Staten Island's Trish & Christoph
by Ben Johnson, Friday December 05
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Lars Christoph Mayer calls his television "artsy." Because of his German accent, it's difficult to tell if he's being ironic -- or just earnest.
"I found this TV and this stereo out in front of our house before we lived here, did you know that?" he says to Trish Strombeck, his wife of four years, and she nods patiently. "It's 1980, and it's color. When you put it on, it's all green or blue. I like that."
Plugged into a bizarre receiver for TV stations and two JBL speakers -- all salvaged from around St. George, along with a surprising number of other treasures -- this tiny technological fossil is how Mayer, 37, watches one of his guilty pleasures: "American Idol." In another universe, Mayer might have auditioned for "Idol." But Simon Cowell probably would have been a little confused by all the urban-folk songs about the North Shore.
Husband-and-wife duo Trish and Christoph -- aka TaC -- are pretty tough to label, but their experimental lo-fi act is an increasingly important part of Staten Island's tenacious new entertainment culture (that's why we made them the AWE's Holiday Wrap 2008 "poster couple").
If past performances are any indication, their fourth annual "North Shore Xmas Show" at ETG Cafe will boast not only new material but more of Trish and Christoph's multimedia odes to Island life, which, depending on your disposition, run the gamut from funny, to offensive, to ingenious.
"I like the idea of doing music with Trish, because I like the idea of doing something more than just being married that connects you together," says Mayer. "I'm not a very good singer -- she sings and finds the harmonies to the melody immediately."
"I was never in bands or anything growing up," adds Strombeck. "I was hesitant to do this at first, but you kept trying to get me to sing. I was very nervous to perform. I kind of always wanted to though, I just never really did it."
Born and raised in Gottingen, Germany, Mayer met Strombeck through a mutual friend in 2000 while studying music and science in the States. He moved to New York City to be with her, eventually finding an internship -- and a work visa -- on Staten Island.
The couple was drawn to the North Shore because of what it is -- diverse, undeveloped, edgy -- not because of the "Williamsburg II" transformation some residents and media pundits have been predicting for 20-plus years.
"I met many Islanders, especially in the beginning when I was walking around like a newbie, who asked me, 'What are you doing here? This place is f****d up,'" says Mayer, who now works as a landscaper. "I said, 'No, this is beautiful.' But there was sometimes a real lack of local pride."
Trish and Christoph's performing life officially started in Tompkinsville, circa 2004. In preparing to tie the knot, the young couple wrote a few songs to ease the anticipated culture shock of relatives visiting from Ohio, Germany and California for their backyard wedding (which, by the way, was also played by a budding songwriter named Ingrid Michaelson).
"Really it just started out as the wedding favor," says Strombeck, 34, whose primary gig is teaching visually impaired kids. "A couple of songs about Staten Island to get them acquainted."
"Then a friend of mine suggested we do a song cycle about Staten Island," interjects Mayer. "The whole project grew and became the North Show. It's sort of a concept -- one that is hard to define. Maybe I don't even want to define it."
Trish & Christoph's Web site, NorthShore.noizart.com, is an eclectic mix of music, photos and commentary about the couple's experiences.
Trish & Christoph's North Shore XMas 2008
When: 9 p.m. sharp Dec. 5
Where: ETG Book Cafe, 208 Bay St., Tompkinsville; 718-447-8256; ETGstores.com.
How much: Free but donations for the artists are suggested.
Sample the sounds: NorthShore.noizart.com
Whatever its definition, Trish and Christoph's show has been performed everywhere from the lobby of the dilapidated Paramount Theater on Bay Street to the Staten Island Museum and the College of Staten Island.
"Christoph wanted to be involved in the community from the very beginning -- he was making these (S.I.) neighborhood T-shirts when we first met him," says Katie McCarthy, who with partner Steve Jones Daughs runs the ETG Cafe, where Mayer actually helped screw down floorboards before the duo made it their go-to spot for performances. "They have a lot of interests that resonate with me, like reusing and recycling things. Our whole business is founded on recycling. Having them involved gave us a really big boost from the beginning."
Tunes like "Bay Street Fellas," "North Shore, Sweet North Shore" and "Song for Bobby," a "Saturday Night Fever"-inspired number, make humorous and appreciative jabs at life on S.I. The duo also takes aim at everything from bizarre road signs and local vagrants to coverage of local stories in the Advance (why, asks Mayer, did the story about a bust at a pot grow-house include the locations of several churches in the accompanying graphic?).
"The North Shore still has a lot of untapped potential," says Mayer. "I think it really allows a creative person to grow artistically. There's a spatial and social freedom that nourishes ideas and activities. There's a sort of solidarity between folks here that I wouldn't want to miss -- less arrogance, I'd say."
This sort of hyper-local material inspired by the North Shore has resulted in lots of attention for the duo, both in AWE and in the New York Times, which centered a story about the possibility of a burgeoning S.I. hipster scene on Mayer. By the same token, the duo seems somewhat removed from their own environment, even though they've lived here together for more than six years.
"I don't generally feel as an outsider. I've lived here for too long and most of my friends are here," says Mayer. "But I guess I carry some innate habits that make me look and feel a little different at times. Like the inability to leave certain things on the street."
At times, the unique quality of Trish and Christoph as performers -- and their penchant for being humorous about true Staten Island life -- can be controversial, even for their fans.
"Sometimes I feel like their commentary is coming from a mean-spirited place, and sometimes I feel like I'm over-thinking it and I just need to relax," says Sara Valentine, a local performing arts impresario who booked the duo for her Best of the Boroughs show at Manhattan's PS 122. "I grew up in South Jersey, and it's not all that different from Staten Island. I see them preaching to the converted all the time at ETG. I'd love to present them at a place like Cargo, where the crowd is more mixed, and see the reaction there."
Either way, Trish and Christoph has become a North Shore treasure of sorts -- whether you encounter them "recycling" on the street or via one of their homemade CDs, adorned with iconic S.I. landmarks.
"There are various aspects to our art and feelings toward Staten Island -- there is a love for it, there is a concern," Mayer says. "There's being really annoyed and upset sometimes. There's a feeling that it's undervalued or overvalued. But it's like America, you know? It's a small Island but we have everything. People ask me, 'Are you ever going to run out of material?' No way. I live here. I'm writing songs about my life."
BACK TALK: AWE music writer Ben Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Update 2008-12-16 | Copyrightę Christoph Mayer 2009