Interview: Monotonix

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When Monotonix played Cafe Bourbon Street last summer, the few dozen folks lucky enough to experience the onslaught were talking up the Israeli band for weeks afterward. As the videos on the band's MySpace page attest (including one clip from the Columbus show), singer Ami Shalev has no reservations about tearing through the crowd, covering every square inch of the premises in the pursuit of connecting with his audience.

The band returns to Cafe Bourbon Street tonight along with Japanese wonders Green Milk From the Planet Orange and local metal masters Deadsea. I thought I had been cursed to play phone tag into infinity, but a few minutes ago I got a surprise last-minute call from Shalev. We spoke about his explosive live show, touring the world and being a rocker in Tel Aviv.

Your tour stop in Columbus last time around generated quite a lot of buzz. Do you remember that show?

Yeah yeah, sure. I don’t just remember it. We’ve got a MySpace video from that show. It was great fun for us. We played with a great band called Lambsbread. It was pretty wild and very enjoyable. It was a very good show.

The obvious thing people bring up about your band is your exploits during the live show. Has that always been part of your act?

Yes. We always want to be in crowd level. We don’t want to be separated from the crowd. We want the crowd to be a part of the show. We try to do kind of a party, you know what I mean? We want everybody to dance and be around us, and we want to feel the audience from very close. We don’t want to be on stage and get separated from the audience. If we play in a bigger venue, and it’s really packed, we must be on the stage because there’s no place for us and nobody can see us. So when we play in big venues, we sometimes play on the stage. And after some songs we go down to the audience and play with it. But usually we play on the floor and want to be a part with the audience and feel the power of the people, you know what I mean? Be one body with everybody that’s there.

Has that escalated at all since you started, gotten more extreme?

We’re trying to improve our show, so every tour we’ve got things that... We don’t think about the show at home. We don’t say, “Alright, now we’re going to do this.” It’s happened during the shows. We improve ourselves. It’s happened with the performance and also with the music. That’s things that we’re thinking about during the shows to improve the shows.

Does that confrontational nature stem from living in such a volatile part of the world?

Umm, I don’t think so. Tel Aviv is a really quiet city. There’s no bombing in Tel Aviv. It’s kind of a normal city. It’s not like a city in the United States because it’s in Israel, but there’s a lot of parts in Israel that are similar to European cities. There’s clubs and bars. Tel Aviv’s a great city. This situation, it doesn’t influence our show. The fact that we are Israelis and we’re born in the Middle East and Israel, that influences our show because this is our culture. It’s a different culture than in America. But not the part of the bombs. The part of the weather and things like that.

What is the music scene like in Tel Aviv? Is it comparable to what you’d find in an American city or a European city?

The rock scene in Tel Aviv is quite small, you know what I mean? Because it’s a small country and rock n roll is not the main music in Israel. It’s not like in America where everybody knows rock and loves rock. In Israel, there’s not a lot of people that love rock music. Most of the people like Eastern music. There are kind of hardcore in Tel Aviv that like rock music. Right now the scene in Tel Aviv is not so big, but it’s going quite good, you know what I mean? There are some clubs and some bands. Right now there are some bands that are touring. We are not the only Israeli band that’s touring right now. Quite good.

What about Israel on a broader scale?

Tel Aviv is kind of different from other cities in Israel. There’s three big cities in Israel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and in these three cities there’s people that love rock music. The other people in Israel are into what you call Eastern music. It’s kind of a crossover between Arabic music and Greek music, but the lyrics are in Hebrew. This is the main Israeli music.

Sort of Israeli folk music?

This is kind of like folk and the blues for the United States.

You were known more as a producer before you started Monotonix, correct?

I had a few bands before I started Monotonix, and yeah, I own a recording studio in Tel Aviv. And yeah, I produced and recorded some bands before I started Monotonix. But right now I’m really focused with Monotonix so I don’t have time to do it because I’m touring a lot of months from the year. But yeah, before this I was producing and recording.

Why did you decide to move from producing and recording to being in a band full-time?

Because I always played in bands. When the three of us started playing with Monotonix, all of us felt that right now is the right time for the band. My first love is making music. Because I love music, I want to be involved, and producing and recording is fun, but my first love is to play and be with my band. So when Monotonix came about two years ago, everybody in the band felt that right now it’s the right time to be more serious about a band and start touring. It felt right in this situation. I’ve got my studio there, and I’ve got people that work there, so right now I’m free to tour the world.

You have toured pretty heavily in the United States before even releasing an album. How did you end up playing so much over here? Did you have some connections, or did you just book it yourself?

The first and the second tour in the United States, we booked it by ourselves. We got some connections from friends of ours in bands that came to play in Israel and we promoted them, like Federation X, Silver Jews, Will Oldham, Calvin Johnson, Old Time Relijun. They’ve helped us some. But right now in the states we’ve got a booking agency called panache booking. She booked our tour right now, this last tour. In Europe right now we book ourselves and there’s some people there that help us with local booking agencies for each country. So we’ve got help from people. It’s quite comfortable for us right now.

Had you done a lot of traveling before you started touring?

I was in the States before and Europe. It’s not my first time. Everybody in Israel travels a lot because it’s a small country. It really presses on you if you stay in Israel. It’s the size of one state in the United States, even smaller.

Has anything surprised you about this country?

Yeah. All the time, all the time, all the time, all the time. For us, I don’t know how it is for an American, but for us every day is a surprise. There’s so many people. It’s huge. We aren’t used to driving so many miles without seeing anything. A lot of hours. It’s amazing, you drive about half an hour and suddenly it starts snowing, and after an hour, it’s sun and desert. You drive from Seattle to Denver, and every hour the weather changed. It’s snowing, it’s sunny. In the middle of the road, change time zone. It’s insane for us. And of course, a lot of people, the most surprising thing is people in the states are so kind, you know what I mean? They always give us a place to crash and everybody wants to help. In Israel it’s not like that. It’s tiny, but in America everybody wants to help you. It’s amazing. And every day that you play, you see more bands and more bands and more bands. It’s really great. It’s insane for us.

When will the album be out?

Right now on tour we’ve got the album. We’re selling it at shows. Right now we’ve got no label. We have some connections and we’re talking with labels, but right now we’re in negotiation with a few labels in the US. But right now, the people that come to the shows can buy the album. In the stores, the release date, we’ll figure it out when we have an American label. But I hope it will be soon.

How does it sound?

It’s kind of—I think the basic thing in this album is, first one, it’s got very live atmosphere because we recorded the basic tracks live as we play in a show. And we did it only on analog recording equipment. It’s kind of, I think, we try to take some points from the 70s rock and update them to today but really give it something from us. We tried to do it as much as original as we can, but kind of classic poppy music. I don’t know. There’s ’70s influences on it.

That reminds me: Are there a lot of record stores? Where do you get music?

Right now we are very, very deep into ’70s rock, all the huge bands from the 70s. Queen, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. All these bands. Also garage bands like the Sonics and all that kind of stuff. And a little bit from folk music. But right now we are very, very, very into ’70s rock. You know, Grand Funk, T. Rex, David Bowie, all these things. That’s what’s in the van when we’re touring.

But when you’re at home in Tel Aviv, is that music easy to find?

Hmmm… Yeah. Not compared to… There’s some great record stores in Tel Aviv that you can find really, really good music and some rarer bands that nobody’s heard about. It’s pretty easy. But if they don’t have it, you can order it. It’s not like in States that you go into Amoeba in San Francisco and that’s huge and insane. It’s all right. We can buy a lot of American music and British music all over the world. It’s not a problem for us. Tel Aviv is kind of, it looks like an Eastern city, of course it’s got a downtown and all that. But people in Tel Aviv are all the time traveling the world and U.S. and Europe and everywhere. So people really know what’s going on. And in this particular way, it’s kind of a Western city. It’s kind of a crossover. So there’s a lot of American rock music that you can buy.

Anything I didn’t ask you about that you want to say?

If anybody wants to have a good time, come to our show tonight. We’re playing with a great, great, great, great band from Japan called Green Milk from the Planet Orange. They do kind of progressive rock and they are really, really, really, really great. Come and see us. I promise everybody that comes and sees us that you will have a good time.