LIKE GREGOR SAMSA, WE AWOKE from uneasy dreams to find ourselves transformed into an urban brass band exploring klezmer music's Russian-army-band and American-theater-orchestra byways. Metropolis proclaimed that citified sounds could be authentic too; that military bands and saloon bands could be (and always had been) carriers of folk tradition. We were finally starting to get inside the heads of the 1920s klezmorim: listening to what they listened to, playing the way they played... or at least the way they would have played if they'd been us.
Here's the genesis of this Grammy-nominated album: We'd been performing a string of wildly successful, magical evenings at The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco's premier jazz/avant-garde music venue. Major contributors to the vibe were A) the totally hip GAMH audience and B) wizardly house soundman Lee Brenkman. Somehow we convinced ourselves we could make a killer recording there... with a different soundman, and without a live audience. What were we thinking!? This cunning plan defies rational understanding, like the British decision to send troops ashore at Gallipoli.
Dark and cold was the empty hall; good takes were aborted by passing streetcars; the band bickered over repertoire; John Raskin and I amped ourselves into particularly febrile states that made everybody else crazy. Producer Stu Brotman offered tasteful wisdom about musical arrangements, but succumbed to fatalism as we struggled through endless takes of "The Shepherd's Dream," blithely eating up a third of the album's budget on a single track...
The Klezmorim's dysfunctional phase continued through post-production as we wrangled over tunes, photos, and artwork. Marooned in Chicago, wrestling deep depression and a whopping case of Metropolis-liner-note writer's block, I tried to find a new, non-stupid way to describe us and our music. Revivalists of historic ethnic tradition? True but unsexy, marketing-wise. What about us as players? What about our music's wildness, spontaneity, and immediacy? What about our appeal to under-thirty audiences?
Inspiration struck: Sell us like bath soap! Soap commercials spin tales of smooth lovely skin or the excitement of a first date... 'cause who wants to hear about hydrogenated animal fats and industrial solvents? Clearly, instead of describing klezmer music for the hundredth time, I needed to evoke the intense ambience of our shows — and the roiling social upheavals that spawned klezmer music in the first place. The result of this epiphany was the now-famous (and much-imitated) manifesto that began "They lived like Gypsies and played like demons" and ended "It's been underground for fifty years. Now it's back!"