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David Roush, frontman, bandleader, and chief songwriter of New York-based ensemble Ecce Shnak, “totally understands” why listeners might get the wrong impression about how his band changes styles the way a performer in a comedy troupe might change costumes or accents. The group’s new EP, out April 5, is after all titled Joke Oso, and it sounds about as zany as expected. Still, while Ecce Shnak (pronounced “Eh-kay sh-knock” — “ecce” from Latin, “shnak” a play on the term “schnockered”) self-identifies as an art rock or “chamber punk” outfit, its own description of its sound as “one part pop, one part punk, one part classical” doesn’t quite prepare listeners for Joke Oso’s kaleidoscopic variation.
In the span of about 20 minutes, Joke Oso encompasses punk, ska, twee indie rock a la Belle & Sebastian, rubbery goofball funk in the tradition of Frank Zappa and crunching, Meshuggah-esque math metal — all liberally sprinkled with humor. Two of the songs, for example, are movements within a larger suite called “Dingleberry” that began on the band’s 2013 debut, Letters to German Vasquez Rubio, and at one point, the lyrics even take a detour behind the scenes at a fictitious afterhours party at the house of NBA superstar Patrick Ewing. In fact, the video for the track "Dingleberry IV, Finale: Katy’s Wart" won the award for best music animation at Japan’s 2018 New Chitose Airport International Animation Festival and currently is a contender in ANIFILM 2019's international music videos competition.
“It might seem like, ‘This guy doesn’t take anything seriously,’ ” acknowledges Roush. “But we’re not doing caricatures. These really are homages to certain styles of music.”
Take leadoff track “Larry, Sleepover Friend,” an ode to the beauty of friendship that Billboard is premiering today. While it’s transparently evident that Ecce Shnak is doing a take on Weezer’s iconic hit “Buddy Holly,” which itself is a ’90s take on ’50s rock’n’roll, “Larry, Sleepover Friend” features a middle section that contains a more subtle nod to fellow alt-rock giants Pearl Jam.
“The first three songs,” explains Roush, “are kind of examples of the tidiest, most digestible pop songs I can write. Ecce Shnak’s music is generally pretty eccentric, but there are varying levels of eccentricity in it. My hope is that people hear that I deeply connect with those genres that I’m trying my hand at writing. You could even say that I am those genres. ‘Larry, Sleepover Friend’ is like a Weezer song and a Pearl Jam song. I love those fucking bands. There are a lot of references to bands that I love.”
Listen to “Larry, Sleepover Friend” below:
Roush also points to Chaucer’s 14th-century literary classic The Canterbury Tales as a model.
“One of the brilliant things about that book,” he offers, “is how Geoffrey Chaucer genuinely inhabits each of the souls whose point of view he chooses to tell a story from. Each one has a complete self, a complete perspective. Maybe I’m trying to do something like that with the assumption of different styles.”
Lyrically speaking, Roush points to Gogol Bordellobandleader Eugene Hütz’s balance of levity and observation. Prior to committing to music, Roush was on track to become a psychotherapist. In 2007, he spent a year as a mental-health intake worker at a behavioral healthcare center, a job he found so profoundly discouraging that it ultimately became too much for him to bear. Looking back, Roush describes a mounting sense of disillusionment from having to contend with bureaucratic regulations that subjected clients seeking help to a six-week wait before they could be seen.
The seeds of Ecce Shnak began as Roush’s creative outlet during that time. “I would go home and write,” he recalls, “and imagine these funny musical ideas just in my own personal space, not really thinking they would go anywhere. But eventually, something inside was like, ‘You’ve got to change course.’ ” In 2012, he recruited other players and formally assembled the band.
Listen carefully enough, and traces of Roush’s feelings about the human cost of such administrative failure can be spotted throughout Joke Oso. In fact, he considers that the music’s many shifts in voice might stem from “sitting with a different person [at a time at the clinic] and hearing them speak for themselves in their own language.”
On the other hand, he stresses that the music reflects “the hopefulness in that experience, too.”
“The ability,” he adds, “for people to form deep, strong and, if you think about it, transcendent relationships is one of the best abilities we have. We’re a pretty beleaguered species in a million ways, but the ability to connect with people and communicate is one of our biggest strengths. That’s all over the songs. ‘Larry, Sleepover Friend’ is basically about friendship and the trillion colors of complexity that come with it.”
Guitarist James Fantom, bassist Michael Corso and drummer Bill Ricci accompanied Roush on the track, but when performing live, Ecce Shnak swells to a seven-piece lineup for an even more flamboyant presentation that can be witnessed when it launches a tour on March 21 at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall. Meanwhile, Joke Oso will be followed in July by the release of the companion full-length Metamorphejawns. “You can think of Joke Oso as a sequel to 2013’s Letters to German Vasquez Rubio,” explains Roush, "with Metamorphejawns being the third in what he calls "an anthology."
Ecce Shnak tour dates (others TBA):
March 21 New York @ Rockwood Music Hall
April 5 New York @ Pianos
April 6 Boston @ Democracy Center
April 7 Portland, Maine @ Port City Blue
May 2 New York @ Coney Island Baby*
May 3 Philadelphia @ MilkBoy Philadelphia*
May 10 Fayetteville, W.V. @ The Grove WV
May 11 Richmond, Va. @ Lucy Lane
* with Hey Guy