I’ve known about queer alterna-folk rock band The Shondes for a while now. As a gay Jewish gal myself, it was almost impossible not to be excited hearing music made by “my people.” Of course, they haven’t always made it to the top of my playlists, but were seen as more of a fun group to know about and listen to occasionally. Their latest release, Searchlights, has been a game-changer for me though. The quartet’s technical skills have gotten better and better alongside the sharpening of the songwriting.
Over the course of the past year or so, the group has had to come together not only to focus on their music but also to face some incredibly difficult times after violinist Elijah Oberman was diagnosed with, and treated for, cancer.
At a time when absolutely nothing is controllable, instead of taking time off, the musicians came together and let music be their outlet. The end result of their devotion to each other is a great and beautiful reminder of how music can be matzo ball soup for the soul.
We were able to speak with the band’s drummer, Temim Fruchter, right before Yom Kippur and talked about Jewish guilt, dealing with a sick bandmate and the transformation of their sound.
AfterEllen: I should start out by saying happy new year to you all!
Temim Fulcher: Yes and to you, too!
AE: I don’t even know if you are supposed to set any goals for the Jewish new year. If you did, what are they?
TF: You know, it’s funny, somebody just asked me that the other day and I couldn’t answer it. And I can’t answer it now. But usually I do and I tend to think it’s a really good opportunity to set goals for the new year. We’ve been on the road during the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah) so I haven’t really had the time or attention span or the wherewithal to do much of that. But we’re going to be in Madison for Yom Kippur so hopefully we’ll have some good, grounded, meditative time there.
I think this last year sucked for some friends that are really close to me. One of my best friends, our violinist, had cancer. Now he’s better — which is great — but I think going into the next year it’s sort of an opportunity to have a renewed, healthier, more sustainable year.
AE: Yeah, definitely. Well you brought up Yom Kippur and I’m curious just because, I know for me dealing with it personally, it’s a big to-do, but I imagine it is probably worse for you: What’s the Jewish guilt situation in terms of your family reacting to you not being able to join them for services or breaking the fast with them?
TF: [laughs] Well actually in my family the clincher is really Sukkot, which is the week after. It’s like a big harvest-palooza in my family and we just sit in a tent all night eating.
AE: Oh, you all actually set up a tent?
TF: Yeah! My parents are probably — well in their fantasy, we’d be together for this, but I think they gave up on the guilt thing a little while ago when I was like, “You know, I’m a touring musician,” and they were like, “Oy vey.” So it sort of was what it was. Finally they were just like, “It’s fine, we love you. Just come back home when you can.”
AE: That’s so great! You know, a lot of times everyone expects Jewish parents to always want their kids to be doctors or lawyers. But really, lately, I’ve noticed a lot of parents really fostering their kids’ attraction to a more artistic lifestyle. What was your experience?
TF: Yeah, I definitely think that’s true. In my experience, I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family and the doctor/lawyer aspirations are attached to class stuff. I grew up in a middle class household and I’m sure there would’ve been no complaints if I went into some sort of lucrative profession. But my dad is a Jewish wedding musician, my brother turned out to be a jazz musician, my mom is an art teacher, one of my sisters is a puppeteer and my other sister is an activist. So it’s sort of like, it turned out in this way where my parents were like, “We want to foster your creative souls but we also want you to not starve.”
But then when my brother and I started to get press about our music, they couldn’t help but be like, “Well, I guess what you’re doing is pretty cool.” So it’s nice. I mean, of course there’s always concerns about job security and health insurance and all those other things that come up when you choose to be a freelance artist the rest of your life. But at least it’s a balance that they can understand.
AE: You bring up a really hot topic. Did you read JD Samson’s article about how her job as a touring musician has left her broke and without the skills to do something else once she retires?
TF: I actually read that yesterday in the van. I was so depressed, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s all true.”
AE: It’s really incredible because when you think about it, that extends to freelance writers and other less corporate workers too. It really hit me hard because I’m in the process of trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. It was a real eye opener.
TF: Absolutely! I obviously related to a lot of it. You know, JD is 33 and has been at what she’s been doing for a long time. I’m almost 33 and just started playing drums when I was 26. So I sort of feel like there’s this whole additional angle of like, OK this is a challenge I took on and it’s really fun and awesome and exciting and it feeds all of the creative parts of me and I’m doing what I want to do. But it’s always a lifelong learning process and project and it’s an exciting commitment but it’s also terrifying. Like, should I be off in a corner learning how to do someone’s taxes or something? Which, by the way, would be the worst idea ever and I should never subject someone to that.
AE: The lack of health care is really scare. This kind of leads into the circumstances behind your new album and Elijah being diagnosed with cancer. You all wrote the songs and recording throughout his treatment and everything. What was your first reaction, I guess yours personally first and then also as a band?
TF: Oh wow, that’s always a really hard thing to quantify. It’s sort of a blur to me. When he first called me up at work to break the news, I think we all kind of launched into planning mode and I’ve actually never had to care for a friend who’s been that sick or who’s had to go through that kind of surgery or anything like that. So it was really a new experience for me and obviously for him. I think as a band and as people we sort of immediately knew that obviously, it goes without saying, we were going to do whatever it would take for him to get through his surgery and heal and get through it on the other side healthy. Whatever it took is whatever we were going to do.
I guess it was kind of lucky that we had the opportunity to make art together throughout that and through the aftermath of it because I think there’s something sort of really healing about writing songs and making music together. Obviously it can’t heal all of that stuff and sometimes you’re going to be like, I feel like shit and I don’t want to be making music right now. But when those things coincided and it was a good thing, it was a really good thing. So I’m really grateful for that.
AE: Well, the end product is great. It’s definitely my favorite of your albums so far. The violin playing in this was — well in the past, I guess the klezmer part of it was the first thing to hit me. I don’t know if it’s the Jewish part of me knowing about it or if it was a more traditional klezmer sound being used with other rocking elements. But with this album, the violin sounds a little bit more blended to the point where you wouldn’t necessarily say, oh this has elements of klezmer in it. It just blends so well with the rest of the music that it doesn’t overpower your sound. Does that make sense?
TF: Yeah, that totally makes sense and I appreciate that. In a way I think that’s what we were going for with this record. With any band probably, the first album is kind of like a crap shoot in many ways. [laughs] We were such a new band and I hadn’t even been playing drums for very long. So that album is very close to my heart and the second album actually turned out to be a depressing breakup album, so while that’s close to my heart too, this album, there’s just something so exciting about being able to rock out and just hone in on the pop elements of the kind of music that we really love to make.
It’s funny about the klezmer thing because with the exception of a couple of moments in some of our songs, we’re not usually trying to generate any literal klezmer elements but people pick up on it so often I think because there’s such a visceral response from people who are familiar with that music who hear a Yiddish name and hear a minor tune played on violin in this context. So it’s interesting that klezmer has been drawn out as a big theme in our music. But I think really honing what it means to be a rock violinist and be in a rock band that has a violin was one of our primary goals, so I’m really glad that came across. And I think too, that it was mixed in such a way that it really popped. I know a lot of press people and a lot of our fans pick up on our live energy and we really wanted that to come across on this record, so hopefully we got close.
AE: Well I definitely think you’ll have a lot of new listeners and followers with this album. Tell me a little bit more about your tour right now. It seems like most of your stops have an all queer lineup, is that right?
TF: It’s not an all queer lineup. We definitely do sometimes book with local queer bands and that’s really awesome. We played in Portland with Lovers and it was so, so much fun. It was one of the most fun shows I’ve played I think because people were so excited about the bill and we were excited to play with those local queer bands. The audience was just stoked. So I think this tour has been really energizing for us because we haven’t been on the road for a year. No matter if it’s a sold-out show or if it’s a show with 20 people at it — and those shows do happen sometimes in cities we’ve never been to like Memphis, or cities we’ve only been to once like Fayetteville, Arkansas. But consistently, we have at least a small pocket of people who are really psyched about what we do.
I think it works to our advantage that — obviously strings in rock and roll are more prominent at this point — but there’s something a little bit distinct about what we do to certain people and it’s exciting that they come out so enthusiastically. So the shows have been really great on this tour.
We actually got to shoot an impromptu music video in L.A. We’ve gotten to connect with a bunch of artists that we love. We got to play at this sort of riot grrl influenced festival in Long Beach, California with Allison Wolfe. There were all of these teenage riot grrl-inspired bands playing so there was sort of this multi-generational awesome female-fronted punk rock thing happening in one room. And of course there’s been lots of eating but I think that probably goes without saying. [laughs]
AE: Well that certainly goes for me more often than I would like but I can’t help it. I was born to nosh. So, Shonde is Yiddish for “disgrace.” Were there any other Yiddish names that were up for grabs when you were naming the band? It’s funny for me because in English, that would be such a punk rock name. But your music is not what I would think of as like a dirty punk kind of thing. Like, in English it doesn’t make sense for your band to have the name, but Yiddish is like the opposite of a “punk rock” language, so it makes sense. Like, “shonde” isn’t all that far off from “shayna,” which is “pretty” in English.
TF: [laughs] I wish I could publish the list of names were were considering because it’s just so funny but it’s one of those things that’s funny to you and then to other people it’s just self-indulgent. But, yeah, “shonde” — you know part of what I think is so sweet about using a Yiddish name for a rock band is that there’s something so soft about Yiddish in this very positive way. It’s like a gentle humor. Like my parents were kind of like, “Why are you calling yourselves ‘The Shondes”? Isn’t that kind of a negative term? Isn’t there something harsh about calling yourselves ‘Disgraces’?” And I think the fact that it’s sort of mediated by this gentle edge that Yiddish inherently has, there’s something nice about that. In terms of the musical stuff, one of the things we talked about when we first started the band is that both Eli and Louisa come from a more classical background — even though Louisa’s been playing in punk bands since she was a teenager and Eli’s been for a while, too.
But there’s something that’s kind of a subversion when you’re taking something from the classical tradition and bringing it into making loud rock or punk music. So part of that went into naming the band. So even though it’s not always emotionally screamy and angry feeling music, there is something that is kind of a needed punch in the face to what you’ve learned coming from a classical background. And obviously it has political implications that we all related to — all of us being Jews who have worked for Justice for Palestine and are queer and then as women dealing with and speaking out against misogyny. You know, in certain communities, our opinions are unpopular. [laughs] So there’s something kind of nice and universal-feeling about calling ourselves The Shondes. It’s sort of a nod to that experience.