By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Even after 30 years as the leader of legendary area polka act Brave Combo, Carl Finch sounds like he's just getting started.
"Every year, there seems to be some kind of new carrot dangling in front of this band," Finch says from his home in Denton. "Some sort of new project, some new goal worth pursuing."
One of his more recent goals has been organizing Brave Combo's 30th anniversary show—scheduled to take place this weekend at Sons of Hermann Hall. Finch promises a set list that spans his band's daunting discography and a variety of special guest performers. But even with an ever-expanding to-do list, Finch has still found a little time to recollect what a long, strange trip it's been for his outfit.
"It blows my mind that one day turned into a month and that turned into a year and then it's a decade and now it's been three," Finch says. "Sometimes I think Brave Combo is no longer a band—that we've become an institution. Not a legend, but like a building or a radio station."
Finch began the band in 1979 as a way to express a newfound interest in a musical form that many thought had long been relegated to the dustbin of history. But Finch's idea was more than simply forming a band to play polka music. He wanted to fuse polka with a little rock 'n' roll.
"I wanted to take a music genre that people thought was square and antiquated and make it modern," he says. "We chose a style of music that was maligned and had been misunderstood and had been used as a butt of a joke, and we made a career out of it."
And quite a career it has proven to be: Over the course of a whopping 27 full-length albums, Brave Combo has miraculously entered the fabric of popular culture. The band has, among other things, won three Grammy Awards, scored the PBS series Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns, appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, made a cameo appearance in David Byrne's movie True Stories, appeared with Jerry Lewis on his Labor Day Telethon and performed with Tiny Tim on his final recording.
Not bad for what some would consider a novelty act. Oh, and for the record: Finch doesn't really have a problem with folks who want to label his band as such.
"We knew early on that the sense of humor of this band might be potentially overwhelming," he says. "But when you use polka for a cornerstone, you can come off as a novelty act."
Yet Brave Combo has proven to be apt at many styles of music, merging genres seemingly at will, while transforming rock standards such as "Purple Haze" and "Satisfaction" into multicultural celebrations that have appealed to a wide array of listeners.
Ironically, though, the only venues that would book Brave Combo at first were the punk clubs. Fortunately, the band found many a kindred spirit amongst the disaffected youth of North Texas. Word spread quickly, and the band soon found its polka experiment catching on with college kids, radio programmers and critics looking for something different.
Yet even as the band found its audience growing with each successive release, Finch knew he would always have to defend Brave Combo against those who thought it was just shtick, just a joke band thrown together by nerdy college kids with too much time on their hands.
"Walking that line between novelty act and serious band has been a challenge," Finch admits. "Especially because, early on, we were trying to figure out who we were ourselves and then trying to translate what the band is about to an audience."
Finch and crew must have translated pretty damn well, though, as Brave Combo quickly became—and continues to be—a full-time gig, which is still somewhat of a shock to Finch.
"The part that still blows me away is that Brave Combo grew into a viable business and has maintained a stability that seems to be weathering even the current financial crisis," he says before pausing to find some wood to knock on. "It keeps growing every year—more festivals, more studio dates."
Brave Combo's most recent studio date resulted in 2008's The Exotic Rocking Life, an album that Finch puts on par with his band's 1995 Grammy-winning Polkas for a Gloomy World.
"The newest one is more of an exploration of Middle Eastern and Latin influences," Finch says.
But Finch promises that Brave Combo will never stray far from its polka base. The band's style has become too ingrained to be tinkered with too much.
Yet being in a band that may or may not be a novelty act—but still a band that plays novelty music—has taken its toll on many a bandmate. Since the band has a niche appeal, Brave Combo must basically tour nonstop, playing nearly every Czech and German cultural festival than comes a-calling. Being in demand is a nice problem to have, Finch admits, but as a result, he's seen many players come and go from his project. Which is why it makes sense that Finch is the lone remaining original member of Brave Combo.
Just don't be surprised if a few members show up for the anniversary gig.
"It will definitely have a family reunion feel to it," Finch says.
Then, after the Dallas show, it's more of the same thing the band's been doing for 30 years now: a seemingly endless series of summer festivals.
"I can totally see this thing hitting a fourth decade," Finch says, almost giddily. "Part of this has to be that I don't know where to stop."