Keeping a tight family through music and laughter

By Ernest Barteldes

The Trachtenburgs are not your ordinary family. To begin with, the recent East Villagers (who relocated from their native Seattle) have a show in which they all participate – Jason, the band’s composer and keyboardist, wife Tina on an old-fashioned slide projector that changes pictures in sync with the song lyrics (giving them a hilarious effect) and 9-year-old Rachel, who sits behind the drum kit, sings and admonishes her dad every now and then.

I interviewed Jason Trachtenburgh backstage before their recent CD release party at The Knitting Factory (where I also met young Rachel), and later spoke with Tina Trachtenburg via a phone. The family was on tour and I spoke to Tina as they hit Charlottesville, VA.

A single glance at Jason and you realize that he is a very funny man. Not only does he bear a striking resemblance to actor Rick Moranis, but he also has a very Woody Allen-ish, fast-paced, almost neurotic manner.

The family deals with serious issues on politics and life in America, which can be reflected (but almost missed) in several of their songs, namely “European Boys” (“European wars are American wars/Coming to France” )and “Opnad Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1977” (an open criticism of America’s fast food culture taken verbatim from the words of the corporations that run those franchises).

The Trachtenburgs had wanted, from the beginning, to turn their band into a family business. But including Rachel in their act generated controversy. “We got some criticism at first”, said Tina, who also designs the band’s outfits. “Some people people asked us if she shouldn’t be at home instead, but they don’t seem to realize that with day care and seven daily hours of schooling, many children spend as much as 12 hours away from their families.”

“Some people in Seattle were a bit outraged”, said Jason, “but the fact is that we want her here with us. I do feel she’s helping with the family business, which is a natural extension of our everyday lives. She travels with us, which we really believe to be in her best interest.”

“We do encourage people not to smoke in venues where that is permitted”, said Jason, who praises Mayor Bloombergs’ anti-smoking initiative in New York City. “If there is one reason for reelection”, says the occasional outdoor smoker, “that is it”.

Rachel’s academics are provided through an alterative education program in their native Seattle, by private tutoring and home schooling. When I asked Rachel what she thought of being on the road with her parents, she looked at me and simply said, “I don’t know.” (“You can quote her on that,” said Jason.)

Rachel’s inclusion in the band was a natural thing, according to Tina. “Jason used to run an open mike. We’d go and she’d help with the sound check, saying ‘hello’ into the mike or dancing on stage. She just grew up doing that.”

As they assembled the act, it came to a point that Jason wondered if his daughter would like to play harmonica on the show. She did and it seemed to work. “Later, she picked up the drums after Jason had seen a female drummer in a band, which he felt was very interesting.”

While the couple is excited and “living the dream” (as Tina put it), “Rachel is unfazed – to her, she’s just hanging with her parents, traveling and meeting many interesting people.”Not so long ago, Jason was, in his own words, “just another struggling musician whose career was going nowhere.” Tina pointed out that he was pushing 30, and they had to do something about it.

“She said, ‘let’s bring humor and entertainment into this”.

They visited several garage and estate sales and purchased slides “from deceased strangers.” Jason began to write songs inspired from the photos contained in those collections. The first song to emerge from this idea was “Mountain Trip to Japan”, which the family began to perform at open mikes and other venues.

The public reacted positively, and they realized that they had found their niche. They knew they had struck gold when “there were far more people in attendance to our gigs than the friends we’d invited.”

The next step was to make the move to New York.

“Living in Seattle was the best”, said Tina. “Back there we were working day jobs and living in our little house surrounded by the evergreens.”

After they had played everywhere in Seattle, they made the decision to move to New York and to turn their band into a full-time job.

Everything was carefully planned, but things were not easy early on. “We were hoping not to have to get jobs”, said Tina. “But after a while the money began to run out and we were thinking of applying for jobs in nearby stores” Lady Luck smiled in the form of a “Talk of The Town” piece in The New Yorker on September 09,2002 (which can be seen at www.newyorker.com/talk/content). They got a booking agent, “and things just picked up after that,” she said.

“Living in The East Village has been an amazing experience”, says Tina. “We step out, there’s all the traffic, the excitement. We’re extremely grateful for all that.”

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