September 16th, 2009 | Interviews


Download: Monotonix “Set Me Free”


(from Where Were You When It Happened? out now on Drag City)

Israel’s Monotonix are known and respected and perhaps even secretly coveted here in L.A. because of their world-wrecking live set and super-charged rock ‘n’ roll. Singer Ami Shalev speaks now while presumably fully clothed. This interview by Rena Kosnett.

Hello, Ami—ma shlomech?
Ami Shalev (vocals): Ani beseder. At yodaat eich ledaber ivrit?
No, no—I don’t speak Hebrew really.
Ami Shalev: Ohhh—because I prefer to do it in Hebrew!
The music trend in Israel is much more about the club scene, rather than live music. Do you think this is a positive or a negative thing?
Ami Shalev: I have to say that the rock n’ roll scene in Israel, it is almost not exist because it’s too small. You can’t tour in Israel. It’s not like to live in the real world of rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the music in Israel is a mix between Arab music and Greek music, as you know, and there’s a club scene in Israel. There are more people going to clubs than to shows. There are underground shows of course. Madonna is playing here next week so she’s going to have a lot of crowd. But it’s not something that happen every day. But I have nothing against it. I’m not angry about it because I love this country, and If I wanna tour I am going to Europe or Australia or the U.S., Canada, whatever. And it’s perfect because I come back to Israel, chill out a little bit and then going for another tour.
My mother is from Ramat Gan, and she left Israel for a lot of reasons. One of them is that her good friend was killed while she was in the army. But another reason was because as a young painter, she didn’t feel like she had the creative freedom to develop. Have you felt stifled like that?
Ami Shalev: Yeah, because in Israel… the thing is… It’s not that people don’t let you do whatever you want to do with art. People let you do whatever you want to. But there’s no really big art scene in painting, and in music, and you don’t have the opportunity to talk with other people about it—to see other people doing it. In Israel, if you are not in the mainstream and success, you can’t make a living for it. You don’t have a real market for it, so you’re just doing it for yourself. In the U.S., everything that you do got a huge market. Everything that people can go with their heart—with the freedom of their mind to do whatever they want. At this point, it’s not that people tell you ‘don’t do this,’ and ‘don’t do this.’ But there’s not a lot of people doing it and there’s not a lot of ideas in the air, so that’s the situation here. So I understand your mother.
Now she wants to move back—she’s longing for Israel.
Ami Shalev: That I can understand too. For people that born in Israel and raised in Israel, it’s home. America is not the place that I born in—it’s not my real home. My real home is here, my culture is from here, and the food, the language, the way people act, everything. So maybe that’s what she feels—that after she finishes her mission about painting and doing her art, she kind of miss the little things that make different—the food, the other part of the family, the culture, the language.
How were you exposed to rock ‘n’ roll music when you were growing up?
Ami Shalev: Ehh—for my age because I am 44, there was no Internet at all, there was no such a thing like MTV or music videos—I mean, music videos you could see, ppppfffffff, something like an hour per week. And of course records—as a rock ‘n’ roll record collector, you could search in the music store for something that you want. But actually it was very hard to follow all the things that happened in rock ‘n’ roll music in Israel. You can’t expose to all the underground scenes that happen—even in the ’60s and ’70s you can’t expose to it because you’re in Israel. So a lot of the bands that I growing up with—the classic ones, you know, Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, things like that, I found in the record stores. Now most of the bands from U.K. and America that come to Israel, it’s huge mainstream bands. Because to fly, there’s no chance that if you are a small band that you can cover the cost coming from the US, or even Europe—especially if you need to fly something like 3 or 4 people. That’s a real problem because it’s a kind of isolation. If you can drive with your car around Europe you can put it on your tour plan. But you need to fly to Israel, so it make it very difficult. It’s a shame because people don’t get the opportunity to expose to really new music. Or the chance that they got to expose is only by record or Internet or huge mainstream bands. It’s a shame. But ahh, you know, that’s what we got.
It’s funny because Monotonix have an amazing reputation developing in the States. In Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Portland, Seattle—reporters are writing about Monotonix being their favorite live band and one of the best shows at SXSW, but all the Israelis I spoke with, even the ones in Tel Aviv—
Ami Shalev: They don’t know us! Because we are not playing here. We are not playing shows in Israel.
I read that you saw Fatal Flying Guilloteens a few years ago, and that show made you want to form a new and more extreme band.
Ami Shalev: The first time that I saw them it was, I think 5 years ago. And this was the first time I saw a band that take the musical act as physically as they took it. And it makes a real impression because when you come from a place like Israel that you can’t be expose to things like that—I mean, you see something like that and it really impress you, and you say, ‘Whoa, that’s another way to do a live show!’ So I must say yes.
About your very physical live show—It seems like Israel is a country that is inherently all about the negotiation of borders. Do you think that shoving the microphone up your ass, groping women in the audience, pouring beer down your pants, etc., is your response to an environment of limits?
Ami Shalev: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m doing whatever I feel during the shows, and everything is kind of improvised. We don’t plan it before. That’s what everybody in the band feels very nature and comfortable with. But still, I must say, that I feel we are VERY Israeli. I think that we got—how you call it? Chutzpah! It’s the chutzpah and the bad accent and the bad English. Our show, in a way it’s kind of different from other shows because I’m aware that we are not the only or the first band that are playing on the floor and being physical with the audience. But I think we are taking it for another place. There was a lot of hardcore bands back in the ‘80s that the singer get into the crowd. Jello Biafra, David Yow, people like that. But our show is kind of different because we don’t take it from the anger side. We take it from the fun side. That is what people really want—is to have fun. So I think we got kind of a formula that work for us. A kind of point of view so that people relax about the show. And it’s amazing, because you can spill on people beer! If I spill beer on people on the street they will beat me! But, we got the vibe and during the show people kind of going with it. They see the band and the band not afraid to get dirty. To be in the crowd and everybody together in this party. So this is the magic.
Are you secretly self-conscious about your body when you take your clothes off?
Ami Shalev: Yeah, I’m working out. When I’m not touring I’m working out. I mean, I’m 44 years old.
You look great. And I’ve practically seen you naked.
Ami Shalev: Thank you. I’m working out back home when I’m not touring, and I’m not kidding about it, because at my age you need to keep working all the time if you don’t want to lose your shape. I remember when I was 20 or 25 I can eat whatever I want, do whatever I want, and nothing affected my body. I’m not saying that I’m eating only health food, but I need to work out when I’m not touring to keep in shape. I’m biking, doing a little bit push-ups, things like that. Not so much, but yeah—I’m aware that I need to maintain my body because the nature of this show.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt to be a looker when you got your record deal. That’s all they’re looking for at Drag City—a good physique.
Ami Shalev: If Hollywood want it like this, I will give it!
What do you think about the separation barrier being built along the West Bank? I’m interested in an Israeli artist’s opinion about this.
Ami Shalev: I’m not speaking about politics. We are coming from a very sensitive place, politics-wise. You know what I mean. And it will sound a little bit hippie, but that’s my point of view that people should relax. Take it easy. Wars are not good for anybody. And if people would just stop and think with logic, things would be much much much better and easy to settle up between countries and people. The situation that the world gets into…it is all the time like that, and I’m aware that this is human nature. But I think that people should make decisions by their sense, not by the instinct. Be aware that violence and war and all these things are not acceptable. It’s bad. It’s bad. So everyone should be act positive. I am aware that there is a lot of interest about this war, but that’s my point of view about it.
It’s specifically a feeling of not wanting to talk about the Middle East?
Ami Shalev: I can talk to people about my point of view, but I will take the position that John Lennon took, and say ‘Give peace a chance.’ That’s what I think. We should take this chance. About Israel. Here it is. About the Israeli politics, I think that’s what we need, what we must do.
What about trying to change things yourself inside Israel?
In Israel, I don’t know if it’s not going to change for the next 100 years, but for the near future you can’t change—I mean, I can’t change—I’m not a guy that’s gonna lead a revolution or something like that. I live with it in peace. I’m feeling very comfortable in Israel right now because I don’t have any expectation from Israel to be something that it can’t be.
Do you really think it can’t be, or do you just think it’s not going to happen any time soon?
Ami Shalev: I think that to be the country that I want Israel to be, we should solve a lot of problems before. We got a really long way to do, and it’s OK by me because we are a very young country. Even compared to the U.S., where it is a young culture and a young country, we are still very young. And still a long way to do. Really really really really important things we need to deal with before we start dealing with whether you can do your rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a lot of things we need to deal with.
If you look at social evolution historically, though, there’s an inextricable connection between creative change and political change. For example, if you think of the Dadaists in Zurich and Berlin, it was all about a political and cultural shift.
Ami Shalev: I agree with you, I agree with you. But it’s very difficult to do, because we are still fighting on our living here. It’s very hard. And we need a very strong leader who will take us to the next level of this kind of thinking. It’s very hard. I don’t know, I pray for this kind of day every day. I hope it will come soon.
You toured around on the F Yeah Bus, ‘Greased Lightning,’ in July of ’08 with some of my favorite people.
Ami Shalev: It was really interesting to get into a bus with 15 or 20 people and tour with them, and to do it with an American people. It almost felt like it was to—to get into bed with people that came from another culture!
Would you do it again?
Ami Shalev: No. I’m too old for it.
Too old to spend time in a bus full of young smelly Americans?
Ami Shalev: And the bus with no air condition? It’s too much for me!