If Edward Lear had penned music instead of poems, El Dealbreakers is exactly what it would sound like. This squeaking, honking, tub-thumping cacophony is as close to musical nonsense as you can get — and it’s indisputably brilliant.
They call it rhythm and greens.
“It’s kind of polka-billy or something,” says 51-year-old accordionist Frank Ruffolo, whose dulcet Californian drawl suggests the folk icons of the La Canyons more than the ’70s punk rockers who influenced him most. “We lay it down, make up the parts and then take other people’s songs — Elvis Costello or Iggy Pop — and we try to beat it into some sort of rock-metal polka, using horn parts instead of guitar parts. We just try to mess things up. We play the right songs with the wrong band.”
It’s all in the name, says Frank, a self-declared songwriter and bum. “A deal-breaker is something that makes it wrong. Like a guy who is dressed really well, with a mullet; or a date with someone really attractive, who gets drunk and passes out: any one detail that ruins the rest of the picture. It’s about our concept of blowing away convention with our choice of instruments and songs.”
Their set-up is anything but conventional: guitars and harmonicas are banned. “They tend to play over the top of what you’re trying to do. It’s the only rule. It’s not that we hate guitar and harmonica, it’s just that we’re trying to do the forms of American music that aren’t the regular 1/4/1/5 blues and not use those instruments, or bass, or drums. It’s a deal-breaker.”
Instruments that aren’t banned include the bajo-quinto, a 10-string Mexican guitar played by Matt Schumacher and a sousaphone, a type of tuba played by 23-year-old Garrett Smith from New Mexico.
Less peculiar but equally essential to the rousing chorus are the trumpet and mandolin, played by Chicago music scene veteran Justin Ringsak, with Chris Davis — discovered in Kampot two years ago — on fiddle and Sydney jazz trombonist Senor Nick.
The resulting oom-pah effect is nothing if not comedic. “We’re all about the fun. We pretty much started this band to have fun with it. The sousaphone makes us laugh; the tuba makes us laugh all the time when we’re playing it. It’s at the high end of hilarity, what we’re playing, because of the instruments we’re using. It just clanks all the time and honks and squeaks and squeals and barks. It’s something…”
What makes this melee so magnificent is as much about the musicians themselves. Influences span everything from Irish and country music to jazz and bluegrass, but boundaries are surprisingly fluid.
“Everybody’s a good musician. Matt, who plays the bajo quinto, is also a funk bass player by trade. Garrett the sousaphone player is a champion trombonist, so he taught the trombone player how to play. The bass player taught the tuba player what to play and the guitar player is a bass player, so he can also tell the tuba player what to play. The tuba player is also a trombone player, so he can tell the trombone player what to play and I have the keyboard, so I can arrange horn parts. It just kind of gels.”
What also gels is the band’s twin sets of roots, one here and one in the US. All of the full-time members have bases in Butte, Montana, but several spend up to half the year here.
“Montana’s the place where we hide from the US, and here’s where we hide from Montana. There’s nowhere to go after this except maybe the moon.”
Cambodia and Montana are not as disparate as their coordinates might suggest. “Montana’s a broken down mining town in a beautiful place. Kampot is like that for us: a functioning ghost town. It’s a spaghetti Eastern for us here, a cowboy movie. It’s like New Orleans 150 years ago. Cambodia is like Montana in a way. Relatively lawless, but not totally lawless: a wild, wild East vibe that we like.”
While Cambodia’s wild side has mellowed some since the band first arrived, that gentrification has brought with it better musical opportunity. The scene has matured, says Frank. “There are a lot more venues and it seems everyone’s in about three bands. There aren’t enough musicians to go around. When I first came, you could only get a job playing Thin Lizzie covers for the old beer-drinking expats. If you tried anything outside that, you’d get ridiculed, but now eclectic music has become much more acceptable.”
The fact that El Dealbreakers arrived in Phnom Penh minus a member, but were able to hire a substitute on the spot bears testament to his claim. “We came here without a trombonist and one just fell into our lap. We were sitting in a bar and in walks this guy with a trombone case. I find good musicians in all sorts of places. I see some accordion players and think wow, I wish I could play like that — and they probably look at me and think wow, we wouldn’t play like that…”
Frank laughs — which, ultimately, is what El Dealbreakers is all about. “Everybody mashes it together and makes up parts. We all know what it’s supposed to sound like, so we just reassemble a song and try to steer it. We just let it out of the chute and try to hang on for three minutes.”
Written by LJ Snook