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The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players Pick A Fight on Their Way Out of Town

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John E. Hollingsworth
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John E. Hollingsworth
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John E. Hollingsworth
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John E. Hollingsworth
I arrived at Victrola coffeehouse on Capitol Hill on May 25 and noticed a slight flurry of action going on. I'd seen the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players perform before, and I knew that Jason Trachtenburg is a tenacious character, so I assumed he, his wife Tina, and daughter Rachel were just standing around talking to fans before the set. What I didn't notice, though, was that Jason had placed a sandwich board in front of the venue that, among other things, criticized local radio and its political agendas: "We have a poingent [sic] message that contradicts [KEXP's] message...[which] is Christian Folk and Hillbilly--nice job Don and John." Needless to say, some patrons of Victrola--a café that has played host to popular KEXP DJ John Richards' morning show--became perturbed, to put it mildly. And due to their complaints, Victrola has told the Trachtenburgs that they are no longer allowed to play at the coffeehouse. (I have to ask, how passively aggressive and typical of Seattle is it to "ban" a band that has announced it is leaving town?) Conversely, Jason, a man of slight build with bushy hair and a permanent smirk on his face, has a bee in his bonnet these days, buzzing with ferocious contempt for anyone whom he feels has thrown up a road block to the advancement of his family's career. Currently, those road blocks include not only KEXP, Richards, station manager Don Yates, and Richards' local record label Loveless Records, but to an extent, Seattle itself.

But before we get into all of that, a little background for folks who've missed out on one of the city's most original rock bands. The music part of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players is composed of keyboardist and guitarist Jason and drummer Rachel, age nine. The rest of the act is centered on a slide projector, run by Tina. A couple years ago, the Trachtenburgs came up with the idea of purchasing vintage slides sold at estate sales and then writing songs based on the inherent themes the anonymous images lent to the imagination. "Fondue Friends in Switzerland," "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959," and "European Boys" are but a few of the hilariously playful, and at times, bitingly political songs. The family played their first show as part of The Stranger's annual PIZZAZZ! talent show, and the performance garnered them an award for second place. Since then the Trachtenburgs have played shows at many local rock clubs and coffeehouses, and even released a CD, Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle Volume 1, prompting this glowing review from former Stranger Music Editor Jeff DeRoche: While referential, this bizarre local family affair is a unique project unto itself. And yes, the idea that Trachtenburg's [then] eight-year-old daughter, Rachel, plays drums is precious, until one actually hears her play. She's excellent. The songs recall the Beatles, Camper Van Beethoven, and even the Dead Milkmen at times.... It's a tongue-in-cheek manifesto for the entire family.

DeRoche was right on the mark, and much of the band's fan base agreed. But lately the family has felt that all is not so rosy in Seattle's music community, and that their career advancement requires a move to New York City. They'll leave our fair city in July, and we will miss their quirky act dearly. But I have a feeling it's only a matter of months before the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players turn up on Letterman. Already, they've nabbed themselves a month-long residency in August at hip Manhattan club Fez.

But back to the current controversy and Jason's conspiracy theories, as that is just about all the alternately gushing and agitated singer wants to discuss during his final days in Seattle. Jason shows me the e-mail sent out by a woman who was angered by Trachtenburg's Victrola appearance. It begins, "Top Five Reasons why All KEXP fans should boycott the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players," before recounting, among other reasons, that Jason had proclaimed their performance to be a direct protest to the John Richards-sponsored "Christfest down at the Showbox" (where Christian act Pedro the Lion was performing), and that the sandwich board stated that "KEXP is a pulpit for born-again folk rockers to the exclusion of 100s of great Seattle bands. They are on the take (PAYOLA)." Jason fires back, "Yeah, I saw [the woman taking notes for her e-mail] and should have intervened but I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And as far as [that woman's] reaction goes, if anyone feels passionate about something, it's fine by me. Social commentary, political satire, it's all part of our act. And she got really bent out of shape about it and decided she's gonna stick up for the corporation, stick up for Don Yates and the morning faithful and all that stuff, which is fine. If she feels a connection to that morning show, that's great. It's wonderful that people get something out of KEXP."

Now, however, Jason reveals his real grudge: "We have realized that in Seattle, if you're in a band and you think that KEXP is going to be on your side because you're rising through the ranks of this music scene and that independent radio is the next logical step of the progression of your career, they're not there for you. You've been misled. KEXP helps artists who don't deserve to be played on their station because those artists feed their vested interest." Many accusations follow, including supposed collusions between the radio station, Sub Pop, all-ages venue the Paradox, and even certain local Christian rock bands, but most of his diatribe is rife with misinformation. That said, it sure is entertaining, and maybe a little frightening, to witness such a gale force of suspicion and conviction.

Tina, the calmer of the two, agrees with Jason's claim that some form of payola is involved, using a voicemail Yates left on their manager Beth's phone as evidence. Yates doesn't mention the Christian connection at all, but says, Apparently [Jason] was defaming the station in public and saying and writing down a lot of, you know, actually slander, like, "They are on the take, payola," which is an outrageous lie and really upsets me. She posits: "What we noticed was that the thing that pissed them off the most was the mention of payola. He didn't go into any of the other issues we are against, he only cared about the notion of payola. And that to me is very telling."

When asked to comment on Jason's accusations, Yates says, "[Jason]'s called up in the past to complain about not getting played and because someone didn't read his listing in the concert calendar. We've never had a problem with him, and his CDs are in the library and they have been played." I ask him if anyone has said anything anti-Trachtenburg on the air, and he says, "Not that I'm aware of. We look at ourselves as being very supportive of local music. It's sad that he wants to rip apart what is one of the most supportive media outlets for local music in this city. There's a lot more to the local scene than just the Trachtenburgs." At this point Yates rattles off the names of bands currently being played on the station. When he mentions several Sub Pop titles, I ask whether the local label is given special attention, and he emphatically denies the accusation. "That's bogus. Just look again at the local list. Sub Pop has put out a lot of good stuff this year. We give the attention to the music we think is deserved. That's the bottom line."

Jason is not convinced, however, and he calls Richards into the drama. "John Richards has a vested interest and a blatant conflict of interest with owning a record label and plugging his bands, or bands that he has in his back pocket, at least once a shift. [For the record, Richards' playlists show that he spins his own bands on average of once a week.] He never, ever, says on his radio show that he owns his own record label. People think he must just like Vendetta Red, he must just like Voyager One, that's cool."

Yates replies for Richards, "Loveless has some great bands and it would be a disservice to both the bands and the station listeners if we didn't play them.... He plays Loveless bands sparely... and when he does, he avoids hyping them." Perhaps admitting that the band just happens to be on his label is considered hyping.

Since the e-mail that was circulated centered on the now infamous Victrola show sandwich board, Sub Pop artist Damien Jurado sent Jason a retaliatory e-mail calling Jason a bigot and ending with this unfortunate phrase: "Maybe we Christians would be better off sitting in the back of the bus, drinking from our own water fountains and wearing colored arm bands." The Trachtenburgs now regret having made comments about local religious acts, and find it ironic payback that the van they recently bought to ferry them to NYC is Pedro the Lion's discarded oil-burner. "We just want to apologize if we offended any believers in Jesus Christ," says Jason. "We have no problem with anyone believing in anything that works for them, and we've found them to be nothing but the most upstanding and cool people." Get ready, here we go again: "That being said, our problem is with KEXP and the preference they give to certain genres of music, at the exclusion of what's really going on in the scene. Everything they don't play you won't hear for a reason. You will never hear the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players or the Pinkos on KEXP because we have a blatant left-wing political agenda that says we are anti-corporate, we are anti-right-wing. We've been on the KNDD morning show, we've been on NPR. The End's morning crew is particularly on our side--they love us. They're better to us than KEXP ever will be. KGRG 89.9 in Green River Community College also has a very good local music show hosted by Sharlise and Shaun. They support all kinds of local music on that show. They're not closed off to anybody. They genuinely support a wide range of local music and vary the playlist from week to week, and do not play the same acts over and over again, year after year."

But enough about KEXP, I want to know the plan for New York. Jason is excited about Fez, but has no idea what it's like. I tell him it's a hip place and he replies, "Oh, that's great to hear. We've been waiting for someone to say, 'Oh, that's the Ballard Firehouse of New York City.'" Despite all the ranting and raving, it's the underlying vulnerability that shines through with this band and, for their fans, makes the difference between perceiving them not as total blowhards but as comically skewed entertainers. Tina tells me the reason she runs the slideshow projector is because the thought of having to stand up on stage makes her want to faint, yet she's married to the absolute embodiment of attention-grabbing controversy. When Jason starts to rant one last time, she reminds him that I asked about the future, so he gets back on track with, "We're going to play a lot of open mics [in New York] to start plugging our show at Fez, and just try to make contacts and get the word out and do our act. And if the response is anything like it is here, we should be professional musicians within a short time. Here we got a huge response. The mainstream and alternative press have been completely on our side and wonderful." But he just can't leave it at that now, can he? Of course not. "Due to the vested interests in the 'industry' here--and it's such a small industry, basically KEXP and Sub Pop--due to their small little world and their small little spectrum, we won't even get close to 'getting in there' here."

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players perform Fri June 21 at Mr. Spot's Chai House (with Rob Alleson), Sat June 22 at the Vera Project (with Passive Aggressive Fist and the Pinkos), and Thurs June 27 at the Sunset Tavern.

 

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