Music, Community and The Mongrel Jews

The Mongrel Jews

by Lillian Cohen-Moore on April 17, 2012

Siblings Aaron and Sarah Shay slide into the booth with Annie Hughes, prompting a swift shuffle of hats, coats, and instruments. The Mongrel Jews play a total of six instruments, sing, and keep the band going across state lines with fierce devotion, and the support of their fellow musicians.

From street corners, living rooms and stages, The Mongrel Jews started without a name, acquiring one as well as a devoted fan base along the way. Fresh from a successful Kickstarter (watch for the album: The Mongrel Jews Inherit the Earth!) and talking a mile a minute over coffee, Aaron, Sarah and Annie shook off the Seattle cold to talk about the brass tacks of making music sing.

How did you pick the material for the album from your body of work?

AS: There was a little bit of a process. We wanted to balance the songs that we’d written together and the songs that were kind of individually us.

SS: Yeah, and we wanted to make sure this record had all of our best songs. Pretty much up until this point each one we’ve put out has just been ‘we have something new, let’s record it.’ But this time we’re like, okay, we’re going to put some money into this. Let’s pick our best songs. The best record of what we are, that we can, keeping posterity in mind. And if we were going to show anyone what we are and really encompasses us as a whole, or as a demo to send venues for tour—one CD, that just gets it right across.

AH: They do kind of bridge different things, each of our songs. Like some bands are like, they play bluegrass, or they play rock. But I feel like ours are—

SS: We have layers. Like a parfait.

AS: Or an onion.

AH: You can always tell if I write a song, because it’s always glam rock-y and about sex.

AS: Annie’s songs are always about sex; my songs are about drinking, and the Bible. And Sarah’s songs are whimsical and witty.

SS: I think all are songs are witty across the board.

AS: Yes. We have the wit.

SS: And when we try to write them all together it’s like a witty, sexual, Biblical mess.

AS: I think that’s the long way of saying our best songs.

What ways have the three of you found to help you keep working together while living in different cities?

SS: We’ve had band meetings on Skype. God bless technology. Although, actually, rehearsing on Skype—we tried, it didn’t work. Too much of a delay. But we did give it the old college try.

AH: E-mail plans back and forth. Usually if I’m working on any songs, I’ll record them on my iPhone. And then I’ll send everything. First I’ll send the chords, then I’ll send the lyrics, send all that back and forth, any ideas.

SS: It’s definitely slowed down our productivity.

AS: We really are a band that works best when we are all three in one room, banging our heads together. Figuratively. So yeah, New songs are slow, but we get things done.

SS: Portland is close enough that if we book a show far enough in advance, Annie can still make it up. She’s now done trains and busses and ride shares—friends have gone down to visit and then brought her up.

AH: That happened today.

SS: We have awesome, wonderful—

AS: —generous—

SS: —friends.

AS: A great community.

SS: People have given her rides from time to time. We’ve managed to play a pretty good number of shows, for coming up out of state. The only thing I’d say that’s suffered is songwriting.

AS: But yeah, modern technology has proved helpful there. Sending recordings back and forth, trying to keep the flow going. It’s still hard.

SS: But it’s not the same as being in the same room, talking back and forth.

You recently completely a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund your first studio album, The Mongrel Jews Inherit the Earth! How did you plan your campaign, and do you have any advice after going through the process for other musicians?

AS: Okay. My first piece of advice for anyone starting a Kickstarter campaign: have a fan base. That is the most important thing.

SS: I’ve seen people try to whip out a Kickstarter when they just started as a band. It doesn’t work. You can’t rely on your parents and the interest of your friends.

AH: Well, there’s no demand.

SS: Well, a lot of people think, oh, we should get a album right away so we can start sending it around. You need to have a fan base. Even better if you can tour beforehand. We have friends who’ve toured a lot. They do a Kickstarter, and boom, they go over their goals like nothing. Don’t do a Kickstarter for your first recording. We did three home recordings before we Kickstarted our big fancy record. And I feel like that really helped, even though the home recordings we made were kind of crappy, even if they weren’t that great, it was something to give to people so they could take us home, and remember us. Hear our songs when we weren’t around, remember that we existed, and that they wanted to come to our shows. Even though I feel at times incredibly guilty, that we actually sold those recording to people, that people actually paid, because they’re so bad.

AH: It was sliding scale!

SS: Yeah, but I still feel bad people actually paid for them.

AS: Study the successful ones, especially in the kind of campaign that you’re organizing. People enjoyed just having some kind of recording they could listen to when we weren’t around. Even if they were kind of crappy. If you can make it happen, do some kind of home recording, or find a friend whose a student who needs to record somebody for a project. There are a lot of people offering to do that.

AS: We looked at all our friends who had successful Kickstarters. Eliza Rickman, Zoe Boekbinder, lots of people, to find what worked for them, what the most popular rewards were.

AH: Their scale, like what means 5 dollars, what means 50, and what’s in between, because there’s a lot of places where the first reward is 15 dollars, but you’re not getting anything.

SS: Two things I’d say with the rewards, you need to have a balance. You need to have a wide variety. You need a lot of different price points. You need to have one that’s at least 5 dollars or under, for people who want to throw you a couple of bucks, but are like, whatever, they’re not super invested in the project.

AS: Or they don’t have a lot of money.

SS: Or they don’t have a lot of money. Make your rewards interesting, and apply them to your fan base. Think about what your fan base would want. But at the same time, don’t go too crazy.

AH: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

SS: Yeah. We personally made a decision not to deliver rewards till after the album is recorded, at least.

AS: We made that clear to people.

SS: Yeah, that they would have to wait awhile, because you have to keep your eye on the prize. Remember that the album is the most important thing, or whatever you’re Kickstartering for. That you want not to get lost, getting excited about all these cute little rewards along the way. You still have to make the record first, but you still have to make the rewards interesting.

AS: The actual reward is the campaign succeeding and creating something wonderful.

SS: If you have the sway with your fan base, and people think you’re awesome, you can offer things like a private show in people’s home, or recording a song for people. One of ours, I think we did that for three people, we will write them a custom song. You can either price that really low, if you don’t think it’s a big deal, or you can price it really high if you want to really up the value of that. But that’s a really cool thing to do that doesn’t involve—you don’t want to spend up so much money on rewards that you negate the money you raised. So things like that, like playing a show. We did one where we’ll make you breakfast.

AS: We will make brunch.

AH: Waffles and mimosas.

SS: We actually did have somebody on that reward, but he lives in L.A., and he understands that will only happen if we can get down there. He was totally cool with it.

You’ll be having Myles Boisen (Tom Waits, Corpus Callosum, Zoe Boekbinder) do the mastering for your album. How did you decide that Myles is who you wanted for the album and get him on board with the album?

AS: So, how Myles came to be a part of the project is that I was working on a solo EP this last summer, and our friend Zoe Boekbinder, I was lucky enough to get her to do some vocals on one of the songs. I was emailing her back and forth and she strongly recommended I get it mastered. She said oh yeah, my friend Myles is working on my album right now, just send him an email, let him know that I sent you, we can work something out. He’s really efficient and really well priced. So I took Myles up on that. And low and behold, he was pretty awesome. And he has worked with a bunch of our friends. He produced Corpus Collosum’s record, which is awesome.

SS: We love them.

AS: We love them so mightily. So it seemed like a no brainer, for Myles to be involved.

SS: Aaron just made this happen. And I was like, okay, fine, he’s worked with all these amazing people, if he’s willing to do it, then I’m not gonna—okay, awesome. Cool.

AH: I honestly just don’t know that much about what mastering is.

AS: I don’t know what mastering is either.

SS: We don’t understand the magic.

AH: I don’t know what goes on. I just know it comes back all polished, like a nice stone in one of those tumblers. And that makes me happy.

SS: We do not question the wizardy of Myles’ mastering. We just know that we need it.

How do your Jewish backgrounds connect with your music?

SS: Short answer, not as much as it used to.

AS: Long answer: The Mongrel Jews name came to be… it’s more about our identity and where we came from, then about our music.

SS: When we first got together and tried to pick a band name, we bandied about some ideas, but nothing that came close to really feeling like us. We’d already written our first song, and we played at this sort of open mike, coffee house jam at this Jewish co-op in Seattle. So we were in this room with other Jewish people. We played the song, and people were asking us well what’s your name, and we were well, don’t have one yet. Somebody asked about something—oh, I had something about Ari and I being half Norwegian. We’re brother and sister, our Mom is full-blood Norwegian. And someone said that’s unusual for Jewish people, what’s your other half? Aaron said oh, Romanian, Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, mix, your average mongrel Jew.

SS: And someone else said, hey Mongrel Jews, that’d be great for your name. Everyone in the room is like yeah, definitely. We didn’t start encountering opposition or people who were like, I don’t know how I feel about that, until later. And then we went, oh yeah, we guess that could be offensive.

AS: When we told our parents about—

SS: My Mom—

AH: Your Dad’s face—

SS: Our Mom refers to us as The MJs. She won’t say it.

AS: Our mother’s initials are MJ.

SS: But when we first started we were like, if we call ourselves The Mongrel Jews, clearly we have to include some sort of Jewish influence in our music. Aaron wrote two songs with Jewish influence. Ballad of the Exile Prince—

AH: —and Hot Biblical Mess.

SS: And the song that came to be known as Hot Biblical Mess.

AS: And that’s really known as Sacrificial Lamb.

SS: Annie at some rehearsal was like, let’s work on that song of Aaron’s, the hot biblical mess. And I said, new title! That’s what it’s called now.

AS: And that’s kind of it till we wrote The Mongrel Jews theme song.

SS: Which, the theme song is probably our most Jewish song. Stylistically it’s got some kind of klezmer and brass influences in there, so we sing about what it means to be a mongrel Jew and the plight of the Jewish people being banished around the world, so we keep picking up bits of different ethnicities—

AH: —and how people always tell me I don’t look Jewish. Because I’m blonde and blue-eyed.

AS: The Mongrel Jews theme was really something we really took seriously. We wrote three versions before we came on this one.

SS: We were writing that song as long as we were in a band. And we only finished it less than a year ago.

AS: And it’s really about how being a mongrel is good.

SS: It’s the reason Jewish culture is so rich and varied, because it’s traveled around the world, and picked up little bits. At the same time, that one song, and we wrote those two songs…as we grew as a band, we wrote songs about whatever, whatever came to mind, and the Jewish aspect kind of fell away. Not on purpose. We didn’t specifically say, let’s stop writing Jewish songs. We just didn’t say we need to keep writing Jewish songs.

AH: We’re also not a Jewish band. We didn’t form this band with the intention of forming a Jewish band, it’s just coincidental we’re Jewish.

AS: And let’s face it, none of us are the most Jewish people in the world.

SS: None of us are not super observant. We don’t want to get down into the nitty gritty of our personal beliefs. We were all raised Jewish. We all feel it’s an important part of our identity.

AS: Yes.

AH: I mildly feel like doing violin for this.

SS: We have this friend, Mai Li Pittard. She’s a Floridian Jew with a Chinese first name. It’s really awesome to have her on the record, because she’s sort of the reason we are the band that we are.

AS: We never would’ve gone to that Jewish co-op open mike if she hadn’t invited us.

AP: Ravenna kibbutz?

AS: Yeah.

SS: She was the first one who invited us to the kibbutz, and introduced us to Annie, so yeah, I’d never thought about it before, but she’s been pretty instrumental in our—no pun intended—in our band. So it’s nice to have her on the record.

AS: The other musician we’re bringing on the record is my friend Andy Lowe. He was in my first band, he and I have a really good working relationship, and he is a fantastic bassist. He played bass on the first live performance I did of an original song. It feels good to have him on board as well.

SS: This record is kind of all about people who have been with us through it all. Which is kind of nice. That’s sort of our bands thing. We have that kind of family feeling, with our friends and our fans. We have a community.

AS: That is one thing I’d suggest to any band who wants to have a successful Kickstarter.

SS: To be a successful band in general.

AS: Reach out to your fans, and become a part of your fan’s community. Not to be distant and the subject of their adoration or whatever, but be a part of what they do.

AH: That’s what makes Jason Webley so cool.

AS: And Amanda palmer.

SS: That’s what makes the modern approach to being in a band work. Where you’re not in a label, you’re managing everything for yourself, doing your own stuff, you’re doing Kickstarter, using online tools like Bandcamp, to make your career work. That is awesome. You’re can’t be the distant rockstar. I honestly don’t know anybody who wants to be the distant rockstar. I’m sure those people still exist. They want to be up on stage, and be mysterious. And you can do that, if you have a manager or a label handling all the nitty gritty. But if you’re not, you’re trying to do it the new way, you have to be in there with the fans. You have to interact with people.

AH: That brings our punk into it.

AS: We’re a little bit punk rock. Just a little.

You can find The Mongrel Jews at their website, Facebook page, and their recordings at Bandcamp.

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