Q&A: The Shondes Punk the District
Passover season is upon us, and like any good shiksa, I’ve unearthed my beloved Prince of Egypt VHS (featuring Whitney and Mariah’s heart-melting, Oscar-winning duet), gulped down a healthy portion of Manischewitz and lost a heated game of find-the-hidden-matzo at a very nontraditional early Seder.
Riding high on the fall 2011 release of their third full album, Searchlights, The Shondes launched their current tour at SXSW and have been tearing up the southeast with the emotive vocals, thrash-worthy hooks and impish attitude that have made them modern darlings of a punk scene that’s itching for unapologetic chutzpah.
Come party with WTGG and D.C.’s own Troll Tax and Fell Types this Thursday for a feisty live show that will energize you for the holiday weekend. Read on for drummer Temim Fruchter’s take on the band’s pop heroes, sweaty songwriting and Muppet solidarity.
WTGG: Your new album seems to take more cues from pop genres than ever before. What inspired this fresh new sound?
TF: Yes, definitely! Well, the short answer is that we just really wanted to make a pop-inspired album. We come to the band and approach our songwriting as pop devotees in all different ways. Louisa's first concert was Debbie Gibson at age 4, Eli came up with R.E.M. on constant rotation on his Walkman, Fureigh loves Elvis Costello and I would wed Morrissey if I could (I'm only half-joking), to name a few. And after our last album—which was a breakup album, and appropriately moody given that fact—and this last year, which was a pretty rough one for us, we really wanted to draw on the things we loved most about pop music (and pop threads in rock music) to write Searchlights. We wanted a record that was a perfect sing-along, breathless driving record like the kinds we used to love (and still do) that was about—cheesy as it sounds—celebrating life: the shitty parts and the wonderful parts. Pop music does that best, in many ways!
Between the Jewish thing and the queer thing, you've got some serious niche cred, but you've also built a sizable mainstream following. How do you strike a balance?
Well, as important as our identities are to us as individuals, what we are as a band is just that: a band! It's always cool to be able to play queer and Jewish events and to support and participate in our various communities as artists. On the other hand, it's important to us to avoid the identity-based pigeonholing that so many artists are subject to. We are committed to making rock-out awesome good music, and to do that in a way that's accessible to anyone who wants to access it.
Why is it important to you to brand yourselves in part by these intersecting identities?
I think it's just what comes across! We try to bring all different parts of our identities and backgrounds into our music and into our performance as much as possible. I know that when there's a band I love, I like to really know a lot about what drives and motivates that band—what makes them tick, what they're passionate about—so I always try to tell those stories, too. I also think it's cool that as artists—and touring artists, specifically—we get to encounter so much cool activism and organizing in different communities. It's very cool to get to connect with and learn from people about that in a way that also comes from the things we care really deeply about when we're at home in New York.
Your band's name means "shame"—an interesting choice for a kickass, irreverent band. What's the significance of the word in your lives?
Ha! Thanks! I think the word carries significance for all of us in different ways. It's Yiddish, first of all, which is a beloved language to us collectively, and it's cool to have a little bit of Yiddish as a tagline on everything we do, even if most of our songs aren't Jewish in content. Personally, I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, and coming out as both queer and anti-Zionist definitely fell into the category of "shonde" in my community, though my family has remained pretty awesomely supportive of me and my music. I think the word to me is kind of an exciting challenge—to create vibrant alternatives to the norms I grew up around and recognizing that that process is complicated but it's totally something to celebrate. It feels a little irreverent, for sure, but in kind of a loving way.
Y'all are on a mega-tour that started at SXSW. What was it like to rock out alongside some of the most innovative minds in modern music? Any highlights?
Yeah, we're pretty excited about being on the road all spring! And not only because it's such a beautiful time—we caught the most dramatic thunderstorm I've ever seen here in San Antonio the other night and are now reaping post-storm benefits in gorgeous New Orleans. But yes, SXSW was so much fun and SO chaotic, as always. Highlights included getting to play some really rad feminist and queer shows, including Get Off the Internet and GayBiGayGay, and running into some awesome bands we love and don't normally get to break bread or clink glasses with since we live in different cities. We kind of mourned not actually getting in to Bruce Springsteen's keynote address, but we watched it streaming and it warmed our hearts. We so love that man.
How do you keep your stamina up when you're playing so many shows a week? Will you all still love each other when the tour wraps up?
We've certainly gotten better at it over years of touring! Certain things have emerged as being essential to tour sustainability—such as getting enough sleep, getting exercise, eating well and making sure to both get some alone-time and some fun-non-show-time together. Yesterday, we spent the day playing mini-golf (and making utter fools of ourselves) in a suburb of Austin, and it was totally fun and energizing to do something hilarious together that had nothing to do with playing music before diving back into a full week of shows. It's all about mixing it up! And yes, I think I can say with confidence that we will still love each other post-tour. We've been mega-touring since 2007, so I, like George Michael, have faith.
That's interesting! It certainly can get intense, though it's often also quite fun. We're a pretty hardworking band—we like to really get all sweaty and into it when we're songwriting—so in that way, in can be a pretty immersive process. Sometimes we disappear into our practice space (a lovely Prospect Heights basement) for days on end to work on new material or a new idea. Our writing of music is also pretty collaborative, so it's messy and exciting and has unexpected twists and turns in all the ways that collective art-making so often does! Our songwriting collaboration is different for each album and each song, and it's one of my favorite aspects of being in this band.
Who would you cut off your left leg to collaborate with?
The Boss! See above. Also, R.E.M. (though sadly, we'd need a time machine for that at this point). My bizarre personal collaborative wish list includes Rufus Wainwright, Lucinda Williams and Matthew Sweet.
What's your favorite Passover plague?
Frogs, obviously. I'm a Muppet over-identifier.