CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio – Vulfpeck founder Jack Stratton will soon give his fans exactly what they’ve been clamoring for: a full-length klezmer album.
Stratton will serve as the drummer, teaming up with clarinetist Michael Winograd and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin on piano, accordion and vocals, to form Yiddishe Pirat (“Jewish Pirate”). The new band is set to perform at Cain Park’s 42nd annual Yiddish Concert in the Park, on Saturday, June 26. The concert is free and open to the public.
That concert will be taped and, eventually, released as Yiddishe Pirat’s debut album.
Stratton, a Cleveland Heights native, is no stranger to the venue, and also no stranger to klezmer music. Growing up, he got his start playing in his dad Bert Stratton’s klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, and has played in past editions of Yiddish Concert in the Park.
Later, while at the University of Michigan’s music school, Jack formed Vulfpeck, a modern funk band that’s released five acclaimed albums – not including its 2014 silent “Sleepify” album which took advantage of a Spotify loophole. The album, which featured no music whatsoever, brought in about $20,000 in royalties and placed the band in headlines worldwide (including this absolutely iconic CNBC interview with Jack).
Notably, Vulfpeck played a sold-out 2019 show at Madison Square Gardens: an accomplishment made without the help of a manager or a major record label.
But before all of that, Stratton formed his musical roots in Northeast Ohio, playing klezmer and rock bands, and even competing in the High School Rock Off.
Ahead of Father’s Day, we caught up with Jack and Bert Stratton to hear more about their current musical work and collaborations, and Jack’s klezmer-filled upbringing in Northeast Ohio:
Jack, tell me about Yiddishe Pirat – how did the group come about, and how did it evolve into this Cain Park show?
Jack: I met Michael Winograd and Josh Dolgin at KlezKanada, which is a weeklong klezmer convention outside of Montreal. They were on staff, and I was attending as a participant. That was where I first got to know them. I’ve been a fan prior to that. I did play with them at Cain Park years ago, I sat in on Josh Dolgin’s show and Michael was onstage as well.
What’s interesting about Yiddishe Pirat, or part of the angle, is I got really interested in the fusion aspects, like Socalled and Josh Dolgin. I was heavily influenced by that, bringing in funk rhythms under these old Jewish melodies. Now, Yiddishe Pirat is kind of retracing back to the Epstein Brothers, more of the traditional drum beats, more of a latent life. That’s what Winograd said; he said, as he ages, he’s getting more into Max Epstein. It’s kind of an acquired taste. It will be a little more revival-esque for Yiddishe Pirat, than the fusion. But it’ll always be there. We’ll be grooving; it’s always been about grooving.
You both have roots in klezmer music. I’d love to hear about both of your musical backgrounds.
Jack: I grew up playing in my dad’s band, Yiddishe Cup, and that was my introduction. He’d take us to KlezKamp pretty much yearly. It’s the precursor to KlezKanada. That’s actually the story behind Yiddishe Pirat too – that was the height of the klezmer revival, in the ‘90s, with these conventions. This is considered the klezmer-revival-revival, tapping into that era of repertoire.
A lot of our repertoire is my recollection of what was happening at KlezKamp and what my dad was playing in the basement at the time. They’re deeply ingrained in my psyche, those melodies.
Bert, could you tell me more about Yiddishe Cup?
Bert: We’ve been around 33 years, which is basically about as long as Jack’s been around. In fact, he used to hang out around our rehearsals and cry a lot because his mother wanted him to go to bed and he wanted to listen to the band practice in my basement.
I was interested in Jewish culture and music, and I also played the clarinet, so the three coalesced into the perfect storm for me. I said, “Holy cow, there’s some music out there that features the clarinet, it’s Jewish-tinged, and I can add something to the community.” A huge part of my life is devoted to playing this kind of music to the community and the region.
Jack was there from the beginning. It was his idea really. I didn’t force him to do any of this stuff, but he was playing with my band. When he was three years old, he took a little tambourine and put it on a stool and played at the Beachwood Library. Then when he was eight, I gave him five bucks to play “Wipe Out” at a Hanukkah party, and when he was 18, I paid him $75 to play at a Bar Mitzvah party. He stole the show every time he played. One time at a concert, he got away from the drum set, stood up and started playing drums on the floor.
Jack: We had just seen “Stomp,” I think.
Bert: Everything’s a rip-off.
Jack: A “Stomp” rip-off, yeah.
Jack, beyond Yiddishe Pirat, does klezmer music have an influence on your work with Vulfpeck? How has it affected your music career, ever since you grew up listening to it in the basement?
Jack: Winograd’s always been on my radar. My dad calls him the LeBron James of clarinet right now. The fact that he was open to being on the record, playing at the Garden, it was just funny to me – it was such a treat. That was a large part of it, was just his talent.
I suppose a lot of these melodies are time-tested, they’ve survived a hundred years now. Maybe there’s some melodic influence; We just watched this Broadway composer thing, and they were ripping off a bunch of melodies from schul [Jewish synagogue]. American pop music has a lot of gospel melodies. There’s a lot of religious music seeping into popular music all the time.
Bert: Another thing Jack commented on a while ago, and I remembered it recently, was that klezmer music is kind of upbeat. It’s party music. I think, if you ever listen to Vulfpeck, a lot of the sensibility of that band is upbeat and positive, without being too corny. Yiddishe Cup is so corny; I’ve drained the well on that. Jack is not corny but he kept the fun part about it.
Jack: Absolutely. Growing up, playing the weddings and bar mitzvahs and their concerts, it was always an element of showmanship and celebration. I figured that was how it was done. That was a huge influence. Now that you mention it, the entire atmosphere we try to create, we literally play a wedding set as an encore sometimes, as Vulfpeck, just because people just love it. We’ll stoop to that level. Like, “Oh What a Night” and “September.”
Jack, tell me more about your upbringing in Cleveland – and Bert, what it was like to be making music together?
Jack: I took on cool responsibilities as a side man after my bar mitzvah, which was fitting. He has great musicians in that band with great ears, so I developed a lot on those gigs. Once I got to music school, I already had some level of having played in front of crowds. I sat in when Yiddishe Cup played Cain park, you brought me out for a tune. That was fairly high pressure at the time. I had a few notches on my belt, just getting in front of crowds, which is a great part of developing.
A lot of memorable gigs: I dropped a stick at Ohio Wesleyan, that was devastating. You’ve got to get these things out of your system early. My dad has a whole blog [Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate] cataloging all these gigs. Tables collapsing at weddings. All the war stories, the good times.
Bert: I kept my adult drummers employed the whole time, I didn’t just say, “Jack you’re the drummer.” He had a whole life to lead, growing up. He went off and played in high school bands. They were in the Rock-Off, and that was the biggest thing in the world at the time. I think they came in second, they did all right. It wasn’t just klezmer. When we played in weddings and bar mitzvah gigs, they’d say, “Hey, we like Jewish music man, but enough’s enough.” We’d play a little bit of soul music or swing. It was an American Jewish crowd, it wasn’t this isolated community in Russia in 1920. It was modern America.
Jack, what was the name of your High School Rock-Off band?
Calvin Coolidge. One of the members is Rob Stenson, who’s gone on to develop the Vulf compressor plugin. He’s gone on to be highly influential in the digital audio processing space. We still work together, and we played the Rock-Off at the Odeon. Honestly, it was bigger than the Garden, in my brain. It was the peak, the High School Rock-Off. It’ll never be like that.
With Yiddishe Pirat, you’re going to record the performance – is that going to be released in any format?
Jack: Yeah we’re going to film it and record it. I don’t think it will be marketed as a live…
Read More: Vulfpeck’s Jack Stratton and his dad, Yiddishe Cup’s Bert Stratton, talk Cleveland,