It’s hard to know where to begin with the Shondes, who are opening for Against Me! Friday night at WorkPlay.
You could jump in with Judaism, because this band proclaims its faith like no group since Yo La Tengo. Going deeper, you could inquire into why the Shondes so fervently oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. You could delve into LGBT issues, since the Shondes are, as Advocate put it, “a gender-tweaking foursome.” Or, based on the sonic evidence of their most recent album, The Garden, you could play name-that-influence until the wee wee hours, for the Shondes employ a potent blend of genres, from klezmer to classic rock.
Bassist and vocalist Louisa Rachel Solomon is one among equals in this collaborative ensemble, but utilizing a voice that’s a wonderful rock instrument and an assertive bass style to match, she is easily characterized as the de facto leader of the band. Since I believe the use of three names should be restricted to Neil Patrick Harris and presidential assassins, let’s just call her Louisa.
The New York native started off as a riot grrl in such bands as the Syndicate and Lucky Tiger, and in 2006 formed the Shondes with drummer Temim Fruchter, violinist Elijah Oberman and guitarist Ian Brannigan, who was later supplanted by current strummer Fureigh.
The band’s name derived from the Yiddish word for “disgrace.” “We chose it to pay homage to Yiddish and to experiences of outsiderness,” Louisa told The Lilith Blog last year. “When we began, our music itself was much more outsider-ish, in superficial ways at least: our drummer was learning to play her instrument on stage, we were consciously merging super different genres, our politics were always in center stage.”
Those politics certainly led many conservative Jews to consider them shondes. The band has aligned itself against Zionism, specifically the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. It would be easy to view this stance as mere rock contrarianism, but the Shondes are serious, with Louisa having made two trips to the Middle East to support anti-occupation organizers.
“American Jews, who may have no personal relationship to Israel whatsoever, have the opportunity to become citizens there, while Palestinians are disenfranchised and brutalized, “ Louisa said. “The particular, undeniable injustice of that fact was very formative for me; being directly implicated made it feel particularly important to use the band as an opportunity to comment on it.” Taking the stand was actually beneficial, Oberman told the Souciant blog last summer: “That really meant something to people, especially for anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jews feeling so isolated at times, that created real bonds.”
The issue led to writing “I Watched the Temple Fall,” a mesmerizing song from the band’s first album, The Red Sea. “We wanted to write a song that clearly said, ‘Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism,’” Louisa told Moment magazine. Entwining contrapuntal lyrics around Oberman’s soaring violin lines, the lyrics starkly indict Israeli hypocrisy: “And yet today my people are mourning/ With each village they’re erasing/ I’ll witness them replacing it/ with new walls in new tongues.”
As though radical politics weren’t enough to cement the band’s misfit cred, there’s that lifestyle issue. Having both gay and transgender human beings in the group, the Shondes have been uplifted by the LGBT community, with labels such as “lesbian rock,” “pansexual,” “feminist punk” and “queercore” among those used descriptively by journalists. “The band has been particularly nurtured and embraced by the queer community, and we’ve tried to connect with queer and feminist organizers on campuses, for example, whenever possible,” Louisa said. “Our music has real resonance for people who have experienced being outsiders of one kind of another, and people who are looking for hope.”
You know who else might make that latter statement? Bruce Springsteen, whom Louisa claims as a powerful influence, and that’s the tug toward the mainstream that separates the Shondes from a lot of other doctrinaire ensembles. Having played live two years before releasing their first album in 2008, the band learned how to get over to an audience, a process that may have tempered the dogma of their earliest songwriting through melodies and hooks. Even Woody Guthrie knew a catchy chorus could help transmit subversive ideas. To that end, their latest album actually got reviewed by Rolling Stone, which complimented the Shondes’ “mix of riot-grrl furor, arena bombast and klezmer stomp.”
Produced by former Pere Ubu member Tony Maimone, The Garden represents a more polished approach to recording the Shondes’ music, incorporating the contributions of new drummer Allison Miller, a jazz player whom you may have seen on tour backing folk/country artist Brandi Carlile. Louisa sees the change from the raw lo-fi sensibilities of the early albums as nothing more than rock evolution. “We wanted this record to be a bit of a fresh start without disowning where we come from,” she told the blog AfterEllen. “We have all been through a lot of major life changes and loss in recent years, and ‘growing up’ emerged as the album’s most consistent theme.”
Luckily for us, Louisa Rachel Solomon hasn’t grown out of her rock dreams. When she takes the stage, wielding her bass like a scythe and using her powerful voice to take dead aim on the hearts of an audience, she affirms not only the aspirations of her band’s many constituencies, but the transformative power of rock itself. Come see the Shondes at WorkPlay Friday night, and witness the way a riot grrl has evolved into a riot woman.
Hey, wait a minute. The subheading up there at the top of the page says “There’s much more to the Shondes,” and, in this instance, there actually is.
The premise of the above columnar activity was based on not hearing from Louisa Rachel Solomon before our print deadline, but what should magically appear in the middle of the day Monday but the previously cited interview!
It was what Persons of the Book might call נעס, if by “miracle,” you mean “delightful content awkwardly timed for the overworked layout crew.”
So, in the way certain DVDs offer bonus features to jack up the price of the package, consider the following dialogue as a short documentary on the making of the column this week, but at no extra charge to you, the home viewer. We do in fact cover some of the same territory as the column, but remember, there’s no extra charge:
Weld: I know you’ve visited Birmingham before on your day job for Simon and Schuster, but is this a debut for the Shondes in the Magic City?
Louisa Rachel Solomon: Indeed, this will be the Shondes’ first stop in the Magic City, but I should mention I am thrilled about it. Very cool city!
Weld: With so many doctrinal elements to your music — left-wing politics, left-wing Jewish politics, all-wing sexual politics — plus the age-old quest to get over on an audience with the power of a song, I am frankly at a loss to describe exactly what the WorkPlay audience is in for. You’re pretty good with words. Kindly describe for our readers what the Shondes are up to.
LRS: The Shondes are at heart just an anthemic rock band. Because I’m the singer (and I’m a lady!), and because violin figures so prominently, we get a lot of comparisons to other women rockers and to any kind of music that uses violin! While that’s often flattering and all, I think our music itself is really somewhere between spirited punk (think X-Ray Spex, or dare I say it — the Clash?!) and Bruce Springsteen. The violin plays the role of Clarence’s sax in the E Street Band, and we run around on stage like crazy, playing to each other, having fun, really feeling it! We have been known to make the crowd cry. I think we bring a lot of palpable emotion to our live show.
Weld: Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places, but I haven’t read much about your origin and upbringing. I fantasize that you are the progeny of a radical hippie couple who blew up a bank in California for the Weather Underground and now hide in plain sight in the West Village, but I suspect that’s not really the case.
LRS: Ha! Elijah (the violinist) and I both come from somewhat radical political backgrounds, but cannot lay any direct claim to the Weather Underground’s legacy, and we are very much East Coasters, so no California in there! I’m from upstate New York and he is from Long Island, originally, then he grew up in Virginia before we became best friends in New York City, where we will make our home till we die! He has an amazing musical legacy in his family, tracing back to the old country, and through the folk scene of the ’70s.
My upbringing wasn’t so musical! For as long as I can remember, it was crystal clear to me that I wanted to be a singer, but there wasn’t a comfortable atmosphere for singing, so I hid out a lot, practicing.
Weld: What was the first CD you ever bought?
LRS: CDs were new when I was little, so I’m actually not 100 percent sure, but Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth was my first LP! I think Madonna’s Immaculate Collection may have been my first CD.
Weld: How did the bass wind up being your instrument of choice? Do you have any favorite or inspirational bassists?
LRS: I am really a singer first and a bassist second, but it is such a fun, powerful instrument. Cliched as it may sound, Paul McCartney is probably my biggest bass playing influence, because he helps me remember to serve the song, keep it simple, and leave room for everyone else’s virtuosity while I focus on conveying emotion through the vocals.
Weld: You could’ve done just fine pulling down a paycheck in a Pat Benatar tribute band. What was the initial impetus for eschewing fame and fortune by incorporating public policy issues and the fight for social justice into your music?
LRS: It doesn’t feel like I made a choice of that kind! I just feel deeply compelled to express myself and everything that’s important to me, through music. Sometimes that means more explicitly political songs, sometimes less. I just want to keep it honest, emotional, real. And I’m hoping fame and fortune are still in the offing!
Weld: It seems to me that this is neither a lesbian band, a pansexual band nor queercore, exactly. Since I lack proper vocabulary, I leave it to you to tell us how sexual identity has shaped the Shondes.
LRS: The press is often asking about sexual identity in relation to this band and I’m often a little confounded by it. The band itself has no sexual identity; case closed! No, but really, we’ve been through a lot of members, and like most bands, individuals all have different identities. We’ve been really supportive of and connected to LGBT activism and community over the years, and with a member who is out as transgender (Elijah, the violinist), it comes up sometimes. But really I don’t think everyone’s sexual and gender identities have that much more of a role in shaping our music than anything else does. Who we are shows in our songs, but we are just a rock band!
Weld: As though all that might not be controversial enough in this notch of the Bible Belt, the Shondes are also quite the Judeo-centric ensemble, and not the kind that would be entertaining at a B’nai B’rith luncheon. How did you become a champion of Palestinian liberation?
LRS: We’ve been connected to the radical Jewish community for a long time, and we are most invested in Jewish traditions of radical justice work. In New York there’s a pretty huge progressive Jewish community, and it’s a no-brainer for us to question Israeli policy, just like we, as Americans, question U.S. policy! Anti-war, anti-occupation, anti-racism. It’s never felt to me like this stuff is at odds with being a good Jewish girl, but as you nod to in your question, there are a lot of mainstream Jewish institutions that really try to act like being Jewish requires you to be a Zionist who blindly supports Israeli policy. Makes no sense to me at all!
Weld: What was your bat mitzvah like? Was the band any good?
LRS: A real shonde — no bat mitzvah at all! Pretty psyched to plan a radical Jewish wedding, though, and the band will definitely be good.
Weld: Who rankles you more, Matisyahu or Netanyahu?
LRS: Unfair question! Netanyahu is evil, so I’ll just leave it at that. But consider me thoroughly rankled.
Weld: In the musical scheme of things, do you think you have evolved from riot grrl to riot woman?
LRS: Ha, I’m not sure what that means exactly! Riot Grrl shaped my life a lot, helping me to learn about bringing different influences together, expressing emotion bravely and honestly, and I carry those lessons with me now for sure, even as our music doesn’t sound a ton like the classic bands I listened to so much at that time.
Weld: The latest album, The Garden, is full of provocative original songs and strong musical performances. If the Shondes ever get ahead of the game enough to put out a covers album, what songs would you want to include?
LRS: A covers album? Oh my god, my list is huge! There’d be Otis Redding, the Cure, Bruce, Pat Benatar, X-Ray Spex…
Weld: The band’s come a long way — all the way to Birmingham! — since stepping out in 2006. What’s the game plan for the Shondes going forward?
LRS: We want to keep doing what we’re doing; it’s going pretty well for us! We have a ton of new songs we’ll be working on this spring, and then another national tour in 2014 for sure!
The Shondes open, along with The Sidekicks, in support of Against Me! starting at 8 p.m. For more information, visit workplay.com.