Uke-Hunt played Ottawa recently, and if you weren’t there, you missed out. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, it is the latest project of Sean “Spike” Slawson, of Swingin’ Utters and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes fame. If you haven’t checked them out yet, I highly recommend it. Their record is great, and they put on one hell of a live show. I think that the best part about this tour for the band is that they are finally able to perform with a roof over their heads!
I had only heard of Uke-Hunt recently, and had initially thought it was somewhat of a new project. When I got to sit down with Spike before the show, he assured me that this is not the case: “I’ve had it for a while now, but it’s just starting to pick up speed in a way that it hadn’t before. I had the name, and I needed a project to put the truth to the lie in the name. In fact, the guy that’s playing drums for us, who drove down from New Jersey to join us in Pittsburgh where we practiced and started our tour, he played bass with one incarnation of the band on the Jersey Shore, right out by the boardwalk. So yeah, we’ve been doing it for a while, but this incarnation is new.”
This incarnation of Uke-Hunt started out busking on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. This proved to be a great experience for the band – and helped them make some cash – but it had its ups and downs. “We just went out and tried to make a little money. It’s really weird out there! There are a lot of characters out on Fisherman’s Wharf trying to get people’s money, or not even caring; money’s the last thing on their mind. They’re just crazy exhibitionists. Street performer schizo, or post-verbal drunk people. I’m used to walking through it, but I’m not used to standing still in it, much less holding an instrument trying to get people to pay attention to me. It is a really exposed, vulnerable place to put yourself in.”
Spike compares playing a show at a venue to busking on the Wharf: “On the one hand you’re playing [at a venue] for people that paid money to see you in particular, or you as part of a bill with other performers, and they’re sort of inclined to pay attention to you in a positive way. They’re there to have a good time, you’re there not to get in the way. If you’re just out on the sidewalk… how do I start? When do I start? Maybe it’s just like a four-count.” The performance itself is only one aspect of the challenge. Next, you have to make some money doing it! “The people, they’re already spending money in other places, theoretically, walking around with money – disposable income – that you’re competing for, and they’re entirely disinclined to pay attention to you, so you’re trying to get them to pay attention to you. You’re also trying to keep the homeless derelict at bay. If you engage with the homeless in the most peaceful, innocuous way, you get into something with them for like half an hour, and you only get three hour spots. It was a challenge just to stay focused on playing. That was really good.”
Standing on any street corner, let alone Fisherman’s Wharf, while playing an instrument is a bit outside my comfort zone. Spike’s philosophy/inspiration for putting himself in such a vulnerable position is great, though. “Women, gay men and drag queens are an inspiration to me, because they don’t portray demonstrable physical strength or fighting prowess, but they still can’t take any shit. And they can’t look scared; they can’t give an inch. If they can do it then why can’t I? After that, it’s only laziness that’s going to keep you down. Fear of death, fear of being hurt is like… a vanity. You just gotta keep your shit together. So playing in front of clubs, it’s no big deal” He knocks on (definitely not re-purposed) wood to avoid jinxing himself. To me, that perspective is super thoughtful, and insanely humbling.
Now that they are off the Wharf, Uke-Hunt has been tearing it up in the eastern states and provinces. Managed by Audra, Spike’s lovely wife who also works merch for the band, Uke-Hunt is out on tour playing Ukulele-driven covers. Unlike Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, though, Uke-Hunt is not a parody cover band. Spike plays songs that he loves – such as “Animal Farm” by The Kinks, “Because” by The Dave Clark Five, and my favourite, “Rainy Days and Mondays” by The Carpenters – without the tongue-in-cheek ad lib lyrics. There are plenty of jokes, mind you (“This song is called ‘Pins and Needles’. It was co-written by Sonny Bono, a great American songwriter, and a pretty good skier.”), but the songs are played from the heart. Check ’em out!
Many thanks go out to Melanie Kaye for presenting me with this opportunity, and to Spike and Audra for making the time to meet with me. It was was a great pleasure.