Musical Musings: The Leevees Get Serious

By Joshua Yaffa

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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They may sing about gelt, latkes and their parents’ timeshares in Florida, but that doesn’t mean The LeeVees don’t take their craft seriously.

“Obviously there is going to be some shtick there,” guitarist and vocalist Dave Schneider said. “But bottom line, we are really serious about the music.”

The music, as featured on the group’s debut album, “Hanukkah Rocks,” released last year, is wholly devoted to the glory, grief and gestalt that surround Judaism’s most visible holiday — all set to a decidedly indie-rock rhythm.

But as they enter their second holiday season as a band, The LeeVees are not content to forever remain a one-month-out-of-the-year novelty act. “We are moving away from being just a Hanukkah band to being a band that writes songs about being Jewish,” co-founder Adam Gardner said. Last month, the band released an iTunes-only extended play that features a new song, “Jewish Stars,” a brash, playful tune about “making it” in the eyes of the Jewish community.

“That’s my fantasy song,” Schneider joked in half-seriousness. “I want to be the big dude at the JCC.”

The story of the group’s formation is a tale surely destined to become Hanukkah lore. Gardner, guitarist in the indie rock group Guster, and Schneider, front man of The Zambonis, a band that sings exclusively about hockey, were in a tour bus together two years ago, crossing the sprawling plains somewhere between Denver and St. Louis.

Inspired to remedy what they saw as an unfortunate dearth of modern Hanukkah songs, the two tucked themselves in the back lounge of the bus in an impromptu fit of songwriting. They quickly came up with “Latke Clan,” a bright, melodic ode to holiday celebration. Over the next eight days, more songs followed, written in furtive bursts backstage, on the bus, even in a college locker room.

“We picture this being a perennial record,” Gardner said of “Hanukkah Rocks,” which tackles the weightiest of holiday issues on such songs as “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream,” “Gelt Melts” and “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Hanukkah’s growing presence in America’s holiday celebrations, non-Jews also have been quick to warm to the band’s catchy, melodic takes on Jewish American life. The first album even includes the song “Goyim Friends.”

At a concert in Verona, N.Y., in November 2005, Schneider paused between songs to ask the Jewish members of the audience to raise their hands. “There must have been 12 hands out of 4,000,” he said. “But we still got a standing ovation and sold a lot of CDs that night.”

While the group toured last year as an opening act for the popular jam band Barenaked Ladies, The LeeVees decided this holiday season to focus on more Jewish venues, Gardner explained, citing the band’s recent performance at a Hillel event in Los Angeles, and an upcoming gig at a North American Federation of Temple Youth conference in April 2007. The LeeVees play a synagogue in Bridgeport, Conn., on December 16, and then Brooklyn’s Southpaw, a non-Jewish venue, on December 23.

Their soon-to-be-released single is titled “Hebrew School Dropout,” a love song about a young crush at a Jewish summer camp, inspired by an unrequited romance of a 12-year-old Schneider at a camp in Piermont, N.H. “Eve Goldfarb — I’m curious how Eve is,” he wondered aloud.

Like any proper rock group on the crest of fame, The LeeVees are beginning to branch out beyond music. They have recorded a series of ringback tones for cellular phones, and they’re preparing to launch an online video game, The LeeVees’ “Kosher Food Shooting Gallery.”

“Instead of shooting bullets at ducks, you are shooting matzo balls at lobsters,” Gardner explained.

“As you can see,” Schneider was quick to interject, “the band is taking things quite seriously.”

Joshua Yaffa is a writer in New York City.

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