Israeli guitarist Yonatan Gat will bring his brilliant brand of unrestrained rock and roll anarchy to The Hi-Fi on Thursday, September 8.
Gat released his excellent debut solo LP Director on the Indianapolis-based Joyful Noise label in 2015. It was Gat’s first full length release since departing the Tel Aviv based garage punk band Monotonix.
With Monotonix Gat earned a reputation for wildly unpredictable, chaos-fueled performances. Gat’s current work maintains the raw, manic punk rock energy of Monotonix, while adding additional layers of musical complexity through the extensive use of free-form improvisation. It’s a powerful combination that Gat calls “unstoppable.”
Gat’s performance in Indianapolis earlier this year at the Fountain Square Music Festival was one of the best shows I’ve seen in 2016. Gat is an incredibly charismatic performer and an impressive innovator on the electric guitar. His upcoming show at The Hi-Fi will undoubtedly be a scorcher and I can’t recommend attending highly enough.
I spoke with Gat via phone from his current home in New York City.
NUVO: In live appearances you’ve become known for performing on the floor of the venue you’re booked in, with the audience positioned around your band in a circle. As an audience member this gesture had the effect of removing me from feeling as though I was merely a spectator, and I felt like an active participant in some sort of unfolding musical ritual.
As a musician I’m curious what you get out of performing in this style.
Yonatan Gat: I think it’s different for each project. It’s just kind of became the way I do things. In Monotonix we started playing on the floor because we had a certain objective — to shock people actually. [laughs] It’s hard for me to think about that now because I’m in such a different place. I’m much less interested in shocking people now. But I think shock has a lot of value and I think people need to be shocked out of their senses constantly. But I feel like I’ve already done that.
When Monotonix started playing on the floor we just wanted to do something very different and catch people by the balls, to get a response and make them feel something. Eventually Monotonix became like it’s own world and our interaction with the audience grew from that. For example, the way our singer Ami would take a beer from an audience member and spill it over his own head, or take a trash can from the ladies' restroom and spill it all over our drummer. That kind of came from playing on the floor, it wasn’t like the whole thing was planned. It started out as an attempt to really get in the audience’s faces, but it became something else. It became this interactive show where the band communicates with the audience in a very individual and intimate way — even when we’re playing really big shows. When I play festivals I usually set-up a little stage in the middle of the audience so people can see us all around. I don’t have to stand behind the barricades and I can really feel the audience.
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That’s the point of this band. When I started this band, playing on the floor was not for shock value or for a theatrical element. I wanted to have the audience partake in the show in more of a musical sense. And because the show is completely improvised, I wanted to make it 100 percent flexible, meaning anything could happen at any moment. Thirty minutes into the show we can do something we’ve never done before and keep doing that for another thirty minutes. It’s very open like that. Being inside the audience really allows us to improvise with the audience. I can really get the response of the audience and feel what they need. We don’t try to make an experimental show, and just stare at our effects pedals. We do try to communicate with the audience. Obviously we’re not going to start playing a Britney Spears songs just to try to impress people. But we’re there with the audience and we try to build some sort of community vibe with them.
There’s a certain play between us and the audience that I think makes the feeling you had at our show very true. You are a part of the music. You are a part of what you called the “ritual.” Just by being there and the energy you give, you can actually affect what happens next. There’s no set list and nothing is pre-designed. It’s all about adjusting to that moment.
NUVO: I think audiences have an unusually strong response to your live show. There’s a wild energy in the air when you perform. When you appeared at the Fountain Square Music Fest earlier this year, I saw friends of mine who would never listen to experimental forms of music become completely engrossed in your concert. At the risk of sounding cheesy, there was an almost shamanic quality to your performance that night.
I’m very interested in the rituals of Santería, candomblé and voodoo where performers transmit powerful supernatural messages purely through music. I’m curious how you view this. Do you think of yourself as a punk musician slashing your guitar in some primal expression, or do you feel your music is evoking these deep supernatural messages?
Yonatan Gat: Of course it is. Music is one of the deepest things you can have. Music existed before language. Music basically is the source of everything. Music can really tap into some of the primal experiences of being human. That’s actually one of the greatest things about punk music. You asked if I’m a punk musician just thrashing on the guitar, or if I think about music in a deeper way — and I think it’s both. I think punk music’s biggest contribution to the history of music is that it brought back this idea of getting lost inside your music. The jazz people had that, but then they forgot it. Around the ‘70s when there were all those progressive bands in rock music and everything was very self-conscious - actually it’s not that different from now. The punk rockers went back to that feeling of losing yourself in music, to kind of transcend language and ideas and get connected to this primal energy. I think that’s a lot of my attraction to punk music.
When I think about music as a ritual, I think every performance is ritual in a way. I like that people call it a ritual, and I agree. It feels like that to me.
But I like your question, and a lot people when they talk about our shows having a ritualistic element compare it to voodoo music or shamanistic music. For me one thing that sets our music apart from that idea, is that voodoo or shamanistic music is very repetitive. If you listen to voodoo music with all the Haitian drums it tends to have a very repetitive element. But our music is the opposite of that. So why do you think people make that connection?
NUVO: Perhaps because in the United States we are surrounded by Santería, it’s found across Latin America, the Caribbean and also internally within the U.S. I think that’s the most common example we have of relating to a form of music that’s used for communication with the supernatural.
Yonatan Gat: Interesting.
NUVO: I want to ask about your approach to playing guitar. As you implied, a lot of contemporary rock music has become very self-conscious and in my opinion quite boring. You’re one of the first guitarist I’ve heard in ages that has reignited my excitement for the instrument and made me believe that there are new possibilities for the guitar.
Clearly you have a unique style of playing guitar. I wondered if you feel you’ve developed this style independently, or if you feel there are particular guitarists who’ve influenced your approach to the instrument?
Yonatan Gat: I think it’s both, and more. There are a lot of guitarists I like that are less typical. When people ask me this question I think maybe they expect me to say Jimi Hendrix. Of course I love Jimi Hendrix, it’s sort of impossible to not be influenced by Jimi Hendrix as a guitarist. So me saying Jimi Hendrix is not interesting in a way. When it comes to Western guitarists I really like Syd Barrett and on the other hand I also like Robert Fripp, especially his work on the David Bowie records. I think Fripp’s experiments with Eno really pushed the guitar forward in an ambitious and interesting way. But I really appreciate Syd Barrett for the incredible touch that he has on the instrument. I think it’s completely unique and I was always drawn to guitarists like that.
So many things have been done already on the guitar, so it seems like it’s very hard to do something new in a way. But in a way it actually isn’t because all the groundwork has been laid before you. I think you can get insane ideas if you just open your ears and go a little bit beyond Western music, and go a little bit beyond rock and roll recorded between 1955 and 1975 — which most musicians refuse to do.
The guitarists I listen to are West African guitarists. One of my favorites… I don’t really know his name unfortunately, which is embarrassing. But he plays in this band called Orchestra Baobab.
NUVO: Oh, wow! You’re talking about Barthélemy Attisso. He’s one of my guitar idols. He’s from Togo and he traveled to Dakar, Senegal in the 1960s to study law where he joined Orchestra Baobab.
Yonatan Gat: Yes, he’s one of my favorite guitarists and I’m glad you know him. If you listen to his guitar playing, which is very influenced by Cuban music, you just get this insane amount of new ideas.
Even if you listen to a really famous guitarist like Django Reinhardt, which everybody in the West knows. You can take his ideas Not in the sense of studying him or mimicking his style as so many people do. Django completely dominates jazz guitar. He became not only a name, but a whole style of music. But if you listen to his approach to music, then of course you can do new things in rock and roll.
People are obsessed with celebrating a certain style of music, from a certain set of years, from a very particular part of the world called the U.S. and England. I think there’s much more music than that. I think if what I do sounds new and refreshing, a lot of it comes from my curiosity about many styles of music from everywhere in the world.
One more thing I want to say in that context is to talk about improvisation. We talked about how in the 1970s punk was an important thing to release rock and roll from its own ass. I hope maybe this combination of incorporating styles from outside the U.S. and England will lead to a new music. But it’s tricky talking about these things, because I don’t want to encourage people to go out and start an afrobeat band tomorrow if they don’t come from that part of the world and don’t understand that music.
I’m not saying you need to listen to Fela Kuti and imitate his music. But you can take his approach and implement that to your own music and that would immediately make your own music ten times more interesting. I think the place where a lot of bands fall is when they listen to a certain kind of music and than imitate the style. What can be imitated, without any danger of becoming an imitator, is approach. Fela Kuti had his own approach to music. Orchestra Baobab had their own approach to music. Jazz improvisers like Miles Davis had a completely unique approach to music. We don’t need to steal that, but we can use that to open our own minds.
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Maybe the same way punk rock saved rock and roll from its own ass in the 1970s, maybe taking in those influences and approaches from different musicians, from different times, from different parts of the world —
And maybe improvisation too! I think rock and roll is a perfect music for improvising. It doesn’t have to be jam bands playing twelve bar blues. There’s so much more to improvisation. The beauty of improvisation in jazz in the old days was the energy. It was the most insane energetic music. Going to a big band show in the 1920s was like going to a punk show at CBGB’s in 1976. Over time the music became very academic. I think improvisation, with the energy of a music like punk, is unstoppable. There will always be something new to say, especially if you are opening your mind to influences from wherever you can get them.
Our time on this planet is short and there is so much music. We only have to open our minds immediately. Then maybe people would stop voting for Trump.
NUVO: On the subject of guitar influences, I wanted to ask you about a Greek guitarist who became very popular in Israel.
Yonatan Gat: Are you going to ask me about Aris San?
NUVO: Yes! Has he been an influence on your work?
Yonatan Gat: [laughs] Haha, nice! Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’ve actually been rediscovering Aris San lately. In the last year I bought an Aris San vinyl on Ebay. The album wasn’t that good, but as a guitarist he’s amazing.
I think about this a lot: Aris San’s influence in Israel was massive, even though he was ostracized and had to leave the country at some point. There’s a documentary about him on Youtube. I think it has English subtitles - but if not, you’re screwed. It tells his life story and his story is insane. He emigrated to Israel and he became very successful because no-one could play guitar like him in Israel. Something really interesting happened to him, and I think this is something that happens to immigrants when they become very successful in a new country. The country just spits them out.
We saw the same thing with Charlie Chaplin in the U.S. This guy moves to America from England, and becomes huge. He was a genius director, he acted in the films and scored them. He had an amazing method of working, it was very improvisational. I get very inspired by people like him. He would shoot with no scripts. His script may have two lines and everything else just happened on set. I think that’s where the potency of his films comes from. Anyway, he becomes this gigantic American icon and in the 1950s they accuse him of Communism and he has to flee back to England at some point, humiliated with his tail between his legs. Spat out of the country where he helped popularize the cinema so much.
The same thing kind of happened to Aris San in Israel. He came to Israel and became huge. Then at some point, he did this weird thing. He started incorporating Arabic influences into his music. Which is of course something I do to, because I come from that part of the world. For me it makes a lot of sense to play those Arabic scales. It makes a lot of sense to have Arabic elements because I come from there. It’s not something I would recommend other guitarists to do because it needs to be in you.You can’t play something just because you like it. It’s not that simple.
But Aris San did that, and it was very groundbreaking during the late ‘60s and early ’70s. At that time nobody did that. Israel was a much more racist place than it is now. And people just thought he was insane. But for him, he was a stellar musician and it was the next logical way to go. He’s in Israel surrounded by the Arabic countries of the Middle East. Why not bring an oud in? Why not bring the Arabic scales and atmosphere?
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But people really freaked out. People started calling him a spy, an Egyptian spy or Syrian spy. People were saying he had a camera on the headstock of his guitar and he had to leave the country after being the most successful guitarist. It’s a really interesting story and I could talk about it for a long time.
But I think what he brought to Israeli culture was an appreciation for Greek guitar playing. That bouzouki style all comes from Turkish music and back to Arabic music. He really popularized that style in Israel. Now every Israeli guitarist can be influenced by that. So much of Israeli pop music has those elements in them.
So even if you don’t grow up listening to Aris San in Israel, his influence is completely inside you. He just completely reshaped music in Israel. He is an incredible guitarist, for sure one of the best guitarists to come out of Israel. He changed music forever and a lot of the change was incorporating those Greek, Turkish, Mediterranean, even Middle Eastern influences into the guitar sound of Israeli music.
That exists in my playing whether I like Aris San or not. But in the last year I’ve been on an Aris San kick and I’ve been really enjoying him. He’s a super creative guitar player. Getting into his music is a really good idea. There are great videos of him on Youtube where you can watch him go, and he shreds.
NUVO: Were there any other musicians or records coming out of Israel that were important for you?
Yonatan Gat: I don’t know. Israel is a very problematic place. It’s a very young country. It’s been around way less than a century and I don’t think it has really developed its own identity in music yet. I think part of the problem for Israel culturally is that it’s still looking out to the West for inspiration instead of trying to finds its own voice. That’s a problem in general for musicians around the world. That’s part of what I’ve been complaining about with rock and roll bands. They’re not trying to find their own voice, they’re trying to glorify the 1970s or something like that.
A lot of bands in Israel are trying to sound like American or European bands. Or on the other hand, they’re going for that cheap shot of being an ethnic-whatever band - which is something I’m not that interested in. It’s definitely not organic to bill yourself as some ethnic world music band. You can call all music world music, and all music is ethnic music. I have a lot of problem with that.
So music in Israel has not been an inspiration to me in the way that I sit home and listen to a lot of Israeli records - outside of a really great Mediterranean-Israeli singer named Zohar Argov. He’s really good. There are some great songwriters and some great musicians, but not as many as I would want to see. Of course there is Aris San. But I think the future might be better.
I think the influence for me is just being from there and absorbing the musical culture, whether I wanted to or not. That makes me a different guitar player than any American guitar player because I have this completely different cultural background. Even if I just wanted to make rock and roll. When I was young I listened mostly rock and roll. But slowly over the years you kind of understand that the music you make is a combination of what you want to make, and what you are.
NUVO: You mentioned Syd Barrett earlier. Continuing with this idea of Israel developing a distinct identity in rock and roll, I wanted to ask you about a band from Tel Aviv called The Churchills. They made a very interesting self-titled LP in 1968 that combined traditional Israeli music motifs with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd psychedelic rock. Do you feel like this Churchills’ album is a valid expression of an Israeli-born style of rock and roll?
Yonatan Gat: Interesting. Yes, it’s valid enough. It’s considered a legendary record amongst psychedelic collectors. You happen to know all these things — but Aris San and The Churchills are rare things in Israel. You’re not going to find a lot of examples of this kind of music in Israel.
I heard that record a few times. It doesn’t sound like the most unique piece of music I’ve ever heard. I like it, but I don’t feel like it adds anything to my musical world at the moment. ...
Of course it’s valid and I think it’s a beautiful record in a way. There are a lot of interesting things about it. But in the future I would expect more from Israeli bands - and from bands in general. But yes, it’s an interesting record and I should get into it again. I don’t want to say too much about it without listening to it again more recently. I already said a lot.
From the way I remember it, it sounds like a band that was looking outside of Israel. But that band actually ended up playing on very weird Israeli records by this famous singer named Arik Einstein. In the later ‘60s they became his backing band. They made very interesting music together, but it still suffered a bit by trying to imitate The Beatles and whatever was fashionable at the time. But it still had some kind of Israeli flavor.
I think it would be very interesting for somebody to curate some sort of Israeli rock comp, because I think we definitely have enough stuff for at lest one very interesting compilation. But other than that, I think the future is where we want to be looking when it comes to Israeli music.
NUVO: Finally, speaking of the future. You’re signed with the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise. Do you have any upcoming projects with Joyful Noise that you’d like to share with our readers?
Yonatan Gat: We’re working on our next record. It’s been two years of that. I started working on the record as soon as we finished Director. It’s a bit of a different project. It’s been an insane two year process where we keep going back into the studio recording more stuff and doing crazy editing experiments. I think it’s going to be very special. It’s definitely not going to be rehashing what we did on our last record. But I think it will have a lot of what’s good about that record. I think our next LP will be something that people who like our music can really look forward to and I’m definitely interested in hearing people’s reactions to it. We also have a love DVD coming out soon. A lot of the DVD was shot at our Fountain Square show.