AUSTIN, TEXAS — Like a lot of American families, the Trachtenburgs of New York - Mom, Tina, Dad, Jason, and 9-year-old Rachel - are spending their summer driving around the country.
Tina pilots the minivan, since driving makes Jason sleepy. Rachel likes to color, nap, and eat.
Any semblance of normal family vacation stops there, though, because the Trachtenburgs are not your normal family.
In fact, the Trachtenburgs are just the sort who might challenge you to define "normal" while they're busy undefining it - a feat they manage morning, noon, and night, but especially at night.
When the sun goes down, their minivan spills the trio into one nightclub or another, where they become a superheroic pop-music-art sensation known as The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players.
The handle is long but accurate. Jason sings and plays the guitar and keyboards, while Rachel accom-panies him on drums and backup vocals.
Offstage, Tina deftly wields a slide projector, aiming it to a screen off to the left of Rachel's drum kit. All of Jason's lyrics are derived from slides of strangers, no matter how unrelated they might seem to be (which, in many cases, would be very).
The juxtaposition of nutty pop lyrics, a precocious percussionist, and photographic snippets of the lives of complete strangers is, to understate the fact, utterly irresistible.
What really makes it work is that these folks are totally sincere - Jason's thick glasses, '70s striped tube socks, and conviction that he's changing the art world as we know it aren't an attempt to affect cool. No wonder fans of fantastic freakishness have catapulted TFSP to a happy cult status via excited e-mails: "This band is coming to your town soon. DON'T miss them!" Their first CD, "Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle Volume I," debuts on Bar None records this September.
Sitting side-by-side at Evita's Botanitas before a recent Austin gig, Jason and Tina dig into tacos and enchiladas and explain how the switch from walking dogs to appearing on "The Conan O'Brien Show" happened. (Rachel stayed behind at the hotel to play video games with her grandfather.)
Jason and Tina met in New York's West Village in 1989 and, à la John and Yoko, have spent every moment possible together since. Both say they always knew - even before meeting - they were destined for something like this. Their success has been truly a combined effort. Tina, the driven, business-minded half pushes Jason, the quirky (in a good way) tangential one.
"Everything I've ever done I've thought, 'How can we make money doing this?' " Tina says.
They moved from New York to Austin briefly in the early '90s, hoping Jason could make a go in the self-appointed "Music Capital of the World." But when an audience failed to materialize for his then-band, Pancakes and Cheese, they moved to Seattle, another music hotbed.
"I have no skills," Jason says. "I dropped out of college. I don't know how to fix cars or do carpentry or anything. I can't do anything except for service-industry jobs and write songs."
Of course, somebody had to pay the rent while stardom took its sweet time locating the family.
"Tina was a dog walker in New York," Jason says. "When we moved to Seattle, we said, 'Let's start up a dog-walking business.'
"The economy was booming. It was the go-go '90s, it was the stuff of legends. We called ourselves the Dog Squad. In six months, we were going at it full time."
Still, Jason was having a hard time generating an audience for his music. "I had suggested to Jason we needed to choreograph slides to his already-written songs. He just didn't like the idea," recalls Tina.
Jason nods, filling in what he was thinking, " 'My songs are good enough; I don't need slides.' I was so full of myself."
Tina continues, "I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to do it.' " So she picked up a used projector at one estate sale and a box of slides at another. Both wound up in their back room untouched - until one fateful night.
Jason remembers thinking, " 'Here's this projector, here's this box of slides, I might as well just turn it on.' We buy stuff all the time and wind up throwing it out which - there's a really good chance that should've happened....
"If the bulb didn't work, I would've never followed through with buying a bulb for the projector. Never. The bulb happened to work. I turned it on, I started dropping in the slides, and I was like 'Whoa, this is interesting, right?' "
One of the boxes of slides was labeled "Mountain Trip to Japan 1959." "There was this one slide in particular that was really strange. I was convinced it was a public execution," Jason says. So he did what any quirky songwriter might do in such a situation. He wrote a perky, upbeat song about a mountain trip to Japan - that involves a public execution. Tina was floored.
Fast forward past a successful open-mike-night presentation and a talent show win, and suddenly The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players became Seattle darlings. That's when Tina packed everyone into the '84 Chevy van and moved them to New York in pursuit of a bigger audience. Once again, her vision proved wise.
This summer's tour features 28 gigs in six weeks. The Continental Club show in Austin was particularly exciting, thanks to extended family members in the audience.
Tina is originally from San Antonio, so her Mom, Rachel, Dad, Joe, and Aunt Rose (aka Baby Doll) made the drive to dote on little Rachel - they call her Raquilita - and catch the performance. Baby Doll clapped heartily, gushing afterward with her sister about how happy they are for Tina and how talented and artistic she's always been.
The packed house clearly shared the sentiment, eating up every minute of the presentation from Jason's geeky yuk-yuk patter to songs about eggs/Vietnam/Watergate, a couple of retired military nurses and their adventures from the 1950s through the '70s, and a brilliant piece dealing with "Men Gone Wild in Middle America," featuring slides culled from a traffic-education presentation.
Of particular amusement was a commercial slide featuring a glass bell and a ketchup bottle atop a wedding cake, made funnier by Jason's deconstruction of the thought process that must've gone into this ad.
At last, the nutty professor of poetry in carousel motion finally informed the audience that all family slide shows must come to an end. Appropriately enough, they rounded out the evening with a ditty entitled, "Together as a System We Are Unbeatable."