Among the thousand-plus bands in Austin for this year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin were the Mammals, who performed at one of the many ill-equipped Sixth Street pubs hijacked by SXSW every mid-March. A string band at the core, the Mammals augment their sound with drums, electric guitar and organ to create a collectively harmonized howl as thrilling and rocking as any band currently subverting folk traditions.
Opening with a fiddle tune that slammed like the Pogues, they segued into “Hang Man” on drummer Chris Merenda and bassist Jacob Silver’s deep, dark groove, then into “The Old Plank Road”, with Tao-Rodriguez Seeger raising his banjo, bending and shaking out a distorted string of notes. By the time the band left traditional material behind for the lyrical, rock-oriented songs of their new Signature Sounds album Departure, the tiny stage trembled to their lurching, wild will.
The Mammals formed in 2001 as a string band that viewed traditional music as grist for the mill of imagination. Fiddler and singer Ruthie Ungar is the daughter of Jay Ungar, who wrote the folk classic “Ashokan Farewell”, which won a Grammy as the theme to Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger is the son of independent filmmaker Emilio Rodriguez and the grandson of Pete Seeger. Michael Merenda is the son of New Hampshire academics; when the Mammals started, he was still developing his old-time music chops. (Silver and Michael’s brother Chris eventually became the band’s rhythm section.)
If you’ve never heard the Mammals, you probably haven’t spent much time at folky summer camps, Unitarian church basements and grange halls. They log close to 200 dates a year on the underground and above-ground folk circuit, occasionally surfacing at hipster clubs, but mostly happy to provoke purists still smarting from Newport ’65.
Departure was recorded in eight days, mostly live, and is their first album with a consistent, road-sharpened lineup. It’s a concise and cohesive album, a seamless splicing of indie-rock sensibility and traditional string-band sounds. Their politics are undiluted, but rendered more emotionally, less stridently. They cover Morphine, Nirvana and the Louvin Brothers, but their voices are simply their own.
“This record is more consistently political in a subtle way,” Ungar says. “Our previous records were, ‘Hey, let’s have a party!’ and then ‘Hey, let’s bash Bush!’ Our older political songs are more explicit; these are more poetic.”
The best is Michael Merenda’s “Alone On The Homestead”, an interior monologue from a woman left behind in a traditional, rural world, comforted by nothing, not even the bones of her kin — all killed in wars that have left her no safer. “I didn’t sit down and decide to write a song from that point of view,” Merenda says. “That would be the worst approach you could take. You can’t premeditate. You just do your best to be a conduit.”
The band members came to traditional music for personal reasons, motivated in part by resistance and reconciliation with their bloodlines.
“I didn’t have a serious rebellion phase, but I didn’t want to do music like my parents,” Ungar says. “I went into acting, studied it in college, and then realized that I had chosen a career that was even harder than being a musician.”
“Politically speaking, I was even more left-wing than my grandpa,” says Rodriguez-Seeger, who was raised in Nicaragua during the Sandinista-Contra-U.S. conflict. “Grandpa was a peacenik and I wanted to overthrow the government with guns. I wanted to be a sailor or a filmmaker like my father. But I always played music with my family. My first gig with Grandpa was when I was 14, in Japan. He was singing lots of songs in Spanish, and I told him he should stop, that his Spanish sucked. He very craftily suggested I start singing with him to make it sound better.”
“Growing up in New Hampshire, I had sort of this romanticized teenage experience,” Michael Merenda says. “I had very loving parents, was the captain of three sports, the prom king. But I wanted something grittier and dirtier. When I went on a college tour, the only question I had was, ‘Are there any bands on campus?’”
Though they’ve stretched their sound and songwriting to reflect who they are and who they are becoming, they still work on their old-time skills at traditional workshops and jam sessions.
“It makes me feel tribal,” Rodriguez-Seeger says. “It’s the closest thing we white Americans have to sitting around a campfire and smoking a pipe. If you lose that, you lose all your DNA going back forever.
“But a folk art has to change, has to stay relevant to what’s happening now. My attitude about the purists is that without them, we’d have nothing to bounce off. The more experimental traditionalists wouldn’t have anything if it weren’t for people like my uncle Mike and my grandpa. They were trying to save a dying art form. We’d have nothing without them.
“But,” he adds, “we’ve always been louder than my grandpa could stand.”