Musician to Musician: Sideshow Tramps
I usually do these interviews by email, but when Craig Kinsey of the Sideshow Tramps invited me over to talk in person, it was a hard assignment to resist. For several years now, I’ve been wondering how Craig Kinsey and his Sideshow Tramps do what they do, so it seemed like it would be fun to do an old-fashioned, face to face interview for once…
First Craig showed me around the 1920s bungalow apartment where he lives and explained that he was writing a novel. He showed me the desk he where was writing.
The novel would include a clothing line tied into it. The dining room in the apartment was dedicated to the beginnings of the clothing design, and everything in the apartment took me to the early 20th century.
It seemed perfect for the enigmatic leader of one of Houston’s most interesting, genre-bending bands. As the tour ended, we sat down, and the topic of discussion changed to the second installment of the “Burned Out” series that he’s curating at Fitzgerald’s next Thursday, August 2nd.
Craig Kinsey: We have bands playing three or so covers at the show, but it can’t just be any cover. It has to be a song that you’re burned out on.
SCR: Almost like guilty pleasure songs…
Like “Stairway to Heaven” — a song everyone knows. Last time, Literary Greats did Janis Joplin’s “Take Another Piece of My Heart,” and Sideshow Tramps did “War Pigs.”
Who else is playing this one with you guys?
We’ve got an outer loop band called Potbelly that I’m hearing great things about.
Yes, we’ve played with them before. That will be fun.
They’re doing NWA‘s “Boyz in the Hood.” Then we’ve got Southern Backtones doing “Heart of Glass.” Then my band will be doing “Sing Sing Sing” and “Sweet Caroline.” There’s a feeling at the show that’s different than most shows, because everyone is anticipating what the band will do with the songs and how they might tackle them. We had 300 people at the last one and it was a lot of fun.
Very cool. Well, for those who don’t know — how long has Sideshow Tramps been a band? Or is it a band? How did you get started?
We started out not as a band. It took us awhile to realize we were a band. We played Monday nights at Avant Garden, and people came out to see us. It took a while before we started calling it a real band.
So that Avant Garden stint was kind of a residency?
Yeah, and there were a lot of kids in our regular audience that became musicians, too. We taught them lessons on guitar. The guys in Buxton and Robert Ellis came to those shows. Later on I found out that Hayes Carll was a regular, too.
I had been hearing a buzz about you guys in late 2008… The first time I saw you was at Avant Garden in January 2009, and it was also the first time I ever saw Robert Ellis. I enjoyed your show, but I went home that night thinking “That kid Ellis has something…”
Robert is the kind of guy you play for your parents. We’re the Crazy Uncle Band that comes out after the parents go home!
How do you guys write your songs?
Each person writes songs on their own, then brings them to the rest of the band. If you hear me singing, then I wrote the song. Scott [mandolin, bass] wrote “Shady Little Girl” and sings on that. Geoffrey wrote “Back to New Orleans.” Scott and Shane [drums] bring the punk and garage influence to the band, where I come from a country background. The words and storytelling are the most important things to me. We don’t write the songs together. Whoever writes a song brings it to each of us.
Where did the saw Geoffrey plays come in?
When I first met Geoff at St. Thomas University, he had been doing rap and metal but wanted to get out of that style and then he started learning banjo. He then explored what other instruments were in bluegrass and found the saw.
What has been the reaction to Revelator? Anything odd or surprising?
We have found that we’re un-marketable! We recently became Texas Music Magazine‘s Artist of the Year, and we are featured in their magazine. We fit into too many genres, so they say, and this is with all hyphens! [reads straight from the magazine] “The punk-Americana-jazz-bluegrass-gypsygarage-rock-gospel-carnivalesque band from Houston — often described as Texas’ answer to Gogol Bordello — has been tearing up the Bayou City for a decade.”
It’s like each one of those hyphens is a nail in the coffin of your marketability. Or you just have to use all those genres to your advantage I guess. I almost hear you guys as Broadway-esque or cabaret, as well. My favorite is the first song, “Here Comes the Party.” It’s like, “don’t try to resist us! This album is going to take you on a trip,” and then you follow through with all the other songs.
So, have you toured much, or has it been mostly Houston so far?
We’ve toured a little bit, as far as Arkansas. We don’t tour just for fun or a vacation. We have to know we’re going to make money on the trip. Mostly it’s been Houston, with a tour once in awhile.
How has Austin received you?
The others made a big deal of Austin, and at first I thought, “it’s just another city, just another room to play.” And in a way, it was, but I realized later, there is great music in Houston, but there is music business in Austin. So it became a little bigger to me then. In Houston we have the music and it’s great, but the business is over there.
It’s kind of a sibling rivalry. We’re a bigger city, and I personally think our music is just as good here, but it’s understood they have that business atmosphere. That brings me to the shirt. “I’m not Moving to Austin!” People know that’s meant at least somewhat jokingly, right? I cracked up when I saw it!
Yes, only one person on Facebook has reacted negatively. Someone is always going to take things the wrong way. You have to wonder if music as a business blew up here, would the music suffer for it? Sometimes I think it’s better off as it is. But we are growing here. We have good bands, we’ve got good press, like you guys. We need both feeding off of each other. Bands want press, and the press want good bands to write about.
Tell me about your instruments. Do you have a favorite or will any guitar do?
I have a guitar behind this couch. I know it’s a Martin, but I couldn’t tell you the model number, G65 or whatever. Geoffrey is more interested in that side of things. I don’t care much about that. I care about the words and storytelling. Sideshow Tramps is all about bringing Bacchus or the crazy parts of life and finding where it mingles with the Apollo or the Intelligence part of life.
Now that you say that, I can totally hear that in your songs. Speaking of that, how was recording at Sugar Hill?
It was great. We were produced by Steve Christiansen. He helped a lot and lent objectivity to the album. We were never planning on recording, but someone with some money stepped in and said “you have to record this.”
So the first album was able to pay for the second?
Yes. We’ve done several printings of each now.
What are you listening to these days?
Aside from the songs we’re getting ready to play at Burned Out, like Neil Diamond and the soundtrack for the movie Manhattan, I’ve been listening to a lot of Cole Porter Radio on Pandora.
And with that, I finished my first face-to-face, sit-down interview! Make room in your schedule to go to Burned Out (#2) Thursday, August 2nd at Fitzgerald’s, and also consider voting for Sideshow Tramps for “Best Americana” in the Houston Press Music Awards. END
(Photos: Sideshow Tramps at Summerfest; Craig Kinsey; Geoffrey Muller & Craig Kinsey. Photo #1 by Dan Workman. Photos #2 & #3 by Mark C. Austin.)