Oakland’s Thee Hobo Gobbelins put on an Americana freak show
Just before calling Dan Abbott, guitarist for Oakland-based “Troglodyte jug band” Thee Hobo Gobbelins, I listened to his group’s “Skulker’s Joy.” The raucous ditty featuring accordion and jaw harp had a weird European sound and it sounded like pirate music, like something they’d sing on Flapjack. That’s the Cartoon Network’s insanely creative The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, starring a little boy named Flapjack and his pirate pal Captain K’nuckles, who live inside a talking whale named Bubbie.
After answering the telephone, Abbott immediately said, “I’m just making up the last flapjack.”
I started laughing. If I’d been eating, I might have spit out my food.
Abbott hadn’t seen Flapjack, but he said he liked my description and comparison to the Gobbelins, and was planning to check it out on TV later that day.
“A lot of us are big nerds in various ways,” offered Abbott (who also goes by the monikers Zombie Dan and Professor Plague) of himself and his crew of Gobbelins, who describe their music as a mixture of the “traditional sounds of Americana and the Old World with the horrors of modernity.”
On the band’s “The Tower”—which begins with a voice screaming, “The sky is falling!”—that Old World meets a haunted house in a driving squeezebox refrain accompanied by background shrieks. And the somewhat somber “The Hungry Rat!”—a repetitive tune featuring washboard percussion, jaw harp and accordion—contrasts and complements the former with what would be the perfect mood-setter for a carnival freak show.
Formed in 2003, the Gobbelins have lightened up some pretty dark places with their wacky, insistent mix of guitar, banjo, saw, squeezebox, washboard, fiddle, tuba, washtub bass and clever vocals. The band has played a number of eviction parties (“A lot of our friends are off-and-on squatters”), and recently even performed in “basically a sewer” in San Diego. “That was one of our best shows. The atmosphere was totally appropriate,” said Abbott.
“We can play anywhere, on a rooftop or a desert,” the band’s Web site advises, “with or without a P.A.” This un-electrified capability saved the day at a recent punk fest where, Abbott recalled, after the police shut down the noise of the festival’s bands, Thee Hobo Gobbelins were able to continue the party on into the night with their acoustic (yet wildly satisfying) sound.
“We’re all artists, and maybe savants in some way,” Abbott explained. “We’re all interested in mythology and old legends. Some of us are also D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] players.”
While he was careful not to reveal too much about the real lives of the band’s various characters, Abbott did give a rundown of the members’ eclectic vocations, starting with Gobbelin accordionist Skyfell, who runs The Accordion Apocalypse, the only accordion shop in San Francisco.
“Some of us are involved in academia. At least one of our members is a teacher. We’ve got someone who’s in construction—a carpenter. There’s a dog walker. … Some are in the service industry. We’re pretty much the entire economy.
“We’re also just interested in playing in everyday life,” shared Abbott, whose own résumé includes special-ed teacher, journalist, punk-rock musician and carnie. “We don’t believe that play and regular life are separate things.”
The Gobbelins’ music and the members’ personal lives are also informed by their anarchist politics, said Abbott. “The system that we have today, well, it’s sick. There’s something vastly wrong with getting up every day and doing something that you really don’t want to do.”
Thee Hobo Gobbelins kick off a West Coast summer tour promoting their first full-length album, Deep Ones, at Monstros Pizza Tuesday, June 30 (tour stop No. 2 is the Autonomous Mutant Festival somewhere in “the woods” in Oregon). Showgoers be forewarned, the band’s MySpace page (www.myspace.com/hobogobbelins) claims that “audience” is the goblin word for “food that screams.”
“We’ve got our foot dipped in the River Weird,” added Abbott. “Many people have been thoroughly infected by our ideas, and we’re hoping to infect more.”