Latest update: March 20th, 2012
Modern-Orthodox Jewish comic Heshy Fried aka FrumSatire (last time I saw him was at the Stanton Street shul on the Lower East Side, and he emailed me a while back that he moved to LA) has been a fan of the Groggers for at least two years now, so I’m assigning him the honor of “discovering” them (as in, “Look at all the Groggers over there!”).
Fried wrote in Heeb Magazine that the Groggers were “possibly the first Orthodox Jewish band that doesn’t sound Jewish. (Expletive), even Matisyahu can’t go a few lines without throwing in some biblical verse. And don’t even get me started on the so-called Chabad hip hop movement. I was listening to the new album from The Groggers the other day and for the first time in my life I forgot I was listening to Jewish music. I thought for a second that I was listening to MXPX or New Found Glory. The Groggers are a Modern Orthodox Jewish punk rock band from Queens that sings about young Jewish angst.”
I agree with Heshy completely, and I’m only sorry that he got to them before I did, but that’s the way it is when you’re young and free and living on the West Coast. Yes, I share Heshy Fried’s enthusiasm for precisely the same reasons. So now you have to either go listen to all the Groggers YouTube tunes and then come back and read my conversation with Doug Staiman, the band leader, or read first and go later. Tell you what, I’ll throw in the clips and some lyrics as we proceed, because my mission here is to get you involved with this new phenomenon.
Is it still cool to say “phenomenon”?
Is it still cool to ask if things are “cool”?
The Groggers are a Jewish pop-punk band with a comic twist, based out of NYC, formed in early 2010 by singer/songwriter L.E. Staiman, and musicians Ari Friedman and Chemy Soibelman.
I called Doug Staiman, band leader of The Groggers, in early March, on a day when Israel’s southern towns were under heavy rocket fire. He sounded concerned and asked how I was doing.
Yanover: I’m okay, considering there are rockets flying in the air and alarms sounding… Otherwise things are cool, how are you?
Staiman: Good… What better time for a Groggers interview than during a missile attack…
Yanover: How are you feeling over there about the minor war we’ve been having?
Staiman: I support Israel and everything it does, especially its right to defend itself.
Yanover: Are you anxious?
Staiman: I have a lot of family in Israel. I have a cousin in the army and I have friends in the army. I’m always nervous…
Yanover: I heard about you from the publicist of the plastic surgeon you did that video commercial for. I have to say, I’ve watched three or four of your videos, I just finished watching the “Get” video, you’re definitely with it. I’m saying this even though I’m 57, so as far as I’m concerned, music ended in 1972 when the Beatles broke up…
Staiman: I’ve heard that before…
Yanover: Boomers are not easy to take, I realize that.
Staiman: So I’ve heard…
Yanover: We’re very self centered, so I apologize in advance. But you have social involvement in your art, you have political awareness, you’re frum in a very straight forward, unabashed and at the same time not compulsory way, you’re just you, I really liked it.
Staiman: Thank you, I really appreciate that.
Yanover: How did the whole thing begin?
Staiman: The band started when I moved to New York about four years ago—I’m 24—and I knew another friend’s band that was into the modern Jewish music theme, and I started exploring Jewish music a little bit and I had to do it my own way. So I wrote a couple of these slightly controversial, very honest Jewish satirical songs, and I would send out demos to friends. People appreciated them, but I also caught a lot of flack for it and people said it would never go anywhere because it’s too much of a niche and people who don’t understand might be offended by it. So, as a joke I made a video of the song “Get.”
You gotta get get get get Give her a get You gotta get get get get Give her a get You gotta get get get get Give her a get Cause she don’t love you no mo’
I think Its time to cut your losses And maybe cut the cord Its time to let her go Cause she seems miserable and bored And your friends think you’re a hero But your kids think you’re a joke And your lawyer won’t return your calls Because he knows you’re broke
You gotta get get get get Give her a get…
Staiman: The video cost like $30 to shoot. I did it literally for no money, I just bought sandwiches for the crew. We shot it for a day, and then edited it and put it up a couple days later. And immediately after putting it up it went viral. The next day it had thousands of hits and it was all over the blogs. I was sort of taken aback by all this.
Currently, the original “Get” clip has 115,000 views. It Ain’t Susan Boyle, but for a Yidvid that took $30 to produce – pretty respectable.
Staiman: I decided to give it a shot and pretty quickly we were doing big shows, and a couple weeks later we opened for the Moshav Band (a huge Israeli band that began in Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s little village on the road to Jerusalem, and is a successful musical crossover, which their website defines as “rich with fiery rock/folk/reggae songs, spiced with the flavors of the Middle East.”).
Yanover: (Making general appreciative noises, including an inaudible “Wow.”)
Staiman: It kinda took off very quickly. So we turned into a real band. At first it was a fake band, we didn’t really have band rehearsals, I just wrote the chords in my basement. But very quickly we started rehearsals and writing new material, and we put out an album. And the rest is history.
The Groggers’ debut album, “There’s No ‘I’ In Cherem,” was released in the summer of 2011, to great reception. Binyomin Ginzberg wrote in the Forward: “Offbeat characters with humorous personal issues populate The Groggers’ songs. From a guy who got dumped by his girlfriend so that she can date a Maccabeat, to a frustrated Queens single who wants to move to the Upper West Side, Staiman’s quirky subjects illustrate the ridiculous aspects of modern religious life. Each song also presents a snarky perspective or a situation with a twist.”
Mom and dad I’ve got news for you I found myself a love that is so true Cause she’s everything to me And I hope that you agree And I hope that you can love her like I do
Mom and dad don’t be afraid Cause I know you think shell rain on your parade But if you open up your mind Like I know Ive opened mine Youll meet a girl who spends a lot of her time rallying against the state of Israel, surprisingly
Anyway her name is…
Oh Oh Malka Jihad She talks like Islam But she looks like Chabad
Oh oh shes smart and analytical All our conversations Always turn political Its me and me and me and me and me and Malka Jihad.
There’s a party going down In our little Brooklyn town And its spreading far and wide And were screaming it out loud
So put on your dancing shoes Fill the table full of booze Tonight were celebrating Cause it’s Gimmel Tamuz
Farbrengen! Cause tonights the night In crown heights
Lets get drunk for breakfast And Farbreng all day Well keep on drinking Don’t need AA.
Yanover: Four guys in the band?
Staiman: There’s four of us in the band. Same lineup as the Beatles.
Yanover: It’s very sophisticated in terms of the amount of thinking that somebody who plays multi-user video games and has an open tab at Domino’s has to employ to get your ideas. Are you a thinking man’s rock band?
Staiman: I would like to think so, although there are songs that are considered to be very sophisticated and that I wrote in about ten minutes. And then I had to discover their depth after the fact myself. I’d write the song, then I’d read the lyrics and realize that what I was saying had multiple layers and levels.
“So some of the songs I wrote very specifically and strategically to sound sophisticated and there are songs that sort of happened to end up that way organically.
“In terms of being for deep thinkers and stuff – I try to have something in there for everybody. Even if you’re playing a video game and play us in the background – there’s something in there for you also.”
Yanover: You embed the song in kind of a scene before you start singing.
Staiman: Exactly. It very dramatic.
Yanover: It’s entertaining. There has to be some crossover for you because I see your upcoming date (March 13, 2012) is at the Gramercy Theater… What’s your appeal to, never mind non-religious Jews – what do you have to say to the altogether non-Jewish audience?
Staiman: It’s really kind of an interesting dynamic, because one would think that there for the non-Jewish crowd, and, surprisingly, we just got some radio play on 102.7 F.M. in New York.
Yanover: (This time audibly) Wow…
Staiman: Yeah, it’s a big station.
Yanover: Wow, I’m impressed…
Staiman: That was a big deal for us.
Yanover: Did they play “Get”?
Staiman: No, they played the new one, Jewcan Sam, the nose job song.
That’s how I first heard about the Groggers, through a press release I received from Dr. Schnoz – “The doctor who commissioned a band to make a music video featuring the ‘nose job’ love song. The lead singer of the Groggers made a music video in exchange for a nose job from Dr. Michael Salzhauer, a leading Miami Plastic Surgeon who touts himself as the Nose King of Miami.”
It’s all true. I verified. And the good doctor is currently in an itzy bitzy bit of hot water with his fellow plastic surgeons, on account of his innovative approach and on account of their absolute lack of a sense of humor (Groggers’ Yidvid Nose Job Doc in Trouble with ASPS).
I want her, but she don’t want what I am. She says you got a beak like Jewcan Sam. She says I only go with guys, With perfect upturned noses, so cut yours down to size
And I’ll be everything you wanted I’ll be everything you need Watch the passerby’s will flash their eyes When we walk down the street
And we would live like we were famous With the stars all in our eyes And I would love you till forever If you got your nose circumcised
I want her unconditionally But she’s got one big condition to be with me Sometimes I sit and say if only, I looked more like Tom Cruise And less like Adrien Brody I’d be less lonely
She said a guy like you and a girl like me Only happens in the movies No matter what you do, or how hard you fight Pinocchio never got Snow White
And I’ll be everything you wanted I’ll be everything you need Watch the passerby’s will flash their eyes When we walk down the street
And we would live like we were famous We would be forever young And I would love you till forever If you just got your nose done
Yanover: In New York it stands to reason there’ll be one Jewish person around to ask what things mean, how to say “chootzpa.”
Staiman: Right, exactly. But I think even without asking, they understood. If you’re writing a love song, or whatever you’re writing, everything is your personal view anyway, so your audience is never going to fully get exactly what you’re saying. So they take what they take from it. It might be the melody they’re enjoying.
Yanover: You also don’t have a Jewish agenda. You’re not there to convert anyone, you’re not there to teach anything, you’re just there to sing about your life. It’s disarming.
Staiman: I didn’t want to be preachy. I’ve seen so many Jewish bands try to be preachy. The worst part is when a band is preachy and then you see them out in the street and they’re the antithesis of everything they preach.
“We tried that. there are certain things we feel passionate about and there are certain things we try not to do, in our music and in life in general. I never wanted to be one of these bands that criticizes other people…
“Oddly enough, there has been some good that came out of our songs. Particularly “Get.” I’ve gotten a couple of emails at this point from people who said they used it as a tool to secure a get.”
Yanover: You can put it on a Power Point presentation…
Staiman: Totally. I’ve gotten word back that it was successfully used, that someone sent it out to a guy that was holding out on a get and a couple days later he ended up signing.
“I wrote it as a very dark song, it’s very sing-songy, even as at the same time the message is very, very dark. People interpreted it as having a big social message. It became something different. It totally evolved into something different.”
Yanover: So, what do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to remain a band?
Staiman: Yeah. I have my hands in a bunch of different things right now. I’m involved in acting and screenwriting as well. I’m taking New York for everything it has to offer. I also produce other acts and I have my own studio. We record most of our stuff there. I’m doing a bunch of different things to survive at this point. I’m not married, I don’t have any kids…
Yanover: The work pays the rent?
Staiman: Yeah, at this point it does. It’s interesting to be able to live off of playing funny Jewish songs.
Yanover: Beats heavy lifting… Who’s the guy in the green mask?
Staiman: It’s the drummer. Originally he had conflicts and didn’t want his name and face associated with the band. So he wore a mask. Then he decided there were worse things in this world than being associated with the Groggers. So he took off the mask. It’s like Kiss taking off the makeup.
Yanover: What about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll? Is this part of your milieu, or are you clean-cut Jewish kids?
Staiman: That’s a good question. We’re pretty straight laced.
Yanover: You get up at six, go to shul, daven Mincha on time?
Staiman: No. We’re somewhere in between living the legitimate rock star life and yeshiva bocher. Probably closer to living the legitimate rock start life… I mean we’re all frum, we’re all shomer Shabbes, we keep kosher, we have that connection. None of us are yeshivish. Except our bass player is in a smicha (rabbinic ordination) program now, but he’s not yeshivish. He’s more modern. We’re normal. I guess “normal” is very subjective, but we’re at a healthy balance. We like to have fun, we definitely capitalize on some of the rock star stereotypes.
Yanover: Do you ever stop between songs during rehearsal and say, Listen, in the Parsha this week, what do you think about this and that?
Staiman: As of yet that has never come up.
Yanover: There’s a movie there, you know… Most of the movies about frum people are done by outsiders, and the few that are by insiders are so dark and unhappy. So here’s an opportunity to be frum and joyous…
Staiman: We definitely all have a very dark sense of humor. In our rehearsals we’re pretty stressful, because we’re all… We don’t take ourselves very seriously, but when it comes to music and rehearsing and making sure we sound good and tight we’re all perfectionists. So we push ourselves really hard. Rehearsals definitely get a little intense.
Yanover: Do you have a Brian Epstein type?
Staiman: Like a manager? Yeah, our manager is in all our videos. In the “Eshes Chayil” video he plays the Mexican dude.
Yanover: He’s not the bearded guy yelling at the girl…
Staiman: No, that’s Rav Shmuel. He’s a kind of legendary folk/rock artist. He’s a rabbi, a Rosh Yeshiva, but he’s also this really awesome, out there rabbi who goes to festivals and plays concert and has this witty songs. We did our first show with him. Cool dude.
Yanover: Are you going to give me a controversial statement, like, We’re more famous than Moshe Rabeinu?
Staiman: I’m always so nervous about this… We like to live on the dividing line. If people were actually at our rehearsals and actually backstage and this and that, they’d see there is no line. It’s so blurred. But when it comes to public statements… I love to live on that edge. I don’t want to go too far, because then people would say, Ah, it’s just a publicity stunt, he’s trying to create shock value. I like to live where people are just kind of not sure where I am. I think I entertain myself with that ambiguity. When people are just not sure how to take me. I’m not too far to the right or too far to the left, I’m sort of tittering the line and it’s fun.
Yanover: I think the obvious sense of ease and self comfort that you’re projecting is very nice to see, and I think that’s the quality that lets you cross over. I a culture that’s so crazy about authenticity, you’re it, you’ve got oodles of authenticity to spare.
Staiman: We say all kinds of things that get us in trouble, but we are proud of who we are. That’s why we get away with it. We really embrace who we are. There’s usually a façade in Jewish music, because people feel there’s so much they can’t say. I enjoy being honest. You can’t get anywhere until you stop lying to yourself.
Then I emailed Doug a couple of questions from my boss:
1. Are you influenced by Lou Reed and the Ramones?
2. Where in Queens did you go to school? (He’s from Forest Hills)
3. Where did you go to high school, yeshiva, college?
Followed by my own, which came in response to an inquiry I had received from him moments before:
4. What are you doing up at 2:30 am NYC time?
1. Can’t stand Lou Reed, especially after the album he just released with Metallica. Can’t mess with The Ramones cause I would be out of a job without them.
2. I grew up in Florida and I went to Hebrew Academy Miami for all 2 years of high school.
3. Went to Touro College
4. I have a HUGE meeting in the morning that I’m not allowed to talk about yet and I can’t sleep!
Now you know everything I know.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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