By Kat Bein
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The Brooklyn quartet the Shondes offers no shortage of politically charged tinder with which to spark a debate. That's clear from just the band's name: Pronounced shonduhz, it's adapted from Yiddish for "shame" or "disgrace."
Outspoken — emphasis on out — the group is part Jewish, part transgender, and all feminist. And with the state of the world, there is plenty the bandmates find disgraceful, as evidenced on their recent 11-track debut full-length, The Red Sea. But at the core of the group is a simple fact often shamefully underemphasized: The Shondes are a protest band, not just a band of protesters.
"Some people want to ask a lot about politics, and we're always excited to engage," drummer Temim Fruchter says by phone from tour, a couple of days after the disheartening vice presidential debate. "But we get even more excited when people focus on the music as a vehicle for politics. For us it's about making art, and certainly justice comes through that art. But the priority we want to get out is moving people in whatever way they will be by the music."
Active on the community level in New York, Fruchter, bassist/vocalist Louisa Solomon, violinist/vocalist Elijah Oberman, and guitarist Ian Brannigan have certainly made no effort to hide their work as anti-racists, feminists, or supporters of an oppression-free Palestinian solidarity. As such, some in the Jewish community have questioned the Shondes' more universal applications of Talmudic concepts as calls for policy change. And members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community have lodged questions as to the Shondes' willingness to twist more gay rights into their international activism.
While certainly open to a roundtable discussion at the merch table, the Shondes don't always have the answers. What the band intends to impart is personal urgency. "We're certainly conscious and intentional, but our songs aren't each about a political issue," Fruchter says. "We have family experiences also that are charged with themes that may have led us, and others, to becoming political because of what's been gone through. It's extremely conscious to make it as relatable as political, but also it's organic. It's never like, We'll write a song about X issue."
Indeed the Shondes might have originally been drawn together in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, to musically process Tisha B'Av, a time of mourning (captured on "I Watched the Temple Fall"), but the band draws on a tradition as riot grrrl as it is rabbinical. And the riot grrrl movement of the early- to mid-Nineties — associated with bands including Team Dresch, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney — was a DIY movement where a group's body of work was indelibly attached to its members actual bodies. Voices raised, instruments strapped on, riot grrrl was totally hands-on about saying hands-off. Most important, the movement distilled through actual cultural involvement, from activism to zine-making. The Shondes see their current tour as an extension of that kind of involvement. Still, they stress they are most vitalized by simply seeing everyone from indie kids to bubbe and zeidy feeding off the same genuine energy.
Similar to these charged comparisons, the music of the Shondes is savory and sweet. The band incorporates dynamic drops and dramatic crescendos, subtle hooks and outward riffs, resolute percussion and melodic laments. There's something that appeals to everyone — from fans of overdriven riot grrrl chords, to spunky pop quartet That Dog, to Britpop architects the Smiths, to klezmer. And much of the glue that holds these disparate aspects together is the violin, an instrument that embodies many of the Shondes' feelings about community.
"I think there's a lot of connotations in a violin. For me it's an extremely emotional instrument," Fruchter reflects. "The violin to me sounds like a voice. Stringed instruments sound very old, connected to a long tradition that resounds within an Eastern European-descended Jew. Eli comes from years of classical training, where many people would consider the instrument about formality, so it's great to be in a band with a violin turned into something subverting, yet keeping with classic tradition."
Building a fan base the old-fashioned way, by quitting their day jobs and committing to touring, the Shondes are also using immersive interaction on this tour to preview new material and further tailor their sound. Each night, the band experiments with different lead and back-up textures, and further weaves together the themes and memes with which the group grapples.
"I think something we often talk about is the balance of being placed in a musical context and being pigeonholed in it," Fruchter concludes. "We appreciate and feel a part of fighting the pigeonholing of women in a specific tradition, but we're also excited to be a part of the 'pigeonholes' of queer bands, female bands, bands with violins. It's a constant balancing act."