Interview with Jason Webley

Jason WebleyFew performers connect with their audiences as well as Seattle songwriter/accordionist Jason Webley. Known for his gravelly, Tom Waits-ish voice and feverish foot-stomping and bellows-pumping, he’s built a loyal following with theatrical shows that not only invite audience participation, but practically demand it. He also has a thing for tomatoes.

Jason is the brains behind the Monsters of Accordion tour, an all-accordion extravaganza taking place on the West Coast this week. We recently had the chance to talk to Jason briefly about the tour and his work.

If I’ve counted right, I think this is the third or fourth Monsters of Accordion tour. How did it all start? What was the inspiration?

We got the idea for the Monsters tour at an event I was invited to headline at Smythe’s Accordion Center maybe 4 years ago. I had never seen so many other accordion freaks before, and I really fell in love with a couple of them (Daniel Ari and Duckmandu) so we decided to try and do a little accordion only tour. So this is actually year three for “Monsters of Accordion.” The three of us did the west coast together twice, I think. But I was always the main draw on those tours and somewhere I decided that, if I was going to do it again, I wanted to make it bigger than just me. So I invited Corn Mo and Geoff Berner, who both tour all over and have their own followings. And they are amazing. I think it is going to be a great run.

Mmm… Songs for Ice Cream Trucks

Songs for Ice Cream TrucksAs the dog days of summer take hold, who can resist the siren call of the ice cream truck? I sure can’t; the stacks of Choco Tacos in my freezer are proof.

Gothamist today has a fun interview with Michael Hearst, who loves ice cream but grew tired of hearing trucks play the same old songs summer after summer. So he sat down and created an entire album of new music for ice cream trucks, appropriately titled Songs for Ice Cream Trucks, with song titles like “The Popsicle Parade”, “Tones for Cones”, and my favorite, “Chocolate, Vanilla or Swirl?”

As with his work in One Ring Zero, Hearst uses a variety of eclectic instruments — including accordion, melodica, claviola, glockenspiel, and theremin — to evoke memories of childhood summers, but without the tinny, repetitive renditions of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The album was featured on a Today Show segment and more than fifty trucks nationwide are now playing his music. The track linked below is one of the album’s more melancholy tunes: a rumination on where ice cream trucks go during the winter.

Orange County Klezmers

Orange County may not sound like a klezmer hotspot, but the Orange County Klezmers are bringing the sounds of Eastern Europe to sunny Southern California. This week, the Orange County Weekly has a brief interview with their founder/accordionist, Barry Friedland, who gives an overview of klezmer and its history, along with a testimonial to the accordion’s power to impress:

“Accordion has never been the cool instrument to play. But I stayed with it and remember playing at the school talent show in high school… I blew everybody away. It was really exciting… People had never heard an instrument do what an accordion can do. It’s a very versatile machine.”

The Orange County Klezmers’ album, Echoes of Vilna: Songs of Remembrance from the Ghettos, is a collection of klezmer music written in World War II-era ghettos. Even when played as instrumentals (Friedland worried that most people would be unable to handle the emotional lyrics), the music is moving, haunting, and captivating. The Orange County Klezmers do an excellent job of keeping this music alive.

The Will Holshouser Trio

Accordions are still all too rare in jazz, but Will Holshouser is doing his part to change that. A master accordionist, composer, and improviser, Holshouser’s unique sound crosses a wide range of genres, from chamber-jazz to folk to avant-garde and experimental.

It’s no surprise given his eclectic list of collaborators; in addition to his own band, the Will Holshouser Trio, he has played with David Krakauer & Klezmer Madness, Matt Munisteri & Brock Mumford, Musette Explosion, and numerous others. In a recent interview, Holshouser talked about the relationship between jazz and folk in his music, with emphasis on his involvement in klezmer:

“Playing klezmer has certainly changed the way I play the accordion. Among other things, I’ve learned to spit out runs of notes, to play peppery, dry, percussive chords, and to use ornamentation to tease out harmonic color. Many of these musical nuts and bolts are interesting and quirky, but what’s really fascinating is how they create such compelling effects — how they punch through our daily existence and help us to have these musical and emotional experiences that are so fulfilling.”

Most of Will’s original work is with the Will Holshouser Trio, which includes skilled improvisers Ron Horton on trumpet and David Phillips on bass. Their latest CD, Singing to a Bee, was recorded live in Faro, Portugal, during the Jazz No Inverno Festival in December 2004. To show you their versatility, here’s a track from that album that teeters between zydeco and jazz:

More Grammy Accordionists

Polka definitely isn’t the only genre where you can find Grammy-nominated accordionists. Rolling Stone has a brief interview with one of those nominees: Weird Al Yankovic, who’s up for “Best Comedy Album” and “Best Surround Sound Album” for Straight Outta Lynwood. Even he still gets excited about the Grammys:

“It’s hard to compete with the first time you win a Grammy because after that, you can legally affix the phrase “Grammy Award-winning” to the front of your name. But trust me, it never gets old. I promise to be extremely excited every single time I ever win a Grammy.”

This week, Rolling Stone also wrote about another one of our favorite accordion-toting artists — DeVotchKa. They’re nominated for their work on the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated film Little Miss Sunshine.

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Fabulist Interview with Jason Webley

The kids at Fabulist have posted an interview with one of our favorite accordionists, Jason Webley. In it, Jason talks about his relationship with the number 11, his upcoming tour with Czech accordionist Jana Vebrova, and the origins of his annual event, Camp Tomato:

“You get a little membership card, and there are places you can get different merit stamps by doing different things. I think this year you’d get your feather stamp by writing a letter to Webster’s Dictionary asking them to remove the letter X from the alphabet.”

Before booking your trip to Camp Tomato 2007, though, check out the excellent video for Jason’s collaboration with Seattle poet Jay Thompson, “Eleven Saints”. It doesn’t feature Jason’s accordion (sadly), but it’s still wonderfully bizarre.

Interview with Jimmy Sturr

Few musicians, polka or otherwise, can match the success that Jimmy Sturr has enjoyed over the course of his career. He has recorded over 100 albums, plays over 150 dates a year, and — to the consternation of some in the polka community — has dominated the polka category at the Grammy Awards, winning 15 times in 20 years.

We had a chance to talk with Jimmy in San Francisco last month before he headed to Polkapalooza Reno.

How did you first get into polka music? What drew you in?

Well, I’ve lived in a little town all my life called Florida, New York, and we probably grow at least 30% of the nation’s onions — we’re the Onion Capital of the World. A lot of people from Europe, especially Polish people, came over to work on what we call the “black dirt”, and brought their traditions with them — one of which was their music. The high school dances and weddings all had polka bands, the radio stations played polkas everyday… that’s how I grew up and fell in love with the music.

When did you start your first band?

I started out at 11 years old and had a five piece band. My very first job was playing for the PTA and the only reason I got to play was because my mother was the president! (laughs) There were a couple of other polka bands in the area and, if they were booked, people would come to us — only because we were the only ones left. Eventually, we moved up that ladder.

What bands inspired you when you were first starting out?

There were bands on the East Coast — guys you’ve never heard of, most of whom are passed away now. You know, everyone’s heard of Frankie Yankovic, but I don’t really play that style. Whereas that Cleveland style really featured the accordion, the East Coast bands featured trumpets and saxophones more (of course, everyone still had an accordion). And those are the bands I grew up on; bands like Frank Wojnarowski, Ray Henry, Gene Wisniewski, the Harmony Bells Orchestra, and the Connecticut Twins Orchestra.

Accordion Apocalypse Now

Opening your own small business can be incredibly challenging; even more so if your business is in the underappreciated field of accordion repair. Fortunately Skyler Fell, who runs the Accordion Apocalypse Repair Shop in San Francisco, is up to the challenge.

Skyler started out as an apprentice at Boaz Accordions in Berkeley (where I bought my used Weltmeister) and, after they closed, opened her own shop in an Oakland garage before moving to a warehouse studio in Hunter’s Point earlier this year. There, she rebuilds and repairs old accordions, sells accordions, books, sheet music, cases, and stands, and dispenses free accordion advice to all. The San Francisco Examiner recently profiled Skyler and she talked about her passion for old, hand-built instruments:

“It’s really a rich history, and I feel blessed to be carrying the new torch… I really like these older accordions. They’re from the 1940s. Each accordion has so much chutzpah, charm and personality.”

In addition to selling and repairing accordions, Skyler hosts a monthly music jam/potluck at her shop; the next one is this Sunday at 7pm. Accordionists are especially encouraged to attend, but all instruments are welcome. Kielbasia, San Francisco’s favorite Accordion-Playing Drag Lunch Lady, will make a special guest appearance at 8pm. Check the Accordion Apocalypse site for directions and more info.

Interview with Big Lou

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!

Sympathy for the Accordion Student

Humorist Brian Unger did a fun piece on NPR this week where he followed Pam Griffis, a middle-aged accordion student, to one of her lessons. Pam has just started playing, but has already set an admirable goal: to play for her parents at the German-American Social Club of Cape Coral, FL. Her teacher, Dave Caballero, has been an accordion instructor for 43 years and tries to reassure her that her struggles aren’t unusual among budding accordionists:

“Just figure how many things you’re doing — you’re playing the basses, you’re playing the right hand, you’re reading, you’re counting, and you’re pushing and pumping the bellows. That’s only five things [at once].”

You can listen to the whole segment on the NPR website:

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