The Trachtenburgs are an ersatz Partridge family, culled down to a two-piece and hosting a vaudevillian, boho parlor slideshow, with all the kitsch and irony you'd expect from a confirmed leftist and his conceptual-artist wife. But just as with their television relatives, it's the youngest one, 9-year-old drummer Rachel Trachtenburg, who steals the show with her little pigtails and precocious charm.
After haunting Seattle-area open-mic nights and singer/songwriter showcases since the early '90s with little success, Jason Trachtenburg had a bright idea. At first it was just a little songwriting exercise: putting words and music to some slides his wife picked up at a thrift shop. But it bloomed into "an indie-vaudeville-pop-rock phenomenon," as he describes it, when he put his daughter on drums and composed an entire set of songs to accompany more slides, thus christening the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players.
The group kicked around Seattle for a couple of years, but failed to attract more than a cult. But moving to New York a year ago and garnering a residency at Ars Nova Theater (performing a set on Tuesdays and hosting a variety show, Automatic Vaudeville, with comedians such as Rich Hall and Janeane Garofalo), they became the toast of the town. National press quickly followed.
"When we first moved to New York, that [residency] was one of the crucial things—we met a lot of movers and shakers. In New York, it's all about the industry—if you're not on the radar, you might as well not even bother, because in that town bands are either enormous or they're nothing," Jason says. "If we hadn't left Seattle, I'd still be walking dogs [for a living] today. Because the industry just was not there, and they didn't know what to do with us. We could have been a little local novelty act, but that's all we could have been there."
Jason Trachtenburg's wry wit emerges in his arch narration of the slides, poking fun at our tourist fascinations and their reflection of our consumerist tendencies. His tour de force is a series of slides from a 1977 fast-food marketing report, which he delivers like a down-on-his-luck Mark Russell performing his piano shtick for corporate execs. From the polka-driven "European Boys" to the ragtime bounce of "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959," there's a sunny, Beatles-ish aesthetic reminiscent of They Might Be Giants, with a Schoolhouse Rock penchant for singsong prose and a Modern Lovers mesh of innocence and irony.
But what truly separates the act from other quirky songwriters, like Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair, is that this is a family affair. They wear matching outfits made by Jason's mother-in-law; mom runs the slide projector from the front of the stage while dad and daughter play, with Rachel adding occasional little-girl backing vocals. Jason's quite aware of Rachel's draw, though he bristles at the suggestion that her use is a tad exploitive.
"Is she a huge factor in our band being where we are? I really think so. If it wasn't for her—if it was just me doing songs to slides, we would not be where we're at. That's pretty obvious," he says. "But we're giving her the most amazing, interesting childhood any child could ask for. She gets to meet all these people, go to different cities, and hopefully we'll be touring the world soon."
For her own part, Rachel seems to be having a ball. She's effervescent after the show, talking to admirers and signing autographs embellished with little flowers. Jason admits that having your daughter as your drummer can be difficult. When they recorded their self-titled debut in 2001, Jason, still eager for the approval of his Seattle peers, enlisted the services of Fastbacks drummer Mike Musburger instead of using Rachel, leading to a protracted tiff.
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"I felt in order to make the best rock record that's ever been made, I had to get the best rock drummer in town. And Rachel? When I told her she wasn't going to be on the record, except for a little bit of vocal work, she was pissed. She was seriously upset and didn't talk to me for a week," Trachtenburg says. "I didn't think it was a very big deal, but it really was an insult to her. I just felt if we made the strongest record we could possibly make, then maybe that would help, but that didn't make a rat's ass of difference."
Now that they've achieved a certain level of success, Jason is looking to move beyond the gimmick-band tag.
"We want to become established as recording artists, not as a kooky novelty dog-and-pony show. Song and dance is fine, but we want to be seen as legitimate entertainers, and hopefully use this vehicle to allow ourselves to have a lifetime career in the arts. Eventually I'd like to move on and go back to the solo stuff I've been doing for 15 years," he says. "We feel that our window of opportunity is about three or four more years. That's how far we can take this act—at that point, I think we will have taken it as far as it can go. Though who knows? There's that famous interview with John Lennon in 1963, where they ask him how long he thinks it will last, and he says we'll be lucky if we last another three months."
The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players perform with Point Blank and The Friendly Indians at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sun., 8 p.m. $10. All ages.