Feature: Trabants (Boston Globe, 1.28.11)

Posted on April 18, 2011

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Although history has conveniently painted 1960s guitar pioneers the Ventures into a bit of a novelty “surf rock’’ corner, the fact remains that rock ’n’ roll probably wouldn’t be the same without them. Masters at stringing together melodies from all corners of the world into three-minute pop gems, the group rode a brief high tide of instrumental pop music into the glory days of the early ’60s that included maestros of all stripes, from Burt Bacharach to Duane Eddy.

Boston has had legions of maestros of its own since then. One of the hardest working in recent times has been guitarist Eric Penna, who’s led the post-punk group Ketman through several phases in the last eight years or so. Penna’s a walking encyclopedia of rock history, but it’s taken even this obsessive fan beyond his 30th birthday to dig past the last 50 years to find his latest calling: the five-piece go-go party of Trabants.

“It’s funny that just last August, Elvis’s first record suddenly blew my mind,’’ Penna laughs. He had also just recently chanced into a Ventures binge at a dingy New Orleans used record shop. “I thought, wait a minute, I had to go through all of that just to find this record and go, Oh, this guy Elvis’s record is pretty good.’’

Penna, seated in a booth at the appropriately kitschy Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, recounts the way Ketman’s gloriously spastic punk shape-shifted into the rock time machine of Trabants. It comes to a head tonight when the band releases its first album of dusty-sounding woody wagon cruisers with a show at the Rosebud Bar in Somerville.

Trabants got its start a couple of years ago on whim. A friend’s band was coming through town and needed a show — Ketman was already committed, so Trabants was born. It was a new name, but the band members stayed the same: Joe Marrett on bass, Mora Precarious on drums, Bryan Murphy on trumpet and Kevin Corzett on saxophone. They cobbled together a set of surf classics, added a few obscurities, and they were off.

The first show was a blast, and what followed was a relaxing year for a band accustomed to music as frenetic and tightly wound as Ketman’s. “You can almost eat dinner to Trabants,’’ Penna says proudly.

Logistically, it gelled with fantasies the band had been having for years. Corzett says the new incarnation made them flexible with booking. “On old tours with Ketman, we’d get offered these roadhouse gigs on off-nights where they’d want us to play all night long,’’ he says. Ketman gets the straight-up rock shows, while Trabants can handle any takers.

And so there were extended nights at Charlie’s Kitchen, a monthlong residency at the Plough & Stars (where half the audience indeed sat at tables and munched on appetizers), and even a New Year’s Eve gig at Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, where the band got grandpas and 4-year-olds dancing in the aisles.

The cover set grew to two hours or so, expanding to include a psych jam called “Juke Boxes Chez Saidani’’ (by Philippe Sarde) that Penna found on a French film soundtrack compilation to a Stevie Wonder soul platter written in Italian (“Passo Le Mie Notti Qui Da Solo’’). But new music was on the way, too; Penna began recording a batch of originals at the group’s Allston practice space.

The debut Trabants album, dubbed “Highwire Surfing’’ and recorded in old-fashioned mono, is a testament to the power of old-school rock ethics, from its sparse arrangements to its trippy delay. There’s sputtering spring reverb on the guitars, crisp melodies, warm drums, and sly horn lines all over the place. Penna pulls elements from spaghetti western soundtracks such as wheezing harmonicas and sound effects piped in from Telstar satellites. The only twist is in the names; Penna’s affinity for Cold War Eastern European ephemera in Ketman carries over in such song titles as “St. Petersburg Shake’’ and “Zubrówka,’’ the name of a Polish vodka banned in the States. “Trabants’’ themselves were small East German cars ubiquitous throughout Soviet bloc countries.

“Eric was a taskmaster for authenticity while we were doing the record,’’ says Corzett. “I had some homework. I knew the big names, but I’d never gotten super into surf music, so I listened to a lot of original recordings that he gave me.’’

Whatever details Corzett and the rest of the band found to grab onto, it worked. “Highwire Surfing’’ feels like some kind of lost masterpiece, which is fitting for a genre built on lost masterpieces and musical hand-me-downs.

In fact, it might be the music’s deep-down place in rock DNA that makes it work so well. “I’ve heard it said that songs like these are like pebbles in a creek,’’ says Penna. “Like the water has been flowing over them for so long that they become perfectly round.

“You take a song like ‘Raunchy’ — you know, one of the first rock songs. It’s so simple, but when you play it you can just feel its age. You feel how easy of a suit it is to wear, it fits everybody so well.’’

For audiences, the feeling’s mutual. Says Penna, “One thing I’ve learned from this band is that people will forever dance to ‘Wipeout.’ ’’

Originally published in the Boston Globe here.

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