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Thursday, 15 December 2011 14:42

A Very Bert Dax Christmas: An interview with Matt Harnish and Rob Severson

A Very Bert Dax Christmas: An interview with Matt Harnish and Rob Severson Bert Dax image courtesy of Rob Severson. Lights image courtesy of George Deputee.
Written by Nick Acquisto

A St. Louis Christmas legacy marches on with "A Very Bert Dax Christmas Volume 9." The latest CD of Christmas songs from St. Louis artists will be released this week with four CD release shows around town.

This year's disc includes songs from Prune, Catholic Guilt, Bass-Amp & Dan-O, Navigator, Ellen the Felon, Hathead Jones, Bug Chaser, Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship, Dubb Nubb, Ded Bugs, the Chill Dawgs and Black James. And it all came together in just two months.

I discussed this year's album and the history of the project with Matt Harnish -- who began the holiday tradition roughly 10 years ago -- and Christmas compilation cohort Rob Severson of Pancake Productions, who now co-produces and co-curates the album and release shows along with Harnish's established brand, Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars.

Nick Acquisto: So you've been releasing "A Very Bert Dax Christmas" compilations for about 10 years now. How did this all get started?

Matt Harnish: Well, the precursor to it was the Vintage Vinyl collection, the "Better Than Fruitcake" CD that I helped curate. I was talking to one of the owners of Vintage Vinyl about the idea of putting out a local-band Christmas CD because at that point I don't think anyone had done one, at least not on any sort of large scale. So we ran with that as a charity thing that Vintage Vinyl put together and had 15 bands or so, maybe more, I don't remember. That was "Better Than Fruitcake," and that was back in 2000.

I've always been a sucker for Christmas songs, so that was something I was interested in. The Vintage Vinyl one was a little more broad scope so I was more interested in having more control over what went into it. That went well, and so then, the next year after that I decided to just do my own thing, and I just kept doing it.

So where did the name "The Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars" come from?

Matt: I like the idea of there being a fictional head of affairs, Bert Dax.

Over the years these compilations have included the Highway Matrons, Tight Pants Syndrome, the Blind Eyes, Theodore, Sex Robots, the Monads, the Vultures, Bad Folk and many many more. Do you know about how many bands have participated or how many songs you have at this point?

Rob Severson: Like an approximate average of ... say 10 [on each volume].

Matt: Usually more than ten.

So around 100 total?

Matt: Eight was the lowest; the second year. I would say we're closing in on a hundred. There are a few things put together specifically for the CD, and there are a few not real bands and things, so in terms of real bands, there's 80+ and then another 20 joke, one-off things.

Do you track down the bands for the most part or do they come to you at this point?

Matt: Rob tracked 'em all down this year. Well, the only one I had asked to be on it was the Ded Bugs, who I had asked to be on Volume 3 and they never got their song done. So they got it done this year. Bass Amp & Dan O. came to us and asked us if we're doing one because they had a song ready.

Rob: As did Hathead Jones. All the others I sought out pretty much.

Rob, when did you start getting involved with the project as a co-curator/co-producer?

Rob: Last year was the first year I had helped out because the year before that, there was not one. One did not get released, so last year I asked Matt if he was gonna bring it back. And he said, "Ehh, I don't know," and I said, "Well, what if we make it a co-production with Pancake Productions?" and he said, "Okay."

Matt: And I said, "Only if by co-production you mean, you do all the work." (Laughing)

So, Matt how are you involved in this project?

Matt: At this point, I had almost zero input. Let's see … I booked one of the shows and … that's it.

Rob: That's not true. This year was kind of an outlier because we didn't decide we were going to do it until less than two months ago.

Matt: Oh, it was less than that.

Rob: It was like mid-October before we decided, "Okay, let's do it!" In years past, we've at least had recording time set up for bands who couldn't record themselves, and this year it was like, "You're gonna have to get us something because this year it's just too late." So we're kinda shoe-stringing it this year.

Matt: In years past, I started asking bands in July, get studio time set up in September, and all of this ridiculousness, then I realized I was putting way too much effort into it. At this point, it can just happen.

Rob: We decided on the 12th or 15th of October, and it was, like, "I need songs by the 15th of November, and I hope that's enough time to get the CDs made," and sure enough, it worked out fine.

That's amazing that the bands were even able to write and record songs in that amount of time. (All laughing)

Rob: Some of the bands had songs that were kind of waiting. For example, Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship's is an older song, Ellen the Felon had recorded her track last year. But Navigator, for example, recorded something new. Catholic Guilt, Prune, Dub Nubb -- a lot of these bands put it together specifically for this.

You mentioned that in the past you would book studio time. Did you do that for all of the albums?

Matt: Mario [Viele] from Sex Robots had a nice little recording set up in his basement when he used to live in town, so it was pretty easy to get 4-5-6 bands in over a couple days and knock a song out. It was easy, it was cheap and it was good quality. When it comes to booking actual pro studios, we could never come near to doing that.

Rob: Yeah, last year we had Dan from Humdrum -- he has a studio in his basement as well – and he recorded two or three songs, including Humdrum's own. But yeah, we just booked an afternoon on a Saturday, and it was, like, "Ok, this band, come at this time, this band come at this time, this band come at this time, let's knock it out."

So are there songs over the years that you received that really blew your mind and shocked and surprised you, that it was such a great Christmas song?

Matt: Continuously. One that always blew me away was the Rats and People song ["Bethlehem, Says the Bible"] on Vol. 5. When I asked them to be on it, I expected it to be angry, Irish pirate songs, kinda Whole Sick Crew. They were fairly new at the time. It wasn't like that at all. I was expecting this kind of ruckus, and then they turned in this stunningly beautiful song. I think that was one of the more pleasant surprises.

Rob: It gets better every year.

Matt: Also, the Cassie Morgan song ["Fields Of Snow"] from last year was really, really great. They're all good. I've never been disappointed in a song. Even if they're exactly what I expect them to be, they're still good. What's your favorite, Rob?

Rob: Of all time? I'm biased. … I'm real into that Butt song [on Volume 1] because I like the story behind it. That was a band that was created just for the purpose of creating a track for the first Christmas compilation, but they stuck around, unlike any other band that's been created just for this.

Matt: Mario and Amy [of Kansas City's Toxic Shock] have recorded before that, but they hadn't played live until the release show. Then they became a real band because they had to figure out how to play live for the release show. And they've been a real band ever since. … That is one of my favorites too.

What makes a Christmas song good?

Rob: That's tough. I don't know Christmas, I just know what I like.

Matt: If the person creating it is taking it seriously. It can be a serious joke, but as long as they're interested in what they're creating, then it sounds interesting. I think it's a testament to Christmas songs that people do take them seriously. There's plenty of compilations that have completely tossed off tracks on them, and I don't think any of these songs are tossed off. People always rise to the occasion.

Where does the album art come from?

Matt: Umm, it's stolen from classic Christmas releases over the years, thrift store record finds. I had a very strong feeling from the get-go that it should look like a generic, budget Christmas release -- like something you find at a garage sale.

Rob: I've done the layout for the last two years. To me, the classic "A Very Bert Dax" album art features some kind of image on the cover, a background color matting, and on the back, a zoomed in, pixilated, monochrome section of the picture on the front. And then the track listings superimposed over that.

Matt: In an almost unreadable fashion.

Rob: Right. I want to say volumes 2-5 follow that formula exactly. So the last couple years, that's what I've put out there too. We used a cover this year from a record we found in my grandmother's garage.

Do you have a prized Christmas record?

Matt: I do have the Spinal Tap "Christmas with the Devil" picture disc. I've got the Headcoatees picture 45, Shonen Knife "Space Christmas" 45.

Rob: I don't have anything that cool. I just have a lot of the generic records like we're talking about. Barbara Streisand and Robert Goulet compilations.

Thanks to both of you for putting these together every year.

Matt and Rob: Thanks.

The album is available at the following release shows or can be ordered online at

Black James - "Happy Birthday Little Jesus"


Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocket Ship - "Suck It Santa"


A Very Bert Dax Christmas Volume 9 CD Release Shows

Thursday, December 15
El Leñador
Ellen the Felon, Chill Dawgs, Black James
$5 21+

Friday, December 16 2720 Cherokee
Ded Bugs, BassAmp & Dan-O, Hathead Jones and many more
$10 charitable donation

Sunday, December 18
Prune, Dubb Nubb, Navigator
$5 18+

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