Big Lou (aka Linda Seekins) is a Bay Area accordion legend. She’s played in Polkacide, founded Those Darn Accordions, and now leads Big Lou’s Polka Casserole, whose new album (“Doctors of Polka-Ology”) is due out next month. She also plays in a French cabaret trio, Salut Matelot, hosts an online polka radio show, and curates the San Francisco Style Polka Hall of Fame. Big Lou was kind enough to sit down with us for Let’s Polka’s first exclusive interview.
- Let’s start with the question we’re all asked when people find out that we play the accordion: Why?
Well, I used to live in Texas and I was walking through the park one day and there was a guy sitting under a tree playing the accordion. I started chatting with him and he said, “Oh, you play piano, you could probably just play this, too.” He handed it to me and I tried it out. So I’m playing with it, having a good time, and he says, “You know, that’s for sale.” It was cheap, so I bought it and just learned.
- Cool! I think a lot of people, when they start playing, don’t realize how difficult it is to play the accordion — especially coordinating the right and left hands. Were there any tricks or tips you picked up when you were first learning?
Well, first off, you don’t have to do that if you play in a band — you don’t have to use your left hand. I wanted to learn it because I wanted to play solo. And what I did was get those round, different-colored dots, put them on a few key buttons and I practiced in front of the mirror. And that helped a lot. On the right hand, I took some nail polish and put little marks on the C’s — because I was used to playing the piano, where you can just see everything. Then when I took my accordion in to get it tuned, this old German lady was just irate. She spent an hour trying to get the nail polish off and when I told her I had put it there myself, she just exploded!
- And was it when you were waitressing in Austin that you started playing onstage?
“You sit there playing the piano and nobody notices you. You stand up and put on the accordion and everybody goes nuts.”
Yes — the first time I ever played publicly was at our Christmas party. One of the other waitresses played flute and one of the bartenders played tuba, so we got up and played Christmas carols. But I was in country/western bands and, in Central Texas, there’s kind of a tradition of country/western piano players picking up the accordion and playing polkas because there’s a huge Czech and German population.
And you know there are all these jokes about accordions… but people love the accordion! You sit there playing the piano and nobody notices you. You stand up and put on the accordion and everybody goes nuts. I mean, the jokes are fine and they certainly keep us in the public eye, but there really isn’t much basis for them.
- Now I’ve heard that you started Those Darn Accordions by basically inviting everyone you knew who played accordion to join you at one of your shows. And then it took off from there. Is that true?
That’s what I did. First off, Tom Torriglia was one of the people I called, and Tom is a publicity hound. So here’s this band that’s never even played anywhere and already our picture is in the newspaper and all over the place, thanks to Tom. So we did the gig, it was at the Paradise Lounge and the room was full; everyone liked us so much that they wanted an encore, and we’d already run played everything we knew, so we just had to play a song over again.
Then, all of a sudden, people started calling us. It was crazy — that never happens. You go out and you hustle, you beat your head against the wall, and maybe if you’re lucky you get a gig. But people were calling us up and offering us large sums of money to play. So we thought… well, okay!
- And how many people were involved?
We had different amounts — for a while, it was just whoever wanted to do it. At the raids, sometimes we’d have 20-25 people, especially if there was a TV camera involved (which there frequently was). Then we decided we’d better rehearse and if you’re going to be in the band, you need to rehearse. So that got rid of a lot of the riffraff.
- Tell us more about the raids. How were they coordinated and where would you go?
We usually started at Tom’s house and one of the guys had a van, so we’d all pile in the van and go up to North Beach because there are so many restaurants close together. The first time we did it, we had a list of demands and called ourselves the Accordion Liberation Army. We’d run into a place and play “Lady of Spain”, and meanwhile someone would hand out our list of demands. It included things like accordion studies in high schools and, interestingly enough, one demand was to make the accordion the official instrument of San Francisco, which eventually happened! Anyway, we’d run in and play, run out again, and just leave people wondering, “What the hell?”
It was really, really fun. The trouble is that we got so much press doing it that, after a while, we’d run into a place and everybody would say, “Oh, it’s Those Darn Accordions.” And then it eventually died off. But it was a lot of fun.
- So when did you stop playing with TDA? Is there a juicy story behind it involving sex, drugs, or infighting?
Well, there’s always infighting. But they wanted to be a groovy rock band, touring all the time, and playing rock clubs. And I liked the festivals we had been playing. But they didn’t want to play polkas anymore… I also felt like we were running a race with our legs tied together — it was clever to look at for a while, but I thought it would sound better if we added a rhythm guitar player, at least. And they didn’t want to do that. So I recorded the polka album (with Big Lou’s Polka Casserole) and it was just so much fun and I felt that it sounded more like music I wanted to play.
- How often does the Polka Casserole play?
Every weekend in October, and once or twice a month the rest of the year. Our home base is Schroeder’s. It’s straight out of Milwaukee — the most charming place I know of in San Francisco. It’s got old, dark wood paneling on the walls and beer steins all over the place. Every Friday in September and October, and once a month the rest of the year, they have a polka happy hour and serve meatballs. It’s really fun.
They have us and then they have Joe Smiell, who has a really good oom-pah band. When we first started playing there, people who went there were going to see Joe and a lot of them didn’t like us because we were too loud. But now the Financial District crowd is starting to come see us. We’re sort of unique — I talk to a lot of people in the Midwest who are complaining that they don’t get any young people going to their shows. And we get 300 people because it’s the Financial District and what else is there to do? There is a side of polka that can be boring or corny, but these kids haven’t been exposed to that because they haven’t been exposed to polka at all. So we’re doing well with the number of people, which makes us quite unique. And we play a lot of Mexican polkas, too.
- That’s one of the things we love about your “Dogs Playing Polka” album: the variety. There are German polkas, Mexican polkas, French tunes…
“Unfortunately, with a lot of the polka records now, they don’t want to offend anybody. Their average listener is 65 or 70, so all the songs are about nice things.”
Exactly. I’m an internet disc jockey (at 247PolkaHeaven) and, a lot of the polka records we get, after you hear two or three songs, you don’t have to listen to any more because the songs are all so similar. So we really tried hard to avoid that.
I was surprised, though, at the difference in polka styles. There’s the Cleveland style, which is based on Slovenian music, and there’s Chicago Push which is a little bit slower and has a lot of bellows shakes. My favorite is the sort of older, big band-style from the East Coast. Polka used to be a little racy, it used to be real exciting. Unfortunately, with a lot of the polka records now, they don’t want to offend anybody. Their average listener is 65 or 70, so all the songs are about nice things. And the ones who are trying to get younger people to listen are doing it by recording rock songs as polkas, but they’re choosing rock songs that were hits 30 years ago. I’m thinking it’s not going to work.
- It feels like, at least here in America, the accordion has gone through a cycle of being cool, then very uncool, and now lately it seems to be inching towards “cool” again. Do you think the accordion will ever be an accepted, mainstream instrument here?
I don’t think people will ever play it as much as some of the easier instruments. As you pointed out, it’s really hard to learn how to play. It’s fragile. I also think part of the trouble with the accordion up until now has been the difficulty with amplifying it. It’s hard at a gig to have your accordion be loud enough to hear it. I don’t know how anyone played back in the days before monitors — how did the accordionist in Bill Haley’s band ever hear himself? I think that has a lot to do with its demise — it’s just an organ. And all those bands had organs, but I think eventually you could get them louder, easier.
I like Lawrence Welk a whole lot. I have a lot of respect for his musicianship and I enjoy watching his show. He was just so squeaky clean and I can understand why some people didn’t like him and considered him to be sanitized and boring. I think he gave the accordion a bad name among people who want their music with a little more angst and vigor. Because for a while, that was the only place you saw accordions. If you’re in your 40s or 50s, when you were growing up, the Lawrence Welk Show as the only place to see them. And it wasn’t very peppy. Everything was very well-played, but… very clean.
- Finally, the age-old question: Contino or Floren?
You know, I love them both. I really do. I got to meet Myron Floren and he was just as charming as he could be. If I had to choose, of course I’d say Dick. Dick just had a little more sex appeal. Myron was very precise. Dick is also very precise, but he kinda jazzes it up.
- What gigs do you have coming up?
We’re playing the Sonoma County Fair next week. Then we go back to Bethlehem, PA for Musikfest. We’re also playing in Reno at the end of October at Polkapalooza. It’s going to be a lot of fun — Jimmy Sturr is the headliner. You know, people in the Midwest really want to get out of the Midwest in the winter, so they go to all of these polka events. There’s a lot of stuff in Arizona in the winter.
- One thing we’ve learned by working on this site is that there are an insane number of accordion festivals out there, all over the world.
Yeah, it’s a really, goofy, charming world and I’m just having the time of my life.
- Well, thanks so much for coming and talking to us. It’s been fantastic meeting you.
Thank you. I love your website, I really do. You guys are doing God’s work.