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Uncle Monk puts some punk in the sound

By Rick Bell, May 2007

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"He was an old boss of mine when I was working at a film studio," Ramone says. "It's not about him. But he inspired it. It's a play on words. It's what it's like to work when you're low on the totem pole, which I'm sure a lot of people can relate to."

"Happy Tune," Ramone says, was written more recently and was inspired by an old comedy routine by actor Steve Martin. "You can't play a sad song on the banjo; I thought of that routine, and it inspired me," he says.

Despite the spontaneous vibe that naturally accompanies old time bluegrass music, the album was recorded and mixed over several months' time. Uncle Monk's simple arrangements and stripped-down instrumentation belie Ramone's meticulous production. His reputation for perfection in the studio dates back to his days producing The Ramones' first three albums and later, Talking Heads and The Replacements.

Perhaps it's all those years spent behind a mixing board that makes the album sound so seamless. Ramone picks mandolin, banjo, Dobro, fiddle and guitar, while Tienan plays guitar and bass.

"It's the convenience of modern recording," Ramone says. "I try to make it feel as natural as possible. There was some experimentation, and I tried out some new ideas."

With no pressure from a record label, Ramone simply took his time. "I wasn't pressed to finish it," he says. "But eventually the project gained momentum, and I really concentrated on it."

Ramone merely chuckles about his reputation as a stickler for perfection in the studio. "I like things tidy and neat," he says. "I have a certain way of working. I care about how things fit in."

Again, Ramone points toward the similarities between punk and folk. "In a lot of ways, the same process goes on in your head," he says. "I'm using little effects on this one. And if I didn't like the way it sounded, I'd strip it away until it sounded right."

Ramone wanted to capture not only the live feel, but the warmth that inevitably radiates from an acoustic duo. It took some effort, since he was working in a digital format.

"I recorded in digital, but I wanted to make the stuff sound warm," he says. "It's the first time I tried this. Most artists like the analog sound, though some bluegrass artists like it really clean and pristine, which is what you get in digital."

"I think digital is great; it's less expensive, and you can experiment and do all kinds of things in it," he says. "There's always been a drive to keep analog. I used certain types of mikes and preamps to make it sound analog. What I did is a hybrid. But the future of recording is heading toward digital."

The transition from punk drummer to multi-instrumental string master is nearly as radical as the move from inner city New York to bucolic Phoenicia. Much like Ramone was driven to perfection in the studio, he's also worked tirelessly to become an accomplished musician.

"About 15 years ago, I picked up the banjo," he says. "I began plunking on it. It's a tough instrument - different from the guitar. But it was exciting for me because it was different. Then I got a mandolin. I've been working on that. I'm very serious about my music."

How does he rate his abilities? "Oh, there's always a long way to go," he says. "But I keep getting better and better. You can never really master them, though."

Ramone, of course, is light years away from his past. Yet, he affably recalls his early days as a founder of The Ramones. Not that it was all kisses and hugs. In fact, it was an incredibly turbulent group of people, Ramone says.

"It was a great privilege to be involved in that group," he says. "It was one of those things. It's amazing that it worked out as well as it did."

Don't let him fool you, though. The then-Tommy Erdelyi knew what he had. "I was aware of what was going on when it happened," he says. "I saw the New York Dolls and how entertaining they were. But they were not virtuosos. It was exciting and interesting, but I thought about these guys I knew in Queens. I wanted to see what would happen with them."

Ramone decided to bring them across the harbor to rehearse at Performance Studios on East 20th Street in New York. "I was going to be their manager," he recalls. "So I brought them down. They had all these songs. I'd never heard anything like this. I thought, 'This is revolutionary.' This is totally new."

The cache of songs took Ramone completely by surprise. Ultimately writing several songs for the band, including the rock anthem "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," he nonetheless was shocked by the quantity and quality of their music.

"What made them original also made it hard to deal with them," Ramone says. "They were artistically neurotic and volatile. But they were interesting people. My role was to shape them so it made sense to present them to others. For me, it was a creative process."

After such an incredible high, it would seem nothing could ever again match it. Yet, Ramone contends he is absolutely content with his current lot in life. "It's a continuation artistically," he says. "It's much easier not to be in control of more things."

Uncle Monk will tour once the album is released, touring the east coast and then heading west to California, hitting Los Angeles, Sacramento, Berkeley and San Francisco.

"We do some covers in the live set," he says. "Some old time bluegrass. And we'll play a lot of the record."

And, perhaps an acoustic version of "Blitzkrieg Bop"? "We probably won't be doing and Ramones songs for a long time," he says. "We want people to see what we're doing now."

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