Interview

An Interview with Simon Starr of YID! on their new album, ZETS!

Rebecca Margolis

INTRODUCTION

ZETS! is the sec­ond album of the Mel­bourne-based band, YID! The album breaks new ground with the com­bi­na­tion of the tra­di­tion­al Yid­dish songs that are the lifeblood of YID!, with orig­i­nal music and lyrics and their first record­ed rap. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from Dark Side Of The Moon and the Beast­ie Boys’ Paul’s Bou­tique, ZETS! was record­ed by the whole band plus guests between lock­downs in 2021, and after a lov­ing and exhaust­ing pro­duc­tion peri­od from the Kvetch Broth­ers (Simon Starr and Josh Abra­hams, elec­tron­ic music OG and high end mix engi­neer), the new album is ready to go. 

With this sec­ond album, YID! has pushed their music fur­ther, for the first time adding orig­i­nal lyrics and music to tra­di­tion­al music, raps, chants, and sam­ples from every record­ed source they could find of old Yid­dish record­ings. The ambi­tious, vain­glo­ri­ous album ties the past to the future, acknowl­edg­ing the past with­out being stuck in it.

Rebec­ca (Rivke) Mar­go­lis spoke with Simon Starr, orga­niz­er and bass play­er of YID!, at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Jew­ish Civil­i­sa­tion at Monash Uni­ver­si­ty in August of 2022, short­ly after the release of ZETS!

*Thanks to Nida Mol­li­son for her assis­tance in tran­scrib­ing the orig­i­nal interview. 

You can lis­ten to or pur­chase the album here or lis­ten on all the stream­ing ser­vices here.

The launch for ZETS! was held on Sat­ur­day night, Decem­ber 10, at Memo Music Hall in St. Kil­da (Aus­tralia).



RM: YID! is a hugely innovative and collaborative band that draws on a variety of well-known Australian musicians. How did the band come to be?

SS: I lived in Israel from 2009-2015, and when I came back in 2016, I was really missing Israel a lot. I was missing the energy, the passionate people with the courage to try new ideas. I wanted to bring that with me into my life back here. I didn’t want to feel like I was coming back to my old life in Australia. One day shortly after I returned from Israel I was having lunch with my friend [Australian musician, producer and composer] Willy Zygier, and after a series of jokes he suggested I start a Yiddish big band. I liked the idea and decided to tell whoever I met, “I’m thinking of starting a Yiddish big band,” see who’s interested, have a rehearsal and see what happens. And every single person said yes.

So the first incarnation of the band had 28 people in it. This was at the Kadimah [Jewish Cultural Centre, Melbourne]. We bought like 10kg of hummus, there was a lot of vodka, lots of food, it was a very celebratory thing. It was messy, but fun. Then Kadimah got us to play at the In One Voice community concert [annual celebration of Jewish culture in Melbourne] and In One Night, the night version. Those were our first concerts in March of 2017. I was very embarrassed by how bad they were. I thought it was chaotic and garbage. I had that experience of breaking into ‘Ian instant total body sweat during about the second song of both of those shows, thinking, “I don’t know if this could get any worse.” Anyway, I remember going over to Willy during the shows, and saying “I think this is really shit, is this really shit?” and him just saying, “I can’t tell.” But we looked down on the [dance] floor and everyone was just going crazy, so obviously something was working, but we didn’t know what. And then over the course of the next year from that date, we ended up playing at WOMAD [WOMADelaide, open air international arts festival] in front of five thousand people, of whom maybe 200 were Jews and the rest weren’t. And people sort of went crazy for it. By that stage we’d organized ourselves, we’d recorded out first album. That was our fourth gig ever. And then we went to Toronto in 2018 for the Ashkenaz Festival. And for that I felt like we were finally a band, we sort of got our act together. My brother and I even did a synchronized dance routine, which we haven’t repeated many times since then, but I would like to bring it back because it’s in the so bad it’s good category. That’s how the band came about.

RM: Why the band’s connection to Yiddish?

Yiddish was because, really, davka [of course] Yiddish. I am a pretty davka person, generally speaking. I instinctively hated all the music that anyone in my year at high school liked, as a matter of principle. If something’s slightly provocative or confrontational I am attracted to it. So, I liked the idea of speaking our mind in Yiddish.

RM: Your second album, ZETS! just came out. Can you share how it came about?

SS: We wanted to do another album. We were playing at the WOMAD music festival for the second time and I felt we had to have something new to sell there. I’m always very conscious of not playing the same set over and over again in the already niche small world that this band lives in. So I keep provoking the band to do new arrangements and things, and we got to a point where we’d played these arrangements enough that they felt like they had their own life. I wanted to record something, and then the real turning point involved a friend of mine, Adam Krongold, who loves the Beastie Boys, in particular the album Paul’s Boutique. This was the first album that was created purely using samples rather than using live playing. Adam sent me a fascinating YouTube video that plays every one of the samples separately and then in the context of the original song. I was really fascinated by that, and I determined to make an album like that in Yiddish.

RM: How did that translate into the album?

Husky [singer-songwriter Husky Gawenda of the band Husky], Gid [pianist-composer Gideon Preiss], [musician and electronica artist] Josh Abrahams and a friend of ours [musician] Marty Lubran and I got together on two separate nights to compile all the Yiddish records we could find. Together we listened to about 150 records, and Josh also brought some weird stuff that he had in his collection. Marty is an expert at capturing samples, and as a group we captured little bits and pieces from all of these albums that tickled everyone’s fancy. And then they lay dormant. We recorded the album with the 22-person band playing live in between lockdowns in 2021. But I had in my mind all the time that it was going to end up equal parts the band and the samples. The samples were going to tell as much, if not more, of the story of the songs. It was really important to me that the samples not just be tokenistic and just shoved in somewhere just to prove that we are engaging with modernity somehow, but that they actually drove the song in a significant way. That was the first part of it.

RM: What was the second part?

I felt like we had aimed for and probably not succeeded to do Sgt. Peppers [The Beatles] with our first album, Space Klezmer. But this time I wanted to make an album that had the feel of a rock opera a la Dark Side of the Moon [Pink Floyd]. I was looking for a long-form, synth heavy, not necessarily all up and fast tempo, reflection on modern Yiddish but also in preparation for this film idea that I had in my head. I had in mind dialogue directly related to [Isaac Babel’s character from his short stories, The Odessa Tales] Benya Krik, and we specifically created one of the songs, Oy Tate, so it could easily be a scene from a film. All the narratives in between relate to that, and then all the songs were written around that idea. That was the genesis of the album.

RM: What happened next?

We recorded the album and I did a lot of editing before Josh and I started mixing, mainly because we were in lockdown. But I edited and edited and edited and edited, and as I was editing more, the sound of the band started to change, and it became more metronomic. Josh has a sizable synthesizer collection and I wanted to use every single one on this album. So it was like Josh’s toy house, Paul’s Boutique, Dark Side of the Moon. That was why it was really important to end with a reprise of a song that had been in the album, and for it to be sung by a combined choir. We did this with the Sholem [Sholem Aleichem College] Choir, The Liron [Jewish Community] Choir, and some of the King David School Choir, so there were about fifty, sixty people gathered on one afternoon after we’d recorded the band tracks, to record a choir version of everything. I wanted to have that as the last thing people heard. It reminded me of many different albums from the seventies, which felt like they were created to be more long form, and FM friendly rather than AM friendly and less single-oriented.

RM: Can you say a little bit about how you understand politically and artistically, creatively, the different genres of the music? So, for example, the song “Shabbes” has a rap. Can you say a little bit about the politics, the art, the genres, the choices that you made in these different songs?

SS: For “Shabbes,” I wanted a certain feeling from the rap: not an angry gangster rap but more with the spirit of Yiddish poetry and the spirit of creation that a lot of Yiddish literature originated, which I consider closer to the way that Aboriginal people talk about the Dreaming and the Dreamtime. There’s a personal relationship with God, a sense of tragedy that’s happened to the Jews, with is a humour about it. It’s sort of a world-weary acceptance of it, and then there’s a passionate embrace of progressive politics of how to fix it. And I was interested in incorporating all of those elements into this rap. At first Husky was reluctant to do the rap. He was reluctant to rap at all. He had to find his own way into it. He worked on it with his parents: his dad, Michael Gawenda, is a well known journalist and his mother, Annie is a Yiddish teacher. And I thought they did a great job of coming out with the lyrics for it. The basic song “Shabbes” in and of itself is pretty (Shabes zol zayn shabes, let it be shabbes, etc), and we changed some of the words. I pushed Husky more and more to come up with things that really spoke to him and me about what we’re actually looking for in this world and what we might pray for on shabbes. And so that’s how that song ended up.

RM: Here are some of the transliterated lyrics to the rap, courtesy of Husky Gawenda:

zol zayn yidn shabes

makh mir a chulent mit heyse bobes

zats zikh avek lomir trinken vayn

lomir redn vegn freyheyt, gerekhtikeyt un payn

gehakte leber di hekhste libe

mir trinken tsu di sonim mir trinken tsu di brider

di velt iz meshige, fintster un shvarts

Men ken tsebrekhn di beyner me ken tsebrekhn dos harts

S’iz a shtinkedike velt ale viln mer gelt

S’iz nisht git

Ikh gey nisht mit

There’s another song on the album, “Fun Tehilim.” I first encountered the poem in Melbourne Yiddishist Danielle Charak’s edition of Yiddish poetry by Sam Simkhovitsh. I found it to be a humanist reading of Psalm 1 from his volume In sho fun tfile (Montreal, 1958). It just really spoke to me as a much more accessible framing of the Psalms. I want to bring messages like those to whoever’s listening. You can see this in all of [singer performer] Tomi Kalinski’s spoken words in between the songs. We had discussions, wrote down ideas and bits of dialogue, and she made them Yiddish. I wanted her spoken word to comment on the world around us, but also be part of this slightly sci-fi prog[ressive] and sample-based sort of fusion between electronica-electronic sounds to represent modernity, but still with a backdrop of always having klezmer instruments. On two of the tracks there’s violin, on two others there are trumpets, on one of them there’s piano. The other narratives are within the songs. In everything we do there is a foot in the past and a foot in the future.

RM: Can you say a little bit more about the Zygier family’s involvement, because people outside of Australia might not know who they are.

SS: I’ve known Willy Zygier and his family for a long time. He married Deborah Conway, who is an Australian iconic rock musician from the 80s and 90s. They had three children: Syd, Alma, and Hettie, who I’ve known since they were little. They grew up in a very creative and interesting household and when they sing together it’s something very special, the sound that only siblings or people with very sympathetic voices can achieve in texture. Alma in particular always stood out to me as someone who I wanted to work with because I remember her singing when she was seven or eight or something, and just being blown away by it by her grasp of delivering a phrase, which very much reminded me of Billie Holiday. After our third concert, we were getting complaints there weren’t enough women on the stage. So I thought, enter the Zygier girls, because Willy’s already in the band. They have a sort of an Andrews Sisters character to their voices when they harmonize. The first song they sang in the band was “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” which was on our first album.

But then I wanted for them to have more of a featured role in for the second album. So Hettie sings “Fun Tehilim” by herself. Alma sings “Oyfn Pripetshik” more or less by herself, and she begins it a cappella. And she manages to convey a lot of drama, as she always does with any song she sings. They harmonize on all the other songs and sing backing vocals, they are crazy dancers, and by crazy I mean extremely expressive. When we last performed in WOMAD which was 2022, we played the first set or the second set on the last night, and there were about now seven or eight thousand people in front of the stage, because we’re on the main stage, we’re the second to last act for the last night. It’s just about to go sunset, and then Alma starts “Oyfn Pripetshik” a cappella, and I’m not exaggerating, there was total silence in front of us, eight thousand people just stopped, people who were walking stopped, a lot of the members in the band had tears in their eyes, just something about the way she sings and what she does, it was so deeply and unforgettably moving. So that’s a bit about the Zygier girls.

RM: Is this album going to tour?

SS: That’s the idea. I would love to. I mean part of the idea of the making of this film with the album was that we’d have a sort of son et lumière to be able to perform. So we could perform the live soundtrack of a film, and then do our own concert. It’s a bit more appealing to festivals, who are not interested in this band, purely because there are so many people in it. They don’t necessarily see how they’re going to get bang for their buck, it’s not like an established ballet troupe.

RM: Do you have a next album?

SS: Hah, well, I have next albums in my mind, I haven’t thought about one for YID! yet, because this one hasn’t really come out yet. But I would like to do something. I think it would be something having to do with the contrast between small and big, with the germ of the idea of the song carried by one voice and one instrument. And then when the band comes in, it’s a part of a sort of a sense of symphonic development, and kind of like the start of [Igor Stravinsky’s] “The Rite of Spring” [whistles]. I am often inspired by the idea of sunrise and the waking up of the world, something like that, but I’m not sure what. But I’d like to see what happens with this album [before thinking about the next].

MLA STYLE
Margolis, Rebecca. “An Interview with Simon Starr of YID! on their new album, ZETS!.” In geveb, December 2022: https://ingeveb.org/blog/an-interview-with-simon-starr-of-yid-on-their-new-album-zets.
CHICAGO STYLE
Margolis, Rebecca. “An Interview with Simon Starr of YID! on their new album, ZETS!.” In geveb (December 2022): Accessed Feb 04, 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Margolis

Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis is a professor and Pratt Foundation Chair of Jewish Civilisation at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.