Just received word that Tommy Ramone of The Ramones passed away yesterday. This is an interview that I did with Tommy in 2007.
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Truth be told, I’m a rocker from way back. No apologies here. In fact, I’m still a rocker in folk music clothing and proud of it. Or perhaps I’m a folkie with a rock n’ roll heart. Suffice it to say I was greatly interested in a recent article about Tommy Ramone, former drummer and producer of the seminal punk band, the Ramones, who is currently playing mandolin, banjo and assorted other instruments in a bluegrass duo called Uncle Monk.. Amazingly enough, the evening before I happened on this article, I had just watched the documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, on DVD so I was feeling rather nostalgic about the last time I saw the Ramones at the Paradise in the late 1970s — perhaps the loudest concert I ever attended. Gabba, Gabba, Hey I’m Deaf! Only kidding — It seemed like serendipity so I got in touch with Tommy Ramone and asked him a few questions about this rather dramatic departure from the rock n roll life — or is it?
Uncle Monk is a musical genre-bending act; a little bit alternative, a little bit country with a punk bluegrass feel featuring Tommy Ramone on vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo and dobro, and Claudia Tienan on vocals, guitar and bass. Uncle Monk’s music is rooted in old-time and bluegrass influences. To this mix they have added twangy guitar textures to create a sound with a new sensibility.
Tommy was nice enough to take some time out to respond to my questions:
- It sure seems as though the media is having a field day with the concept of Tommy Ramone being in a bluegrass duo. It makes good copy, that’s for sure. Despite all the attention being paid to your past life as a punk rocker, I have to say that all the press I’ve seen about Uncle Monk is highly complimentary. Were you a little bit uneasy about what the media would say or didn’t it matter to you and Claudia?
- We were drawn to Bluegrass and Old-Time music by the love of it. We just enjoy listening to it and playing it. We really did not think much about what consequence it might have as far as reviews were concerned, but we were hoping for the best. We thought that if we liked what we were doing others might like it too.
- What do you think is the strongest attribute that you each bring to the music of Uncle Monk?
- We each bring our life-experiences and outlooks to our songs. Claudia has a darker vision, mine is a bit brighter. I love playing all kinds of instruments and arranging and producing music. Claudia is influenced by artists like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Iris Dement and Richard Thompson. We both love the Carter Family, old records and ancient tones.
- I like what you refer to as the “economy” of the music you’re playing and how it is actually very similar to the economy of the punk music you played with the Ramones. Your bluegrass is a very raw and stripped down music and that is its essence. You and Claudia get to the core and it’s that core that jumps out to the listener. It’s ear candy in its purest form. Would you say that writing and producing music that is so simple is a lot more difficult to do well than if you had layers and layers of sound?
- We like to work on a song until it sounds right. It just does not feel comfortable to us until it sits well and feels at home. There is a lot you can add to music with modern equipment, the discipline is knowing what to take away.
- The Uncle Monk “sound” is very pristine and very reminiscent of old Carter Family tunes to my ear, especially “Home Sweet Reality.” Would you count them as one of the influences behind this recording? What other bluegrass musicians do you admire?
- Yes, the Carter Family is a big influence on us. They had a strong understanding about what was good in American music and had their own unique attitude towards their art. We like the Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, The Monroe Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and many others including countless old-time records.
- I think I read somewhere that you said that if Bill Monroe had been born a bit later that there’s a good likelihood that he would have been a punk musician. I see what you mean. Having only seen him once in the 1980s, I’d have to say that he did have that renegade kind of aura about him. Is that what you were referring to?
- Bill Monroe was a great artist with a lot of pent up energy and anger. His music was volatile, passionate and expressive. I think that in a different era he might have taken to punk music.
- I love the old-timey feel of the songs but the malcontent punkish attitude of the lyrics. It makes for a startling yet very sincere statement about our world today. Are all your audiences picking up on all the various elements? What kind of fans do you seem to be collecting along this part of your musical journey?
- Most of the audience does pick up on what we are doing, although it might at first shock or confuse them. We do add some punk elements to our music in ways that one might not expect, mostly in our lyrics, but our show is real, and they might have been expecting more of a trivial good time experience. I think most people get what we do, and the audience reaction has been very rewarding for us. We see all kinds of fans at our shows from regular bluegrass and folk audiences to rock, pop, and punk fans. For some people it is the first time they are hearing music like ours, and they like it.
- Do you have any plans for another recording? More touring?
- We are writing songs for our next recording which we plan to release in the Spring of next year. We will be touring and are looking forward to playing our songs and meeting new fans.