[003] Amplifying Dissent with Mike Merenda & Ruthy Ungar of The Mammals

This week we talked to Mike Merenda & Ruthy Ungar about live performance, the healing powers of music and their music festival The Hoot.

[003] Amplifying Dissent with Mike Merenda & Ruthy Ungar of The Mammals
Photo credit Eric Gerard

We had the absolute honor of talking to Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar. They are a husband and wife duo who have recorded and performed their exquisite, original, Americana music together for two decades, as Mike + Ruthy and with their quintet The Mammals.

They make their home in the lush Hudson River Valley of New York where they and friends host their own thriving community folk festival, The Hoot – called "one of the best song gatherings I've seen in all my 94 years" by the late Pete Seeger.

After a hiatus in 2020, a successful Summer Hoot was held in August of 2021 without requiring proof of vaccine or test, and with a masks optional policy. The next Summer Hoot is currently scheduled for the weekend of August 27, 2022 at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, NY.

Music For All: Can you share your experience keeping The Hoot alive, and what it was like for you making the decision to switch to "from home" in 2020?

Mike Merenda: It’s hard to keep track of my personal evolution with regards to “health” over the last two years in terms of exactly where my thinking was at month to month. There has been so much to absorb and consider in terms of information, new perspectives, following the bread crumbs, disrupting paradigms. I feel like I’ve been in a self-assigned graduate school program under the broad heading of I guess what we would call Terrain Theory.  The journey has been (and will continue to be) absolutely transformative for me.

We had a new record come out in May 2020 (The Mammals, Nonet) so I was hellbent on doing whatever I could, within these bizarre new parameters, to champion that release. So, throughout the year, even as I was devouring Zach Bush interviews regarding the microbiome and innate immunity, we were more or less playing along with the narrative and jumping through the hoops. We played a billion livestreams and multiple concerts in the park, produced and promoted music videos the best we could, hustled radio stations and press outlets, etc. I really wanted to give the record it’s due.

Simultaneously, my thinking was “if there’s something going around, I should do everything in my power to prepare myself and my family for the inevitable encounter with “the virus.” But in my heart I was increasingly skeptical of the mainstream guidance (or lack thereof). I kept wondering “where is the vitamin d mandate?” Why are these early treatments being demonized? Why are all these inspiring natural health practitioners being censored? It started to become obvious that something fucked up was going on, something bigger than just bureaucratic incompetence. So, I basically started following the censorship.

For the 2020 “Hoot from Home” our thinking was, “ok, we’ve done a bunch of livestreams, and many of them were rather poorly produced. What if we produced a really beautiful livestream from the Ashokan Center with most of the bands performing live on site so there could be some semblance of communal energy and togetherness being transmitted even if there wasn’t an audience. The original plan was to do it outdoors with a multi-cam shoot. Unfortunately, the internet wasn’t robust enough to do it outdoors so we ended up spread out throughout the music hall and on an adjacent porch for our two alternating stages.
We used condenser mics to capture a room sound and while it wasn’t perfect (we perfected that approach for the following Winter Hoot in February ’21) it more or less worked and pushed the boundaries of what seemed culturally “appropriate” for that time. (God, that seems like a million years ago!)

Flash forward to June of 2021. We were hired to teach at Miles of Music camp on Three Mile Island in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee. The event had been cancelled in 2020 and the organizers were losing their minds, again, jumping through the hoops and following the guidances, state by state, in the lead up to their 2021 event. Originally the 2021 event was to be scaled back: limited capacity, no indoor group workshops or jams, and really more of a music and songwriting retreat. However! The week before it was to take place many mandates were lifted and, rolling with the punches, the organizers decided to present a more conventional program.

Yes, the camp required proof of vaccination or negative test to attend - and I was very uncomfortable having to get my whole family tested in order to get on the island - but we went along with it and, honestly, that week, for myself and my whole family, it was simply fucking euphoric. Were we the only uninjected people on the island? I think so. Was that weird? Yes. Was the logo for the camp an artist rendering of a tattoo heart with a mother fucking syringe being plunged into it? Yes. Was that fucking disturbing as fuck? YES!  But you know what? The simple fact that we got to spend a week making, sharing and teaching music in community was revelatory. It’s what we DO! It’s our life’s work. And what we had been deprived from taking part in for over a year. So, to say it was healing is a gross understatement. And, more importantly, as a parent, to witness our kids erupt with joy with a group of brand new friends after a year plus of isolation was . . . everything.
That Miles of Music experience affirmed that we had to do a “terrestrial” Summer Hoot in 2021. Of course we were concerned that the zeitgeist / mandates / regulations could pivot any moment (and they did) but we stayed the course. There was no way in hell we were going to demand proof of vaccination or a negative test. In fact, if the state demanded that as a condition of presenting the event I would have simply canceled the whole shebang. Period. Luckily, we were under the New York State capacity threshold (1,000) for requirement of such policies.

Which is not to say we didn’t make concessions. We programmed entirely outdoors. We hired mostly local / regional performers. We utilized a single stereo-pair of high end condenser mics for all acts to perform around “bluegrass style” which eliminated the need to share “close-mics” and eliminated the need for shared backline equipment. We hired mostly bands that were comfortable performing acoustically or “stripped down” (or were willing to create a set conducive to this set up.) And we eliminated back stage hospitality - again, to limit shared serving utensils and close proximity, as per the safety concerns, not necessarily of ours, of the community at large.

Then of course “Delta” came roaring through the media. We had one headlining artist bail. And one radio interview cancelled because our policies weren’t orthodox enough for that person.
But you know what? The Hoot was fucking epic. The new streamlined audio approach made the sound not only exquisite but the changeovers were simple and quick. The draw was comparable to previous years and the joy experienced throughout the weekend was palpable.  It was also one of my favorite Mammals sets in our 20 year history.  There was just so much that worked about that Hoot, despite all the extra challenges and energy that went into it.

So the Summer Hoot was a screaming success. Having said that, due to all the bullshit surrounding indoor events, we will not be presenting a Winer Hoot this coming February. It’s just too complicated to navigate indoor events right now. A friend of mine who promotes shows at Levon Helm studios (which is v only, btw) said only 70% of ticket buyers are attending the sold out shows. People are still so freaked out. And besides that, personally, I have zero interest in performing to a room full of people wearing masks.

Ruthy Ungar: In Aug 2020 it seemed like a fun idea to broadcast live from Ashokan with our band performing in the main hall (all spread out where the audience would normally have been), alternating with local guests performing out on the porch, and a few new and more diverse musical guests appearing via zoom. What a big day that was! Basically a 10 hour live telethon! It was epic and we never wanted to do that exact format again but we learned a lot.

Winter Hoot 2021 was a more do-able scale. We did a 4 hour live broadcast featuring a round of locals performing from the hall, a round of guests from around the world, and a round of fun archival videos from previous years at the Winter Hoot. Plus interspersed footage of Thomas Brown the ice sculptor doing his stunning live creation in the courtyard.

By Summer Hoot 2021 we were ready for in person again since even the most risk-averse folks in our community seemed to finally accept the fact that outdoor exposure to the virus is so minimal. We eliminated the crowded backstage food area and simplified the audio setup but otherwise were able to throw a really normal Summer Hoot! Masks were optional and vaccine status was not an issue.

Right before our set, I was scrambling to shift gears from event producer to singer, taking deep breaths and focusing my positive energy. I grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled down a rhyming message I’d been composing in my head throughout the afternoon. Something that would feel truthful and would still resonate with as many people as possible.

Photo Credit: Ovi Horta

Before the third verse of our opening song “East Side West Side” I asked the band to keep playing instrumentally and I shared these words:

Video Credit: Ovi Horta
Common ground beneath our feet
Our in the forest and out on the street
Common ground deep inside
Common problems, common pride
Common goals like love and health
And getting to be yourself
Common fears and common flaws
Will you look past mine if I look past yours?
I pledge allegiance to the seas and the skies
To the wise old woman and the baby that cries
I pledge allegiance to every one of you
I’ll stand by you, I’ll be true

Then I sang verse three:

My country tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Close-minded bigotry
And open hostility

So stand or take a knee
Just join your hands with me
And let freedom ring
Come on lemme hear you sing

There’s nothing like a Summer Hoot audience. I don’t need them all to totally agree with each other or with me. What’s cool is still knowing we can make good things happen together, we’re a community.

Were you worried about backlash for the return of The Hoot in 2021?

Mike: Like I said above, we lost one artist and one radio interview over our policy.  Somehow, we’ve been able to navigate this without having to “out” ourselves regarding our position on “public health,” shall we say. It’s a tightrope walk, and I think we’ll have to make a stand eventually. But for now we’re tying to lead with love, focus on what we’re for as opposed to what we’re against, and hope that our goodwill and community leadership make us “un-cancel-able.”  Haha. Fat chance!

Ruthy: One local radio DJ was made nervous by this inclusive policy and canceled our on-air pre-event interview but otherwise it went off without a fuss. We went out of our way to not make any big statements of our own opinions and tried to remain as sensitive as possible to anyone who had reasonable concerns. For instance, we did something a bit different with the bunk house that is usually a communal space with each bunk sold separately. We sold each quadrant as a large room which folks could use as they please (for family or friend group "pods.")

I'm unable to reconcile the vaccine mandates as anything other than a way to keep the anti-establishment, poor and working class out of certain spaces and segregate the population. Why do you think there isn't more push back about vaccine mandates and lockdowns in music, especially when it is hurtful to the same groups of people musicians often claim to identify with most?

Ruthy: I think there are 3 things at work –

1) People (musicians and presenters included) are legitimately convinced that vaccines are medically and scientifically great and can't understand why anyone would think otherwise, they truly believe that if everyone around them is vaccinated they are significantly less likely to get very sick and die.

2) Psychologically, the feeling of "banding together as one" is very powerful and positions the unvaccinated as "fringe" or somehow a destructive force, which makes it easier to exclude them.

3) Even though in my mind a medical decision (like a vaccine or abortion) should be a very private one, it's now quite acceptable to flaunt your jab photo on instagram and openly interrogate others on their status as a means of coercion.

None of this is about listening.

I'm thankful, though, that we do have close friends and family (of various vaccination statuses) who do listen and accept us for who we are.

Mike: This seems to come back to an issue of ‘equity.’  Whenever I get on my high horse about “agency” and “innate immunity” and “resiliency” and “lifestyle” I always get “privilege” thrown back in my face. And I get it! It’s all fine and good for me, who inherited a house in the country, who can afford to choose organic, who has the time and bandwidth to work on my health, etc., to preach lifestyle as a means of achieving radical wellness.

But what about the legions of folks who don’t have that option? Those who are working multiple jobs, living in crowded, polluted cities, and are, often unwittingly, eating processed, GMO, pesticide laced foods, and are essentially at wit’s end?  For those who are just getting by, the mainstream argument seems to be, those are the folks who especially need an outside medical intervention, to help them achieve “immunity” by any means necessary. Intellectually, that sort of makes sense. But in practice it’s completely fucked up because it ignores what I’ve come to believe are the root causes of disease and illness: poor nutrition, toxicity, and negative mindset.  

So, while the mainstream narrative seems to be “we have to protect the most vulnerable among us,” any talk of removing toxic insults from society, educating about health and nutrition, and supporting mental health gets brushed off as unrealistic, naive, and too time consuming.  

We live in a “band-aid” culture where, by and large, society is looking for the quick fix that covers the lowest common denominator. In reality it seems more like a race to the bottom.

The thing that has certainly been shocking and heart breaking for me is to see so many of my so called counter-culture, anti-establishment, “punk rock” brothers and sisters get completely on board with the injection narrative bandwagon.  What’s more is that many embrace the toxic, divisive rhetoric which paints us “unnies” as “dirty and dangerous.” Chalk it up to mass psychosis and fear, I guess. Paradigm shifts are messy as fuck. And we’re living though one right now. So there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance appearing in very surprising places.
A new mantra of mine is “moving from appreciation to integration.”  For years and years I’ve talked and sang about sustainability and community and biodiversity and ecology and decentralization. But now, ironically because I’ve been essentially kicked off the road, I am living it. For the first time in my life I am growing my own food. Not all, but some! For the first time in my life I am buying directly from local farms. Not all, but some!  For the first time in my life I have agency.  

As a touring musician of 20 years, how many garbage GMO meals have I consumed at restaurants, back stage catering, even delicious home cooked meals at well meaning hosts’ homes! The point is, if it’s out of your control, you have no idea what you’re eating. You’re an opportunivore by trade!  I mean, how much fucking ramen noodles have artists eaten in the last thirty years? SO FUCKING MUCH. While I used to think, “yeah, that shit is unhealthy but oh well” now it’s pretty much confirmed that “that shit will kill you from the inside out. Literally.”

So, there are a lot of pride, identity, circumstance, economic, and equity issues tied up in this “health care bombshell” that went off worldwide. It’s touchy. And explosive. I’m just lucky that I have the friends and circumstances which have allowed me to explore, grow and stand confidently in a place of conviction, discovery and healing.  

I am also a massive proponent of the ideas of the late Daniel Quinn. His flagship book is  called Ishmael and I’ve mailed several hundred used copies out to folks over the past few years. And we always have a bunch of free copies available on our merch table.

Daniel gave an address in 2002 called The New Renaissance which I believe aligns beautifully with this moment we are all presently experiencing. In The New Renaissance Daniel points to “seminal” ideas throughout history, ideas considered unquestionable or “gospel,” if you will, which were eventually jettisoned because they were flat out wrong. We’re talking about foundational understandings of “how things work” that needed to be abandoned for humanity to move forward, ie the Medieval period giving way to the Renaissance, etc.

Here’s an excerpt from The New Renaissance :

The extraordinary thing that is going to happen in the next two or three decades is not that the human race is going to become extinct. The extraordinary thing that’s going to happen in the next two or three decades is that a great second renaissance is going to occur. A great and astounding renaissance.

Nothing less than that is going to save us.

The first Renaissance, the one you met in your history textbooks, was understood to be a rebirth of classical awareness and sensibility. It could hardly have been understood to be what it actually was, which was the necessary preface to an entirely new historical era.

A few key medieval ideas were jettisoned during the Renaissance, but they weren’t replaced by ideas that would have made sense to classical thinkers. Rather, they were replaced by ideas that were entirely new–ideas that would NOT have made sense to classical thinkers. These were ideas that would make sense to us. In fact, these ideas still make sense to us.

The Renaissance (and indeed the modern world) came into being because during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries an interrelated complex of medieval ideas came under challenge. The centerpiece of the complex related to the means of gaining certain knowledge. During the Middle Ages, it was understood that reason and authority were the chief means of gaining certain knowledge. For example, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the earth was a stationary object around which the rest of the universe revolved. It was reasonable–and it was affirmed by a towering authority, the great 2nd century astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, Ptolemy. Similarly, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that heavy objects fall to earth faster than light objects–and this was affirmed by another towering authority, the polymath genius Aristotle.

But during the Renaissance, reason and authority were toppled as reliable guides to knowledge and replaced by . . . observation and experimentation. Without this change, science as we know it would not have come into being . . .

What I firmly believe is that we are on the precipice - perhaps even in the midst - of a New Renaissance.  And that the power brokers of our old, failed, highly profitable way of thinking are fighting like hell to keep us from evolving to an entirely new way of understanding the innate magic and complexity of life and the universe.  

Which is essentially why everything seems upside down.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the system indeed is a fucking fraud and it is imperative that we each begin to question everything. EVERYTHING.  And that begins with what it means to achieve health and wellness and sustainability and joy when profit motives are removed from the equation and replaced with agency.

I'm sympathetic that there are social and financial consequences for artists to speak out. This can make it difficult for fans to find musicians willing to push back against mandates – what do you think is the best way for fans to find musicians performing without restrictions?

Mike: I honestly have no idea. There will have to be a fair amount of sleuthing around the internet involved. I think in the short term there will be an underground scene that provides mandate-free events, like house concerts and basement shows . . . word of mouth, DIY.

Other than that, hopefully we can continue to maximize outdoor opportunities (people should spend more time outdoors anyway!) I’ve decided to embrace the outdoor experience as a good thing.

Ruthy: This is a great question. We are working from the other end. As long as we can, we'll be helping to produce outdoor events like the Summer Hoot without mandates, and we'll be refusing to perform at venues that impose mandates.

Most venues do a double-take and don't understand our request for this kind of attendee openness and flexibility.

We are concerned that if we go too big with our message we'll receive enough backlash to shut down the small opportunities that remain to us.

Where do you think the most pressure is coming from to remain silent and/or compliant?

Ruthy: Venues. Hands down. They want to appear safe and stay in business.

Mike: Well, for me personally it’s partly born out of respect for some of my bandmates who don’t see things the same as me. And also, honestly, a fear of facing the backlash that will inevitably come from both fellow musicians and fans (not to mention patrons).

I can’t tell you how many statements I’ve drafted to post only to bail and leave them sitting in my notes, unpublished. When #NaturalImmunity was banned from instagram I really thought I was gonna finally speak out. But I didn’t.

But now that we’re in a new year, and with the world twisting tighter and tighter, and the mandates looming larger and larger, the tension so thick and paralyzing, and the very real specter of a technocratic, bio-security surveillance state looming - it seems that this is the year I’ll have to find a way to take a public stance. It sounds hyperbolic: freedom vs slavery - but that’s where we’re at. (For more on this I would recommend listening to or reading  some interviews with investment banker, Catherine Austin Fitts. If anyone’s following the money and blowing the whistle, it’s her.)

In lieu of a social media post, however - no matter how well thought out and well written it may or may not be - I think I’d like to “come out” the best way I know how, and how my fans expect me to: with song.

Right now I’m sitting on several songs that I think speak well to my present world-view.  And as unpopular as they may be perceived, at least they’ll becoming from a pure place inside my deepest being.  As a fellow musician recently said: “I may lose a few fans but at least I get to keep all of my soul.”  And as Dr. Tom Cowan told me during a recent health freedom activist meet up: “State your truth and the angels will help.” These little bits of wisdom are really helpful to bolster confidence and mitigate the feeling of helplessness and fear.

Do you know of any like-minded musicians or venues you could share?

Joseph Arthur has been very outspoken on socials regarding his opposition to the narrative and mandates, etc. And of course John Joseph. Other than that it’s pretty slim pickings, at least in our scene. But really even at large! I mean there’s Eric Clapton and Travis Tritt . . . and I guess Right Said Fred. I’m sure there are others. Probably many I don’t yet know about and some who are still sitting on their hands.

Regarding venues, I honestly have heard very little. Friends of ours in NH said the Flying Monkey Theatre was presenting mandate-free shows. But you have my word that the Summer Hoot will always be mandate free.  And hopefully it will grow to showcase more thought leaders in new (and ancient) paradigms around health, joy, magick and wellbeing.

The 2022 Summer Hoot is currently scheduled for the weekend of August 27, 2022 at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, NY.

This interview is part of a series discussing mandates, restrictions and censorship with musicians and music fans —read more of these interviews here.

Thank you for reading! You can learn more about The Hoot and Mike & Ruthy's music here:

The Hoot Website
The Mammals Website
Mike+ Ruthy's Website

The Mammals
The Hoot
Mike Merenda
Ruthy Ungar

Listen to the latest from The Mammals and Mike+ Ruthy below: