JASON TRACHTENBURG is on his knees in a Sunset Boulevard phone booth, and he is desperate. For redemption, forgiveness, peace of minddesperate, in other words, to finally exorcise the demon that is KEXP. "I want to let go," he pleads with real pain in his voice. "With God as my witness, I am letting go. I am. This is really, really messed up. I need counseling."
Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players DORKWEED, BILLY MOON, ROBB BENSON Chop Suey, 206-324-8000, $10 adv. 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thurs., July 24
Well, a little mental-health assistance, perhaps. But career counseling? Hardly. Since the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players left Seattle for New York in a dust storm of controversy just over a year ago, their popularity has grown exponentially. The man who only recently couldn't get a single note played on the local college radio station has now appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, collected adoring press clippings from The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly, and garnered standing-room-only residencies at acclaimed clubs on both coasts.
If anything, KEXP should be a distant spot in Trachtenburg's rear-view mirror, an inconsequential fly in the enormous pot of golden honey that is TFSP's flourishing musical juggernaut. Instead, it remains a blot on his consciousness so large that, he admits, "I think about KEXP and [DJ] John Richards every dayeven now in New York."
THE STORY BEHIND his obsession has settled into local music-industry legend. Trachtenburg, once a fairly obscure singer-songwriter, found sudden popular acclaim in Seattle with the advent of his Family Slideshow Players, a trio consisting of his wife, Tina, on slide duties, prepubescent daughter, Rachel, on drums, and his own quirky, dryly humorous musings on unknown folks' long-forgotten backyard barbecues and trips to Japan set to guitar and keyboards. Still, despite sell-out crowds and positive feedback, airplay on Seattle's premier indie-music station remained frustratingly elusive. Jason had no qualms putting the blame directly on program director Don Yates and popular morning DJ John Richardsand his loudly vocal protestations quickly sent Seattle's conflict-averse industry into conniptions. Many were glad to offer Jason a fine middle-fingered send-off when he uprooted his family for the greener pastures of Manhattan last year, shortly after an explosive Stranger feature in which he stopped just short of calling the station Satan himself. To this day, Jason maintains that Yates, et al., are in unholy collusion with Sub Pop and Loveless Recordsthis, despite the fact that KEXP is sponsoring the Trachtenburgs' homecoming shows.
"Don and John have way too much power in that town," he proclaims with his trademark Mighty Mouse fervor. "That was my whole point in the beginningif you challenge their authority, you're toast. Was [speaking out] the mature thing to do? Of course not. Do I regret it? I feel very bad about it, the way I brought other musicians into it. I've lost sleep over it. I've done a lot of backtracking [and] apologizing. But the reality is they control the town, and that's all I was trying to say. [To get airplay] you gotta be 21, you gotta play a certain kind of emo rock. No, I'm not 21, but the average age of our band is 18, so what's wrong? I don't wear a T-shirt two sizes too small, I don't dye my hair black. But we're good enough for Conan O'Brien but not for Audioasis? Come on!"
"The Trachtenburg CDs are still in KEXP's library, where they've always been," Yates responded via e-mail. "Our DJs are free to play 'em whenever they're so inclined. As a matter of fact, a Trachtenburg tune was recently played on Audioasis. That said, I think many folks would agree that the Trachtenburgs' appeal isn't primarily musical, and their recordings don't do justice to the experience of their live show. I wouldn't be the first person to suggest that. As for Jason's other comments, a casual look at KEXP's playlist will show we're open to plenty more besides emo-rock from 21-year-olds."
THOUGH HIS GRUDGE against Yates continues unabated, Trachtenburg readily acknowledges a special debt to Richards. "If it wasn't for John, I wouldn't be where I am right now," he claims. "He introduced me to a band called Quasi, who changed my life. Janet Weiss was just so amazing. She's the hardest rocker I've seen in my life, the most melodic. It got me thinking. That's why I have to go after KEXP, to build my self-esteem. But I thought, we need a drummer, a superstar, and Rachel needs an instrument. Janet made me put her on drumsjust seeing her was my inspiration."
Few would argue that Rachel, now 9, is anything less than the superstar of TFSP. A recent Spin article broke down the comparative merits of hers and Meg White's drumming, stage personae, and hairdos; the one who doesn't claim her ex-husband is her brother came out ahead. Journalists and fans alike frequently focus in on the preteen's Sphinx-like stage charisma and steady-bouncing pigtails. Rachel's dad maintains that his youngest bandmate remains surprisingly untouched by the spotlight.
"Rachel's not obsessed with it," he explains. "She wakes up, we do some schoolwork, she wants to go swimming, go get some sushi. When it's time to play, she goes to the club, she rocks, she signs autographs, she goes home. Otherwise, she's totally normal; that's just what she does. She's not obsessed with itI am." But she is, he adds, also exploring other showbiz options and recently read for some independent films.
Jason seems content to remain the least popular member of the band, if that's what it takes. "I'm just trying to help the scene, to help Seattle," he says. "And all that's happened was I looked foolish and made a lot of enemies. But that's what I do. I make an idiot of myself all the timeit's part of my act. We're rabble-rousers."
He's also not ashamed to admit how much their return to Seattle means to him. "I want to have a ridiculously positive, successful homecoming," Trachtenburg says earnestly. "I gave my life and my art to that town for 10 years. Even though I'm not a native, I came specifically for the music scene. But now I just want a safe, positive, enriching, rewarding experience. To have a good time, see some old friends, make some new ones, be a better band than we were at our last show, like every show." And maybe, finally, find a little peace of mind.