ALL YOU GLOOMY Guses need to accept this: Too much sad music can get you down. I know, here in Seattle we love to wallow in misery, drink too much, and get all sensitive-indie-rock on each other. But have you tried getting wistful lately? The American Heritage Dictionary defines wistful as "full of wishful yearning." You're sad, but hopeful at the same time. It sounds just lovely.

Sanford Arms is nothing if not wistful. Singer and guitar player Ben London writes songs that hit you square in the heart, inducing bar-stool longing and emotional thrashings like you haven't felt since puberty. But it's the music that really gets you, swollen with a kind of blue melancholy that's only a note away from breaking into some sad little jig, that lonely swaying dance you do in the kitchen when the wine nudges you into a once-forgotten memory.

What makes Sanford Arms stand out among our city's misery-loving bands? Well, if you can believe it, it's the accordion. Heaving and sighing right there in the middle of all that guitar, a gentle yet passionate sound emanates from the bellows strapped to Rob Witmer's chest, providing the extra weep that, because of the conditioned response traditional polka has instilled, also provides the hope.

As protesters created their own kind of passion on Capitol Hill, Witmer and I discussed his beloved instrument.

Please explain why the accordion is a non-violent form of protest.

There aren't too many places you can go with an accordion these days and not have to dodge tear gas. The accordion case itself makes a great bench for sitting, and the key of B-flat is great for singing labor songs. Remember how Nero played the fiddle as Rome burned? I'll be playing the accordion.

Do you prefer the accordion to be the "star" attraction of a band, or to blend in, as it does in Sanford Arms?

I enjoy bands that feature players like Clifton Chenier and Flaco Jiminez. Those guys each play a style of music that really features the "button box" sound. My own style is less out front and more oriented toward ensemble playing, where you contribute a part and blend in. Sometimes less is more.

What does the accordion add to Sanford Arms that a guitar can't?

Something to prop the door open with while the band loads in. I think the fact that there's air moving in and out of the bellows adds a sense of breathing to the music. It adds an organic texture to the whole mix. I also have a full range of bass reeds, which can be used as drones. Ben's songs have a lot of space in them; there's room to add lines that play off what the guitars are doing.

Do you play any other instruments?

In fourth grade I began playing the clarinet, which I continued through high school. I also played various types of saxophone. They're both akin to the accordion, being reed instruments. Sometimes on the accordion it seems like I'm doing what a whole reed section would be doing.

You play standing up. Doesn't carrying all that weight up so high on the chest for such a long period of time pose a threat of injury?

A full-size accordion can get pretty heavy. According to the classical free-reed society, the proper playing position for the accordion is sitting down, with the weight of the instrument resting on your thighs. Not the best for playing in a band. People who play standing up are definitely more at risk.

Do people hold unfair stereotypes of accordion players?

The funny thing is that there are so many different accordion-player stereotypes. There are different types of squeezeboxes from cultures all over the world, and many great styles of music which developed from them. The only unfair thing is the assumption that all accordion music is the same. But then you wouldn't figure that out just by watching Lawrence Welk.

Weird Al: friend or foe?

I've never met him personally, but I think he does a good job with satire. He used to work as an accordion repo man, if you can believe that. But if you really want to talk Yankovic, check out Frankie Yankovic the Polka King [no relation]. He's the real thing.

Support The Stranger