Music News

Israeli Gears

In the United States, we take classic rock for granted. It's become part of the very fabric of our being. And unless you get into deep album cuts (you know, the songs that aren't played on the radio day after day), it's hard to let go and just enjoy the music without getting somehow distracted by how much we hear the damn stuff. Classic rock tunes are everywhere, played to death. And the form as a radio format has become synonymous with age, a tired, put-it-out-of-its-misery cliché. So the classic rock fan is, by default, bogged down with a burdensome sense of baggage.

It's a sorry state of affairs, especially when you consider that most of the classic rock that's out there — aside from the actual classics — remains largely unexplored and underexposed. But two years ago, unbeknownst to us, in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, classic rock began to sparkle with fresh possibility again. We weren't exactly asking for it; we didn't necessarily even know we that needed it. But our beloved classic rock has a new fire under its ass, and its name is Monotonix.

"All of us in the band really, really, really like classic rock," explains frontman Ami Shalev. "But we try to give it something from us. I don't think that we do what you'd call classic classic rock."

Realizing that he's just coined a phrase, Shalev begins to laugh heartily.

"I just thought of that just now: 'Classic-classic rock!'" he exclaims proudly.

"We're an Israeli band," he continues. "We don't think like an American band. And we don't do an American music. In Israel, we have what they call chutzpah. And we come with it, you know. And the people in America really, really, really accept us very well. Because it's different from what an American band does."

Consisting of guitars, vocals, and drums, Monotonix not only brings a fresh, foreigner's-eye view to an art form that American audiences hardly ever get to see from an outside perspective, but also come with one of the most thrilling stage shows you're ever likely to catch in your lifetime. Impish and irrepressible, Shalev — whose diminutive stature; long, curly hair and mustache; leather pants and side-stepping, split-legged Rock God dance moves all combine to give him the appearance of a roadie from a bygone era at a karaoke night gone too far — spends as much time on the ground as the stage when the raucous Tel Aviv trio plays. He also likes to climb walls; hang from rafters and windows; jump all over audience, bandmates, and equipment alike; dance with random audience members, and start communal beer toasts by offering beer out of his sneaker. Not to be outdone, guitarist (and lead Afro) Yonatan Gat and drummer Ran Shimoni run about the venue, often playing the entire show right in the thick of the crowd with the drum set in pieces scattered about the room. They frequently call upon audience members for help with percussion, background vocals, and also to hoist them in the air when the mood strikes them. Shimoni can often be seen playing his drums in the air while the crowd holds him up.

"I fall down a lot during the shows," says Shalev, who compares the band's physical element to the athleticism of a soccer team and tends to find bruises on his body after shows, "but it's not so bad."

It's also a miracle that Gat never trips over his guitar cable. The band's dexterity, Shalev explains, is the result of training.

"He's got a very long guitar cable, and I have a very long cable for the microphone," Shalev says. "In the beginning, there was a lot of problems, but we trained. Right now, we control everything very good. Maybe when we'll be rich, we'll buy a wireless or something, but I'm not sure. It's kind of an agenda to play with a cable and not with a wireless."

Shalev says that the physical part of Monotonix's show goes all the way back to the band's first rehearsals.

"When we started the band," he says, "we wanted people to have the feeling that they can do [anything] during the show. That was the vibe we felt, even in the rehearsals — that we wanted to get free. So we started dancing and all this moving during the rehearsals."

Before you think "gimmick," think again.

"We don't think about these things," Shalev says. "We just feel that this music, the music that we got just gives us so much energy. It happens by itself. All the things that you see on our YouTube clips, it's all improvised. There's no movement that we plan."

In any case, the showmanship only grows out of the band's enthusiasm for the music, which they make readily available to the audience. There's a sharing quality that pervades the Monotonix experience. Though they play arena-rock licks in the mold of Thin Lizzy, Billy Squier, and Deep Purple, the concept of a stage becomes moot, and the space between band, audience, and the rock 'n' roll fantasies of both dissolves in a jubilant haze that leaves audience members smiling. The Monotonix spirit represents a kind of reverse-hospitality that feels fresh, in contrast to the American style of rock, where intensity often equates with aggression and anger.

And it's working like a charm. As Monotonix make their way across this country for the fourth time, the support from a community that usually prefers its classic rock with a large dose of irony just goes to show how disarming and effective this band is. Its supporters include indie-rock icons like Will "Bonnie Prince Billy" Oldham and producer Kramer. The latter flew to Israel to helm the band's self-titled debut album, and somehow managed to capture Gat's positively monstrous guitar tone. In concert, Gat sounds like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Godzilla — it's fat as a brontosaurus' ass, yet strangely (almost absurdly) clear in the high end.

So is this how they rock in Israel?

"No, no, no," answers Shalev. "That's not how they rock in Israel at all. We're different from other bands there, because most of them are indie bands or from the shoegazing scene. People are more shy there. People here are more free."

"I don't know how to say it," Shalev continues. "It's more rock 'n' roll here. It's loose. You can do whatever you want. People accept it. People aren't afraid of high volume. They never tell you, 'Man, the guitar is too loud.'"