Meet The Groggers
The burden of burgeoning celebrity and the challenge to maintain novelty can stifle the growth of even the most levelheaded performance artists. But perhaps it’s the outright zaniness of the up-and-coming Queens, NY band The Groggers that keeps them well above the fray and poised for a run at Jewish musical greatness. Unconventional, confrontational, and loaded with musical talent, The Groggers bring something unprecedented to the Jewish music scene: genuinely entertaining, unrelenting subversive rock.
To say that The Groggers are the loudest noisemakers in contemporary Jewish punk rock would be misleading; they are the only noisemakers in contemporary Jewish punk rock. Fronted by lead singer L.E. Doug Staiman and lead guitarist Ari Friedman, The Groggers represent a new strand of Jewish music that has its unorthodox roots in the tradition of bands such as Green Day and Avenged Sevenfold. Prominent electric power chords power just about every song forward, and Staiman’s vocals are uncomplicated, clean, and blunt. The result is shocking, but undeniably refreshing.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Staiman and Friedman at a small bagel place in Queens to reflect on their accomplishments and to learn about their lives and music. I knew I was in for an entertaining afternoon when Friedman, upon seeing his band mate enter the restaurant slightly disheveled, quipped, “You’ll have to excuse him. He’s a little groggy.” Self-deprecating and clever (though probably rehearsed): check. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that from Shwekey.
The Groggers got their start in a most unusual place – the now-extinct YU Battle of the Bands. Friedman, who spent two and a half years as a Yeshiva undergraduate, witnessed Staiman singing for another band at the time. “He (Staiman) was all stage presence…he was also terrible, but very entertaining,” said Friedman. Staiman managed to catch Friedman’s eye, and they later bonded over their shared appreciation for rock music in a Yeshiva world that lacked that edge. At the Battle of the Bands, Friedman would always bring “the most shocking music to YU, straight up rock and roll” and Staiman would jump around the stage like a maniac, shouting “Come on! Come on!” when the sound equipment frequently malfunctioned. Their unhinged, rock-centric presence marked a stark contrast to the other performers at BOTB. “The YU Battle of the Bands,” remarked Friedman, “were just so stale, so NCSYish.” They were later reintroduced at Queens College through a mutual friend, and, after a brief stint as the classic-rock cover band “Steel Eagle,” they became The Groggers. That year, they returned to YU Battle of the Bands, determined more than ever to one-up the bland acoustic showcase in the Schottenstein Cultural Center. They won.
Many Jews, Yeshiva University students in particular, were probably introduced to The Groggers only a couple months ago. In the aftermath of the now-infamous Beacon controversy, Staiman composed a song titled “Anonymous Girl,” an ironic acoustic ballad written from the point of view of the male in the article “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This.” In the song, the male addresses a naïve but curious Stern girl, offering his sage wisdom on the finer points of Orthodox Jewish promiscuity. The song begins, “Anonymous girl from Stern / You’ve got a lot to learn / And I can teach you if you let me.” The real genius of the song, however, comes at the end of the chorus, when Staiman unexpectedly croons, “But baby please...don’t send this to The Beacon.” This lyric hilariously lampoons the efforts of Anonymous to publicize her misdeeds to The Beacon, exposing the absurdity of the whole affair – the taboo, the article, and the reaction.
The song, which Staiman wrote in less than two hours, was easy ammo for The Groggers, who can’t wrap their heads around the controversy behind the Beacon article. “I just didn’t understand the whole controversy,” said Friedman. “I still don’t get it. To this day, I still don’t get it. I went to YU. I know that Stern girls aren’t all Stern girls.” Staiman added, “I read the article and I was like that is…an article. I wasn’t going to start nitpicking Beacon articles.”
But despite this easy material, The Groggers have skillfully turned some pretty heavy issues in the Jewish world into comic gold as well, successfully satirizing everything from the Agunah issue to the Shidduch scene. The title track of their first album There’s No I in Cherem perfectly captures the essence of their humor – biting but profound, critical but lighthearted – though Staiman, who does most of the writing, doesn’t always realize how deep he can be. “The album title is just funny,” said Friedman. “And Doug had no idea why it was so deep and profound. It means you’re not alone. It’s not always about the individual, whether it’s a person or a whole sect. There’s a whole team to think about. There’s a lot of in-group-out-group sort of thing between Jews, and it’s terrible…It’s not your good deeds, it’s our good deeds. It’s not your bad deeds. It’s our bad deeds.”
Their breakout hit, “GET,” which put The Groggers on the map in 2010, addresses one of the more serious issues in the Jewish world today, that of Agunot (women whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish bill of divorce). The chorus, “You gotta get get get get / Give her a get / Cause she don’t love you no mo,” brutally hits the issue on the head. But lest you think that the song was written with the intent to effect change in the world, think again. “At the time I write the song, I did not have friends who were agunas,” noted Staiman. “I wrote the song in 15 minutes while I was playing for a camp with Aryeh Kuntsler, and the song just from start to finish just happened.” In fact, while the The Groggers’ written material may often seem constructive, the intent is usually just to write good satire with the support of great music. “Rarely does Doug intentionally try to do something positive,” quips Friedman. “Yeah,” responds Staiman, “I usually try to anger as many people as possible.”
And anger he does. At one acoustic show on the Upper West Side last year, a mother rushed her two daughters out of the hall due to what she later claimed was “the graphic nature of the song.” Quick on his feet, Staiman decided to interpolate some improvised lyrics into the song, wishing the woman a good riddance and asking the men at the door not to give her a refund. “That incident was oddly gratifying,” said Staiman. “I was probably a little harsh, but the crowd loved it.” More recently, The Groggers were unceremoniously told to leave the annual YU Seforim Sale at which they were asked to play, again due to the thinly veiled innuendo of the music. According to a long note on Staiman’s Facebook page, framed humorously as a scholarly retrospective, “Scholars have speculated that back in 2012, the religious standards of appropriation [sic] did not include publicly singing about sexual intercourse on Friday night or resorting to alcoholism for breakfast to celebrate a fallen Hasidic leader.”
The truth is, The Groggers walk the tightrope between clever satire and offensive mockery with expert balance. They have tried to let the occasional absurdity of modern Jewish life speak for itself. “One Last Shatnez,” a brilliant tune about a man who just can’t kick his addiction to shatnez (the prohibition of wearing wool and linen together), and “Don’t Play Ball (on Shabbos),” an acoustic “folk song” in which Staiman hilariously affects a stereotypical Brooklyn accent, were both inspired by Staiman’s experiences from yeshiva, where he encountered some rabbis who may have had their priorities mixed up. “When I was in Jewish day school,” Staiman recounted, “we had a Rabbi from a very yeshivish background. And we were all much more modern, and a lot of us were secular. And he was like, ‘there’s an epidemic going on in our community, and I don’t know if you guys are involved in such activities…but there’s ball playing going on Shabbos.’” One can only imagine the dramatic pause before the shocking revelation. What did Staiman want to tell the rabbi upon hearing this? “You know there are kids doing drugs and hooking up with their girlfriends. I just did a line of blow in the bathroom!”
The sharpness of their satire is a product of The Groggers’ backgrounds. Having gone to Jewish day schools and yeshivas, they are “insiders” in the Orthodox Jewish world, which gives them perspective and license. Friedman, who grew up in Springfield, MA, went to Chofetz Chaim and MTA for high school and to YU and Queens as an undergraduate. Staiman moved around a lot as a child, but he spent time at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami for day school, and later studied at Yeshivas Ner Yaakov in Israel. They currently live in Queens, NY where there is certainly no shortage of Jewish life.
Their proximity to the Jewish community and their appreciation (or distaste) for the trappings of modern Jewish life shine through in songs such as “Shidduch Hits the Fan” and “Upper West Side Story,” two songs that deal with everyone’s favorite dinner table topic – the shidduch scene. But though Friedman and Staiman have both dated before (“not each other,” they assured me), they don’t consider themselves part of the “scene.” “I’m not in the shidduch scene at all,” said Staiman. “You have to be a half-decent human being to have your resume sent to other half-decent human beings. We don’t qualify. Some stuff in those songs comes from personal experiences, and some stuff is sensationalized. But we can make fun of it because it’s funny.”
“Upper West Side Story” does a particularly witty job identifying and satirizing the norms and conventions of the Upper West Side singles scene. In the music video, Staiman plays a newly initiated West Sider who, along with his posse, challenges a group of greased-up suits to a fight in order to win over a girl. One tactic taken by the ringleader of the enemy gang is to pull out a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a commentary on West-siders’ insuppressible need to impress. The chorus, “I wanna move to the Upper West Side /And find a pretty girl and never make her my bride,” turns the punk-style love song on its head by tactfully inserting the word “never,” insinuating that the West Side scene may not be as wholesome as some other young Jewish singles scenes.
Though their music is decidedly Jewish, The Groggers’ style and substance is worlds apart from anything currently existent in the Jewish music world, which contributes to their success and gives them the drive to continue to create and perform. “I think that if the Jewish music scene was different, we wouldn’t be doing this now,” said Friedman. “Jewish music is very cookie-cutter, very gray.” Yet the Groggers understand that they are fighting somewhat of an uphill battle. In a world where the Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” video receives over 7 million views to the paltry 35,000 for “GET,” the Groggers must carve out a loyal niche for themselves in order to succeed.
The Groggers are currently working on a second album, which will debut some time later this year. “It's going to be a more mature album for us with a bit more of a universal appeal,” wrote Staiman in a follow-up email. “Our goal is to maintain our identity as a band but begin to cater to a larger audience in the process.” They recently released the first single (“Jewcan Sam: A Nose Job Love Song”) for their upcoming album. The music video, which the band filmed in Miami, features Staiman having actual plastic surgery performed on his nose. The band proudly announces that the video marks “the first time in history that a band underwent plastic surgery for the sole purpose of a music video.” They have received overwhelmingly positive reviews for their work, and continue to churn out an impressive array of music.
In the meantime, Staiman and Friedman are enjoying the ride of their newfound celebrity. “It's very surreal. We definitely appreciate it and are grateful for all the people that have been so supportive and make a point of approaching us and telling us in person. We knew what we were getting ourselves into when we started playing music, and we’re really thankful that people have connected to it.” They would like to do a college tour after they get the new album in order.
Just don’t expect them at the next Seforim Sale.