Tommy Ramone Finds His Bluegrass Roots in Uncle Monk

Tommy Ramone Finds His Bluegrass Roots in Uncle Monk
In the world of music, few names have the resounding impact of Tommy "Ramone" Erdelyi. From his years serving as producer, manager and drummer of the Ramones, a band whose impact on the punk rock movement can't be overstated, he's been around the block, consistently reconfiguring its scape in the process.

At 61 years of age, Erdelyi looks vastly different than his iconic leather jacket-and-sunglasses years with the Ramones. Bearded and bespectacled - yet still hosting the long, stringy hair - he resembles a diminutive Santa Claus more than someone who challenged the bloated musical climate of the 1970s.

While Erdelyi's current endeavour is just as shocking, there won't be any hyperactive four-counts or lyrics about basement massacres. Working with vocalist, guitarist and dobro player Claudia Tienan, Erdelyi picks up vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo and dobro as one half of Uncle Monk, a bluegrass/old-time duo dedicated to performing acoustic folk music.

While Uncle Monk are clearly vastly divergent from the path many associate Erdelyi with, when one ingests the serene honesty, inherent melodic tendencies and overt infectiousness of their songs, one almost begins to wonder why Uncle Monk are only now, after over a decade together, celebrating the release of their eponymous debut on Airday Records.

Rich and powerful while still dynamic and compelling, the album proves in an instant that while we may not expect such a drastic musical shift from a former Ramone, it is by no means lacking.

Exclaim! caught up with Erdelyi prior to the band's impending sophomore tour of Ontario and inaugural visit to Quebec in order to better understand the captivating oddity that is Uncle Monk.

Exclaim: How did you come up with a bluegrass/folk duo?
Tommy Erdelyi: Originally we started in the 1990s as a three-piece rock band with a drummer and everything. We started incorporating elements of old time and bluegrass into that. As soon as I started playing those instruments, I fell in love with them so much, we started dropping electric instruments and eventually we dropped the drummer as well. That's when we became an all-acoustic duo.

A lot of bands get larger but you contracted?
Yeah, the more we did that, we better we got. It just seemed to work for us.

Do you think it's easier with fewer people or do you and Claudia have some kind of connection musically?
Somehow we came up with a unique sound with just the two instruments. We found a groove and feel that wasn't there before. We started expanding on that and it became bigger than the sum of its parts.

Your history is obviously well-known but people are still shocked when they see Tommy Ramone playing bluegrass, let alone so eloquently.
I've been into this since I was a kid, though. My family encouraged this sort of stuff and my brother used to bring home records from the library of this kind of music. We'd make taped copies of it. So I grew up with a broad and major taste for this kind of music.

What are some of those influences that inspired you?
Originally it was just people like the Weavers but it expanded beyond that really quickly to incorporate bluegrass and string band, old time music. About that time, the Beatles happened. I started out with a folk guitar, really. Then the Beatles came along so I plugged in along with everyone else. I've always loved rock'n'roll at the same time. But yeah, this stuff was all going on simultaneously when I was a kid.

When you say you plugged in like others, that sort forces people to acknowledge how you've had other influences in life before rock and punk took over for a number of years.
Yeah, people don't know. They like to pigeonhole naturally. It's like somehow they imagine anyone in the Ramones was born a Ramone or something. It was a band, man. It's like when you see Help! with the Beatles. They portray them as living together in a house. People actually think the Ramones are cartoon characters or something... I don't know. I guess we were too good with that imagery or whatever.

Yeah but the parts became as big as the whole in that band.
Yeah, that was the whole thing about those guys. They were so unique in brilliant, eccentric, intense way that the parts and the whole were all great.

To that extent, does your past help or hinder Uncle Monk because of expectations or learning something they wouldn't otherwise touch because of who you are?
It's a bit of both. What happens a lot of times is that we introduce people to acoustic music. They come to see Tommy Ramone but maybe it's the first time they actually hear acoustic music live, then they're surprised they like it. Maybe they don't realize the similarities. A lot of what was basically in rock'n'roll is in old time music and even bluegrass. There's the intensity, the song structure and stuff like that. It's a two-way street. There are advantages and a cognitive dissidence involved because people try to broaden their imagination of what Tommy Erdelyi or Tommy Ramone actually is. I'm just a musician/singer/songwriter who loves music. All kinds and I have an affinity for intimate, classic and simple but profound music.

I think any true fan should know you have a broader spectrum of interests than what you're pigeonholed with.
I'm glad there are enough people who look at it that way. We've had some great shows because people expect that variety.

This type of music seems to be garnering a greater appreciation overall within the past half-decade.
Yeah, young people are discovering this music either on the internet or through the grapevine. More and more people like acoustic music of all kinds. It makes sense because there has been so much electronic music over the past couple of decades while there so much great stuff that can be done with acoustic instruments. It makes sense that people would be turning over to it.

You can't be on ten all the time.
It adds another dimension, too. Acoustic instruments have more depth while electric instruments-because of volume and air pressure-tend to be sort of two-dimensional. Acoustic instruments give you the sense of that other dimension somehow.

As a longtime producer, is it more interesting to record acoustic instruments then, since they have more volatility depending on the situation?
Yes. It's kind of challenging. You want to get the right sound and you want that extra dimension to come through on the records. It can be hard to accomplish that but that's what the whole thing is about.

Now that this side of Tommy Erdelyi, record producer and Tommy Ramone, punk rocker is becoming more prevalent, what other facets of your personality are tucked away? What are we gonna discover in ensuing years?
I dunno... I just like to dabble in things. Nothing much really. I love science and astronomy. Things like that, but I guess that's boring. Nobody probably wants to hear about that.

Ontario/Quebec tour dates:

7/1 Lavaltrie, QC - Cafe Culturel La Chasse-Galerie
7/2 Montreal, QC - Montréal Jazz Festival
7/3 Toronto, ON - The Garrison
7/4 Hamilton, ON - The Casbah
7/7 Montreal,QC - Divan Orange
7/8 Quebec City, QC - L'Agitee
7/9 Wakefield, QC - The Black Sheep Inn
7/10 Joliette, QC - L'Azile