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End Times Spasm Band puts the Hot in Hot Jazz
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
There is a very large difference between “traditional” jazz and what is known as “hot jazz.” For that reason, the members of The End Times Spasm Band are a little hesitant to label their style as hot jazz. That is to say, they don’t want to confuse anyone unfamiliar with this offshoot style into thinking that they’ll be playing “Caravan” or “All Blues” at any of their shows. Think Squirrel Nut Zippers as opposed to, say, Coltrane. That being said, I sat in on their rehearsal the other day to talk about the band, how they got together, Bjart’s love of science, and Erik’s disdain for the Dave Matthews Band, among other things.
The End Times Spasm Band consists of Bjart Helms on guitar and vocals, Erik “Babyfingers” Stillabower on Banjo and Ukulele, Zach Wright on the upright bass, and Lyndsy Rae Patterson on vocals and washboard. Featuring former members of the Sods, and, more recently, The Shithouse Boys, the Spasm Band just got together earlier this year. When The Shithouse Boys had to go on indefinite hiatus, because singer Alan “War Chief” Murphy was sent to Korea by the Air Force, the 3 remaining members (Helms, Babyfingers, Wright) formed the Spasm Band.
How they came to have Patterson in the band tuned out to be a bit of kismet. According to Helms, the three were at a party, “we were watching videos on YouTube, and she just walked into the room and started singing along.” And there it was.
For the record, if I have learned anything from interviewing this band, it’s that you don’t necessarily need to have a straight answer to have a good one. For example. when I asked how they came up with the band’s name, Helms said “well, it was originally the Eschaton Spasm Band when it was just me messing around, and I didn’t know if it would turn into anything, but no one could understand what Eschaton meant, so it became ‘End Times.’” Also for the record, eschaton doesn’t even appear in Webster’s Online Dictionary, but, according to the dictionary on my computer, it means “the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world.” Thank you, Steve Jobs.
Anyway, I then asked the members about their backgrounds in music, to find out if this was a style that they just recently came to, or if it went back to their childhoods. Helms said “I grew in a very weird home for music. Spike Jones and Dr. Demento were definitely played more than the Beatles.” Wright and Babyfingers said pretty much the same thing, and Patterson described her musical upbringing as consisting of “a lot of old, old folk,” the point being that these are not newcomers to traditional styles of music.
“Banjo is the best instrument ever,” according to Babyfingers Stillabower. The reason I feel the need to include this quote is that it came from a guy who looks like he should be playing in Anti-Flag or some other hardcore punk band (he has a green mohawk). But I also bring it up because it’s kind of a great story. “I had always hated the banjo,” he said. “then I played banjo one night and never wanted to stop.” In fact, he liked it so much that he and Helms ended up recording three songs that same night with Stillabower on the banjo. This was back in 2004 or 2005, and since then he has gone on to develop what he calls the “Stillabower method” of banjo playing, and Helms describes as “frailing but failing” (all in good fun, of course). Stillabower also wanted to make it clear that he despises Dave Matthews. “**** Dave Matthews,” is what he said, and I am compelled to include this because he made it very clear that, if I don’t, I should not even mention Stillabower at all in this article. And I aim to please.
In regards to composition, Helms writes all of the songs, and does the arrangements for all of the standards that they play. When I asked if he had any particular lyrical themes, he said “I write a lot of songs about science and physics...There’s a love song about particle physics. It’s all about dancing, which is a metaphor for sex.” Gold, Jerry. Gold. He also told me “I’ve written a lot of breakup songs,” and “I’ve written a love song for the universe.” The then ended this thought with “I did try to write a plain love song without mentioning science, and I actually did it.” I don’t think I can actually comment any further on this particular subject, but I’m also fairly sure I don’t need to.
Helms did say “I’m trying to write a song a week this summer, and so far I have.” So that means the band should have plenty of material come September. In regards to standards and covers, the band likes to span the decades, anything from Ella Fitzgerald to Squirrel Nut Zippers, and also traditional folk songs. They also do a rousing rendition of “If You’re A Viper” (I think this is the official name. It’s been called a lot of things), which is a song about what Stillabower calls “left-handed jazz cigarettes,” and was even performed by Louis Armstrong. See, kids? Cypress Hill was not the first group to sing about pot after all.
So anyway, I’d like to end this article with some of the random bits of knowledge I picked up while conducting this interview. First, did you know that Sears and Roebuck was the first American retailer to make guitars widely available to the public? I did not. Did you know that the reason most restaurants don’t sing “Happy Birthday” is that it’s still copyrighted? I didn’t either. Those were the 2 most interesting bits, anyway.
The band’s next show is going to be May 30th at 816 Pint & Slice on Calhoun. It’s going to be a very special party, because Lyndsy is leaving the next day to spend the summer in Africa, so make sure you’re there.