Chapter One - After Exile
By Mike Jurkovic
“Got a very unusual head, (oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa) a very unusual head.” Yea, I sing that everyday to keep the existential snake oil salesmen at bay. So it’s no surprise to have it rattling ‘round my cranium as I enter the Ancestral hall, leaving the boreal Hudson Valley winds to their own hard blowing devices.
The lady of the band greets me warmly, finishes the dishes then launches into the to-be-elaborated upon later ‘China Project.’ She quizzes playfully. “How deep do you wanna go, Michael? There’s layers and time to our story. There’s a horizontal and a vertical. Like the Twilight Zone.”
Believe me. I knew this was going to get Twilight Zone-y real quick.
There’s positive electrons in the air despite Sharkey and Joziah’s encounter with unruly technology en-route to making a video of a new song about Stephen Hawking. “The ghosts threw me the idea of 21 songs for the 21st Century and this is the first one. We thought we’d throw it online in time for the Oscars, y’know. It’ll go viral if we’re lucky.”
“We can give our fans more that way,” Joziah, the First Ancestor, the Architect, enthuses. “So we’re thinkin’ singles instead of albums, y’know Mikey? It takes us a lot of time to make an album. Maybe it’s just us but it takes a lot of time. So we’re gonna do a single, un-adorned video and just put it up there.”
What did Beatle John say about reality again? That it left a lot of room for the imagination? Yea, well, welcome to the Slambovian Ministry of Myth.
The slowly unraveled Genesis Narrative truly does go hand in hand with Joziah’s rambling passage from doo-wop Philly kid with imaginary friends who included Lao Tze and Confucius. (Yes! That Lao Tze and Confucius. Why all the surprise?) Who, as a teenager on the edge of Syd Barrett-ville (Barrett was the young Pink Floyd jester king who fell off his throne) began throwing the I-Ching and writing songs that many more outside the technicolor Slambovian Airspace need be dancing to.
“I think it’s really good to talk about our history in a way that effects people and the art form we’re trying to make.” Joziah preambles, a tuna sandwich in hand. “Especially in China, where there’s a language barrier. A lot of the ways we live is what we’re trying to say in our music.”
“China was, and is, one of the most important aspects of our artistic mission. America and China have got to wake up and engage. There’s been decades of deliberate duping on both sides and all this collateral negativity affects the whole planet. So we gotta magnify the light outwards and help people to see.”
So this is how it is with these guys. Certainly I wasn’t expecting to hear the ancient blues song of scuffling gigs and interminable open mics from the Grand Slambovians. No, that wasn’t in the cards. But this is geo-politics. It’s the source of all our agitation. And they know spiritually that agitation cripples creativity. So they’ve made negating that agitation their core value.
Sure, there’s the well known bio: Setting off from Sleepy Hollow with major labels and their attendant major hassles hot on their tail. A triumphant, often anthemic, sometime autumnal mosh of every grand musical tangent and gesture the ghosts have allowed to filter down. Falcon Ridge. Glastonbury. Last year’s signing with Red River Entertainment to distribute A Box of Everything, a collection of greatest hits you should be ashamed not to have heard if you haven’t. Then there’s all the critical exultations: “The hillbilly Pink Floyd!” One of the finest American bands out there!” “The Hudson Valley’s best kept secret!” “A musical slam dunk!”
But, like the lady forewarned, there’s layers. And time. And a mouth trumpet chorus that’s irresistible to live audiences when they play “A Very Unusual Head.” There’s Sharkey’s heart-baring flights of guitar fancy and his awesome slide mandolin playing. There’s Alice and the Mummers and Tink’s cello and theremin and Eric’s propulsive percussion and . . . I don’t know. And I sometimes think they don’t either. They just let go. . .
“In a group you have to know when to control and when to let go. Control makes for very boring art and life.” Tink says, and Joziah picks up the vibe. “Sharkey’s our most pragmatic. He’s the most spiritually balanced. He has a foot in the Spirit and Earth worlds and taps into that when he’s playing.”
“Don’t let his calm demeanor fool ya,” she says. “He’s a Capricorn and they do have a wild side they save for special occasions.”
But the most spiritually balanced Ancestor and pragmatic Capricorn has been somewhat silent until now. “If you heard me and Joziah doing “Talkin’ To The Buddha” or “Baby Jane” then yeah that’s around ‘97-’98 before the band was touring.”
“We came out of exile as it were disguised as Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. But we were still the Ancestors underneath it all,” Jo concludes.
And the Ancestors were?
“Well it was us and Brian Hardgroove (Public Enemy) on bass and Bob Muller (Trey Gunn/Robert Fripp) on drums. That was the band in China, believe it or not.” Jo enthuses. “We were the first American band to play China right after Tiananmen Square,” Tink intones.
“The Chinese government officials in-volved in business and cultural development for Shanghai had a reform plan in the early 90’s,” Joziah clarifies as Sharkey nods affirmatively. “An experiment to see how much freedom they could regulate, I guess.”
“They had brought this Japanese band over to play Chinese cover songs and with that success they got braver and the officials asked that band for suggestions of other artists to invite to come play. Something may have gotten lost in translation, but the Japanese musicians had seen us perform in a punk club in Tokyo and were fans, so they gave them OUR contact info and before we knew it we were in Shanghai New Year’s Day 1993, ending a decade long ban on western music.”
“We go over and get off the plane looking like a heavy metal hair band with a pronounced Slambovian presence. Armed soldiers, head-bangers, communist party officials were in the audience. . .they only allowed us three songs for the first show, (which could have gone south very quickly) but the people loved us! Because of that tour we hooked up with legendary musician/activist Cui Jian (think Chinese Bob Dylan, his legend begins with Tiananmen Square) and other mainland artists. We were told ‘The Ancestors’ were the first English words to ever appear in government controlled media including The Shanghai Daily.
Tink fast forwards a couple years. “We went on hiatus between ‘95-’97, going back to school to learn production, graphic and multi-media design and all things necessary to become a total DIY band, a bit ahead of the curve. We did some sporadic recording during that time, which ended with drummer Tony Zuzulo entering the picture. He was one of our college professors who befriended us, (took pity on our lack of technical expertise) becoming tutor - technical mentor and quite by chance volunteered his drum services as a favor one day.”
“He and Joziah felt an amazing chemistry immediately, so they did the tracks for The Good Thief album which finished the album and essentially gave birth to the band. Our studio was in the attic, so we picked up whatever was laying around to record with - an old mandolin, a rusty one string guitar was the instrument of choice for Joziah’s slide work, and my pawnshop accordion was the only keyboard on the album. We left our big gear behind and headed for the hills in a way. That was the beginnings of our ‘sound’ as it were. That was enough to inspire Sharkey to move north from Manhattan, finish the whole project and suddenly we’re the fashion plates for the whole alt-folk/Americana scene.”
“We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the ‘ladies of folk’ - Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco and Sloan Wainwright who welcomed us into the world they were creating. Slipping into the open mic/folk circuit, we found fellow travelers and built a real grassroots following. People took to us - fans and their families.”
She begins to wind us down. “It’s a tribal vibe, a more organic model we’ve estab-lished than we may have earlier in our careers. Because we’re thinking about spending less time on the road and more in the studio, it helps to have that support. That’s where the singles idea we discussed earlier comes in. We’ve been blessed with many things – material, family, friends and an abundance of songs from Joziah’s creative coffers. So we want to put more music out there and because the Slambovian tribe is so great, that accumulation of outgoing richness will flow back to us and establish a deeper connection.”
“Michael,” Joziah confides. “You call me the Architect, but you know we make it all up as we go along, right?”
Next time: Theodore Mann! Flapjacks! More ghosts! More layers! The UK! And in walks Eric! - www.slambovia.com