Jewish Journal

What’s in a Name?

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Aug. 15, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Eric, Matt and Chris are three musicians who refuse to give away their last names. But if you guessed it was out of a lack of ethnic pride, you'd be wrong.

"I'm a pretty high-profile Jew, whether I like it or not," says singer-songwriter Eric. "It's hard to hide when you're in a band called JEW."

Priding itself on its pop rock, JEW has been generating some buzz with its name and its music. "Don't Speak French" got some alternative rock station rotation this year. In May, JEW scared up good press while performing at Las Vegas' EAT'M Festival.

The unsigned band was working out of a Hollywood studio with a producer on the then-untitled tune, "Threw Your Love Away," when The Journal caught up with them earlier this year. Their demo's other tracks include the brooding, Nirvana-esque "Notice Me" and the 1980s pop-influenced "12/31" and "Sugarfly."

"If you put us in a mix tape with songs of the '70s, '80s and '90s, we fit right in," Eric says of his relationship-obsessed songs.

Not bad for a band whose guitarist had no musicianship several years ago.

"I couldn't even hold a guitar," says Eric, a former personal trainer who was taught an unorthodox technique by Guitar World editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski in exchange for some fitness instruction.

"He told me, 'You'll literally be able to play in two weeks,'" Eric says.

"Nobody plays guitar the way I play. I couldn't play a bar chord if you put a gun to my chest. Subsequently that's what makes our sound so different."

"I've always been enamored by his drive and his naivete," says JEW's drummer, Chris. "He'll walk into a room and ask a musician, 'What chord is that?' and they'll give him this look. Eric never has that kind of guard. It catches people off guard and it's very disarming."

Eric grew up in Farmington, Maine, where he says he was the only Jew in school.

"[My parents] had this mutual dream of living in the woods in Maine. It was a great upbringing, but the one thing that I missed was any strong Jewish culture experience."

Oddly enough, Chris -- the obvious non-Jew of JEW -- had a mirror-image upbringing.

"In Potomac, Md., I was one of three goys in the neighborhood," Chris says. "When I was 13, I went to bar mitzvahs all [the] time. I knew how to make hamantaschen and I sang 'Hava Nagila.'"

In 1995, Eric and Chris met in New York and formed an early version of JEW. By 1998, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where Chris has become something of a polyhyphenate -- acting on TV series such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Homicide" playing "rednecks and yuppies," and getting three screenplays optioned, including one with Danny DeVito's Jersey Films. Eric and Chris later met up with Matt, an old friend from their New York days who describes himself as "a total Jersey suburb Jewish kid." Shortly before New Year's 2001, JEW -- with Matt on bass -- was born again as an L.A. band with a Viper Room show.

One of the band's key attractions is its name, which JEW's non-Jew has no problem with.

"People who will normally breeze by the name, get more involved with it," Chris says.

Eric adds, "I came up with it because the word is bold and powerful. In certain cases it's a drawback, and in certain cases it's been a positive. One [record company executive] told me, 'I've had a hundred demos and the only reason I chose it was because it had the word JEW on it.' But I also got a call two days ago from a high-powered manager who felt that the music was great, but was unwilling to work with us unless we changed our name."

"If we do," Eric continues, "it loses its fun and edge. We have no intention of changing it. JEW is here to stay."

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