For a decade and a half, the Asylum Street Spankers have worked a musical corner where anything is possible. Cue up one of their nine albums, and you'll hear odes to drinking, marijuana and sex, a kids' song, a '30s standard or a Christmas tune. Stylistically, the Austin collective — whose membership has included close to two dozen musicians since their 1994 formation — is every bit as diverse, encompassing jazz, blues, country, ragtime, swing, folk and even metal. Their new CD, God's Favorite Band, self-described as the "world's first agnostic gospel album," is packed with songs that address the spiritual nature of mankind in the off-kilter fashion that has become the Spankers' trademark. The band's co-founder, washboardist/songwriter/vocalist Wammo, took a moment away from his new baby girl to chat about the album and the band's Salvation & Sin Tour.
Pardon the phraseology, but how in God's name did you come up with the concept of "agnostic gospel"?
We started a gospel brunch in Austin long ago, and now they're everywhere. So I think you can credit the Spankers for inventing the gospel brunch. [Singer] Christina [Marrs] has always been a huge gospel fan, and she turned me onto Mahalia Jackson, and [guitarist] Guy Forsyth turned me onto the Golden Gate Quartet, and both of them together showed me that gospel has a lot more soul than going to church. This music is the closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience.
As usual, there's a pretty broad range of songs on the subject.
Well, after we did the gospel brunches, we decided to do more gospel shows at the Saxon Pub in Austin, and those were nighttime gospel shows, so we were able to relax a little more and have fun with it. You can tell by the record that I'm not a very devout person. I wrote "Volkswagen Thing" for the gospel brunches. I wanted to write a gospel song that I felt comfortable with, something with some humor and my philosophy of religion. "Right and Wrong" I wrote for the shows at the Saxon Pub, and that one I really dig. I'm very proud of it. And doing "It Ain't Necessarily So" was fun; it was half to piss Christina off because it's not a gospel song. I've always wanted to sing it. Then we did "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego," and that's the straight arrangement from the Golden Gate Quartet. They do it 20 times better, but somebody's going to hear our record and Google that song and find that other recording and go, "Oh my God!" and get turned on to this amazing vocal group. I'm glad that I said "Oh my God."
That's a fairly big leap for an agnostic.
I consider myself a hypocritical atheist. Which means I don't believe unless there's turbulence or tires screaming.
You recorded the album live at the Saxon. What inspired that decision?
We did a month of gospel shows, so it was like, "Let's record them and if we like something, we'll release it." We can always use another record. It's truly an act of faith that we're releasing this on CD. Nobody buys CDs anymore. There's a whole generation that's grown up thinking music is free and the idea of paying for music is like paying for air. It's a beautiful thing that some kid hears "Ain't Misbehavin'," and in a millisecond finds out everything about Fats Waller and hears his music and downloads it. That's great, and it may be elevating us as a species, but it may be holding back a few musicians.
Well, the salvation part of the tour is self-evident. What comprises the sin portion of the evening?
Spanker classics. I've been doing a lot of my new songs. I'm a songwriting fool; I just keep churning out the tunes. I get bored quickly with the Spanker hits — "Beer" and "War on Drugs" — so I've been singing a song I wrote with Guy Forsyth called "PBR," which is about the glories or Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a new one called "White Boy" and "Leaf Blower." And I've got a new one called "Parade."
The phrase "God's Favorite Band" has been attached to you guys from the start. How did that come about?
We used to do a regular Wednesday-night gig at the Electric Lounge, and the bar owner, Mike Henry, put it in the ads. "Every Wednesday, God's Favorite Band: The Asylum Street Spankers." It just seemed obvious that's what we should call it when we decided to put out this record.
So who's God's least favorite band?
There are so many that come to mind. I'll go with Maroon 5. Or maybe Evanescence. There are so many horrible corporate bands out there. I would think God's a big metal fan; I don't think all those Satan-worshipping bands would be God's least favorites. I think he would think that's really funny. But boy bands? I bet he just shakes his head.