A virgin encounter with the Israeli rock trio Monotonix inspires extreme gut-level reactions. First, there's the fact that often, one can smell the band coming -- these guys spend a lot of time on the road, far away from home. Then, there's this motley crew's looks, which are hardly indie pin-up friendly. Guitarist Yonatan Gat looks like late-'60s Abbie Hoffman beamed into 2010 without a shower, and drummer Haggai Fershtman has most often been compared to Borat. Frontman Ami Shalev looks a little like a viking shrunk down to gnome size, a hairy 44-year-old whose stage wear frequently consists of no shirt and obscenely tight athletic shorts.
Finally, there's the infamous Monotonix live show. This threesome has no use for a stage. Rather they'll start the set camped out in the middle of the floor, audience often timidly surrounding them in a circle. They won't end the show in the same place, though. It's a good bet that by then, Shalev will be hanging from a rafter, Fershtman might actually be drumming while crowd surfing, and Gat, well, he'll probably be out of the fray -- someone's got to actually play steadily.
Along the way, Shalev will go batshit. He'll throw garbage, dousing himself with garbage juice. He might steal your beer, or drink it out of his own fetid sneaker. He might kiss you. He might lead the crowd in confusing forward and backward counts of random numbers. He will probably sweat profusely on you; it's nearly unavoidable. He will be completely unpredictable, leaving a wide swath of the equally terrified and exhilarated in his wake. The show isn't violent -- but that fourth wall is definitely shattered, and unless you're prepared to stay on your toes, a raincoat might not be a bad idea.
You can quickly identify the camp of people who don't get it, who may have read the band's name in passing on a blog, or who simply wandered into the show by mistake. They spend most of the set with jaws open, before fleeing. Some may begin that way, but get converted (maybe Shalev will kiss them during the course of the show). The rest of us want to instantly make Shalev and company into our best friends forever.
If the gonzo theatrics can tend to overshadow the band's actual music, that's fine with Shalev, he says -- it's all part of the same package. But while the songs are more orthodox than the band's performance of them, they're still driven by a fierce, foaming-at-the-mouth intensity.
There are any number of classic type acts you might cite as soundalikes -- MC5 gets thrown around, as does Thin Lizzy. But that's splitting hairs unecessarily. The artwork for the band's recent debut album, Where Were You When it Happened, features the ban members emerging from a pulled-apart crotch zipper. That pretty much sums things up.
The Monotonix sound is clearly powered by the lower half, full of titillating carnal thrills: Gat's thrusting, throbbing riffs, Ferstman's stripped-down drum attacks, and Shalev's panting, moaning, and screaming. It feels more than a little dirty, and the best session with the band should leave you in a sweat.
New Times reached Shalev by phone recently in Tel Aviv, where the frontman was taking a rare break before gearing up for the current Monotonix tour, which lands in West Palm Beach tomorrow night at Respectable Street. Here's what he had to say.
Monotonix. With Surfer Blood and Woodmen Hall. Wednesday, January 27. Respectable Street, 561 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show starts at 9 p.m., tickets cost $7. Ages 18+ with ID. 561-832-999; respectablestreet.com
New Times: It seems like you guys have been on the road for the past two or three straight years. At what point did you decide to start touring internationally so extensively?
Ami Shalev: Basically from the beginning of this band, because there are no other shows for us. In Israel, you can't tour Israel because it's too small. If you wanna be an active band and perform every day, you should tour internationally, because this is the only way you can do anything. Israel is too small; you can only play there once a month.
You had another band before this, though, called Mono Addicted Acid Man. Was that the same line-up, and was the show as extreme as it is with Monotonix?
It wasn't all the same people. It was more, I don't know - I can say that it was more a conservative rock band, show-wise. The music was a little bit more, I can't say complicated, but less sloppy, less rocky. We played on the stage, and more like a regular rock band.
When did you become Monotonix?
Just after the old one was broken. We knew each other for a long time, and the thing is here in Israel, it's not so big, and everybody who plays this kind of music knows each other. We came to a point in time where all the bands that we got just broke, and then it looked like the time for us to start a new project. And from the beginning we toured international; we didn't even focus on shows in Israel.
When you did play in Israel in those early days, how did people react?
In the beginning, people were a little bit afraid of us. Then when people said, Alright, they're doing well internationally, people started to respect us and say, Alright, it's interesting what they're doing. But right now we're not in a point where we stay in Israel. We just come to Israel to chill out, be with our families. We are here now writing new songs, maybe for a new record or, I don't know, a seven-inch that we plan to put out after this tour. That's what we're doing.
How many new songs have you written?
Right now, we've got two new songs that we're gonna record in Chicago with Steve Albini after this tour. Then they're trying to put it out on a seven-inch, but things happen, so maybe we'll decide they're for a full-length record. But right now the plan is to record them.
How did you hook up with Steve Albini?
We know a lot of folks that were recorded by Steve Albini; he's legendary. I think it was two years ago, we made a tour in Chicago and visited his studio, and we said, Alright, I think next time we must record here. Right now it feels like the right time to do it, and we just connected with him, and he said, Great, come and do it.
I asked about people's reaction to you in Israel, but what were the reactions you got when you first came to the States?
Well, it's not like in Israel, because in Israel the audiences are much more conservative about the physical act. In the U.S., people are more used to the physical act. In the beginning, I can't say they were frightened, but maybe a little pushed to the side. In Israel, it was really funny, because they were really afraid! Our show is not violent at all. it's ridiculous for me, because I don't think we look violent. Then they get used to it.
I don't know, when I've seen you play in the States, some people definitely look scared. Or at least, they're standing with their mouths hanging open.
[Laughs.] Sometimes people react like that, with open mouth, and a little bit shocked! But that's part of life, of culture, part of art.
Where did the band name come from?
It doesn't mean anything. There's no real meaning. A friend of mine that I used to play with in an earlier band, he wrote it and I said alright, It's a great name. That's music.
What was the scene like in Tel Aviv? Were there any other rock bands or venues?
Not so much, not really. Most of the time we were by ourselves.
Were there any other like-minded bands, at least, there that you would play with?
The thing is, I think it's more influenced from bands from the U.K. and the U.S., things like that, from outside of Israel. Because I don't think that there are any rock bands in Israel that made me at that point, where I said, Alright, that made me want to start a band.
But everything in Israel, life itself, that's a main influence on our music, on the way that we perform, you know what I mean? What we do is culture. It's in our blood. The Israeli culture has got a really strong influence on us, but I can't say that it has influenced us, music-wise.
So how does Israeli culture influence your actual music?
The way people act in Israel, the weather, what they call the chutzpah! All these things, not especially in music, but all the vibe in Israel. It's a very different country from the U.S. or Canada. I think that you can see it in the way we perform and write our music.
What came first with this band, the music itself or the live show?
I mean, it's the same package. I don't think that there's something that comes before or after. I think it's in the same level. Everything that we made is the same, that's the way we look at it.
Did you plan from the beginning to play off the stage, on the floor?
It just happened spontaneously from the first show. The idea was to be one unit with the audience, the idea was to play on the floor to be with the audience and to be in eye contact with everybody, and not play on the stage. The idea was to break the boundaries between the band and the audience.
Did you think it would be so off-putting to some people, initially?
No. We didn't know. We don't try to shock. We try to make people feel good, relax, chill out, and be free.
Sometimes it's hard to relax, though, when you're trying to keep from getting hit by a flying garbage can or something.
That happened once by accident in Raleigh, North Carolina. I threw a garbage can and jumped into it. But there was nothing planned about that.
How much of your show, though, do you plan out beforehand? You've been known to spit fire, literally. You plan that first, of course, right?
The fire, yes, because fire is a very sensitive issue. You can't just do it while playing. You have to ask the venue owner or the promoter if you're allowed. Fire is very, very, very sensitive. We don't do it every show. We don't do it if the show is really packed.
Because of all this, with Monotonix, everyone always talks about the live show. Do you care that it sometimes overshadows the actual music?
No. I don't care, because it's the same package.
You've kissed fans, taken their drinks, accidentally hit them with stuff. Have you ever crossed the line accidentally and made someone really mad?
I don't attract people in a dangerous way. I never got a bad vibe from people. So I guess that we didn't cross the line yet.
What about your bandmates? You seem to abuse your drummer a lot. Has he ever snapped on you?
[Laughs]. Hmmm. I don't know. He is taking it very ... sportifically [sic]. He's a good victim.
Since you hurt your shoulder a couple years ago, have you changed anything about your live approach?
I have to ask you about the record. Whose idea was the cover art, and how do you think it reflects your actual music?
It was Nate [Yonatan Gat]; he designed the album cover and it was his idea. It's his body, not mine. Mine is very much more hairy.
Do you think it reflects your actual music?
Yes. It reflects the whole package, more than the whole music. It's good, because I want a connection between the music and the live show and everything, one packgae. The band, Monotonix, it's recording, the music, the live show, everything. I think it's represented very good.
It seems like you were going for a deliberately provocative image.
You know what, yes! And our music, I can't say its as provocative as that, but it's provocative in a way. It's provocative in the way that three Israeli guys doing rock and roll is a provocation, any way you look at it.
Monotonix at Bumbershoot 2008
Monotonix at All Tomorrow's Parties (England) in 2008
More Monotonix live... note the flying garbage can