Just like it says on the cover of his new record, Sean Altman (aka Jewmongous) is “Taller than Jesus.” In fact, at 6-feet-3 he’s taller than two of the Nets and three of the Knicks.
Best known as one of the founders of Rockapella, Altman began performing while he was a 17-year-old high school student in Riverdale. “David Yazbek, who’s still one of my closest friends, and I were doing the folk club circuit all the time back then,” Altman says over coffee at a Midtown Starbucks. Yazbek, who wrote the scores for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Full Monty,” had already written over 100 songs at that point, and was a major inspiration to Altman. Today, those clubs are a distant memory.
But life on the circuit continued into college. Although he was a political science major at Brown University, Altman says, “All I did in college was sing and put up posters announcing where I was singing.”
In a sense, everything Altman has done as a professional musician can be traced back to his performances at Brown. The a cappella group he sang with became Rockapella, which would catapult him to the top of the small but ardent world of a cappella singing and to fame on TV’s “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?” When Rockapella broke up, Altman and three of its other members formed the Groove Barbers. The punk band he fronted in college, Blind Dates, gave him both a chance to hone his guitar skills and another outlet for his songwriting, and it undoubtedly fueled his desire to work, at least some of the time, with a back-up band.
Now he divides his time between the Groove Barbers and his latest incarnation, Jewmongous, the taller-than-you-know-who humorist who sings about Jewish holidays (“What the Heck Is Simchas Torah?”), Jewish history (“They Tried to Kill Us [We Survived. Let’s Eat]”), Jewish music (“Blow, Murray, Blow,” a ditty about the world’s greatest shofar-tooter) and Jewish sexuality. (He plays the Cutting Room on Dec. 21-22.)
“Some of the humor is pretty juvenile,” he admits with a huge grin. “I believe that if you have a good melody and sing it with a smile, you can get away with anything.”
Or as George Bernard Shaw said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Altman agrees, “The lyrics can be a bitter pill. I mean, I have a song poking fun at the blood libel,” referring to the anti-Semitic canard that Jews used the blood of Christians during Passover.
“Some people will be offended,” he says. “But it’s as pro-Jewish as a song can be. The whole point of the song is to show how preposterous this kind of hate-mongering is.”
A lot of this material originated in his eight-year-long collaboration with Rob Tannenbaum as the duo What I Like About Jew. Although they were well received both by critics and by the Jewish club circuit, the partnership dissolved almost a year ago.
Tannenbaum is now working with multi-instrumentalist David Fagin as Good For the Jews and, in one of those ironies typical of the small world of Jewish entertainment, they are beginning a tour that covers much of the same territory as Altman’s 16-city December jaunt.
When you ask Altman about
his influences, he doesn’t name Allen Sherman, Lenny Bruce or Weird Al Yankovic.
“I’m a big fan of song structure,” he says, invoking the great lyricists of the past, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and their contemporaries. “I think the more internal rhymes, the more alliteration, the more interesting the song. A friend told me ‘You’re the Cole Porter of Jewish penis songs.’” Which is pretty good considering that, as he admits, “I wrote my first comedy song only seven years ago.”
Does he think of himself as a Jewish songwriter? “What I bring to the table is that I’m a songwriter first. I happen to be working on this subject,” he says.
But as a humorist, he finds himself feeling very Jewish. His Jewmongous material is all about that part of himself.
“My humor is like an extension of the shtetls of Eastern Europe,” he says. “In fact, sometimes I wonder whether the whole idea of ‘Jewish humor’ is just an Ashkenazi thing.”
Altman is a voracious reader and he readily acknowledges that Judaism is a topic that is now a part of his reading list. “I want to know more, I want to know about my people,” he says. “But I don’t ‘believe,’ and I don’t think I’m ever going to.”
Before he became more involved in his Jewishness, Altman says his songs were frequently more bitter, but always funny.
“There was a lot of barely disguised self-deprecation,” he says, “And a lot of songs about my ex-wife.”
Today, Altman is happily married again. His second wife is Inna Dukach, a rising young opera singer. They met, he is quick to note, through J-Date (www.jdate.com).
You have to wonder what kind of computer program thought it would be funny to pair a guy who writes songs like “Be My Little Shabbos Goy” with someone who sings the role of Mimi in “La Boheme.”
Actually, it works beautifully, even where music is concerned. Dukach sings on nine cuts of “Taller Than Jesus,” and is a big fan of Altman’s live act. “She’s my first sounding board,” he says. “I play her everything before anyone else hears it.”
But a lot more people are hearing Jewmongous now. Altman himself is a little surprised by the way this part of his musical identity has exploded.
“Jewmongous is like a side project for me,” he says. “All of a sudden I’m playing 16 cities in December.”
And making people laugh very, very hard.
For information, phone (212) 691-1900 or go to www.thecuttingroomnyc.com.
“Taller Than Jesus” is available from www.jewmongous.com.