Words by Brian Heisler
When most music fans hear the name "Ramone," they think of shaggy-haired, Queens, NY boys. They think of "Blitzkrieg Bop," or "I Wanna Be Sedated." They think of punk rock, and CBGB's, and a band that revolutionized music in the 1970's.
The last thing that someone thinks about when they hear the name "Ramone" is bluegrass.
Tommy Erdelyi, nee Tommy Ramone, was one of the founding members of the seminal band, playing drums from 1974 to 1978. Now, three decades later, he has a new project, a bluegrass duo named Uncle Monk, who recently released their debut self-titled album.
Honest Tune contributing writer Brian Heisler caught up with Tommy to talk about his new gig, how it came to be, and how Ramones fans react when they see Ramone with a mandolin instead of a drum kit.
Honest Tune: Your new bluegrass duo, Uncle Monk, where does the name come from?
Tommy Ramone: It’s a name that we’ve had for a long time. I just like the sound of it, sort of like an alliteration type thing. I thought it sounded neat. Maybe it’s a homage to Thelonius Monk and the painter Edward Monk.
HT: In that case, how long have you been playing in some capacity under the name “Uncle Monk”?
TR: We used to have a band, sort of like an electric jamband, called Uncle Monk, in the early ‘90s. And Claudia Tienan played bass and I was guitar and singer. So we’ve had the name for a while.
HT: Originally it was a jamband and traditionally you’ve played in rock groups, so where did the bluegrass sound come from?
TR: Well, at that time I wanted to start bringing in elements of old time music and bluegrass into that band. And in doing that I started picking up the banjo and the mandolin and I just found out that I really loved those instruments and slowly we started dropping the electric ones.
Eventually we ended up an acoustic duo, so it sort of like an evolution of sorts.
HT: How exactly did you come together with Claudia Tienan?
TR: We met on the New York music scene and we were both going to Hunter College, so we bumped into each other all the time.
HT: You said you played as a jamband under Uncle Monk, so it has not always been just the two of you. Do you plan to bring a band on board when you hit the road at some point?
TR: That band was a trio – we had a drummer. Eventually we might add musicians; right now we like the duo situation because it’s very portable and we sort of are coming up with a unique sound, doing it as a duo. We’re having fun the way it is right now.
But in the future we might add musicians down the line. Who knows?
HT: On your album you play mandolin, banjo, and dobro and you sing, but of course there are no drums. As an accomplished drummer with the likes of the Ramones, why are there no drums on the album?
TR: Originally there were supposed to be drums and this present thing evolved. At first we were putting down drums, but things just sounded better without the drums. It just became more authentic and as it became more authentic, it became better.
The mandolin itself provides sort of like a rhythm. Part of the mandolin’s function is what is known as the “mandolin chop,” which is a little bit like a snare drum actually. You may not hear a drum, but the rhythms are in there.
HT: When you play in front of fans who have never seen you before but know that they are coming to see Tommy Ramone, what is the reaction you get from longtime Ramones fans?
TR: It’s very interesting because most of those people have absolutely never heard bluegrass or old time music. It’s all very alien to them. They like it, but a lot of times they don’t know why they like it.
But the response has been very positive, especially as we’ve been doing it more and more. They really get into it, so it’s been very good actually.
HT: Do you get fans coming to expect Ramones music, even though they should be expecting bluegrass?
TR: I don’t know what they expect. I suppose a lot of people expect all kinds of things from us because there’s all kinds of old time bands out there that actually are kind of punky, almost like a jug band type of thing, there’re a lot of those bands out there. So possibly some people might expect us to be like that, but we’re really not like that.
We’re really much more like an indie band, where we combine indie sensibilities, modern lyrics with old time instrumentation and structure. What we’re doing is kind of original and unique. It’s not particularly punky in the sense that people would think it is punky, but in another sense it is because lyrically we deal with certain themes that some people might consider very punky indeed.
We’re very different than what people might expect, but in an interesting way they seem to get off on it because it’s like breaking new ground, it opens new doors for them.
HT: What plans do you have for Uncle Monk for the rest of the summer?
TR: We’re gonna add shows one at a time and try to enjoy ourselves and basically get our music to as many people as we can. So we have to figure out what’s the best way to get to the most people the quickest.
HT: Do have any other plans for the band in general?
TR: We’re gonna be working on a new album at the end of the year and we already have the songs for it. We just basically write the songs and we’re a very song-based act really. The songs deal really with our own emotions and lives. So it’s really a reflection of our own internal psychies really.
We just keep writing the songs and record them and play them and hopefully people will like them and tour and hopefully just make some fans and friends as we play at some shows. That’s what we’d like to do. We hope to see fans out there and we hope they give us a listen.
photos by Josh Mintz / photosbyjosh.com