Songs from a Random House: Rockin' Ukulele Members of the New York-based band Songs from a Random House, an eclectic combo featuring two ukuleles, a viola and a string bass, join Scott Simon for a live performance and chat.
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Songs from a Random House: Rockin' Ukulele

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Songs from a Random House: Rockin' Ukulele

Songs from a Random House: Rockin' Ukulele

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Ukuleles are sometimes considered the Crackerjack toys of musical instruments, a little something for light comic relief. Beethoven and Mozart never wrote for the ukulele, we don't think. You probably wouldn't want to accompany the national anthem, "Ave Maria" or almost any Frank Sinatra song with a ukulele. But did you know that a ukulele could sound like this?

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: That's "Taste of Crow" by the band Songs from a Random House. It's from their latest release, "Glisten." The distinct sound of Songs from a Random House is made by two ukuleles, a viola, an upright bass and drums. And two of the band's members are here with us in Studio 4A--Steven Swartz, who plays the baritone ukulele.

Mr. Swartz, thank you for being with us.

Mr. STEVEN SWARTZ (Songs from a Random House): Great to be here.

SIMON: And Alan Drogin plays soprano ukulele.

Mr. Drogin, thank you for being with us.

Mr. ALAN DROGIN (Songs from a Random House): Thank you.

SIMON: Let me begin with you first, Mr. Drogin. The ukulele you're holding looks very much like the one that I was taught to play, and played very poorly, in the fourth grade at the Antriamet School(ph) in Chicago.

Mr. DROGIN: Yes, it is the soprano ukulele.

SIMON: Now let's hear the difference in sound, if we could, between your soprano ukulele, Mr. Drogin, and then...

(Soundbite of soprano ukulele)

SIMON: And then, Steven Swartz, the baritone ukulele.

Mr. SWARTZ: Yes. The baritone ukulele is the largest of the ukulele family, which is very much like saying it's the tallest dwarf.

(Soundbite of baritone ukulele)

SIMON: May I ask, Mr. Drogin, since you play the soprano ukulele, has it ever happened that you've come out on stage and somebody was--shouted, `Hey, buddy! Come back when your guitar grows up!'?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DROGIN: Well, you know, I've gone in the opposite direction. You know, I did have the guitar that grew up. And now I feel much more comfortable working with this instrument.

Mr. SWARTZ: You know, when you get up on stage and you have a guitar, people are going to make judgments about what they're going to hear just based on even what kind of guitar is it. You know, are you going to be folkie, a country singer, you know, a heavy metal artist? But with the ukulele the field's open, and it's a much more musically versatile instrument than people are aware of, and which we hope to demonstrate.

Mr. DROGIN: It was a tabula rasa occurring. It was a freedom of starting fresh, and using those sounds and saying, `OK, let's build music around these sounds.'

SIMON: Can you demonstrate some of these techniques that you've been working on--fuzz wah wah?

Mr. DROGIN: Oh, yeah, sure. Well, OK. Well, here's the wah-pedal.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. DROGIN: And that's from "Calculating Flower."

SIMON: How do you do that?

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. DROGIN: Well, essentially it's changing the timbre of the sound, so it makes it go from very tremble...

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. DROGIN: a lower bass sound.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. DROGIN: With the fuzz.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. DROGIN: And...

SIMON: Now there's kind of a note of Jimi Hendrix in that.

Mr. DROGIN: Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

SIMON: We know, of course, you're not here with a full band, but I'm wondering if you could--just by yourselves, the two of you--perform a modified version, if you please, of one of your...

Mr. DROGIN: Sure.

SIMON: Well, for example, you have a song, "Sleep is a Sacrament."

Mr. DROGIN: Sure.

Mr. SWARTZ: Just play you a touch of it so you get the vibe. And this is a good opportunity to demonstrate the fuzz tone, soprano ukulele, which is one of Alan's specialties.

(Soundbite of Drogin and Swartz performing "Sleep is a Sacrament")

Mr. SWARTZ: (Singing) Pillow, one of my favorite words. Full of air, it's soft and deep. Easily slip into another world. Slip away, there goes a sheep. Sleep, sleep is a sacrament. Sleep, sleep is a sacrament. Sleep, sleep is a sacrament. Hold me, hold me, hold me when I close my eyes.

SIMON: Boy, thanks very much. Has it happened--do any ukulele enthusiasts come to your performance and say, `Thank you very much for restoring our instrument, our beautiful instrument, to sacred, respectful regard,' or anything like that?

Mr. DROGIN: Well, yeah, there are people who have been really happy that we're finally playing music that their children would like, because I don't want to listen to Tin Pan Alley as much, or Hawaiian culture they may not be into. And so they're saying, `Wow, there's something fresh, something new, something contemporary.'

SIMON: I'd like to have you hear--while we listen to a cut from the CD--so we can hear how everything sounds together with full orchestration. If we could listen to "Taste of Crow."

(Soundbite of "Taste of Crow")

Mr. SWARTZ: (Singing) Crow up. It's time you crow up. There's a lot that you don't know. A taste of crow.

I think one of the fun things about that song is what an angry ukulele song it is. In a sense, you know, people think the little plink-a-plink of the ukulele, and it can only sort of express happy or whimsical thoughts. And true, I mean, it certainly lends itself to that, but, you know, I just wanted to write a really ticked-off ukulele song.

Mr. DROGIN: We get to do some scream therapy--everyone in the band at the end of this song at the audience.

Mr. SWARTZ: It's very cathartic, yeah.

(Soundbite of "Taste of Crow")

Unidentified Background Singers: (Singing) There's a lot that you don't know!

Mr. SWARTZ: (Singing) There's a lot that even you don't know.

SIMON: We've talked a lot about ways in which you modify and change and revolutionize and update and put the ukulele on the cutting edge of contemporary music, but there's something really very charming and affecting about the sound of the ukulele played in the traditional style.

Mr. DROGIN: That's absolutely true.

Mr. SWARTZ: Yeah, great. Yeah. Good observation.

Mr. DROGIN: And it makes it go both ways. It makes us--it allows us to be modern and on the cutting edge, and yet also not be pretentious about it, and sit down and play and just concentrate more on the way things sound. There's no proving that needs to be done.

Mr. SWARTZ: It's a warm sound. It's an intimate sound. To hold the ukulele, it's--you know, it's like holding a baby. It's this little thing. It's not really very sturdy, but there's something, you know, very loving about playing a ukulele. And I think, I hope, that informs what we do.

SIMON: Let me thank both of you and let us say goodbye, and then you can play us out. Thank you both for coming in.

Mr. SWARTZ: Thank you for having us here.

Mr. DROGIN: Thank you very much.

Mr. SWARTZ: It was great.

SIMON: Steven Swartz, who plays the baritone ukulele; Alan Drogin, who plays soprano ukulele--they're both members of the band Songs from a Random House. Their latest release is called "Glisten," and they've joined us here in Studio 4A.

(Soundbite of Drogin and Swartz performing "End of the Year")

Mr. SWARTZ: (Singing) Just below the surface, just below the skin--about to overflow, still you try to keep it in. Much too close to the surface, much too close to the skin--about to overflow, how will you ever keep it in? Like a former face of the body that you hold, you release your arms, but you can't release that face. It's the end of the year. It's the year of the year. It's the end of the year.

SIMON: "End of the Year" by Songs from a Random House. There's more ukulele music and photos of the band recording the album "Glisten" on our Web site at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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