Shtetlblasters founder produces another CD this one by a rabbi

Michael Gill rates his decision to start a record label as only “moderately crazy.” Nearly 10 years after launching Sting-A-Bee-Back Records, the idea is looking a lot less crazy.

For 20 years, the Moraga-based musician has been a member of the Shtetlblasters, a popular bar mitzvah/wedding band for which he plays keyboards and clarinet. And founded. But since his musical interests proved broader, in 2004 he decided to become the next Berry Gordy, who started the Motown record label.

Or something like that.

Michael Gill in the studio

“It’s not something I’m going to base my retirement on,” Gill says of his label. “It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy the creative process of producing records and getting them out to people.”

The kooky name was inspired by a comment his son made years ago when he was only 5.  “He wouldn’t take any guff from anybody,” Gill recalls. “He came up with this adage: If a bee stings you, sting a bee back.”

Sting-A-Bee-Back Records (www.sting-a-bee-back.com) has released four CDs, all of which Gill produced and/or played on. The latest, “This One At Last,” is a collection of original and liturgical songs written and performed by Rabbi David Meyer (an associate rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco from 1986 to 1992) and Jon Nelson (the Jewish music specialist at the Boston-area synagogue Meyer leads).

It is the first overtly Jewish recording in the label’s catalog, which includes jazz and progressive rock titles. But perhaps not surprisingly, given Gill’s affinity for Judaism and Jewish music, every Sting-A-Bee-Back artist happens to be Jewish.

The first artist he signed was Arthur Pinchev, the former director of Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute near Los Angeles. A seasoned Jewish camp song leader, Pinchev is also a proficient pop artist Gill admired.

Sting-A-Bee-Back also has put out a CD by Sam Goldsmith, an alumnus of Berkeley High School’s vaunted jazz program and an accomplished vibraphonist. And Gill put out his own prog-rock release, “Blues for Lazarus,” in 2010.

“I come from the generation that used to love old LPs,” says Gill, 52. “There are a lot of players who don’t get their music out. One of them was me.”

Gill grew up in a family of musicians. His parents were pianists, while his violinist grandfather worked the Los Angeles studio scene with Frank Sinatra and Jewish music stars such as Mickey Katz.

His parents raised him on classical music, but by his teens, Gill discovered progressive rock and jazz, and off he went in that direction. He also had a passion for klezmer and the music of the synagogue.

To express the former, Gill co-founded the Shtetlblasters, which can play “Hava Nagila” with the best of them, as well as Motown favorites. And to sate his appetite for the latter, he became a Max Helfman Fellow with the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles, joining a group of composers writing new Jewish liturgical music. Among his pieces are new settings of “V’Shamru” and “Ein Keloheinu.”

Says Gill: “I have a great teacher there, Michael Isaacson, who explained that you have to look at Jewish music like a midrash. Is there a story you can tell from your own perspective through new interpretations of very old prayer?”

Running a successful do-it-yourself record company isn’t as farfetched a task as it might have been 25 years ago, when the music business was more rigidly centralized.

In the era of iTunes, CD Baby and other online music stores, it’s easier to make one’s way.

“We get whatever promotion we can,” Gill says. “A lot of blogs, emails. You can’t be just a musician these days. You have to be a marketer and self-promoter. We’re lucky in that there’s a lot of Internet radio out there, a lot of mechanisms for getting music on around the world.”

Though L.A. and New York remain the centers of the music business, Gill wouldn’t live anywhere but the Bay Area, which he considers a music capital in its own way.

“The reason I love playing Jewish music in the Bay Area is the diversity of the Jewish community here,” he says. “The Shtetlblasters might play an event at Chabad on a Wednesday, then something at a Reform synagogue on Friday, then play your traditional lesbian wedding on Sunday. I don’t know how many Jewish communities have this inclusive spectrum.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.