Sean Altman looms large in the worlds of a cappella and novelty song. First, he's very accomplished and innovative and influential, and even has awards and stuff. Also, he's very tall. Altman is one of the performers at the City Winery's Downtown Seder, March 20 at 6 p.m. (the full list is here).
Your album is called Taller than Jesus. How much taller are we talking?
I've done a lot of scientific research on this topic, mostly from measuring my grandparents and their altercocker friends. These are tiny, tiny people and they we only born last century. The average guy at the time of Christ was 4'9" to 5'5". At an impressive 6'3" I'm not only way taller than Jesus but I probably would have been a side-show freak back in Nazareth, or at least a successful olive picker.
How many albums have you been on, altogether? Do you even keep track anymore?
I don't keep track except in moments of dread and insecurity when I obsessively count my albums and how many (OK, how pitifully few) women I've bedded. I've appeared on about 30 albums.
What brought you into the world of children's media?
In 1990, my vocal group Rockapella was featured in a PBS Great Performances documentary called Spike Lee & Co. — Do It A Cappella which aired internationally and got the group its first record deal (a single of "Zombie Jamboree" on Elektra). The producers of a kids' TV series in development called Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? saw our performance and thought our singing and manic antics would suit the show. We starred on that daily series for five years and all 295 episodes, and I co-wrote the infamously catchy theme song. Voila— instant kids' TV fame!
How has your approach to kids' music changed, now that you are a dad?
I don't play any "kids'" music for my 4-year-old daughter, just a wholesome diet of the Beatles, Julie Andrews and my originals (she'll inherit the copyrights so she needs to know what gems she's sitting on).
Did you predict the current zombie craze with? Any moves to bring the song back now?
Zombies never go out of style for very long; their tragic story is too compelling. I grew up on the '50s novelty calypso song "Zombie Jamboree," which was made famous in the '60s by The Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte and others. I arranged the song for my college a capella group and my arrangement is a bona fide staple of collegiate a capella (a dubious honor). During my 11 years with Rockapella we recorded my arrangement three times for three different record companies. My current group The GrooveBarbers recently recorded what I consider the definitive version, at least until I record a new treatment. I half suspect my own rotting zombie corpse will figure out a way for me to record yet another version of "Zombie Jamboree" from the grave: you know… the AMAZING posthumous rendition that's gonna finally get the Altman name up in lights, albeit L.E.D.s, as incandescent bulbs will have long been extinct.
Talk about being big in Japan… in both senses.
During Rockapella's kids TV heyday in the USA we had a parallel career as an adult act (not as naughty as it sounds) in Japan. We toured there eight times in four years and released eight albums, including two dozen of my originals. That record deal made me into a songwriter. "You mean if I write a song it'll go on an actual CD?!" (CDs were new and very fancy in the early '90s).
What is Musicians On Call?
Twice a month for the last dozen years I've performed bedside serenades for patients at local hospitals as a volunteer with a national organization called Musicians On Call. I specialize in Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and other vintage chestnuts. It's typically the most rewarding three hours of my day.
What is it with Jews and a cappella groups? Why so many?
I hear that University of Maryland has more Jewish a capella groups than regular groups! One obvious reason for the proliferation of Jewish acapella is that instruments aren't permitted on the Sabbath so there are lucrative work opportunities for vocal groups at Orthodox weddings and bar mitzvahs (I should know, I sing in a few of these groups as a freelance ringer).
Yes, you are Jewmongous, but what's harder: being Jewish or being humongous?
I absolutely love being Jewish and I'm fiercely proud of my Jewishness. That being said, I've never believed in God— not even at my bar mitzvah (sorry, Rabbi Gottlieb)— and I don't plan to start believing now. All I know how to do well is sing and write songs, so JEWMONGOUS is my way of connecting to my people. My goyishe friends don't get it: "How can you consider yourself Jewish and not believe in God?" I tell them that this is the beauty of being Jewish: it's a bloodline not a belief line! I get all the benefits of being Jewish— the brains, the jokes, the musical talent, the Nobel prizes, the food (OK, the food isn't a benefit) without having to set foot in a synagogue and pray.
What's so funny about being Jewish?
Religion is funny. OK, religion is preposterous and maddening and absurd— all of them, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and especially the meshugge Christian Scientists— but it's a fact of life that most of the planet believes in some form of handsome, bearded, puppeteer in the sky, so I've come to accept it and to do my darnedest to wring some pleasure from the comic side of it.
OK: Rockapella vs. Straight No Chaser in a cage match. Winner?
Rockapella, which has existed without me for a quarter century, still sings and writes circles around every other group. That being said, Straight No Chaser are younger and more plentiful by a factor of two so they'd probably win in a brawl.
Will there be a follow-up to Taller than Jesus?
Yes; I have yet to release such delectable titles as "Blame The Jews," (by Pope Anstisemiticus) "Phantom Foreskin," "Hooked On Hora," "Jesus Christ's Bar Mitzvah," "The Least Jewy Jew In Jewville," and several more. Expect a new album this December in time for my annual holiday tour.