RockFour has a gimmick cool enough to carry even the lamest band: Israeli quartet plays psychedelic power pop.
But it turns out that RockFour is an insanely great band, as demonstrated one March weekend when the group blew through Indianapolis for last-minute gigs at Birdy's Bar & Grill and Radio Radio. Jaws were agape at their fresh energy, flawless vocal harmonies and hook-laden songs driven by stinging guitars and Keith Moon-style drumming.
The response apparently caught the attention of Clear Channel Entertainment, which is bringing the band to town twice more this summer - first on Saturday to headline at Birdy's, then on July 7 during the inaugural Indy Summer Stages outdoor festival.
The dates fit right into RockFour's business plan, which is to build a presence in the United States and Europe after exhausting the Israeli scene, drummer Issar Tennenbaum said. The nation of 6 million has its recording, radio and concert industries, but opportunities are limited. Once you've played Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem - maybe the Egyptian border city of Elat, 'occasionally a closed gig in a kibbutz or something' - you're finished.
'You get into rock 'n' roll and you get so much adrenaline, and an hour later you're back in bed. You're home,' Tennenbaum said, speaking via cell phone from the Tel Aviv airport. 'So where's the touring? Where's the band atmosphere, being on the road? Most bands can't get it going for more than a few years.'
Although the Palestinian uprising offers ample reason for an Israeli band to tour overseas, Tennenbaum said the timing has more to do with RockFour's career arc than with the turmoil at home. Still, he acknowledged that random bombings and armed security checkpoints have put a chill in the nation's spirit, not to mention its nightlife.
'If you have one club in Jerusalem and Jerusalem suffers a terror attack, the chances are that gig's going to be canceled,' he said. 'We played last week, and the day before there was a suicide bomber there, and the gig was still on, but there was something in the general feeling that wasn't right, like 'We can't be happy tonight.''
RockFour formed around 1990, while Tennenbaum, guitarist Baruch Ben-Izhak, vocalist Eli Lulai and bassist Marc Lazare were pursuing their mandated period of military service. After recording four all-Hebrew albums for release in Israel, the band began writing and singing in English and looking westward for its future.
The shift has cost the group some of its early fans, however, and the Israeli music industry can't decide how to classify the new RockFour sound.
'We don't go on the Hebrew chart with the new songs because they're in English,' Tennenbaum said, 'and we don't go on the English chart because we're from Israel and that's only for European and American acts. We found ourselves in a trap, and the only way out was going international.'
The past year has seen a tour of Spain and four brief visits to the United States, including appearances at the CMJ conference in New York, South by Southwest in Austin and International Pop Overthrow in Los Angeles and Chicago. In February, the U.K.-based Rainbow Quartz label put out RockFour's first official U.S. album, Another Beginning, a compilation of the last two Israeli releases.
Sparked by ideas from Ben-Izhak, the members collaborate on songs that are catchy and melodic but complex and multisegmented, sometimes bright and sunny, sometimes dark and spooky. With plenty of 12-string guitar, mellotron, glockenspiel, tabla, echo, reverb and loopy sound effects, the self-produced recordings betray such influences as Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things, Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, early David Bowie and, of course, the Beatles.
The history lessons are less overt in the dynamic live show, though the band sometimes opens its sets with Floyd's 'Astronomy Domine' or the Creation's 'How Does It Feel to Feel.' Increasingly, RockFour is leaving its vintage instruments at home and crafting a more forward-looking sound. The band plans to release an EP soon while preparing its next full-blown album, which the members hope to record in the United States to cement their change of focus.
'So far we've produced everything ourselves, and we're really hoping to work with a known producer,' Tennenbaum said. 'It could be someone who's lost his star along the way and looking to make a comeback through our music. I know Baruch's dream would be working with Todd Rundgren.'
Oddly enough, Indianapolis has a special place in the hearts of these rockers from the other side of the world. One person who receives thanks on the new CD jacket is legendary music collector and longtime IUPUI professor Stan Denski, who was the first to distribute RockFour in the United States through his boutique psychedelia label, Aether-Or Records.
'We owe a lot to Stan for believing in us,' Tennenbaum said. 'He was probably our first international fan. That gave us a lot of confidence, that if someone of his caliber, with his knowledge, believes in our psychedelia, maybe we've got something going.'