Daniel Kahn – The Painted Bird – Interview by Sandra Laredo
March 10th 2013
Daniel Kahn leader of the Painted Bird – Interview by Sandra Laredo for the New York Jewish Guide
SL: Good Evening Daniel Kahn, you must pretty happy about the Premiere of your Band The Painted Bird at the Gramercy Theater in NYC tomorrow March 11, 2013.
DK: Very much so. It’s always nice to come back to New York. Especially with my band. The city can be overwhelming, like extreme weather. But I like the chaos of it. With my friends with me, I don’t feel like I’m alone in the storm. We’ve been touring a lot these days as a 4-piece, from Istanbul, to Berlin, to Denmark, to Boston. It’s good to be here now with so many good friends playing with us.
SL: Tell me about the name of your Band, what inspired you to pick up the name The Painted Bird? Is there an allegorical meaning?
DK: Of course, we stole it from the Jerzy Kosinski novel. It’s a brutal, grotesque book I don’t recommend to the faint of heart. But the central metaphor of a painted bird being pecked out of the sky by his own kind seemed like a rather Punk Rock kind of band name. But for people who haven’t heard of the book, it sounds more lovely than macabre. The golden peacock is, after all, the symbol of Yiddish poetry.
SL: When was the Band Created and what style of Music do you Play?
DK: The band was formed about 7 years ago in Berlin. I moved there after living in Michigan, New Orleans, and New York. The style of music we play is a stew of gothic Yiddish folk, raucous Klezmer, Brechtian cabaret, Punk Rock, economics satire, socialist marches, theater balladry, and funeral jazz, kind of German beer hall sing-along.
SL: Can you tell me about your album The Bad Old Songs
Where & When did you create it? What was the inspiration?
DK: We recorded Bad Old Songs last winter and spring in Berlin. In contrast to our last record, Lost Causes, which featured over 18 musicians and guest singers, this record is more stripped down. The band is a 4-piece with bass, drums, violin, and me on accordion, guitars, piano, and ukulele. It’s a pretty dark, intimate record.
SL: In term of composition: are you the sole composer of your songs or do you make arrangements of old time Yiddish music? Can you elaborate?
DK: I try to adapt old songs as if they were new and to write new songs which might hopefully get old. We play several of my original songs in English and Yiddish. Some of the music is composed by other musicians in the band. We do adaptations of old songs about love, politics and history.
The new record has versions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Heinrich Heine, Robert Schumann, Franz Josef Degenhardt and Dionysis Savvopoulos.
SL: Tell me about the member of the Band. Who plays what? When and how did you meet and became officially the Painted Bird
DK: Well, the one who’s been with me since the start is Michael Tuttle, on bass. We’re both from Michigan but we met in New Orleans over 10 years ago. He moved to Berlin around when I did. That’s where we met Hampus Melin, on drums. Hampus is from Sweden and he’s been all over the world with us. Jake Shulman-Ment, a truly great from New York, has been with us for about 3 years. Living the last few years in Romania, France, and Hungary, he brings a real folk richness to the music. He and I met years ago at Klez Kanada, a mountain workshop, where I also met Michael Winograd, the composer and leading Klezmer clarinettist, and Dan Blacksberg, a brilliant trombonist. Michael and Dan have played with us for years and, though they’re not on the latest record, will join us at the Gramercy Theater for the show. We’ll also be joined by Psoy Korlolenko, a truly mad and ingenious singer, poet, songwriter, translator, mesmerist, scholar, and jester from Moscow. He and I have been musical co-conspirators for about 6 years. We love translating each others’ songs between Russian, Yiddish and English and concocting all kinds of linguistic, ideological, and musical mischief.
SL: I read from your Bio that you studied Acting, Directing and Poetry at the University of Michigan. What made you switch to Music?
DK: I see my job in music as a combination of all those other disciplines. It all comes down to storytelling, and to building a dynamic, engaging relationship with the audience. I still love to work in theatre. But songs can to be a much more durable, portable means of telling stories to strangers, posing provocative questions, and maybe making people think, or dance, or both.
SL: You made a career in Berlin, Germany and were well received by the Audience.
How did it feel to Play Jewish Traditional Music in Germany?
Where you making a political statement?
DK: I’ve lived in Berlin a long time now and I love it. I don’t feel like I’m making a statement in doing that. I don’t like to generalize about playing music in a country. Audiences vary from night to night no matter what country I’m in. Contemporary Jewish music has had an engaged, interested audience in Germany for several decades now.
My politics are concerned with issues that affect us all, regardless of our “nation”. But basically, I enjoy connecting with people. In Germany, the language can help. I speak and sing in German as well as Yiddish. Besides, when I sing a song in Yiddish and English, Germans generally can understand about half the Yiddish song and maybe 70% of the English. So that makes 120% of a song, right?
SL: I love the Name, the Painted Bird it is very theatrical. I saw the video of The March of Jobless Corps. It is well done! It reminds me of Berthold Brecht and the Berliner ensemble with an allusion to Kurt Weil? Are you referring to the Depression?
DK: Yes, the current one.
SL: In term of emotions you seem to refer to the past. There is nostalgia with a hint of Political Statements about Lost Causes, etc… Tell me more about your themes.
DK: I’m not nostalgic about the past at all. I believe we need to engage with the past in order to escape it. I want to find the lost futures the past could have led to. I want to find the way the past can teach us more about the world around us today.
SL: I like the masks that The Painted Bird musicians are wearing in the Video. What is the message? What make The Painted Bird Unique?
DK: We usually have masks on stage with us. But we don’t usually wear them. There isn’t any concrete message. If there is one, it is a masked message.
SL: Tomorrow Monday March 11, 2013, you are playing in New York City, The Big Apple. Is it a Premiere? Are you excited? Give us the Location and tell us if you are having guests’ musicians?
DK: We’re very excited. Especially to be able to present the new record, and be joined by the whole band and our special guest Psoy Korolenko. If there are any other guests, it’ll be a surprise.
SL: I wish you MAZALTOV
DK: DROP EVERYTHING AND COME TONIGHT TO THE GRAMERCY THEATER AT 7:00. THE KLEZMER BUND REVOLUTION MARCHES ON.
DON’T LET THE WOLVES WIN. JOIN US.
Olaria Olara, violins and tra-la-la
And we’ll all get together at the banquet
I hope all my compañeros make the trip
And we’ll all share a bottle and a blanket
And we’ll drink the last bitter sip
to lomir ale freylakh zayn, kumt mit undz in shenk arayn
trinken bronfn trinken vayn, tra-la-la-la-la