To some extent, Yonatan Gat’s musical life will be forever intertwined with Indianapolis. Since leaving the punk band Monotonix in 2014, the entirety of the Israeli-born guitarist’s solo-led releases have been issued by the brilliant Indianapolis indie label Joyful Noise Recordings. That includes Gat’s latest, a fiery, consciousness-expanding musical manifesto titled Universalists.
I recently met up with Gat at Joyful Noise’s Indianapolis headquarters for an in-depth interview discussing the political and musical intricacies of his new album. Gat conceived Universalists as a blow against political and musical nationalism, and the record features an array of samples drawn from Alan Lomax’s field recordings of regional music traditions from Indonesia to Italy. Read on to learn more about Gat’s revolutionary musical philosophy.
NUVO: The last time we spoke, I asked you about the dynamic of your live shows, which are remarkably unique and often largely spontaneous. You break with the tradition of typical live performance by performing on the floor of the venue, with the audience forming a circle around you and the band. All of these elements contribute toward an exciting and unforgettable live music experience. While I love your recorded work thus far, I feel like you hadn't yet fully captured the energy of what you do live. But for me, this new album Universalists does capture the wild energy and almost chaotic creative spirit of your concerts. I think that was partially achieved through the use of sampling and post-production editing techniques. This adds a different dynamic to the studio sound, and injects an element of the unpredictability into the mix. Tell us about the process you used to construct the music on this album.
Yonatan Gat: It's very interesting what you're saying. Something like using samples, which is not something we do live really, is what brought some of that energy. I think it just goes to show how the studio and the stage are completely different beasts. We look at musicians in such a simplistic way. We think that the 13th violinist in a symphony, or a West African guitarist, or a karaoke singer, or a rock and roll bass player are all the same. We just call them all musicians. It's actually very different. So many artists that we know are really good in the live setting but not so good on the records or vice versa.
When we were making this record, we were trying to bring some of the approach from the concerts. At some point, it became very clear to me that the solution for this kind of recording has to be a studio-based solution. This record was created in 10 different sessions at 10 different studios over a period of three years. The idea was just to explore, to venture into studios and go into 10 or 12-hour improvisation sessions. We wanted to go really deep into what this music is and what it can do. It was a very long editing process. I sat at home and experimented with editing the takes. I found that something really powerful happened when I put on those samples of field recordings. All of the samples on this record were recorded by Alan Lomax. I was just toying around with these samples, and I found something really powerful happened when I was using recordings from Spain and Italy. I don't know what it is about those regions that resonates with my music, but those are recordings that really resonate with me and recordings that I love.
In the United States, Lomax was accused of being a Communist for those recordings he was doing in Europe and his universalist approach. I found that something really magical happened when I sampled those recordings, and it opened this new can of worms. The a cappella field recordings are so creative on their own that I started editing my music around the samples. "Cue the Machines" is a perfect example of how the field recordings influenced my music. The way the voices sing, and the rolling R's, it's a beautiful style called Trallalero from Italy that originates in Spain. Lomax said it was his favorite recording that he ever made. I noticed really radical things about this music that reminded me of hip-hop and electronic music. Once I started cutting their vocals that way, it felt really natural. It's really interesting to bring this vibe from a modern Atlanta strip joint to an Italian choir from the 1950s. It had a peculiar effect that resonated really well with our band. That became the process of the this record—understanding how to fit these different ideas together.
NUVO: When I listen to the record, it sounds like you're interacting with the samples, but from your description it sounds like the samples were added later in post-production?
Gat: That's a good question. The answer is yes and no. Every song used a different technique. On "Cue the Machines," we cut this 20-minute track down to what is now the song, and then added the samples. But on the song "Projections," I brought a bunch of field recordings to the studio that day. We were recording in Daptone's studio in Brooklyn at that time. I blasted the recordings from a bass amp in the middle of the room, and the band was responding to it live. Nobody but me knew those recordings; they were hearing them for the first time. The process was completely different on every song. "Post-World" is one of my favorites. It's a one-minute song, and I was performing what I call reverse-karaoke. I heard the beautiful a cappella recording and I added music to it with the guitar.
That's the interesting thing about this record—all the vocals aside from mine and the track "Medicine" are samples. These samples were recorded a long time ago from cultures that barely exist anymore. I bet a lot of the farmers in those parts of the world now listen to the same kind of music that young Americans are listening to. I bet a lot of the traditional music that had been passed from generation to generation is now disappearing completely. So on this record, I was working with musicians who couldn't answer me. I can't ask Catalina Mateu, whose voice I sampled on "Post-World,” what she thinks about my guitar on that song. As a person who cherishes and respects that music, I had to ask myself if I was detracting from their musical statement, or adding another possible way of looking at the music that already exists in the songs. For me, that was a big question as I worked with those recordings of dead people.
But then, I met the Native Americans that play on "Medicine.” I met them at SXSW. They were playing in the street outside the venue. I thought they were amazing, and I walked up to them and asked if they wanted to jam with us. They said no. But I told them if they changed their mind they were free to join us. So during our second song, I saw them bringing their drum in. We played a beautiful set and the audience was in tears. It was really beautiful. We decided we were going to collaborate, and I started thinking about Native American music. There's something about that music that is so distinctly North American, and they get so little credit. Credit is always given to jazz musicians, and to the American minimalists, and to rock and roll. But if you listen to Native American music, all the elements of rock and roll are completely there to the level that I couldn't even imagine rock and roll being possible at all without Native American influence. As soon as we finished recording "Medicine," I knew the record was done. "Medicine" was the first song on this record where I was liberated from using post-production techniques to achieve the result we were attempting to capture through samples.
NUVO: So far we've been talking solely about the musical aspects of Universalists, but I wanted to get your thoughts on some of the larger concepts you're addressing on this record. As the album title suggests, there is a thread running throughout the album that finds you looking outside your own experiences for inspiration, and making connections between different musical traditions from across the globe. In the press release for the record, the album is described as a political statement—your response to the tense global political climate of 2018. I've also heard from someone in your crew that this record was influenced by your status as an Israeli citizen. I understand that you resisted the mandatory Israeli military draft, and, to some extent, that forced you to confront ideas about borders and nationalism. Is that accurate, and did any of these factors influence the direction of Universalists?
Gat: I started working on this record before Donald Trump was elected president. But I think this climate of xenophobia has existed in the U.S. for a very long time. I think as people in the arts, and I'm addressing you also, not just myself, our responsibility is to create a world that we imagine, [and] not just reflect the world we see around us. If the world we see around us is hostile and close-minded toward foreigners and strangers, our obligation is to set the exact opposite example. On this record I was trying to communicate that idea more directly. I wanted the point to be heard. If somebody listens to this record and just enjoys the music in the most basic way, that's enough for me. But if they want to dig deeper, I think a lot of it is completely a response to the world around us. I think it makes sense for an Israeli to be forced to think about these things.
In Israel when you're 18, you're supposed to be drafted into the military. There's a lot of pressure to go., In fact, it’'s illegal not to go. My parents served, and everybody in my social circle went. I was the only person who asked questions about it. But when it came to the moment of truth where I finally had to decide if I was going to dedicate three years of my life to a war that I didn't even believe in, I found myself pinned to the wall. I had to have an explanation for why I wasn't going. That's when I started thinking about nationalism and what it really means. What does all this "Israeli-ness" that was instilled in me since birth really mean? What does the "Americanness" that was instilled in you mean? We always assume a person has a nationality in the same way that they have a gender, or something like that. Today people are asking questions about gender, but I don't see enough people asking questions about nationality. Even a lot of the gender fighters who are asking the most interesting questions would never doubt being American.
We always look at nationalism as something that's been around forever. That's not true. Nationalism was an 18th century invention—it's very new. It's something we've learned to accept, like a form of religion. Our nationality is just assumed, and I think there's something very dangerous about that. Especially in a place like the United States, where the nationalism is tinted with a sense of supremacy. There's a nationalism that says where I come from is a special place. But everywhere is special. Just because the United States is special doesn't mean that Israel or Cameroon is not. But there's a kind of nationalism that says the place I'm from is better, and I see that all around in the United States, on the right and left. This is something people need to question. The United States became what it is today by opening its borders and allowing people to bring their culture, and the U.S. became this kind of melting pot that created a very interesting 20th century here. Now we're taking a step back from this process. Is this something we're comfortable with? Is this the kind of place where we want to live?
I think all this translates to music. When you think about the way we're all connected and the access we have to music and information, then making this generic sort of rock and roll carries within it a nationalist statement. If you're the kind of person who only listens to one style of music, like punk or metal, are you insinuating that you think this genre is supreme to others? You've never heard music from another part of the world, or in another language that moved you? People are always trying to force genres on my music, and it's something I'm forced to think about a lot. But I never think in those terms. I just make the music. But people take a lot of pride in genres and why one style is better than another. I think that's very similar to nationalism. In reality, there isn't really even such a thing as genre. We just talked about rock and roll coming from Native American music, and rock and roll also comes from blues music. How can something be better if one couldn't exist without the other? It's the same for our nations. How can the United States be better if it wouldn't even exist without the other countries? I think it's time to start asking ourselves these hard questions in music. If we believe in a truly international world, a world where people can travel freely from one place to another and communicate with each other, if we make music that doesn't reflect those ideas, it just sends off the wrong message.
NUVO: Are you facing any backlash for dodging the draft in Israel? What was the final outcome of your draft resistance?
Gat: The outcome is that they were convinced that I am crazy. They just ended up accepting it. I had to jump through a lot of hoops in that process. Being 18 and facing that big life decision of whether I would go in the military or not, it forced me to ask questions about nationalism that have survived in my music ever since. I was forced into forming an opinion on this really complex sort of religion called nationalism. Look around us now. There are American flags hanging everywhere in Indianapolis. That makes sense I guess, but there are so many questions to be asked about that. Being forced to deal with those questions as an Israeli put me on a completely different trajectory. A fortunate thing about being a musician is the travel I get to do, and I try to see music everywhere I go. When we were working on "Cue the Machines" the video and song are a little bit of a tribute to flamenco. A lot of the inspiration came from traveling in south Spain and witnessing that music. That's a situation I always try to put myself in—encountering as much music as I can. But I see a close-minded world around me.
If you turn on a radio station right now, you're probably going to hear an American band or a British band. I used to listen to mostly America and British music too. But my life really changed when I learned to open myself up to different sounds. Sometimes that's not easy. Some styles of music, like gamelan music from Indonesia which we pay homage to on the song "Cockfight,” can be a bit jarring when you listen for the first time. Gamelan music doesn't have the same tonal system as Western music—it doesn't have the same approach to time. The time is very elastic. In the West, we think everything is linear and moving in one direction. For the Indonesians, time is something much more flexible. When we listen to another style of music, and the only thing we think about is why it's different from the style of music we like, it's a very easy way to reject the music. But if we think comparatively in a way of seeking similarities to the music we are familiar with, that's a way of respecting the different styles and cultures. Once you teach yourself to think that way, the world opens up to you. I can't even believe it when I think about all the music I missed during those years I was limited to listening only to music from certain genres.
Universalists is still a rock and roll record because I'm an Israeli guy born in the 1980s, and I had a lot of American propaganda and culture shoved down my throat as a kid because Israel is a country that has a complex dependency dynamic with the United States. That's true of a lot of places in the world. If we ask why people all over Europe and Asia are listening to American music, the easy answer would be that it's because American music is good. But in reality, this is rooted in a lot of political reasons—a lot of things that stem from the Cold War. In a lot of places around the world, American music is shoved down the people's throats. For a long time, it was not really a choice. But we do now have a choice. The last time I spoke to you we talked about Orchestra Baobab, the great band from Senegal. A few years ago, you'd have to dig for their records in some bizarre record store. Now, we can hear this music on our phone. So there are no excuses anymore, and this record for me is a document of my process in opening my mind to different ideas and learning so much from this insane and vast organism called human music. I'm not talking about American human music, or Israeli human music, or African human music. I'm not talking about a continent or a country. All these things are so connected, and the way technology connects us all right now exposes a lot of shared similarities.
NUVO: One last question about this borderless and universalist approach to making music that you're currently exploring. Last time we spoke, I asked you about the influence of Israeli music on your work. Specifically, we talked about Aris San, Zohar Argov, and Arik Einstein. You told me that you don't think Israel has a truly distinct and unique musical form or identity. Obviously, Israel is located in a culturally rich region with influences coming in from Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Syria and so forth. I'm curious how much of this universalist mind state you're currently exploring was influenced by growing up in Israel and not feeling like you had a unique musical identity to draw from, but at the same time being surrounded by so many rich cultural influences?
Gat: Yeah, I think on one side it sucks to come from a place that doesn't have a unique musical identity. I always feel like compared to an American musician, I don't have something to lean on that is mine. Israel is such an amalgam of things. The music you would call "Israeli music" is either Russian music, or like you said Turkish, Greek, Middle Eastern or North African—a lot of places actually, which is very interesting. But there isn't a single thing you can point out as Israeli.
That puts me in a position where I don't have an automatic place to go to, so I always have to look. That's what this record is about. It's about what happens when you embrace the fact that you have no safety net and nothing to lean on. Sometimes it's harder, but sometimes I feel like it's nudging me in the same way the decision not to go into the army nudged me to deal with questions of nationalism. Israel is a country that is 70 years old. In that region of the world, it is very young. Israel has a massive political climate that influences daily life and art in a radical way. All of that informs who I am. I think my music is Israeli in many ways, but I still don't know what exactly that means. But I will keep making music and exploring until I find out.