Passionate — or Pissed? — About Polka

An Interview with Carl Finch of Brave Combo

If you ever engage Carl Finch in a discussion about the health or politics of polka, watch out. And do not make any polka jokes. The singer/guitarist/accordionist/keyboardist for the Texas-based band Brave Combo is passionate about his polka, and he can work himself up into such a froth that you might mistake his tone for anger.

For 26 years, Finch and his band have been fighting for respect for polka, often working in opposition to a polka culture highly fractured by national identity. “I am very tired of the struggle,” Finch said in an interview. “It’s very hard to get support in the polka community.”

But don’t take this resigned attitude as an indication of what Brave Combo is or isn’t. The band is first and foremost a high-energy kick, treating the polka reverently without sacrificing its danceability or tunefulness, and clever and fun without ever being condescending or cheeky with the music. Because, as Finch will gladly tell you, there’s nothing inherently funny about polka, and it deserves respect as a musical idiom.

What distinguishes Brave Combo — aside from its lack of any ethnic affiliation, which leads to a nearly omnivorous interest in musical styles — is its twisted sensibilities. The Washington Post called it “mosh-pit polka”; the group tackles many traditional tunes, but its original compositions go as far afield as UFOs in terms of content, and the band gives it all the electricity of a rock show. Brave Combo takes the polka seriously, but its primary interest is still making sure that the audience has a great time. The ensemble has appeared on The Simpsons and also recorded a disc with Tiny Tim. On the horizon is a group of concerts with symphony orchestras.

Although polka is often the butt of lazy jokes — it’s the musical equivalent of a fart gag in a movie or television show — it is a noble form, Finch said. The genre’s adherence to melody is one of its draws, he said, but there’s something unique about the polka that elevates its status. “The use of tension and release is more defined than it is in any other music,” Finch said.

Most musical genres — particularly rock and contemporary country — subsist on attitude, he added. If you strip away that posing — both lyrically and in tone — you’re left vulnerable, naked. “Polka is the only music ... that’s at all equipped to deal with that,” Finch said.

Somewhat surprisingly, Finch didn’t grow up listening to polka, and his introduction to the genre involved the kitschy appeal that makes it such an easy target. Browsing the cut-out bins in a record store while in college, the bandleader bought a bunch of polka records; Finch was an art student working on a degree in advertising art, and the album covers appealed to him.

But after listening to the records, he said, “that campy view had turned into real affection.” And so, in 1979, Brave Combo was born, at least partly from the same anti-corporation, anti-homogeneity rebellion that birthed the punk-rock movement.

More than two-dozen Brave Combo releases later, the band is still going strong, prepping a holiday album for release in the next few months. In typical Brave fashion, this isn’t your normal holiday CD; it spotlights everything from Groundhog Day to New Year’s Eve.

Yet Brave Combo’s success as the only polka band to make inroads with the rock crowd means that it’s ostracized from the polka community. Brave Combo has built a big audience in part because it has no national identity, yet that puts off polka purists. “Brave Combo are mutts,” Finch said. Because the band has stripped away the ethnic associations of the music, “we don’t threaten anybody, and we’re the biggest threat imaginable.”

This article was originally published in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.

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