It is not uncommon to find American alternative or indie bands with one Jewish member. Some down the years — such as legendary New York punks the Ramones — have featured two. But it’s quite unusual to find a band like Papa, a four-piece from Los Angeles, where all the members are Jewish.
“We didn’t set out to make it that way, but here we are,” laughs Darren Weiss, who is also quite unusual in that he is the drummer and lead singer. “We don’t really focus on the fact that we’re all Jewish, it’s just a part of who we are. But it is somehow reflected in our sense of humour — we all love Woody Allen, we’re obsessed with him.”
They’re also pretty obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and you can tell. Papa’s music is rousing, anthemic, designed to be performed in big stadia before giant crowds. I saw them play their first London gig in June at a small pub venue, the Lexington. The sense was of musicians projecting to a far larger audience, like four twentysomething scions of the Boss.
“We’re huge fans of Bruce Springsteen, so whenever we get those comparisons it means a lot,” Weiss says. He accepts, however, that unlike Springsteen, or at least the character Springsteen assumes in his songs, he is not a blue-collar Everyman.
“Springsteen did come from a factory part of New Jersey and his father was a factory worker, and he watched his daddy go off to the factory every morning,” he elaborates. “But that’s not my story. I grew up in Los Angeles.
I went to a liberal arts high school and then to a liberal arts college where I studied literature. My whole life was, for as long as I can remember, geared towards becoming an artist. Most Americans don’t have that luxury. Am I the average American Joe, like Springsteen? I would have to say ‘no’. But then I spent my whole life trying not to be the average anything.”
British pop band Prefab Sprout once wrote a song gently mocking Springsteen’s tendency to only write about cars and girls. What are the themes Papa return to on their debut album, Tender Madness? “The three themes that always seem to rear their heads are women, insanity and America,” he replies, laughing again.
Weiss hails from colourful stock. His maternal grandfather was, he says, “an amateur boxer, a travelling salesman and an alcohol bootlegger” who grew up in notorious gangster Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s.
“He was brought up in several gangs and had to move two or three times by the time he was 15-years-old because people were out to get him. My childhood was spent sitting listening to his stories of a very different America to the one we see today. It was like something out of a Robert De Niro film,” he adds, and he’s clearly not talking about Meet The Fockers.
His grandparents on the side of his doctor father also lived troubled lives.“They were both Holocaust survivors, both in Auschwitz, so that’s a whole other sort of American Dream from their perspective. My paternal grandfather passed when my dad was a child. My grandmother, who unfortunately now has severe dementia and can’t speak much, didn’t like to talk about it [the Holocaust].”
Nevertheless, her experiences were captured on Steven Spielberg’s documentary, The Last Days. “About 15 years ago, Spielberg started interviewing Holocaust survivors because that generation was dying off and he wanted to capture as many stories as he could. And my grandmother was one of the women he spoke to. So we do have her story immortalised in this documentary.”
Weiss acknowledges the vast difference between the lives of his grandparents and his relatively struggle-free existence in a touring and recording band whose star is rising fast on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It’s very difficult for me to come to terms with,” he admits. “When my grandmother was my age, she was having these experiences in Auschwitz and I’m in a travelling rock’n’roll band. It’s the same for all my grandparents — they lived such extraordinary, troubled lives and I’m fortunate never to have had to experience those things. But I’m constantly aware of them because they’re in my blood.”
You can hear how much Papa mean to Weiss — he even interrupts the interview to quote an extract from the author, Henry Miller, because he feels it captures the band’s essence: “The writer… is not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas. He is only to deliver himself naked and vulnerable.” So it’s a matter of life and death being in Papa, whose other main man is best friend Danny Presant, whom he’s known since he was seven and at whose barmitzvah guests were entertained with covers of Beatles and Blink 182 songs by Danny Presant’s Barmitzvah Band.
“Sometimes I have to tell myself it’s just a rock band, it’s nothing important,” Weiss adds. “But to me, we’re talking about religion.” He reveals that he prays every night before he goes to sleep. “Very seriously I believe in the healing power of music. I believe in rock’n’roll in the same way that some southern people believe in Jesus Christ. And I’m glad we’re called Papa. He [his maternal grandfather] was alive long enough to know that I started a band called Papa, which I think was something he felt very proud of and would tell people, even though he was more of a Frank Sinatra kind of guy. I hope he’d see that we’re trying to put ourselves on the line for something we believe in, something authentic, something true, that comes from our soul. And hopefully he’d realise that the sacrifices he made, and the tribulations he endured, went to something positive after all.”