By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Nearly 15 years ago, I took a date to a great date show. Brave Combo was playing on the lawn at an art museum in Oklahoma City. We took a picnic, we languished through the warm evening on the cool grass, and later, as I laid back on our blanket, the band started playing "The Bunny Hop." Lead singer-accordionist Carl Finch stepped into the crowd and picked up a long line of children behind him. They meandered around the grounds doing "The Bunny Hop," and Finch led the entire processional stepping right over my head.
So it was really no surprise when we caught up with Finch this week as he and the band are working on their next record — a children's album.
"It's definitely a natural step for us," Finch said from his Denton, Texas studio. "People have told us for years how much their kids liked our music, and these were all albums not (solely) intended for kids."
The children's album will be a typically quick follow-up to Brave Combo's current CD, "The Process," which was just released and is itself a significant departure from the band's norm. Brave Combo, you see, is a polka band.
Polka is their musical base, anyway. In the last two decades — for they just celebrated a 20th anniversary — Brave Combo has served as a freewheeling crash course in world dance music, creating new songs based on old forms and turning rock 'n' roll classics into something you could dance to cheek-to-cheek — those being literal cheeks or the, um, other body part. Their early polka remake of the Doors' "People Are Strange" definitely raised their profile, and "The Process" turns Foreigner's "Double Vision" into a smoky, seductive mambo.
Brave Combo, however, is not a novelty act. Twenty years later, Finch is still having to defend himself and his band — though not as much as he used to — and this week he talked about that, about the overlooked genius of polka music and about winning his first Grammy award.
Thomas: If someone had promised you, back in 1980, that you'd still be making records and even winning Grammys in 20 years, how would you have reacted?
Carl: With great disbelief. I knew I dug the music, but I had no idea how large the polka world really was. I thought I was kind of onto something, but I realized a lot of other people were thinking along these same lines. For me, it's been a process of figuring out that I fit into a picture already, not that I have to paint my own ... So I've been able to get swept up in it. I like the power of polka, the tension and release. I like how polka musicians are aware of the power of this formula, how this happens technically within the polka and how they work to maximize that impact of the tension and release. A lot of music does that but not to the degree polka does it, and so many cultures have latched onto that power — Tejano, Slovenian, Czech, Polish, German.
Thomas: Some people out there are laughing at this by now — polka music. Why does polka get that derision?
Carl: Well, it's changing. The youngest generation with any listening and buying power now don't have as many preconceived ideas, and a lot of younger musicians don't have the old connections with squareness. It's a dying concept leftover from square TV and perceptions of polka as this bland, Lawrence Welk thing — though even he, when he was younger, was hopping on buses and going from town to town. There was mission behind what he did ... People who think polka is square are the most square and uninformed people around. The hippest people know it.
Thomas: Just a month ago, you won the Grammy for Best Polka Album for your record that came out last year, "Polkasonic." Has that helped your own mission to nationalize modern polka?
Carl: Actually, our challenge now that we won that Grammy is to not be considered ungrateful outsiders within the polka world. We have to make sure that those in the trenches know we're serious and committed.
Thomas: Being somewhat irreverent and pop-oriented, it's probably harder to play for a polka-loving crowd than a rock club.
Carl: Some of the polka fans get livid about us, saying we shouldn't even exist. They don't think we're serious. They also usually come from the belief that polka should be played only one way: their way — in a certain style like Slovenian or Czech, etc. We're a weird mixture of all the styles, and we've been around doing this for 20 years, so our (musical) vocabulary is pretty good.
Thomas: About five years ago, Brave Combo issued a collaboration album with the late Tiny Tim — certainly a mixture of new attitudes and old. Your band is pretty well-armed with irony, while Tiny took his music very seriously. The album is fantastic, but how did that pairing work?
Carl: There's a lot more irony there than you would imagine from him, and we in turn were a lot more serious. The record took a long time to do, but we were conscious throughout that we didn't want this to throw us further into the novelty bin people always channel us into. We didn't want this to be a cheap knock-off for him, either. That's why we had him go into his big songbook to get stuff from the turn of the century and the 19th century, in addition to, you know, the Beatles songs we did.
Thomas: Like "Sly Cigarette," which is such a great old song.
Carl: Exactly, it's my favorite of that batch. "Sly Cigarette" — how politically incorrect can you get? That's why we chose it. And we still play it.
Thomas: The Grammy for "Polkasonic" was awarded in February, then your new record, "The Process," came out in March. Wasting no time, I see.
Carl: "Polkasonic" was on another label, and we certainly didn't plan on the Grammy. But it was released by a label, Cleveland International, that got behind it and pushed it really hard. It made serious headway into the polka world, and it actually won the Grammy, beating some pretty heavy-duty guys. "The Process" came out the next month, which is both great and unfortunate at the same time. A little confusing.
Thomas: "The Process" is your most accessible, pop-oriented album yet. Was this the plan or just the next evolutionary step?
Carl: The total effort behind this record is to find more airplay. We were working on the songs and writing a group that fit us but reached out in different directions. We wanted to make a record that might confuse critics and our fans but open some new doors into radio.
Thomas: Was it difficult to fit the polka elements into the pop songs?
Carl: It's different than usual, different than putting the dance style first. For me, part of it was a catharsis, using music to help deal with some internal struggles. I made those the reason and meaning this time out. It's about a process not just of writing and expressing but of living and being human. The song "Golden Opportunity" sums it up: even the (bad) things are supposed to happen.
Thomas: And you've finally written a song called "Denton, Texas," your home base. Why did it take you 20 years to do that?
Carl: Just kind of time, I guess. We've been treated so well here. They've named it Brave Combo week here, and we've become sort of ambassadors for Denton. We're working on becoming the kings of Denton. We're very recognizable here.
Thomas: How did Denton, Texas, come to be so supportive of a polka band?
Carl: When we got together this was a big jazz and prog-rock town. So when we came around doing polkas, they kind of understood the sophistication of it.
Thomas: Tell me about the children's record.
Carl: We're doing it with a couple of kid album veterans, Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink. We were doing a festival in southern California, and they were there. They saw our show and were staying at the same hotel. We hung out, and they said they'd like to do a record with us ... I'd never thought about it seriously until this. To be honest, the songs and content may be more for kids, but the songs sound like Brave Combo songs. Musically, it's just as sophisticated and adult, but the themes are for kids. We're doing an old Harry Belafonte song, "Real Simple Thing." It's concepts kids can relate to — mountains, water, valleys — but adults will be able to put their own meaning to it, as well. One song is about not wanting to clean up your room, and we've put it to a sinister cha-cha beat. Whatever it means, you know, it doesn't matter. It's just a song.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.