by Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
“I fall down a lot during the shows,” says Monotonix frontman Ami Shalev, “but it’s not so bad.” Impish and irrepressible, Shalev—whose diminutive stature, mustache, leather pants and sidestepping, split-legged Rock God dance moves give him the appearance of a roadie from a bygone era at a karaoke night gone too far—does indeed spend a great deal of time on the ground when his raucous Tel Aviv trio plays. He also climbs walls, hangs from rafters and windows and jumps all over the audience, bandmates and equipment alike. Not to be outdone, guitarist 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 an airborne mood strikes.
Hours after arriving in the States to begin a 70-date tour that runs through Nashville on Halloween night—and just a day after Monotonix performed six times in one day at the ZXZW festival in Tilburg, Netherlands—Shalev assures us through a thick Israeli accent that we shouldn’t worry about him or his bandmates having mishaps such as tripping over guitar cables and things like that.
“He’s got a very long guitar cable, and I have a very long cable for the microphone,” says Shalev. “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 explains that the “training” for the physical aspect of the show goes back to the very first Monotonix rehearsals in 2005. But acrobatics alone don’t account for the irresistible jubilation that this band creates. Monotonix indulge an unabashed, uncalculated love for classic rock while including the audience in an explosive show of reverse hospitality. It’s the kind of thing we rarely experience on American shores because bands here, even the most conscientious, tend to equate intensity with aggression and distance. Either that, or our bands that have a like-minded garage mindset go too far with their revivalism, stifling the joy they’re trying to re-create with repressive, in-your-face posturing.
But when Gat marries the familiar strains of Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore and Billy Squier to a Godzilla-huge bottom end for an ungodly—yet sparkling-clear—guitar sound, the seemingly immovable roadblocks between the audience and its fading rock ’n’ roll fantasies dissolve in a splash of Shalev’s sweat.
“All of us in the band,” Shalev explains, “really, really, really like classic rock. But we try to give it something from us. I don’t think that we do what you’d call classic classic rock. We’re an Israeli band. 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.”
As Monotonix make their way across this country for the fourth time, the swell of support from a community that normally prefers its classic rock with a large dose of irony just goes to show how disarming the band is. Their supporters include Will Oldham and legendary producer Kramer, who actually flew to Israel to helm the band’s self-titled debut album.
Monotonix’s emergence naturally leads you to wonder whether there’s a burgeoning music scene in Israel, or specifically Tel Aviv, a cultural center. But Shalev, who runs a small recording studio/label operation, Fast Music, dashes any hopes.
“When you live in Israel,” he says, “you can’t tour. You can only play in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem—three places only. So the scene is not a real ‘scene.’ It’s very small, with very few bands.”
And you have to again wonder, based on Monotonix’s buoyant vibe, whether rock music is contributing at all to the unification of young people from Israel’s various clashing communities.
“I’m afraid not at all,” Shalev answers. “Not that I know. That’s what we dream about, peace in the area. But right now, the situation is not so good.”
Perhaps, then, American listeners—and bands in particular—would do best to take a cue from Monotonix, for whom the pursuit of a good time is evidently neither vacuous nor something to be taken for granted.
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