Uncle Monk Interview—Tommy Ramone and Claudia Tienan: Interview by Jaime Scorby

Sep 06, 2009

I came to New York City during the summer of 2001. Before September 11th, after the death of Joey Ramone. I may have missed Joey and the heyday of the ‘70s scene at what became the epicenter of American punk rock at 315 Bowery, but CBGB (which, somewhat surprisingly, stands for country, bluegrass, blues) was still a bit like the CBGB I had heard about, read about, and wondered about for so long. At that time, there was still some semblance of a scene surrounding the legendary club. Bands still auditioned to play there, touring bands routed their tours right through its doors, the punks from St. Mark’s still found their way down the Bowery most nights, voyeurs like myself still attended shows regularly, and the overall feeling was still one of camaraderie and celebration for the past, present, and future of this significant little club. At that time, we were all still a part of something (though bits of evidence of what was to come were beginning to seep in, one high-rise condo at a time)—a scene that started in the ‘70’s that, though changed over time, was still very much present in the New York I knew in 2001 and the years following until the untimely demise of CBGB in 2006.

It’s now April 2009 and I’m living in Nashville. It is time for the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International’s (www.nashvillesongwriters.com) annual songwriters’ festival Tin Pan South (www.tinpansouth.com). Tommy Ramone (founding member of, well, The Ramones) and his partner Claudia Tienan (formerly of The Simplistics) were slated to participate as current bluegrass outfit Uncle Monk.

Prior to the interview, I had the chance to see Uncle Monk perform at Nashville’s own Station Inn, along with bluegrass virtuoso Tim O’Brien and songwriting hero Sonny Curtis (of Buddy Holly and The Crickets). It was, without a doubt, one of my favorite Tin Pan South shows in memory. After the show, I discussed the possibility of an interview of sorts with Tommy. He agreed.

Cut to the next day. A bundle of frayed nerves, I left my office a half hour before I was scheduled to meet with Tommy and Claudia at 3:00 PM. I wanted to arrive a few minutes ahead of time, set up, calm down, and wrap my ahead around the idea of what was about to happen. Unfortunately, I encountered a ridiculous amount of grid-lock. I was going to be late. I managed to call Tommy to let him know that I’d likely be late. He was fine with this news. I, on the other hand, was the one yelling and cursing at the slow moving traffic. I eventually arrived, parked illegally (sorry Nashville), and sprinted towards our meeting spot.. It was 2:59 and Tommy and Claudia were patiently waiting for me. I made it, but I was not at all the calm and collected version of myself I had imagined.

In a later retelling of this story—to my dad—I tried to make him understand the level of my anxiety by asking him to imagine how he would feel if he was about to sit down with Paul McCartney (or Neil Young or Eric Clapton, etc. You get the idea—insert musical hero here: ________) and he was met with resistance at every turn on his way to Sir Paul. He got it then.
After greeting Tommy and Claudia, the next thing I knew, we were sitting in a booth The interview had begun. . .

Jaime: In high school, you were in a band called The Tangerine Puppets with Johnny Ramone. At that time, who would you say your main influences were?
Tommy Ramone: Well we had a lot of influences, basically, I came to the U.S. from Budapest when I was very young and as soon as I arrived, it coincided totally with the birth of rock and roll. So on the radio, all the AM stations—there were no FMrock stations at the time—they all played Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly—they played these songs at the same time they would play Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, but it was mostly rock and you’d go from station to station and it’s all you heard. It was just an incredible time to arrive in the U.S. That was the main influence on all of us growing up—the radio just had a bunch of incredible stuff and it was a major influence on us. Then later on there was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the rest of the British invasion groups of the mid ‘60s.Then came Jimi Hendrix and Cream and groups like that. Then after that we were very much influenced by the music coming out of Detroit—the MC5 and The Stooges and Alice Cooper and on and on. We were also influenced by David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, a lot of influences. We were sorta like an encyclopedia of music.
Jamie: Encyclopedia of music—I love that. So, you began working in a recording studio. Then you opened your own studio. That’s how The Ramones entered into the picture. You were with them for what is often referred to as the “classic period” from ‘74-’77/’78, during which time you were the drummer, the manager, and the producer of Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia. Could you tell me just a little about that exciting time period?
Tommy: Sure. What happened was, at the time, we had opened this studio, called Performance Studios—Monte Melnick (later he became the tour coordinator for the Ramones) and I. I went to see the New York Dolls and they were just so exciting and so interesting. What I noticed about them was that although they weren’t virtuoso musicians, they were putting on the best show at the time. They had excitement and enthusiasm and I realized that’s why they were good. And then I thought about these guys I knew, these interesting people that I knew in my hometown of Forest Hills, NY and I said, “Boy, you know, those guys—they would be really interesting if I could get them to start playing together.”
‘Cause I’d been in that band with Johnny, but he had stopped playing at the time. As you know, we were in bands together in high school. So, I would call him up and tell him to get an instrument and start playing again because he was very charismatic and he should be playing music. So, eventually, I became their manager and we put together a band. That would be Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, and this kid named Richie. We wanted him on bass, but he couldn’t manage it, so there was just the three of them and that’s how it started. So, I was their manager originally and we found out that Joey was the best singer, so, we made him the lead singer and then we needed a drummer.
The most interesting thing is that on that very first rehearsal, they came in and had original songs, which I didn’t expect. These were like very strange songs—songs like I never heard before. I thought, “Wow, this is interesting.” Joey was the drummer, but then we made him lead singer—‘cause he had the best voice and he looked really interesting up front. We needed a drummer and started looking for drummers. But what we were doing was so unique and different that the other drummers just couldn’t get it, so eventually, I ended up playing the drums—out of necessity.
Jaime: I had forgotten about Richie. His involvement didn’t occur to me as I was pulling together these questions. Claudia, I understand that you came to NY from Minneapolis and that you were going to attend HunterCollege and then, somewhere along the way, you joined The Simplistics. Could you tell me a little about your time with The Simplistics and who your influences were?
Claudia: The Simplistics were a late ‘80s college band that I was in. We were influenced by the U.K. music scene of the time: The Cure, PIL, Jesus And Mary Chain and groups like that. We never recorded. There was a more famous group called the Simplistics on the West Coast but we were not aware of them. The Simplistics were kinda a smallish, NY underground alternative type of band. We were very influenced by the whole alternative scene I grew up in like Robyn Hitchcock, The Replacements, that kind of thing. Actually, when I was in Minnesota, I hung around the whole group of kids around the Oarfolk Record Store scene. The Suicide Commandos were one of the first punk bands there and then we kinda all came to New York. I liked the those alternative, singer/songwriters: Vic Chestnut, Townes Van Zant, Steve Earle, Iris Dement, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Todd Snider.Jaime: I’ve read a great deal about the Oarfolk Scene. It sounded comparable to the NY Scene of the ‘70s.  Claudia, how long were The Simplistics together?
Claudia: Maybe about a year and a half. . .
Jaime: Now I would like to talk a little bit about life after The Simplistics and after The Ramones.  Tommy, after you left The Ramones, you went on to produce other huge names— The Talking Heads, Redd Kross, my favorite Replacements record Tim—how did this happen?
Tommy: Well, basically, the acts I produced just sorta came to me. I wasn’t really soliciting work, but I was looking for anything different or new or unusual or exciting. And if something like that came along, then I would get involved in it. I had a wonderful time working with The Replacements—when you have a chance to work with such talented artists as Paul Westerberg and all of them, really—‘cause I really loved the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars.Bob Stinson was a very unique guitar player. So, it was a wonderful way to work, but so was Redd Kross because they were unique, too. I had a lot of fun. The Talking Heads we toured with when I was with The Ramones, so that’s how I got involved with that. That was the stuff I would work on, the stuff that interested me.
Jaime: How do you feel that your musical influences, from all of the ones you mentioned earlier on to all of the ones you had at the time, did they influence your choices behind the mixing board when you were in the role of producer? Were there certain albums that you drew inspiration from as a producer?
Tommy: Yeah. I was very much into the sound of records—even as a child. I would always listen to how the record sounded. Then, I was watching late night TV one night and Phil Spector was the guest. He was talking about how he was a record producer. I’d never heard that term before because I was a child. And I said, “A record producer? That sounds great.” And so that planted the seed in the back of my mind. But I was just into good-sounding records in general. There wasn’t any specific thing. I was very much into the way The Beatles produced records and things like that. That very much stuck in my mind, ‘cause their records were so well recorded, but there were so many others who were great.
But the way I work is very much artist based. It depends on the artist. What I like to do is combine whatever it is that makes them what they are with just my aesthetics. Everyone has their own unique way of doing things. The way I like to work is to combine whoever I’m working with my own taste and sensibilities.
Jaime: Well, certainly whatever you’re doing behind the boards seems to have worked out. Changing directions a little bit here, when did you first meet?
Tommy: After I left The Ramones and, a little bit later, after I had already been producing, I decided to go backto college, just because it seemed interesting.
Jaime: I know that there has been more than one incarnation of Uncle Monk. I have a quote here describing the first incarnation of Uncle Monk in the early ‘90s as a “melodic rock band” or a “jam band.”
I took some courses and there I met Claudia.Later we put together the original Uncle Monk in the early ‘90s. It was a three piece. We had a drummer. Claudia played bass. It was sorta like a psychedelic jam band. That’s when we first started having old time and bluegrass music incorporated into our music.
Jaime: Going from kind of a jam band to more of a bluegrass based band, was that a conscious choice or more of a natural progression?
Tommy: It was a progression. Basically, I got a mandolin and a banjo in the early 1990s to incorporate into that and just fell in love with the instruments. And it coincided exactly with when we moved upstate. We had lived in the city for a very long time and had a nice apartment in The Village—so that was really cool. But, then Claudia’s mother got a place upstate and we went and visited her and for the first time in my life I sort of fell in love with the country. I had been to the country a lot as a child, but it was no big deal. At that particular time, it somehow rang a bell. We found this little cottage for sale. We got that and then we started spending a lot of time upstate. Then we started playing the instruments a lot and it was an evolution. We were having so much fun playing the acoustic instruments that we started dropping the electric ones. Now, we’re pretty much all acoustic.
Jaime: Who are some of your country and bluegrass influences?
Claudia: The Carter Family, Hazel Dickens, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush. . .
Tommy: Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson. These are some of the main influences. Of the young people The Freight Hoppers. They are a modern old time band. Modern acts we like are Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Chris Thiele. We’re fans. Just everything—in country, Ernest Tubb and any kind of country that has some edge to it. George Jones, Loretta Lynn.  Anything that’s good. Also The Foghorn Stringband is another great modern old time band.
Jaime: This may seem a bit redundant, but there’s a point to it. The reason I keep asking about your influences is were there any early indicators that your music would eventually go in this direction? Can we hear any of the influences you’ve just discussed in the music of The Ramones or in the music of The Simplistics?
Tommy: I’ve always been into old time music and country and bluegrass—so, yeah. Certainly my songwriting with The Ramones was very much influenced by country. It just might be hard to hear. A record I produced, for The Ramones when Marky Ramone was playing drums, had major, major influences of country. It’s called Road to Ruin. If one listens closely, they can hear lines very similar to the Uncle Monk record musically.On certain songs like “Questioningly” and “Don’t Come Close” on the Road to Ruin record by the Ramones there are many country-influenced guitar lines. Since I originated those riffs and they come from my sensibilities, there is a similarity to the mandolin riffs on a song like “Need a Life” on the Uncle Monk album.
Jaime: I was going to mention “Questioningly.” That’s definitely a song where I can really hear the influences you’ve talked about.
Tommy: A lot of the songs on that record were country-influenced. And that was a lot of fun. We were able to put a lot of that on there.
Jaime: Claudia, are there any early indicators in the music of The Simplistics that may have indicated that you would eventually go in this direction musically?
Claudia: Well, I guess it was a gradual move and, also, that it was just simple. And instead of electric, it was acoustic. It was very basic; not too complicated.
Jaime: I’ve read a great many interviews that describe Uncle Monk as “punk bluegrass” and I feel that there many similarities to punk and bluegrass, in that it can be very stripped down, there’s a lot of three-chord progressions. Do you agree with the “punk bluegrass” description of your music or do you feel that maybe the “punk” is thrown on there because of your past associations?
Tommy: Actually, what we do is much closer to, I suppose, indie music. The punk is associated because of my past, but some of the lyrics to some of the songs, especially the ones Claudia writes, might be—they are not violent, fast songs, but there’s some lyrical content that might be classified as related to punk music, I suppose. But, really, there’s a lot of punky type bluegrassy acts out there playing—young kids—and we’re not like that. A lot of people may expect us to be like that, but we’re kind of unique, actually, with what we do. It’s sort of an offshoot of what we’ve always done. I have always followed my musical sensibilities, which tend to go towards classic simplicity with an emphasis on depth and emotion. It was like that with the Ramones and it is like that with Uncle Monk. Although we don’t play loud music, we keep to our own aesthetics, which have always been the same. The lyrics to both the Ramones and Uncle Monk are unique, philosophical, and personal; often autobiographical.
Jaime: To touch on what you just said, you’ve mentioned that the punk element to your music can be found in the lyrics. I’ve also read that you, Tommy, “use the vocabulary of country and bluegrass, with the aesthetics of punk.” I was curious as to what you meant when you referred to the “aesthetics of punk.” Is it all the attitude of the lyrics or can it also be the stripped-down nature of the music?
Tommy: The attitude of the lyrics and the structural framework. The two genres are very similar. They’re based on similar chord changes. The sentiment of the songs and what the songs are about are very similar, too. And, where the songs come from.
Jaime: Can you tell me about the next step for Uncle Monk? Will you be sticking with bluegrass or do you feel there may be a further progression beyond this?
Tommy: Well, we very much love the instruments, so, instrumentally, we will be sticking with this for the foreseeable future, that’s for sure. As far as songwriting, we don’t restrict ourselves, so, wherever that takes us, but we’ve already been doing that. The songs we have on the first record, there’s all kinds of things brought in, like calypso and all kinds of sensibilities from other genres. So, we don’t feel restricted in doing that. You can go off kilter and call things bluegrass just because it has mandolin or fiddle on it, but it might not be bluegrass at all. But I think that we are actually, in a lot of ways, much more traditional than a lot of accepted bluegrass acts now—mainstream bluegrass acts. Because, at the core, since we love traditional bluegrass so much, it really roots us, deep down inside, to that. So, even though some people might say, “This doesn’t sound like bluegrass,” it actually, in a way, it really is.
Jaime: How would you compare the Nashville music scene versus the New York music scene?
Tommy: Well, one big difference is, people listen here. People appreciate the music. They take it seriously and they come to hear the music. In New York, I think a lot of times, people go to party and it’s just background noise or something. It’s very different in that sense here. Also, the clubs here have been around a long time. They’re established, they’re appreciated. In New York, a lot of times, clubs come and go. It’s very faddish. This is a real music scene here right now.
Jaime: How do you feel the music scene in New York City has changed since The Simplistics and The Ramones?
Tommy: When the modern New York music scene started—which was in the early ‘70s— everything was dead in New York. There was a big economic crisis. The economy was down, there were big slumps, and there were no places to play. There were no clubs. Certainly no music venues where somebody could go play original music or anything like that. There were discotheques and things like that. So, that’s the reason CBGB happened. CBGB opened up in a neighborhood where nobody went to—The Bowery—which was skid row.
So, there was this club that opened up and we discovered it and started playing there. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the seeds of when NY started reviving, ‘cause people heard about it. There were write ups about it, once the scene actually happened. But that original scene was very unique. It was really started by people in their twenties. They had been through bands in their high schools and stuff like that and they were a little more mature. It was kind of an artistic music scene. It was an interesting scene. Groups like Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, us and many others came from that. It was an interesting thing. It was a little bit like the Beat Generation was in the ‘50s, maybe a little like the original hippie thing in the ‘60s and this is what was happening in the early ‘70s. But that only lasted like, maybe two years, really. And then everybody got contracts and stuff and moved on and then CBGB just went on and kept goin’ and goin’ but, then it became different. Then other clubs started opening up and people started coming to New York. All these other clubs opened up and they just grew and grew.
Jaime: And now everything’s moved out to Brooklyn.
Claudia: When we had the first Uncle Monk, it was basically CBGB and Maxwell’s still. Then, after that, it moved to Bowery Ballroom. The club scene just got huge. But before that, it was just basically CBGB and Maxwell’s. IrvingPlaza. Then it just got very big—not as personal—and now it’s very scattered. There’s just too many clubs. It was pretty much overwhelming and now they’ve moved a lot of them to Brooklyn.  Yeah, New York is going through a change now that the economic crisis finally hit New York. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen.
Jaime: Do you feel that the evolution or even the dissolution of the New York scene has influenced the evolution of your music in any way?
Tommy: I had always been into country, bluegrass, folk, and old-time music. But the ‘90s were the first time that I had a banjo and mandolin. It was also the first time we started going to bluegrass festivals, so that opened new doors of interest and excitement for us, something that the New York club scene did not provide for us anymore.
Jaime: How has your Tin Pan South experience been so far?
Tommy: It’s been fantastic. Much better than we ever could have hoped for, really. We were nervous because we were playing with two legends at our premiere at The Station Inn. And Claudia said, “Oh my God.” But, it was wonderful. It fit like a glove. And everybody was so nice and so friendly. I was really very happy with it.
Jaime: Will you come back?
Tommy: Yeah. Just say the word.
Jaime: Do you have a favorite musical memory?
Tommy: We had some amazing experiences. We were fortunate enough to open for Ralph Stanley, which was amazing. Even more amazing, one of my all time idols—top of the list—Earl Scruggs. We had the chance to open for Earl Scruggs and he was so nice.. I couldn’t believe it. I had a chance to meet him and he was just so nice and all of those people are really nice to us— ‘cause, you know, what we do in a way is new. And the people who have been most receptive to what we’re doing have been musicians like the ones in Ralph Stanley’s band. Ralph Stanley’s band are just some of the finest musicians there are and his son wasalso in that band. They were just so complimentary and it was the same with Earl Scruggs. It meant a lot to us that it was appreciated. Things like that have been just amazing.
Jaime: If you could play with anyone—living or dead—who would it be?
Claudia: Hazel Dickens
Tommy: That’s a good one.
Jaime: If you had to choose who your biggest musical influence ever is, who would it be?
Tommy: If it’s just one, we’d have to say The Carter Family. My second choice would be The Beatles.
Claudia: Mine would be Patti Smith. . .
Jaime: This has been great. Thanks so much to you both!
And then my time with Tommy and Claudia was over, just like that. When I look back on it now, it’s almost hard to believe I was able to have that time with them at all. It’s also hard to believe that it’s been more than thirty years since all of this started. It’s been more than thirty years since CBGB opened its doors, more than thirty years since bands like The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Television ruled the bummed out, burned out Bowery. Even though CBGB is long gone, it’s comforting to know that the “BG” part of CBGB (country, bluegrass, blues) is alive and well and in the capable hands of original scene builder Tommy Ramone and Claudia Tienan. Maybe the new kids in town will hang a left when they hit the new Brooklyn “scene” and follow Uncle Monk to bluegrass pastures.

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