In memory of Jumping George Kraynak. I knew George from the Chicago music scene of the 90s where he played in one of the most underrated and overlooked bands of the day, New Rob Robbies. He was also the original bass player for the Polkaholics. I interviewed the polka-crazed trio at a neighborhood dive bar somewhere on Chicago Avenue, or maybe it was Division Street. It must have been September 8, 1998 because that's when Mark MaGwire broke the record for most home runs in a single season thanks to the ever obliging Cubs. The game was on in the bar and it was mostly ignored by us with the exception of MaGwire's record breaking homerun. From RW#12, 1999:
Interview by Joey Germ
Hey, they may not be as cool as Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones. They may not even be as smooth as Frankie Jankovich or as slick as Stas Golonka and maybe they don't wear leiderhosen 24-7 (and maybe they do) but they suffer from Polkaholism damn it and they got it bad!
RW: Dandy Don, Merry Mike, Jumpin' George. How did you get your nicknames? Is it based on what you bring to the band?
DD: That's exactly right.
JG: I bring no musical ability, I merely jump up and down therefore I'm Jumping George. They had no other way to describe me. It couldn't be Great Bass-Licking George...
RW: Competent Bass Player George?
JG: Not Bad on the Bass.
RW: George. I had no idea that the polka scene was so extensive.
DD: It's huge. It's been going on a long time. There's a lot of regional differences too. There's a real Chicago sound that's different from the East Coast that's different from the Milwaukee sound.
RW: Oh no, not another East Coast/ West Coast thing! Milwaukee has got to be a big Polka town though.
DD: Yeah Milwaukee is a little more German and Chicago is a little more Polish. The instrumentation is different, but we (The Polkaholics) don't really fit into those categories.
RW: I was wondering about that, how are you guys received by the Polka Community?
DD: We got our photo in the Polka News which is the eminent publication out of Michigan. It's the definitive source for polka. If you're in there it's gotta be a stamp of approval. It's an honor.
DD: Or they needed a little extra space to fill up.
RW: Do you think they really had to swallow their--
DD: Polka Pride.
DD: There's some people who don't like what we do and see us as a threat.
RW: They might look at what you're doing and think that you're mocking them.
DD: There's people who have had that interpretation, yeah.
MM: Most of the time the older folks like us, they smile. We're winking at the older ladies in the crowd. The older ladies like us a lot.
JG: We're surprised.
RW: I'm not surprised.
DD: We had one reporter put us down saying we made fun of polka.
RW: A Polka Reporter?
DD: A traditionalist.
JG: Those who are kind of comfortable in the polka lifestyle, they got a radio show they're playin' the hits, they don't like us. The people who want to see polka go further--we're talkin' about the kids who were forced to listen to polka when they were little and know all the songs, they want to go to a show and listen to polka but not--
RW: Their grandparents' polka.
JG: Exactly. It's a new generation of polka. It (polka ) will in fact die out if someone doesn't carry the torch.
DD: It's kind of like country, when country was first coming out there were a lot of raw, raucous kinds of sounds and then gradually it got more slick and some of that has been happening in polka too 'cause the early stuff is really raw and it's got a real wildness to it. That's what we're trying to bring back, recreate.
JG: The kishka guy. Walt Slowack. He used to do "Who Stole the Kishka", a song we do. He used to perform it in a clown suite with a sausage on his belt. He had the right idea.
Shouts from the bar: That's it! That's it! It's over!
(At this point in the interview, Mark MaGwire hit his 62nd home run breaking Roger Maris' record for most home runs in a season.)
RW: An historic moment, speaking of traditions and breaking new ground Mark MaGwire just broke the home run record.
MM: If we take enough horse pills maybe we can be the polka record breakers.
RW: Maybe it's a misconception but people usually associate polka with the Old Country, don't they?
DD: Polka is an Americanized art form that has strong links with Europe but the polka hits were written by people born here in the US.
JG: Every town you go to there's gonna be some polka roots underlying any sort of music culture.
RW: Did you guys grow up listening to polka?
DD: We've all got Midwestern roots.
JG: I grew up in the Cleveland area as did Mike, he actually grew up in the Akron area and what do you think of when you think of Cleveland?
JG: But who in polka?
RW: I'm gonna say, Frankie Jankovich.
JG: Yeah, he was one of the kings, he was the Everly brothers of polka.
DD: We're more like Li'l Wally. Li'l Wally was the Chicago Polka King, we're more his style 'cause he had a real raw, wild style. He was also a real performer, he really originated the Chicago style and I think we're more in that tradition although a lot of his stuff was in the Polish language and we don't know Polish, but we have strong links to that kind of sound.
RW: How was your Baby Doll Polka Club show?
JG: The owner, Irene, at the end of th night said it was the most packedit's been in ten years. The place was just jumpin'. I was just havin' a beer and talkin' to her and I said "You know, I've played in all kinds of crappy rock bands in Chicago--
RW: A lot of crappy bands.
JG: —and this is the first band I've played in where people really get into it. They're jumpin' and hollerin' and they wanna get up on stage and we wanna let him. She got all choked up.
JG: Yeah, it's polka, it's moving music. Irene said to her son., "Eddie, get this guy another beer".
RW: You think if you took that kind of a show to a place like the Metro and tried to present that to the kids, do you think they'd respond to it or do you think they'd charge the stage?
JG: As Bruce form the Empty Bottle said, when you put guitar to polka it sounds a lot like ska and there's no reason that the kids wouldn't like it.
JG: So far I think our appeal is with--
RW: The over 50 crowd?
JG: The mid 30s set. I think with the really little kids we have a Spice Girls appeal.
RW: I can see that.
JG: The little kids dig it.
RW: If they can get their parents to buy CDs and the t-shirts...
JG: Why not? Maybe we can't crack the Empty Bottle crowd.
RW: That's a tough nut to crack.
JG: It is a tough nut to crack.
DD: When we played at that Kiss Rocktober Special, some people were too cool to get involved, but there were some people who were definitely into it and having a really good time so...
JG: Don had an accordion which he pulled up to his guitar—
DD: I tried to do Jimmy Page.
JG: —and then (Don) smashed it. It was beautiful. It was poetry.
RW: You're probably the first polka musician to smash an accordion on purpose.
DD: Yeah, I'm worried that if some of the real polka people see that they might not like it.
JG: We just want everybody to know that it was a nonworking accordion.
DD: I tried to get it fixed, the guy told me to throw it away.
JG: It's not like we destroyed anything sacred.
RW: We'll let it slide. So is polka paying the bills yet?
DD: I should show you a graph, I made a graph. We have a website and I'm a statistician by day so I was looking at the number of hits we got at our website and it's been going up in a real linear slope every month, more and more. I think it's gonna hit a point where it's just gonna be super big.
RW: Do you think as a result there's going to be a dozen knock off polka bands?
JG: There's been young folk who've tried to create a similar type of punk rock polka and have had moderate success.
RW: Such as...
DD: Polkacide. They were a hardcore (polka) band from San Francisco in the mid '80s.
JG: Supposedly there was a small scene in Milwaukee in the mid '80s.
RW: Wow, so you guys are kind of part of a revival.
JG: Well, we're really tryin' to tap into the real polka music. Chicago is a great place to do it 'cause we can go out to Taste of Polonia, see Li'l Richard and see the real polka bands.
RW: That's Li'l Richard not Little Richard.
DD: If you're living in a city like San Francisco, you can't do that. This is a great city for us to learn about polka music and turn what we've learned onto more people, to get them excited about it. That's what were tryin' to do, get people excited about us, but turn them onto the whole polka thing and get it happening. It's a real happening art form and it deserves more recognition than it gets, especially among people who are under 60 years old.
MM: It's a real grass roots thing.
DD: Little Wally he's the one (whose) most responsible for the Chicago sound, he started in this area in the '50s. It's been gaining on for a real long time.
MM: Talk about DIY, these guys did their own radio shows, they do live shows, run their own label...
DD: They really were doin' the DIY thing way back when you think abut it. Little Wally was on RCA, they couldn't put out records fast enough for him so after two years on RCA he started his own record company and started puttin' out his own records.
JG: Even today we go to these polka shows, you walk in and they got the whole merchandise thing set up. You can buy any kind of polka you want, there's no middle guy, no upper management. The guys who are making the music will sell it to you direct.
JG: Don has an amazing polka collection, probably the best in the city. How many do you got now, Don?
DD: Probably about 140.
JG: 140 records!
DD: We played our first wedding last month. The pay is reasonable.
JG: Maybe we should start playing frat parties. We might do well at a frat party. We play beer drinkin' music.
DD: I don't know.
RW: You never know when a frat party is gonna get ugly. It might all of a sudden be time to beat on the polka band. You guys should be able to defend yourselves though. If you play enough beer halls something's gonna go down eventually.
JG: One thing I wanted to say in this interview if I may?
JG: One of the misconceptions about the band--and we're incredibly fun, we jump around like hell, we got the costumes to die for--Thank you Vera--but I was talkin' to a friend of mine who happens to be a Goblin guitar player, I was talking to Buh from the Goblins who is a big polka fan, he's been to all of our shows and I know he's been in your magazine (see issue #11 for an interview with The Goblins) but he says; "You guys are a great band period."
JG: I mean, I love playing with these guys. With all the crappy bands I'm in or have been in, this is the best band I've been involved in period, in my life.
RW: Yeah, you've been in some pretty bad bands.
(A fan approaches)
RW: Have you ever seen the Polkaholics play?
Fan: Yes, I have.
RW: Are you a polka fan?
Fan: Yes I am.
DD: We play well together. We've been together for just a year. We played our first show last November (97). We first got together last August (97) and we only knew one polka song, "The Beer Barrel Polka" and we just played it over and over. Now our first CD is gonna come out by the end of the year.
RW: Who's putting that out?
DD: Well, we're still negotiating but it will probably be an independent release. We've got some big offers but we feel that in true polka fashion we should put it out ourselves.
JG: We gotta keep the scene pure.
DD: That's right.
MM: You don't see Little Wally on Interscope or Sony.
JG: We actually had some interest from Ajax and he (Ajax guy) was like, I don't know . . . he was a little too scared to take a chance.
RW: Did you explain to him that it's not about money?
JG: It's like talkin' to a wall that guy.
RW: Well he's got to decide if it's a good investment, I guess.
DD: What better investment than the Polkaholics?
RW: Hey, if I had $2,000 in the bank...
MM: We're gonna be good for another 40 years and the music is never gonna go out of style.
DD: Eventually it'd be nice to add another guitar player 'cause in polka music they have a lot of dueling accordion and the horns, they go back and forth and have that kind of instrumentation.
RW: Maybe someone will read this interview, who is a polkaholic and they haven't admitted it yet and this will inspire them to get in touch with you. There could be kids sitting in their bedrooms right now listening to their polka records and afraid to admit it to their closest friends.
DD: They can let us know. That'd be great.
RW: Was it hard to admit you were a polkaholic? Was it kind of a relief when you did.
DD: I played this kind of music when I was in high school a long time ago, I was in a wedding band for a little while, we played polka songs. I thought "This is fun music," but I thought it was real square 'cause my parents liked it and all that, but coming back to it in the last few years, it's the wildest music.
RW: It's made fun of a lot by the mainstream thought isn't it?
DD: I'm not sure why that is but you're right, it is.
Well what can I say? The polka conversation by no means ended here. On the contrary, the beer kept flowing, the jukebox got louder, the subject was changing with increasing frequency and both questions and answers grew louder and louder as any sense of cohesion was lost. Eventually the tape ended (even though no one seemed to notice) and that polka fans, concludes the Reglar Wiglar interview with the Polkaholics.