Tommy Ramone explores bluegrass and honky-tonk with Uncle Monk, while we catch up with all things Ludo

Oct 21, 2009 at 4:00 am
Bluegrass Bop
A Ramone playing bluegrass and old-time string-band music? If it sounds like a joke, stop laughing. Original drummer Tommy Ramone (known to the DMV as Tommy Erdelyi) was always the professional one in the band — according to Dee Dee Ramone, he was the only one capable of cooking himself dinner — and he later moved on to produce classic albums by the Replacements and Redd Kross. So it's no surprise that the last Ramone standing has made the switch to banjo, mandolin and dobro with such ease. He assures B-Sides that, all along, inside that leather jacket beats the heart of a mountain man.

B-Sides: So how does a Jewish, Hungarian American kid from Queens wind up playing bluegrass?

Tommy Ramone: This is music I've been interested in since I was a kid. My father was a big country-music fan, and my brother would bring home records from the library of string band music, folk music. It's music I grew up on. And there was the big folk scene in New York before the Beatles and the British Invasion. I was too young to be in that scene, but you started to hear a lot of that stuff on the radio, and my brother was nine years older, so I had a connection to it through him.

Then about fifteen years ago, I bought a mandolin and a banjo for a band I had at the time, also called Uncle Monk — it was kind of a jam band, and I wanted to incorporate string-band sounds into that. I absolutely fell in love with playing them, and the current Uncle Monk just evolved from there.

I like that you don't try to sing with a drawl, that your New York accent is still audible in there sometimes. Was that a conscious decision to avoid trying to sound too hokey-hillbilly?

We definitely didn't look at this as something humorous, except when it's supposed to be humorous. We have a lot of respect for old-time music, bluegrass music. Everything fantastic in American music has come out of that. There are a lot of bands out there who sort of have fun with the genre, but that's not what we do. We use traditional music and instrumentation with modern lyrics, modern themes. We take it seriously and just love the music.

What's it like being in an acoustic duo like Uncle Monk as opposed to an electric rock band like the Ramones?

What [singer-guitarist] Claudia [Tienan] and I are doing is singing very personal songs. With the Ramones it was four very — very — different individuals. With Uncle Monk, it's a much more unified, personal thing. Claudia maybe has a darker vision, I have a more optimistic kind of thing, but with the Ramones there were four very different things going on.

Is the Ramones legacy a blessing or a curse for Uncle Monk?

You know, it's great because it opens doors. Some people might be confused, expecting something punky, but it usually works out once we clear up what exactly we're about. Sometimes we introduce people to string-band music and they're surprised they like it, which is an interesting phenomenon. And what's great is that these old-time genres aren't that big right now, so you can go see acts at smaller places, get close to the artists, things like that. It's exciting.
— Jason Toon

No Rest for the Weary
Although Ludo has been taking it easy with touring in recent months, the Moog-rock quartet is still working hard. For starters, the band has been demoing songs for the followup to its major-label debut, You're Awful, I Love You, with plans to record it early next year.

In the meantime, Ludo recently reissued its self-titled debut and 2005's Broken Bride EP on its Redbird Records label (with widespread distribution via Universal Records). To celebrate the re-release, Ludo has been performing Broken Bride in its entirety on nine shows, including this St. Louis gig.

Although locals are familiar with these releases, Ludo has been mastered for the first time, and producer Jason McEntire (who has worked with the band for years) remixed it. The band also added a bonus track ("Elektra's Complex") and included a live recording of its first birthday show, which took place at Mississippi Nights in August 2004.

Moog player Tim Convy says that the band wanted its newer fans — who learned about the act from Awful and its single "Love Me Dead" — to be able to hear these records.

"There's a whole lot of people out there who [knew us from] 'Love me Dead' [or] just a music video or just that song or just that record," Convy says. "The idea, particularly before our next record comes out, is to let people know that there's a whole lot more going on. We had these other things before — we didn't just show up [and] make a record. There's this history to it, and we do these different things that maybe aren't in 'Love Me Dead' and aren't a part of that record so much."

Convy, drummer Matt Palermo and guitarist Tim Ferrell also just released an EP, The Fuel, The Fire, The Spark, under the moniker the New Heathers. (Listeners can stream it on MySpace or snag it on iTunes.) The six-song release was recorded at Sawhorse Recording Studios with McEntire and is comprised of songs Ferrell has written over the past six to eight months.

"I've always had some songs that weren't going to go on Ludo records, just like Andrew [Volpe] has," he says. "But this time I wanted to record them, go in with Jason McEntire again, just because we haven't really done stuff with him in awhile, haven't seen him in awhile. It seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. I really like the songs and didn't want them to disappear. I didn't want them to sit around in case they someday go somewhere."

Although Convy's distinctive Moog and peppy tempos certainly resemble Ludo, the New Heathers is its own thing — thanks to Ferrell's pure, choir-boy vocals, blazing guitars and classic-rock/prog flourishes (i.e., stacked choruses and harmonies). "Mr. Green Blades" might be the world's only sludge-rock power-pop song — it veers from piano-sparkled choruses to hefty, metal-lite verses — while "Start" sounds like the Dead Milkmen crossed with They Might Be Giants. The biggest change from Ludo's music, however, might be Ferrell's turn as lead singer.

"I've always done background stuff in any band I've ever been in," Ferrell says. "I could get away with a lot of bad habits. I wasn't singing enough for it to be a problem. And with this, I've had to sit down and practice and approach it more like I always approached the guitar, and get to a place where technique is better — and making it so that I'm not overdoing it or hurting myself or ruining my ability to sing."

Indeed, the New Heathers are headlining some shows in between Ludo's current tour, performing Spark songs, potential new Ludo tunes and some covers. (Cracker's "Guarded by Monkeys" and Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" are two Ferrell reveals.) As to what the band will do in the future — well, that's anybody's guess.

"I can't predict," he says. "One step at time. It's nice to know that it's there, and it's nice to know that for any songs that aren't going to work out for Ludo, you can always still care about them, still focus on them, and still know that you can do something with them."
— Annie Zaleski