The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
Photo credit: Frank Mullen
Think back to when you were a kid on family vacation and imagine yourself bouncing along in the cramped backseat of a 1983 suburban on a seemingly endless cross-country trip with your mom, dad and family dog, luggage piled close to the ceiling. Are you Russ or Audrey Griswold headed on a trip Wally World?
If you’re ten years old, and that’s your drum kit rattling between a slide projector and a suitcase crammed with black and white polka-dotted dresses, odds are you’re a Trachtenburg—Rachel to be exact, one third of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a band whose name clearly leaves nothing to guesswork. They’re undeniably a family: dad Jason sings and plays guitar and keyboards, mom Tina runs the slideshow—I’ll get to that in a second—and daughter Rachel is on drums and backing vocals.
The trio records songs Jason writes based on vintage slides that Tina usually finds at garage and estate sales or thrift shops. On tour, instead of showing snapshots of the family’s extensive travels, Tina plays the slides that coincide with the lyrics and words, turning each show into a performance art presentation and a cozy living room scene all in one.
And the family most definitely plays, mixing upbeat, bubbly rhythms with humorous lyrics about the people depicted in the slides that flash across the screen behind them. But Mom and Dad Trachtenburg aren’t just feeding their guests fluffy sweets. Each song contains a sugar-coated but poignant social lesson, and the hapless folks in the slides help illustrate the many points the band has to make about issues such as alcoholism, war and obesity, to name a few.
From Jason’s chatty stage manner to the soft, homemade dolls depicting Rachel (crafted by Tina) available at the show’s merchandise table, the Trachtenburgs whipped up warm family atmosphere at their stop at an Indianapolis club on April 15. With a new album in the works and upcoming summer tour dates, the family may be bringing their living room to a venue near you. I spoke with the group after their set about their unique songwriting technique, live shows and their plans for the future.
PopMatters: Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle Vol. 1 has been out for a few years. Do you have a new album in the works? A volume two maybe?
Jason Trachtenburg: Yeah. We have what we feel could be the greatest rock record in the history of rock music, and that’s the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players Vol. 2, Middle America. We just need to record the songs. We just have to do it, and talking about it is a good first step to getting things done.
PM: So you have the songs ready to go?
JT: Absolutely. In sequence and everything. It’s going to be fabulous. I think it’s a really strong work, and we’re pretty excited about it.
PM: Is it going to follow the same theme as the last one? Are you going to continue with the vintage slides?
JT: Right. It’s going to be all songs based on slides with a pull-out picture book and things you can flash up on your computer and do the slideshow. It’ll be expanding what we’ve done already, but even further.
PM: A lot of your songs have a pretty heavy social messages in the lyrics like dealing with weight and fast food and Vietnam and death that are couched in whimsical musical arrangements. Is that done on purpose? How do you come up with the topics that you’re covering?
JT: It’s a combination of the slides partially dictating what the topics are, but yet it’s our own interpretation of them. We live in a world with a lot of war and a lot of unjust actions on many different levels from the high to the low. People are treating each other badly and not doing the best they can. So it’s inevitable that should become part of what our theme is.
PM: It’s interesting that you have vintage slides but you’re dealing with issues that are very current as far as “Let’s Not Have the Same Weight in 1978—Let’s Have More” and then that McDonald’s documentary comes out at Sundance [Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me] and they stop super sizing their meals. Obviously the slides dictate some of the content, but how do you decide which current events to cover?
JT: I think it’s the same things that were plaguing our society in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s still the same thing today. There’s no difference. It’s the same old stuff all over again. We have the same criminals out there. It just wasn’t as obvious then. Now it’s so obvious what’s going on. It’s just like George W. Bush, the way he operates, it’s just more obvious than his predecessors, but they were just as bad as he was. They were your Johnsons, your Nixons—the same thing. And Bush senior, of course. McDonalds and corporate foods have been around, it’s just so much more widespread now, and so it’s more obvious what the problem is.
PM: I know Rachel is also singing about these things. You mention Agent Orange in one of your songs. How aware of these issues is she? Do you sit down and talk about them or is she learning about them in school?
JT: I think about that in particular she doesn’t know what we’re talking about. It’s just a lyric, but with Iraq becoming the new Vietnam, or so they say, maybe it will become all that much clearer. Tina Trachtenburg: She’s definitely not learning about Agent Orange in school, but it’s kind of a history lesson for her. I don’t think she know about that. Let’s ask her.
TT: Rachel, do you know what Agent Orange is? In that slide? When you’re singing it? Rachel Trachtenburg: I don’t know what it means.
TT: Do you know what it is?
RT: A color?
TT: But what is that slide of?
PM: Have you ever had anyone recognize the subjects of slides?
JT: People claim they recognize people in the slides, but I feel that none of these rumors have been substantiated. I need more proof. Everyone can make these bold claims, but until I see some real documentation, as far I know all of our subjects are deceased and most of their families are all on the west coast. And that being said, only a certain percentage of the population goes out to indie rock shows. If someone claims they do know someone in the slides, I do believe them but I’m skeptical.
PM: Has anyone offered to take slides of you so that you can present yourselves on a slide and in the show at the same time?
JT: When we started out this week we actually tried to take some slides and some pictures of Rachel crossing the street and ones where we were all crossing the street like Abbey Road style but the whole point of our act is that it’s not about us. And so whenever we’d show our own slides up there, I’d get too self-conscious and it’d look all ‘90s and 2000. It’s got to be a vintage look or what’s the point?
PM: When you’re choosing slides, what are you looking for besides vintage? What kinds of visuals make for good songwriting?
JT: We basically look for interesting close-up shots of interesting looking people from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s doing something besides standing in front of some sort of tourist attraction. There are so many bad photographers out there, that much we’ve noticed. These pictures of scenery are useless to us. We need intimate family realities that you would never know existed unless you were inside the slides. Someone standing in front of the Eiffel Tower—we all know what happened with that. It wouldn’t have any innuendo.
PM: You did some singing and songwriting before you incorporated the slides. How does having them change the songwriting process? Is it easier or more difficult?
JT: It’s quite a bit easier actually. Now if there’s ever a subject we have trouble trying to figure out, it’s all right there. I don’t feel limited because of the slides cause I can write regular songs too. It’s really amazing someone didn’t come up with this years ago.
PM: So it’s kind of writer’s block proofed?
PM: Your show is much more than music. You have performance art going on. There’s a big emphasis with found art. You have Found magazine, which is a kind of voyeuristic look at letters and cards people leave lying around or forget. What do you make of that in relation to your music? Do you see society at large, what with reality TV and all, peering into someone else’s life more and more?
JT: It’s definitely a whole movement. And we didn’t know about the found art movement until we go involved in it. What else are you going to do with the excesses of this overwhelming culture from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s besides use it as art and fodder for social commentary?
PM: You mentioned that you didn’t know about the movement until you got involved. Do you think there’s some sort of catalyst that makes people become more voyeuristic or interested in creating stories from what is already real?
JT: Yes. I think it’s a step up from pure fiction. Creating stories out of your own desperation…I’m non-fiction. I’m not interested in these characters that don’t even exist. I’m interested in people who do exist. I definitely work hard at overcoming my disinterest in everything. I’m trying to be interested in people, and I’m certainly not interested in these fictitious characters out of someone’s imagination.
PM: Do you see the band evolving in any way in the future?
JT: I think all it can do is move forward just by writing more songs. Rachel wants a new drum kit; I want to get a real keyboard. That will be a step in the right direction in the next six months.
PM: Your dad said you want a new drum kit. What kind do you want?
RT: I don’t know… I want a pink one. It’s my favorite color. Pink or light blue.
PM: Did Rachel choose to play drums? How was she incorporated in the band?
JT: Yeah, we needed a drummer and she seemed like a good candidate. She took some lessons.
PM: You tour in a 1983 Suburban. How’s it holding up?
JT: It’s doing great. We’ve taken least six or seven tours in it. It just keeps going and going. It’s never let us down.
TT: It’s taken us all across the country. We’ve never missed a show.