This year, Jews everywhere can retire “I Have a Little Dreidel” from mass rotation thanks to the ingenuity of Guster’s lead singer, Adam Gardner, and Zambonis guitarist Dave Schneider. The two have formed a holiday-timed side project, the LeeVees, and will brighten the relatively sparse Hanukkah musical repertoire when they release Hanukkah Rocks on October 18th.
“There just isn’t a lot of contemporary Hanukkah music,” Gardner says. “It’s funny when you have these amazing songwriters like Gershwin and Irving Berlin who wrote Christmas songs, and they’re Jewish. I don’t know why the great Jewish composers didn’t write any Hanukkah songs.”
Appropriately enough, Hanukkah Rocks was recorded over eight days while Guster and the Zambonis were on tour together last spring. “We just picked up two guitars and went to the back of the bus and started cranking out some Hanukkah songs,” says Schneider. “They were just flowing like water.”
Built on buoyant guitar hooks, songs like “Apple Sauce or Sour Cream” mine popular holiday-fare to paint a funny and accessible picture of the holiday. But the LeeVees — the name is a tweak on that of Gardner’s childhood rabbi — also stress the musical value of the project. “I remember saying at certain points like, ‘God, it’s too bad we’re singing about applesauce, because I think this song is so strong,'” Gardner recalls. “The music stands on its own.”
Schneider is quick to note the impact of Jewish humor on the songs. “I grew up on the records of Allan Sherman, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner,” he says. “To make a Hanukkah record, it’s got to be funny.”
Another theme of Hanukkah Rocks is the alienation some Jewish kids feel during Christmas time; it’s treated humorously, but still thoughtfully, on the song “Goyem Friends” (goyem is Yiddish for non-Jew). “That’s a song for the Jewish kids so you can still hold your head high that you’re Jewish even though all your non-Jewish friends are getting these kick-ass presents on Christmas and you’re getting a six-pack of socks from your mom,” Gardner says. “It’s saying that you’ll get yours in the end, so don’t worry.
The LeeVees are currently assembling a band — “they all have very Jewish hair,” Schneider quips — and plan to play some shows in December. And as for the other handful of Hanukkah-related releases this year? The LeeVees aren’t fretting about competition. “We don’t want to take away from other Hanukkah record sales,” Schneider says, “but we’re very confident in our product. We would love to do a Hanukkah challenge concert, because we’re going to rock Hanukkah.”