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December 12, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 50

Spank Major Hijack

Setting sail with Knoxville's political pirates of percussion

by Randall Brown

Rock 'n' roll history is full of bands whose names inspire big question marks when first tossed around by the hippest obscure music critics. From the quaint & quirky (Strawberry Alarm Clock, Jeff-erson Airplane) to the bizarrely offensive (Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers) to the simply indecipherable (Ein-strzende Neubauten, 'nuff said), it has long been the clever rocker's duty to make the straight news announcer arch an eyebrow and pause sarcastically before mentioning the music world's latest threat to pop sensibility.

Knoxville can now proudly boast of having birthed such an ensemble from the fickle nine-headed beast that is the local music scene, and the eyebrows won't stop furrowing once the music starts, either. It's a complete package of the out of the ordinary. It's not super, it's not cute—hell, it's not quite even syntactical. It's an odd and cacophonous bird known as Spank Major Hijack. These folks draw outside the lines from the get-go. They beat on homemade drums, they do cartwheels, they sing songs about late 19th and early 20th century radical politics. And they like to dress like pirates.

"Our name, of course, incorporates sex and revolutionary politics," explains drummer/vocalist "Jazzy" James Henry. "The 'major' part we're still working out."

"James really wanted the word 'hijack' in our name," says bassist Beau Hart.

"Then I saw a flyer for Jan Svankmeyer, the Czech puppeteer/ animation guy," says lead vocalist Marko Sonnie, "and I thought 'Svankmeyer—that sounds like spank major—Spank Major Hijack!' Then we wrote down about forty other names and voted them all down."

"Sirhan Saran Wrap came close," says Henry.

But Spank Major Hijack by any other name would be as unique. With two drummers, a bassist, a theatrically hyper lead vocalist, and the occasional trumpeter (yes, that's right, no guitars) their line-up hardly fits into the classic rock thing. The Spank Major sound does hearken back to some classic punk sounds, but not to the influences that most contemporary pop-punk bands bother to cultivate. The drum corps of Henry and Marie Potter call to mind late '80s era Butthole Surfers, beating out punk-tribal rhythms on an array of percussion devices, from the standard trap set to bungee-suspended water bottles. Hart's bass playing stomps through all the low-end sludge puddles, from Fugazi-style harmonics to angry, fuzzy rumblings of bands like the Birthday Party. Over this already dynamic stew, the three primary instrumentalists trade vocal volleys with acrobatic front person Sonnie, bringing back memories of the seminal British political band Crass. Filter these influences through a love of in-your-face activism and a disdain of sound-alike alterna-rock, and you begin to grasp the Spank Major Hijack sensibility.

"We're making music and getting off big time," explains Potter.

"That sums it up right there," says Sonnie. "I think it's important for people in a band to basically go berserk and put on a show. A lot of bands just stand there, and they might be good at playing, but the visual aspect of a show is not there." Paul Stanley of Kiss has made similar statements.

"That's a perfect example of how, if you just go off at a show, it makes it a hell of a lot more interesting than if you just play really good music," says Sonnie. "If you're not afraid to act like a total dumbass."

"We're going for a comedy-musical thing," adds Henry. "We want to have songs that personally mean something to us, and that we even hope will inspire somebody. But we also want to have a big sense of humor, because we all like to cut up."

"Let me say the words: Spike Jones—that's where it's at," agreesSonnie. It's a sort of "going off" that the band hopes will be infectious to their audiences.

"Yeah, we'd love for people to dance at our shows," says Henry.

The latest manifestations of this mixture of substance and presentation are the aforementioned pirate outfits: red and black striped shirts, eye patches, and belts with big buckles. Add in a little faux swordplay and the Long John Silver-esque catch phrase ("Argh!"), and the motif is in full effect.

"James went to Key West on his vacation," says Hart. "And eversince, he's been obsessed."

"Pirates," says Henry, "we are pirates."

"I'd like to be pirates as a band," says Sonnie. "Go in and take over a show—kill the band and start playing."

"I just haven't found a bayonet to fit onto my bass yet," says Hart.

It's a fitting theatrical and comedic touch to the presentation of songs concerning historical revolutionaries, as in "Baader Meinhoff Stomp," concerning Germany's Red Army Faction, or "Czolgosz," an anthem about the assassin of President McKinley. Mix in "The Scorcher," an amalgam of 1890s rebel bicycling anthems, and the whole Spank Major Hijack package becomes a history lesson in the realm of revolutionary politics.

"As far as I'm concerned, old timey is always better and more interesting," says Sonnie. "You can resurrect old things, old ideas that are actually still really new ideas because no one's ever accepted them. Most people have never heard any of the shit that we refer to in those songs."

"Besides," adds Hart, "the originators are always more interesting than the imitators."

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