Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rock with Strings

Zen for Primates offers cello, but no bass or drums for a different kind of music

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Mount Rainier resident Jodi Beder is the cellist for the avant-garde band Zen For Primates, which plays some traditional rock songs, such as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ without drums or bass, but with a violin and cello.

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This story was corrected from its print version on March 21, 2008.

Jodi Beder isn’t quite sure how to label the kind of music she makes with her band-mates.

‘‘That’s the hardest question,” said Beder, a Mount Rainier resident and the cellist for the band Zen for Primates. ‘‘Someone once stuck the label of ‘cabaret rock’ on us and it stuck ... because nothing else fit.”

The quintet, formed in 1987 but joined by Beder 10 years later, has also been called ‘‘strange and beautiful” by The Philadelphia Inquirer and ‘‘the most amazing group of musicians I have ever seen” by music producer Ed Stasium, who has worked with The Ramones and Mick Jagger, among other talents.

A smorgasbord is probably the best way to describe the band, which has put out six albums to date. Elements of blues, folk, jazz and, perhaps most noticeably, klezmer — the traditional Jewish folk music often associated with weddings and ‘‘Fiddler on the Roof” — are present on the group’s unusual tracks, which one could imagine emanating from the orchestra pit in Yiddish theater.

The rest of the band, which is T. Roth on vocals, Mike Krisukas on guitar, Pete Fluck on harmonica and sax and Sheilagh Maloney on violin, lives in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. That’s where the band usually practices.

Being the only non-Pennsylvania resident doesn’t bother Beder, a classically trained cellist who attaches an amplifier to her cello when she performs or practices with the band.

‘‘It’s easier and easier on the computer because, for instance, if we’ve been tweaking some of our arrangements, I can use ... software on my computer and I can send a MIDI file [to the other band members],” she said. ‘‘The more the group works together the less actually has to happen in person until a performance.”

Krisukas, who does the arrangements for the band’s songs, agrees.

‘‘I can send charts anywhere in the world with the Internet, and I can send videos,” he said.

For all her enthusiasm about the band once she joined, Beder, who has been playing the cello for 46 years, was skeptical about being part of Zen for Primates in the beginning.

‘‘I was living in New Jersey and the band was about to do a summer festival performance in Pennsylvania,” she said.

The band was looking for a cellist, but the woman members had in mind was busy and couldn’t join — though she thought Beder might want to.

‘‘I thought, ‘Somebody’s sending me [a demo] out of the blue, it’s not going to be good,’” Beder said. ‘‘[But] I just fell in love with the music, went out to Pennsylvania and performed with them.”

Beder, who during Zen for Primates shows plays a cello with a purple face painted on it, has a doctorate in music theory from the City University of New York, the city in which she grew up. Playing the cello is her bread and butter.

Beder’s other job

In addition to being part of Zen for Primates, she is a player in the National Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Bethesda, a player in the historical opera company Opera Lafayette and an erstwhile composer for the Hyattsville-based Low End String Quartet.

Roth, the band’s frontman, has been a full-time musician since a fateful break from New York City found him back in the Lehigh Valley area, where he’d been raised.

‘‘I had been living in New York and in 1987, and I decided to come home for the summer because New York is just horrible in the summer,” he said.

Soon after arriving home, Roth and his sisters went out to see a band — one in which, it turned out, Krisukas was playing.

‘‘They came over to my table and asked me to sing,” Roth said. ‘‘And I was like, ‘What are we going to sing that we’ll all know?’ We ended up doing [Disney’s] ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ and [afterward] they were like, ‘Why don’t you just show up at gigs, and we’ll get you free drinks?’”

Roth said the band’s unusual sound is what has garnered it such a loyal and widespread fan base.

‘‘I think that’s the reason [we] caught on,” he said. ‘‘It was just so unusual. There was no bass, no drums. I can’t imagine it with a drummer now — then we’d be just every other band.”

It was Krisukas who came up with the band name, when he was involved in another musical project in the early 1980s. But he found that, though he liked the way it sounded and had a personal interest in Zen Buddhism, the name didn’t fit with that group.

‘‘A lot of times the name inspires the band rather than the other way around,” he said. ‘‘I was always searching for the band I wanted to form ... and this was it. This was the perfect thing, and [the name] fits this band perfectly.”

Two original members

Krisukas and Roth are the only two original members still in the band, but all the members are full-time musicians. The group plays gigs primarily along the East Coast, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. But it isn’t ruling out the possibility of playing abroad.

‘‘I would go play in Europe or Asia at the drop of a hat,” Beder said.

The band would probably have no trouble packing seats overseas. It is a hit on Google’s video-sharing Web site,, and often appears on blogs halfway around the world.

One of Beder’s favorite parts of being in the band is performing.

‘‘In orchestras, you have to wear all black, and conservative blacks,” she said. ‘‘But [with the band] I get to wear anything I want, which is really fun. Sometimes I wear something that’s artsy, sometimes I wear something funky with funny-looking sneakers. It’s one of the great things about being in a band.”

One of her favorite places to play with Zen for Primates is Artmosphere Café in Mount Rainier, where the band will perform Saturday.

‘‘It’s a very artistic-looking place and also very cozy,” she said. ‘‘Sometimes it’s nice to play in a place where the owners are also musicians. ... It’s our home base down here.”

Café owner Dyrell Madison is equally fond of the band members.

‘‘As people they are typical artists — very eclectic,” he said. ‘‘They have a very unique style. I’ve never seen anybody do what they do. They remind me of the Talking Heads.”

Madison said Beder and husband Jimmy Tarlau come into the café at least three times a week to see other acts or get something to eat or drink.

‘‘This café has been struggling since day one, and Jodi has always been a supporter. She and her husband have very versatile tastes in music. I wish I had a hundred of them,” Madison said with a laugh.

‘‘She’s always had a broad idea of how music should be interpreted, and I think this band fits with that pretty well,” said Tarlau, a union representative, of Beder. ‘‘And it’s nice to come home in the middle of the day sometimes and hear the cello sounds.”

Beder herself is in awe of her fellow band members, most of whom, she says, grew up in the 1960s and count the Beach Boys and Randy Newman among their influences.

‘‘Mike and T are two of the best musicians I’ve ever met,” she said. ‘‘Mike has a very unique guitar style and ... T is an incredible stage personality.”

E-mail Anath Hartmann at .


Zen for Primates

When: 9 p.m., Saturday

Where: Artmosphere Café, 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier

Tickets: $15

Information: 301-927-CAFE