When Seaby Bess was attending community college in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, he frequented a mom-and-pop pizza place across from campus. The proprietors, in keeping with the Italian tone of the restaurant, played nothing but crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The owners stuck with the theme through the holidays, and it was then that Bess was exposed to Lou Monte's truly execrable "Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey," a song that's less a Christmas carol and more a braying, hee-haw-ing vessel of holiday insanity.
The novelty song is one of eleven Christmas-themed songs (mostly covers with a few originals) that Bess has collected for All I Want for Christmas Is Brew under the aegis of Seaby & the Christmas Cookies. It's a lo-fi collection of one-off bedroom synth-pop and low-budget white-boy rap, delivered with a major smirk but quite a bit of affection for the season and its songs.
"I love that song!" Bess says of "Dominick" when asked why — sweet baby Jesus, why? — he included it in his holiday release. "Around the holiday it came on and I went nuts on how stupid it is. It's now a family staple. I love the ridiculous premise, as if Santa's reindeer have trouble with Italy's terrain." On his version, Bess uses an old Casio SK-1 keyboard to provide the sped-up beat and auto-arpeggios, making the track sound not unlike Muzak in-store fare. Bess' baritone provides the lead and harmony vocals (along with the requisite hee-haws).
As a guitarist with a burgeoning fascination with synthesizers, Bess uses some '80s era hardware to create a bare-bones electro palette for these songs — a few budget synths by Yamaha and Casio provide the leads and pads while a primitive Roland beat box cranks out rhythms last heard on your grandma's parlor organ (or the most recent Beach House record). It's up to Bess to sell the seasonal offerings with his low-slung vocals, which hit somewhere in the spectrum containing Calvin Johnson, Stephin Merritt and They Might Be Giants' John Linnell.
Bess, who usually records as Seaby & the Rules, moved to St. Louis about four years ago and keeps most of his musical output confined to Bandcamp releases, with rare live performance a few times a year. This Christmas collection isn't even his first holiday outing — Seaby & the Hallo-Weeners released a six-song EP of spooky, monstrous covers this fall. But Christmas music holds a special sway over Bess — particularly novelty songs that show the fun, less sanctimonious side of the season.
"I've always been obsessed with Christmas music," says Bess. "I've worked in retail, so I have to listen to it for months on end. I like the novelty element to a lot of the songs like 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer' and 'I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.' I'm not too into the jazzy, cheesy side of Christmas music."
That preference is borne out in song choice and production — both "Santa's Too Fat for the Hula Hoop," by the Pixies with Thurl Ravenscroft, and "The Hat I Got for Christmas Is Too Big," featuring Mel Blanc's Speedy Gonzalez, get remade here. The songs are the equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons — simple premise, bubblegum sweetness — and they have the added bonus of highlighting cultural trends (Hula-Hoops — you know, for kids!) and cultural insensitivities (that sombrero'd mouse didn't win Warner Bros. cartoons a lot of Latino fans). Like any pop song, Christmas songs often come with curious date-stamps, and Bess curates a fascinating selection here.
He doesn't avoid more standard fare, either: He opens the collection with a modern classic, his take on the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" and later tackles the Ramones' historical antecedent, Darlene Love's deathless "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" later in the set. Bess even approximates "Teenage" Steve Douglas' sax solo on his tiny keyboard.
Likewise, he doesn't shy away from traditional carols, though he approaches them with varying degrees of puerile humor. "Carol of the Balls" is only jokey in title as it offers a decent mash-up of "Carol of the Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on alternatingly squelchy and swooping synths. His X-rated take on the birth of Christ in "Silent Night" is something else altogether. Credited to his rap alter egos the Pizza Boys, Bess pitches his voice to create two new, vulgar vocalists. This is a pretty far cry from the virgin birth you heard in Sunday school delivered via, according to Bess, "bad white-guy rapping on purpose."
"I wanted to take something that was supposed to be untouchable," says Bess. "It's such a pure idea that I wanted to parody it in a way that no one would like." He claims rapper Too Short as an inspiration as well as the Ying Yang Twins, whose crunktackular "Deck Da Club" Bess cites as one of his favorite Christmas songs.
So, it's probably clear by now that All I Want for Christmas Is Brew won't be replacing Nat "King" Cole or Vince Guaraldi on your holiday hi-fi anytime soon, and it's not intended to. But through all the irreverence, Bess seeks to inject humor and levity back into the holiday canon.
"It's pure entertainment value," says Bess. "I don't like when people take Christmas music too seriously; it's supposed to be fun."
Below, a non-Christmas performance from Seaby — this time "Beautiful Lady" by Seaby and the Rules