How do you describe The Shondes? Indie? Punk? Jewish? Queer? After seven years and four albums, the way the band is identified has definitely changed. Souciant sat down with violinist Eli Oberman to discuss the band’s forthcoming album, The Garden, and talk about radical politics, Jewish tradition, and Tzadik Records.
Souciant: Because of your music and your politics, you attract many types of people. This is awesome, but can also be problematic, because you can get pushed in different directions depending on how you present yourself and what other people want from the music.
Eli: I think it’s a tricky situation, because on the one hand what makes you difficult to categorize is also what people like about you. So being difficult to categorize isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It makes you hard to talk about. But it’s also what makes people love you, because they walk out of your show and say, “God, I never heard anything like that.” So it’s what makes you memorable but it’s hard with press.
We’ll get indie, we’ll get riot grrl, we’ll get queercore, we’ll get klezmer, we’ll get Jewish. It’s confusing as hell.
Souciant: But at the same time, Tzadik Records isn’t putting you out, cause you’re not that klezmer. I think this happens a lot with bands that are doing something within a certain scene that has specific labels and festivals that are associated with it. Which is to say: if you’re doing Jewish music then why aren’t you on Tzadik, for example?
Eli: Part of me would love to be affiliated. I don’t think Tzadik is the right place for us, but something bigger – ’cause we could use the support. We could use someone paying for posters and, you know, a bigger label or company helping us out. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t want that. Affiliation has its perks, for sure. But I also love where we’re at: I love working with Exotic Fever Records because [label manager] Katy Otto is such a wonderful person and the DIY and feminist ethic really works for us and we work well together and care about the same things. We might disagree sometimes, but at the end of the day we know that we care about the same stuff.
Souciant: You’re going to be saying no to the same things.
Eli:Right. And you know, it’s trust. This person is not screwing us around and it’s lovely. Someday I hope there’s more money in it, but in the meantime, for a working relationship, you couldn’t ask for more.
Souciant: More money in DIY rock?
Eli: Yeah, someday. [laughs]
Souciant: How has the aspect of radical Jewish and queer politics affected your band?
Eli:I think that people always assume, especially back when we started, and our Israel/Palestine politics were even more contentious than they are now… the fact that people who consider themselves moderate will even say the words “anti-occupation” opens the door for me to say, “Well what about anti-Zionist?” It’s unreal.
Souciant: As dumb as groups like J Street are, it’s incredible that they exist.
Eli: There really has been promising motion. I think that’s to the credit of people in the far left who are pushing the center to the left. That’s something that really matters to me. So especially at the beginning, where we were at it was just so far out that people assumed that [politics] would have this really negative effect. But it’s really never been that way.
I think that people who didn’t agree with us just didn’t come. People who didn’t care liked the music anyway. For people who did care, it meant a lot. So that actually had a really positive affect. People who were concerned about justice for Palestine, and who were activists saying, “Oh my God! There’s a band on stage saying this stuff?” That really meant something to people, especially for anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jews feeling so isolated at times, that created real bonds. There’s an anti-Zionist Jewish group in the Twin Cities that was founded at one of our shows. That’s a dream. That’s why we do this.
Souciant: Right now there’s such a big push by the Israeli government to reach out to the gay community to encourage tourism. How do you feel about this?
Eli: It’s very important to me as a queer person to say, “You cannot use ‘gay rights’ as an excuse for racism and Islamophobia.” Maybe there’s not enough time to give visibility to a queer rights movement when you’re under occupation and you’re stuck in your house under curfew.
Souciant: It’s also not a comparison. That’s total crap made up by people who are opposed to anti-occupation groups. They claim that the groups are willing to speak out against what goes on in Israel but not in Palestine, but there’s no one who does it.
Eli: Of course I’m willing to speak out about homophobia in Palestine. There’s homophobia everywhere. If someone asks, “How can you support a pro-Palestine movement when there’s so much homophobia?” I say, “Are you kidding me? You think the occupation is helping queers?”
The Apartheid state is also affecting queers. I would much rather support queer organizing in Palestine – which there is – and say, “Alright, I’m supporting anti-occupation work with Palestinian and Israeli organizing and I’m supporting Palestinians who are doing queer organizing and anti-homophobia work in their communities. That’s where I’m at.” I’m not going to go and say ‘yay Israel’ because you have a gay cruise or something. That is not my queer identity and that is not my Jewish identity.
Souciant: Have you ever been asked to play by Jewish groups you didn’t like, and had to say no because of their politics?
Eli: We have never said no. We have played at Jewish events and Jewish institutions that don’t share our politics and what we have said is, “This is where we stand. We might say something on stage. We might play this song we call ‘I Watched the Temple Fall” and introduce it. If you’re fine with that, than we’d love to play. “
For so many different issues, and not only this one, if we had to be on the same page with someone we a) would hardly ever play anything b) that’s not politically useful. We want dialogue and we want people who exist in different spaces to be able to exist in the same space and have dialogue.
For example, when we play college shows, sometimes we’ve been brought there by Hillel. Usually, this is a young student who doesn’t really know the politics of that and may say, “Oh my gosh I love your band” and they may or may not know our politics. And even if they do, they’ll say, “I’d really love to ask my Hillel group about bringing you” and we’ll say, “We would love that, but before you go ask that, we want to warn you that they might have a problem with it and this is why.” And, you know, a lot of those groups brought us anyway. A lot of times we’ve had a talkback after the shows. So if it’s been a contentious process bringing us, we’ll talk about it.
Souciant: Have you had to have those discussions?
Eli: We have. I think that for the most part they’ve been pretty productive. Again, it’s been less and less contentious as time goes on.
Souciant: I think that goes back to the beginning of this interview in regards to having different labels and everything else, anything that allows you to move relatively fluidly between these different identities and different scenes. But I think that points to your overarching identity being a political band.
Eli: Right. And I think the college show example is a really good one, because often we’ll be co-sponsored by, you know, the (campus) Hillel and the queer organization or the Hillel and the feminist group. So there’s these amazing conversations that happen, both at the show – we have a talkback when those two groups are present – but also in the organizing process for the show itself. That’s where these dialogues are happening.
Souciant: Would you agree with what I said before, about the band’s over-arching identity being political?
Eli:Yes. I identify as a radical more than I identify with any particular identity like queer, or Jewish, or whatever. One of my favorite things is that the root word for ‘radical’ actually means to get to the root of. Instead of treating things with Band-Aid solutions, let’s really go to the root of where this is coming from. Where is oppression coming from? What are the root causes? We’re not just going to have gay marriage. We’re going to talk about the deep, deep issues of gender identity and homophobia and how we relate to each other and how that has to do with masculinity and femininity and misogyny and all this stuff.
So for me, getting to the root of all of these things. Choosing to stand on the side of and organize with and have solidarity with people who are being oppressed, is always going to be the most important thing. Regardless of what their identity or category is. Music is just what I like to do.
Souciant: So how do you get everything you just talked about across in a three minute song?
Eli: You don’t, is the answer. You really don’t. I think that our identity as a political band comes across much more in what we do, the kinds of shows we play and the kinds of things we say on stage and the kinds of interviews we get, than our actual lyrics. People pick up on that in all those other ways. Our songs are about what we feel, and our relationships. Those things certainly are not divorced from politics.
To me, a love song is political. How you choose to express desire. Even if it doesn’t say anything about being a queer or whatever. The language for expressing desire, or the kind of flirtation or the kind of romance, or the kinds of things you’re yearning for in another person….all those things are political. But at the same time, for someone who doesn’t know anything about us, (upon) hearing us, will they know that we’re a radical political band? No. And so for me it’s always both and neither.
Souciant: I’d much rather see that than a band that’s overtly political and preaching to the choir.
Eli: Songs are supposed to be nuanced and from the heart. Politics are from the heart, but you can’t express them like a manifesto.
Souciant: Is art an escape?
Eli: No! Definitely not. For me, art is something that helps sustain you for the fight. Life is a fight in so many ways. Politically and/or personally and getting through cancer and getting your heart broken or whatever it is. Life is hard, life is a struggle on so many levels. So you find something that you love and that makes you happy and that speaks to your soul and you do that thing, because God knows we all need those things. For me, it’s playing violin and it’s songwriting and it’s touring. Those are intimately connected. But it’s not an escape: it’s fuel.
Photograph courtesy of Willie May Rock Camp for Girls. Published under a Creative Commons license.