In the polka world, no one has enjoyed Brave Combo's level of broad-based success, with the possible exception of "Weird Al" Yankovic — if he even counts. Appealing to dedicated polka fans as well as folks who've never heard a polka band in their life, Brave Combo have accomplished a lot in the past three decades: They took part in Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, snagged two Grammys, played at David Byrne's wedding, appeared on The Simpsons, and were recently covered by Bob Dylan. Thirty-two years in, they're still finding new frontiers to chart.
"The reason we kept doing it was we just kept getting better gigs," jokes frontman Carl Finch, fresh from the National Polka Festival in Texas, where they headlined a bill stuffed with Czech bands. "We also haven't limited ourselves to one kind of thing. A big part is our ability to diversify and meet so many different demands."
The quintet formed in 1979 while Finch was playing and studying music at North Texas State. A dedicated vinyl aficionado, Finch spent a nearly destabilizing amount of every paycheck on strange records he'd find flipping through the bins for his DJ sets. He eventually decided to form a band to play some of the bizarre songs he found.
"When we first started, we weren't limiting it to just polka, because a lot of the records I found were these kind of funky lounge Latin records," he recalls. "A lot of the stuff I bought in the early days was based on jackets. I can't tell you how much of Brave Combo's set list has come from bargain-bin records."
But it wasn't the obscure music they played that cemented the band's reputation; it was their ability to transform familiar songs into something totally different. Anyone who has seen Brave Combo live will testify to the power of their polkafied version of James Brown's "Sex Machine." Recontextualizing old classics — which makes up only a small part of their catalog — has given the group much buzz, drawing a wide swath of listeners to a genre of music most fans quickly dismiss.
"Probably out of about 800 songs in our repertoire, only about 20 of them are rock songs that we mess with," says Finch. "But those got an enormous amount of attention. Right out of the chute, Kurt Loder is writing about us [in Rolling Stone] playing polka versions of 'People Are Strange' and 'Purple Haze.'"
That exposure helped the band establish a foothold in the music world during a time when it wasn't so easy to find gigs. "When we started in the late '70s, punk was starting to flourish, and the only places we could find gigs were punk clubs," recalls Finch. "We played polka super fast those days, like a rock band. Our polkas were about as fast as the Dead Kennedys. We've tried a lot of songs over the years that just don't work. They come off as too goofy. It's got to work musically and have the power of polka."
Brave Combo have had many memorable moments over the course of their career — including performing with the Byrds' Roger McGuinn at his son's wedding and playing a party at Barbra Streisand's house at the request of fan, friend, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. But one of their most cherished is the Grammy they finally won (after numerous nominations) in 2000 for a one-off album they recorded for Cleveland International Records, Polkasonic.
"[Label owner Steve Popovich] has a lot of savvy, a lot of credibility, and polka is dear to his heart, and we thought 'Let's do a record together,'" says Finch. "It was the right combination of everything. It established who we were as artists, and in terms of polka, I think it's the most perfect rock and polka album we've produced. Everything lined up."
The latest entries to their 30-album career include Symphonic Polka, recorded with the 100-piece Mesquite Symphony Orchestra, and last year's Christmas Present, which features "Must Be Santa," a song Bob Dylan covered on his holiday offering, Christmas in the Heart.
Even though playing with an orchestra is "a trip, and for that moment we're playing, there's nothing like it," says Finch, it can't compare with Dylan's recognition. "This is the weirdest thing in the history of the band," he says. "[It's a] direct copy of our version, right down to every little nuance we wrote for it. Same tempo, beginning, end, key, and modulations. He fully lifted it, didn't make a single change, and fully acknowledged he got it from us. It was completely out of the blue."
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