The Shtetlblasters want America to rediscover the 1980s - beyond de rigueur Breakfast Club screenings and dance-floor moonwalking expeditions. They're exploring everything from the aerobics craze to early adventures in hip-hop through an unlikely vehicle: Jewish party music, otherwise known as klezmer.
The local six-piece, which began at Middleton High in the early 2000s, recently returned from a weeklong tour of Boston, New York City and beyond. The experience was an attempt to broaden their horizons and introduce new audiences to their cocktail of klezmer, electronica, old-school rap beats, funk rhythms and other curiosities.
"In New York, we played at this Bulgarian bar on the Lower East Side on St. Patrick's Day. It's got this funny, faux-Soviet vibe, a vodka room, and tons of young Eastern European immigrant dudes who are pretty wild and crazy," says bandleader and mandolin man Sam Harmet.
The Shtetlblasters fit right in, providing a zany soundtrack for big-city carousal and a very funky hora practice for future nuptials. They also got to boogie with the history of electro music, which New York-based producer Afrika Bambaataa helped pioneer in the early 1980s by fusing synths and vocoder with breakbeats and samples from Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express.
The Shtetlblasters also nod to the crafty Krautrockers in "Doha," a single from a free, two-song EP they just released on Bandcamp.com. The song features a bouncing, Knife-style beat and lyrics uttered with an austerity only a Kraftwerk fan could muster: "We are in the airport. / Business on your mind. / Money changing hands. / Your airplane's on time."
"Doha" also represents an improvisational new direction for the Shtetlblasters.
"The song was built with this mentality of bringing sounds together in a home-recording setting, then seeing where they went," Harmet says. "We ended up doing a live improv section in the middle of it with our bass player Ben Willis and Patrick Breiner on tenor sax, which turned out really cool."
The EP's other offering, "Eileh Chamda," began in a different way - at the Klez Kanada camp Harmet attends every other summer. A collection of renowned klezmer musicians, theater performers and other creative types congregate an hour north of Montreal to teach, learn from one another and, of course, jam. For Harmet, it's a treasure trove of new musical ideas, awesome collaborators and fruitful assignments.
"'Elieh Chamda' started as a songwriting exercise with a little biblical passage," he explains. "I took it home and expanded it into something for the Shtetlblasters. I did the programming and electronic noodling at home, then brought it into Blast House Studios for the live instrumentation." The song begins with a heavy groove perfect for breakdancing, interspersed with a minor-key klezmer melody that unravels into a sing-along indie-rock chorus and an electronic funhouse of bizarre and beautiful sounds.
The Shtetlblasters play the kind of music that begs for a human face to demystify the keyboards and the synthetic whimsy. That's why the band have ventured into the world of video.
After Harmet stumbled upon some vintage Jazzercise tapes in a thrift shop last year, he took them to filmmaker friend Tomah Mackie, who spliced them together and projected them onto windowpanes to create a brand-new video. As the glass squares travel down State Street, Spandex-clad exercisers leg-lift to the Shtetlblasters song "Tantz Tantz Allemin," inviting passersby to sweat to the oldies with chutzpah.
Meanwhile, the band's preparing some new visual knishes to accompany the EP. Harmet's not dropping many hints since the project's still in its early stages, but expect the band's time machine to head further back than the 1980s.
"I have a feeling it's going to have a psychedelic hue," he says. "It's going to be pretty crazy."