The Rock of Repentence

Jeremiah Lockwood is the frontsman, singer, and lead guitarist The Sway Machinery, a band that belts out roots, rock, blues, and cantorial tunes. (Don’t believe me? Check out their downloads and prepare to be blown away.) The band is, at times, composed of members of the Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a testament to the band’s diversity, and its not-just-Jews appeal. Lockwood himself is an occasional member of dance-music outfit Balkan Beat Box, singing and playing guitar when appropriate.

Last Rosh Hashana, the Sway Machinery played its Rosh Hashanah show, “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” to a sell-out crowd at the decked-out gothic Angel Orensanz Foundation. This year, they’re doing a repeat performance at Le Poisson Rouge. This time around, you have to buy tickets (they’re finally becoming like a synagogue) — but the band is gearing up for a new and heightened concert/prayer experience, adding a short film and new nusah to their existing canon. We spoke to Jeremiah about his band, his family, and what he has in store for this Day of Atonement.

What’s the dress code for your Rosh Hashana show?

For us in the band, the usual old school formal — but there’s no dress code for the audience.

What’s the night going to be like? Is your concert basically a set of covers of the Rosh Hashana liturgy, or are you going to mix it up?

The set will consist of my compositions based on old cantorial classics. All of the pieces I perform will be from the High Holidays liturgy.

My work straddles the line between self-generated and traditional—I write all of the pieces, the arrangements and the harmonizations, but I closely research traditional pieces as part of my composition process.

So you won’t be taking requests, then.

That’s a joke, right?

What’s your writing process like?

It’s different for different pieces. Some are based on specific recordings — those pieces, I pretty much take the whole melody of the vocal piece. The original recordings, there’s no meters, there’s no metronomic pulse. Then I write horn lines and orchestrations and create a whole piece of music.

Other pieces are based on nusah, [on the vocal musical motifs] — I take these melodic fragments, and use them as the basis for creating a new song.

You’re playing pretty large venues now, but you still busk on the subway and at Penn Station. It’s kind of the opposite of what most Jewish artists do–venturing out of your comfort zone, and your typical demographic. How do random observers deal with you? What sort of reactions do you get?

I grew up in a secular environment and started playing on the street when I was twelve years old, so I would say if anything I’m more comfortable in the subway than in the Jewish world.

What’s your first memory of Rosh Hashana?

My uncle’s synagogue in New Haven. It’s a big barn of a Conservative temple– cold and foreign feeling–my uncle is a great Cantor, and I always loved hearing him sing, but this is the opposite of the kind of experience I’m going for with my Rosh HaShana project.

What kind of experience are you going for? What’s the ideal kind of reaction you want to get — and what’s the ideal person that you’re gearing this show toward?

I want people to experience something from out of their imaginations, something from out of mythological history — a communal, shared emotional experience from ancient history, or from 100 years ago in the shtetl, or from their dreams. I want it to be ecstatic.

Do you get a lot of non-Jews at the concert?

Yeah. I’d say maybe half last year were non-Jews. It makes perfect sense — who wouldn’t love beautiful, powerful, emotionally-engaging music? It’s not just for Jews, although it comes from a place in Jewish history.

Is this your first High Holidays with your new son? What sort of memories do you want him to come out of it with?

My sons are two and two months old…I’m still very much grappling with how I want to expose them to their Jewishness…although I would imagine they are already imbibing all kinds of information anyway, whether I’m ready or not.

What sort of Jewish stuff do you do with them in general?

We do some stuff with my family — Shabbos, and that stuff. I share my research into history, folklore, and kabbalah. As a parent, you think you’re going to create this finished product to present to your kids, but that’s not what life is like. My two-year-old is starting to sing a bit, and we have all sorts of instruments that he plays with.

Are you still playing with BBB? How did that come about in the first place?

I just finished a tour with Balkan..we played Hiline Ballroom last week. I’ve known Tamir Muskat, one of the band leaders, for close to ten years through the music scene in Brooklyn.

Do you think you’ll be doing this every year?/What do you have planned for next year?

Not sure yet, but I would like to find a venue in a different city to host the project next Rosh Hashanah. London, maybe….

This year, you’re also premiering a short film that you wrote, and that [artist] Andrea Dezs created. What’s it about? Where did the impetus come from?

It’s about a cantor, Ben Zion Kapov Kagan, and it’s kind of tells his story in a mythologized, allegorical fashion. He had a very tragic and difficult life. Last year’s concert was a sort of raw, animal power. This year, I wanted to go deeper, and touch people on other levels.

I wanted to open the part of a person that sheds tears, and shows pain — and the story’s also about coming to America, and he wasn’t able to bring his family over. It’s especially relevant to this time in history, where we’re all juggling several worlds at the same time. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the Sway Machinery. It’s what I’m trying to do with Rosh Hashanah.

The Sway Machinery performs “Hidden Melodies Revealed” September 29 and 30, the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah. For info and tickets, visit Le Poisson Rouge.

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