The Trachtenburg Family recycles the past
"The Beatles changed the world through art, politics and music. And though some punk bands have had an impact, nobody else has done that since. We, however, just want to do the same," says Jason Trachtenburg, patriarch of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, an act The New Yorker recently called "the best-known local act of the new millennium."
Confident, even manic over the phone, Trachtenburg rattles on about show tunes, walking dogs, Reaganomics and the Beatles. Eventually, he'll get around to telling about how he, his wife, Tina, and their 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, took to crisscrossing the country singing original songs to accompany a slideshow of other peoples' abandoned pictures. But first he traces his songwriting career back to its unremarkable beginnings.
"My upbringing was pretty damn middle-of-the-road," he admits, "so I knew I had to do something to break out." The music of the Beatles paved the way. "They proved [that] a pop band could change the world by being great songwriters with a strong social conscience, while still being average, funny-looking guys.
"Then that got lost in the mainstream music of the '80s. I didn't have glam looks, wasn't a great singer, wasn't a guitar virtuoso like Eddie Van Headache. I was a scrawny guy with a weird voice. After MTV, I thought I could never be a professional musician."
Nevertheless, this time inspired by melodic pop and show tunes, Trachtenburg gave professional songwriting another shot in the late '80s, first moving to New York City, and then to the music mecca of Austin, Texas, where he met Tina. In the mid-'90s, the Trachtenburgs relocated to Seattle, soon joined by new baby Rachel. Jason settled into a life operating a dog-walking service, alternating as a frustrated singer/songwriter at local clubs on open-mic nights.
"I really believed in my craft," Trachtenburg recalls, "that my musical influences were better, so I could put those into the best songs. I figured if you write the best songs you can, that's going to get you a career." While this attitude didn't quite elicit the results he hoped, something came along that changed his focus, as it were.
One day, Tina went to an estate sale and purchased a projector and a set of slides labeled "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959." Jason, inspired by the pictures, wrote a song about them, performing it as an encore after his next gig, while Tina showed the slides. The response was overwhelming, and it wasn't long before the slides and the song about them took precedence. As they added more slides, and more songs to go along with them, Jason began to find his audience. With mom on projector, her father playing guitar and singing, Rachel, in what her parents considered a natural extension, was added on drums. And an act of conceptual art-rock indie vaudeville was born.
The Trachtenburgs, again New York-based, hope to elevate their newfound art form to the "highest possible level," — and aren't far from succeeding, if appearances on "Conan," and write-ups in Spin, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly are any indication.
There's another aspect to the Trachtenburgs, though, that underlies their desire to "change the world": and its social consciousness. The family's belief in renewable resources — they favor thrift-store/home-sewn clothing, and eat only organically grown food — makes recycling slides simply another way to reuse discarded materials.
"I think this is the perfect medium for us because we deal in truth," Jason emphasizes. "Granted, these slide stories are our humorous interpretations, but more often word for word. We take corporate presentations and vacation slides, and describe them — even down to nuances the photographer didn't intend to capture.
"And truth is hard to come by now. Corporate interests are telling people how to think, what to do, how to give themselves nutrition. There's no variety; it's all McDonald's and Wal-Mart, and there's little independent thought left. But we believe it's not lost in the arts — in our art."