhood is shaping up a bit different than most.

But at ten, Rachel has been playing live music almost half her life, and her family’s act, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, may make her a celebrity before she hits the five foot mark.

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players consists of drummer Rachel, her singer/songwriter father Jason, and mom Tina, who, although she doesn’t actually participate in the music making, designs the groups costumes and operates the slide projector. The act features Jason and Rachel playing songs based on old slides the family found at garage and estate sales, and it has become a genuine media sensation, generating coverage from MTV, Entertainment Weekly and the New Yorker, and appearing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien before they even had a record deal.

Now, the Trachtenburg’s have released their first CD, Vintage Slide Collections From Seattle, Vol. 1, and just filmed their first video, for the single “Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959.” And now that they’re moving from the clubs to the music mainstream, it remains to be seen whether they have what it takes to convert a brilliant novelty into long term success.

There are many reasons for the family’s current buzz, including the slide gimmick on which their act is based, and the adorable Rachel. In fact, watching them do their thing at Brooklyn’s Southpaw for New Year’s Eve, the one word that comes to mind throughout the show is “adorable.” Between Rachel’s Meg White-like appeal (she plays drums on White’s level – she’s not as adept as White at basic rhythm, but bests her on the variance of drums sounds used within a song), and Jason’s own Rick Moranis-like precocious nerdiness, the entire act feels like something you want to place in your pocket and bring home for the wall unit.

But cute only gets you so far, and the Trachtenburg’s probably wouldn’t have gotten to CD stage if there wasn’t a strength and legitimacy to the songwriting. Jason Trachtenburg has a way of converting kitschy pictures into perfectly pithy lyrics. In the aforementioned “Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959,” a slide of an extremely rural, grizzled man in a plaid shirt who stands before a store sign marked “graveyard” is accompanied by the lyric, “We like death, yes we do/Going to see the graveyard,” and the next slide of a gravestone of five men hanged in 1884 is met with “And the hanging too/It could have been you/if the foot was on the other shoe.”

And therein lies a secret to the Trachtenburg’s success. Inside the cuddly exterior, a serpent’s bite sometimes awaits. The deeper one gets into the album, the more punchy and political the lyrics get, and one realizes that Jason has managed to make his family act fluffy and filling at the same time.

Most of the last half of the album (save for the final song) is a rock opera of sorts, based on slides of an old meeting from a McDonald’s corporate office, and an anti-corporate sentiment oozes from the tracks. Talking to Jason Trachtenburg a week after the New Year’s Eve show, one gets a sense of a man who feels he’s doing something of phenomenal importance, far beyond that of any novelty act.

Trachtenburg played his original songs around the Seattle area for 15 years in the typical coffeehouse/open mic circuit, all the while earning a living by walking other people’s dogs. One day in 2000, his wife Tina came across some old slides, and suggested that Jason show them as a backdrop to his act. Jason flipped it, and instead wrote songs based on the slides. Quickly, a phenomenon was born – although to hear Trachtenburg describe it, it was beyond a phenomenon.

When he performed in front of the slides for the first time, “it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before in the 15 years I’d been in show business,” says Trachtenburg, who soon came up with an entire act based on the new gimmick. “The line would be blocks down the street. We’d have triple sell-outs, people couldn’t even get in. It would be ridiculous. The bigger it got, the only thing that could be compared to it was Beatlemania. It was that out of control.”

But while the slides were drawing sell-out crowds, the act was missing something – a drummer. Rachel, who was six at the time, was already a musically-inclined child who would play harmonica at her father’s shows.

“As a result of living in Seattle and having to drive around for everything we do, we ended up having to listen to the radio a lot,” says Trachtenburg. “We listened to oldies and classic rock. So Rachel had an encyclopedic knowledge from listening to the radio for six years, several hours a day, just like some kids would have from TV, from watching several hours a day. She knew the history of rock, classic rock, and to a certain extent indie rock. So we needed a drummer, and she can’t play harmonica on every song, we’re not gonna be like Blues Traveler, so we said, ‘let’s get her on drums.’ So she took drum lessons and got the basic beat down.”

While Trachtenburg says that his daughter enjoys the musical lifestyle she now leads, which includes living on the road for weeks at a time, his tendency to challenge his child has occasionally been taken too far.

“One thing she felt a little awkward at, I kind of overdid it, I thought she could play harmonica and drums at the same time, and sing,” says Trachtenburg. “She actually did that for a couple of shows, but said it was uncomfortable.” Trachtenburg feels that it’s important to challenge his daughter. “Who’s to say? I thought it could be done. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem that outrageous. I think challenging them is important. You find that they’re amazingly confident. They can do as much as adults can do if not more, and just as well, with a better attitude.”

And if the reaction from the crowds and the media are any indication, many people agree. “We were in the New Yorker,” says Trachtenburg. “We had a Talk of the Town feature, with a cartoon and everything. Rachel got her own New Yorker-style cartoon. It was a huge deal. Then shortly thereafter Spin did a feature, and then it was a steady stream of national and local press since then.”

Once Trachtenburg realized what was happening, he started contemplating ways to move it forward. “At first I was really excited, because we’d actually stumbled upon something and started making a living at it,” says Trachtenburg. “Then it was, OK, now how can we keep this thing going, keep it intriguing and artistically aware and competent in the wake of where entertainment is right now, and where it’s been in the past? What’s our place gonna be in the history of entertainment? Now this is up to us to decide. So we’re really ready to start putting out some strong and highly evolved products with a concept. We’re a conceptual art rock band.”

And these are important considerations, because while the family is getting a great reaction now, there will come a time when the novelty of the slides wears off, and Rachel, of course, won’t be ten years old forever. Trachtenburg is asked how the act can evolve beyond novelty, but to him, novelty has little place here.

“That question has to be posed to every single band who has ever played in rock,” says Trachtenburg. “So you’ve seen our show, and then what? They’re probably going to see our show again next time. We will, just like any other rock band, do our set, we’ll do our songs, and I guess all we can do is just keep introducing new songs while keeping the old favorites, just like any other band. What is any other band going to do?”

But Trachtenburg doesn’t really see his act as just like any other band. He sees it as something more. He feels that he’s created not just a phenomenon, but a new paradigm. “I feel this concept has the potential to change entertainment if we apply it correctly,” says Trachtenburg. “If it’s constantly evolving and taking it to the next level, this act will change entertainment history.”

When it’s suggested to Trachtenburg that statements such as these could be considered somewhat grandiose, he responds that his reaction merely matches the excitement he feels his act has generated. “We feel it. We’ve already done it,” says Trachtenburg. “We’ve raised the common denominator of what acts have to do in a live performance setting.”


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