Arts & Culture

Monotonix, live at Club Congress, Tucson, Arizona, 3/25/09

“L’chai-im!,” the boozy voices blare, “L’chai-im!” The surging mass is a sea of open mouths and raised arms. But the solidarity is overwhelmingly cheerful. Even those who came reluctantly or in a mood to judge have succumbed. No matter how … Read More

By / April 15, 2009

“L’chai-im!,” the boozy voices blare, “L’chai-im!” The surging mass is a sea of open mouths and raised arms. But the solidarity is overwhelmingly cheerful. Even those who came reluctantly or in a mood to judge have succumbed. No matter how frantic things get, this is a crowd tuned to a non-violent pitch. The irony of the situation is that so many young, hip people keen to avoid ridicule have abandoned their impulse to find irony in the situation. The chanting, in other words, is sincere.

Since this scene took place, not in some quaintly progressive summer camp where Theodore Bikel songs fill the air, but a dark concert venue whose patrons are usually more interested in pairing off than achieving unity through music, this behavior is remarkable. Once again, Tel Aviv band Monotonix has pulled off its special brand of performance art, making something whole out of a crowd that had seemed hopelessly fragmented.

Given the difficulty that Israel has been having at getting any good publicity in the world, Monotonix’s achievement might seem like grounds for a commendation or, at the very least, a fat government subsidy. For a demographic that encompasses young Americans who love alternative music – and those who pretend to love it, in the hopes of becoming a “Friend With Benefits” – the long and frizzy-haired threesome of guitarist Yonatan Gat, drummer Haggai Fershtman and front man Ami Shalev is doing more to inspire goodwill towards their homeland than heavy-handed propaganda ever could.

The same might be said for Bar Refaeli , the Israeli model who recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. But whereas Refaeli’s elaborately preened loveliness informs Americans that Israel can be a place for musing on the body as well as body armor, Monotonix conveys a more complex message. Their performances also celebrate the body, surely, but in a less goal-directed sense. They urge us to rethink the standard usage of the word “concert,” since the crowd is as much a part of the show as the musicians who lead it. Everyone, in a sense, is working in concert, their bodies fused together by the desire to move as one .

While there is nothing overtly political in Monotonix’s art, they remind us that Israel wasn’t only created by the conservatives who currently steer its foreign and domestic policy. Their shows feel like a slice of life on a progressive kibbutz, where individual differences dissolve in the recognition of common purpose. Israel’s strong heritage of a leftism committed to decentralization and the do-it-yourself ethos has largely vanished from public view in the past few decades. But vestiges of it can still be discerned in the country’s libidinal life, where transgression can still be conceived of as a goal instead of a pitfall. Perhaps Monotonix’s greatest achievement has been to reactivate this attitude and present it in a form that holds appeal to young people in the United States and Europe. They might not be the sort of cultural ambassadors that government bureaucrats approve, but that’s precisely why they are right for the job

In a way, the band practices a kind of diplomacy simply by striving to make alternative rock, American style, rather than the club music typical of its native city. Interviewed before the show for a feature to appear in the Tucson Weekly , Shalev explained that, "In Israel, rock music isn’t really in our culture. For us in Israel rock and roll is kind of a foreign culture. The only way for us to see and hear rock and roll music is through records, TV and the internet. In America people understand that rock and roll should let you free. It’s the people’s culture. It’s nature. It’s in the blood."

The irony in this sincerity is that Montonix does a better job of stirring that blood into action than most American bands. Like the musicians of the British invasion, their distance from the United States inspires a passion that natives find difficult to muster. And the strength of that conviction gives Americans permission to suspend disbelief. It’s like seeing our new President through foreign eyes. Whatever reservations we may have about the performance of the current Administration, the fact that Barack Obama is so popular abroad, especially when his predecessor was not, makes us feel better about our homeland. And in reminding American audiences what they love about their own heritage, Montonix also encourages them to think positively about Israel. Could a culture that produced such a fierce commitment to freedom really be as bad as the country’s detractors suggest?

Unlike some of the clubs that a band of Monotonix’s stature plays, this particular venue, at Tucson’s storied Congress Hotel, attracts an audience which, if not racially diverse, at least bridges the gap between hardcore scenesters and casual concert-goers. Although some of those in attendance already know what the show promises, others are taken completely by surprise. Coming at the tail end of a two-week series called WXSW, the city’s low-intensity attempt to take advantage of all the musical talent passing through on I-10 on its way to or from Austin’s famous SXSW music festival, this particular bill has attracted many people who want to get more mileage out of their $15 festival pass. In a way, it’s the perfect crowd for Gat, Fershtman and Shalev, whose approach to rock and roll benefits from the friction generated by non-believers.

This is not to suggest that repeat customers will be disappointed. If longtime fans of Bruce Springsteen can act like new converts at his musical revivals, so could the followers of Monotonix. The Israeli band is certainly capable of inspiring devotion of that intensity. By the end of their set at Club Congress, people are lined up to purchase their records at the “merch” table even though the music has often seemed more like an appetizer than the main course. When a handlebar-mustachioed man in a tight-fitting, yellow knit outfit that makes him look like a huge bee has repeatedly leaped over and, in some cases, onto your head while his bandmates keep relocating their “stage” farther and farther into the crowd, it’s hard to pay attention to nuance.

Maybe that’s why Monotonix’s sound is so relentlessly spare. Live, their songs often feel like the preludes or codas to tunes that never come, the sort of improvisations that a rhythm section cobbles together while the singer struggles to resolve technical difficulties. And there are plenty of those. Because Shalev is continuously scrambling over the invisible walls that normally divide a band from its audience, his microphone cord takes on a demonic cast, snaking its way through the crowd with potentially deadly results. People keep tripping over it. One man gets his foot caught at the precise moment when the impromptu mosh pit demands a sudden shift in stance, making him look like a novice skier about to break both legs with a sickening crunch. At one point, I look to my right to see that the cord has become a noose tightening around the neck of a blissed out young woman who seems to welcome auto-erotic asphyxiation. During one ten-minute stretch, Shalev bellows on top of the bar without realizing that the cord has become disconnected, transforming him into a silent-film version of himself.

Fershtman’s drum kit is also subject to bouts of silence, as it gets dismantled and redeployed throughout the set, sometimes as a platform for Shalev’s crowd-surfing antics. Only Gat’s guitar remains in action for the duration of the set. When Shalev and Fershtman lead the bulk of the crowd out the emergency exit onto Congress Street, playing the part of the pied pipers of Tel Aviv, Gat stays behind, his staccato squalls eerily muffled by the blacked-over windows that separate him from his bandmates. During this part of the show, which recreates one of Montonix’s favorite forms of disruption, documented in numerous clips posted by the band’s fans to YouTube, I am startled when I suddenly realize that, overcome with the refreshment of cool air on my skin, I have stepped into a street that has not forsaken its usual function. Cars pass by, swerving to avoid the crowd, their occupants no doubt wondering if they have stumbled upon some strange midnight protest.

It’s a surreal climax to a show that has been engineered for surrealism. The more I think about it, though, what’s really surreal is how normal the show’s surrealism feels. Together with many of my fellow audience members, I have risked injury, taking one blow from Shalev’s leg as he was being passed through the crowd and narrowly avoiding more substantial impact when he dove headfirst off a table in my direction. I have been drenched in a variety of alcoholic beverages because he periodically lurches forward to repurpose concert-goers’ distractions. I have sought, despite my abject failure to tie proper knots in Cub Scouts, to keep the chords from getting hopelessly tangled on my account. And I have done all this and more while alternately bouncing up and down or letting the waves of energy rocketing through the crowd carry me to a new part of the floor. But the band’s refusal to play by the alternative rock rules strikes me as strangely rule-bound.

Like the riots my anarchist friends from college would spend weeks planning, the spontaneity in Monotonix performances is clearly the result of much foresight. Asked in the Tucson Weekly interview about how the band decides whether to include fire in their act, Shalev made it clear that the band’s transgressions are decidedly prudent. "If we want to do the fire thing, we ask the permission of the promoters and the owners of the venues. We don’t do it without asking or something like that. And if we’re allowed to do it, we see if it’s not too crowded and if it’s not and we feel that it’s not dangerous, we do it. If it’s too dangerous. we don’t do it. That’s the policy." His choice of the word "policy" is no accident. Monotonix wants to convey the thrill of anarchy without courting the dangers of true chaos. It’s a sensible goal for a band that wants to build a career. But it’s also why, despite the singular pleasures of my experience at the Club Congress show, I find myself pondering what it must be like for Monotonix to bust their asses to shape this sort of disorder night after night after night.

What’s it like to see Monotonix a second, third or fourth time? The thought clings to my body memories of collective bliss like something you just can’t scrape off your shoe. It’s one thing to visit a kibbutz for a month and participate heartily in its activities and another entirely to live there for years and years. Of course, this tension between singularity and repetition is integral to all live performance. Audiences expect shows to be carefully choreographed, yet wait eagerly for deviations from the plan. Whether the artist is Placido Domingo, U2 or Miley Cyrus, those deviations provide the details that give a particular performance value. And yet those are the same moments that inspire fans to traffic in live recordings. What resists reproduction in a live setting – the misplayed note that makes a song more poignant, the conversation with the audience that frames it in a new way – is precisely what fuels the urge for mechanical reproduction

Because the music Monotonix plays frequently seems like an afterthought, they aren’t like the bands that inspire a brisk traffic in concert recordings. Gat, Fershtman and Shalev certainly improvise with the best of them. But the variations they craft on the fly have more to do with the experience of the show as a whole. The Grateful Dead remain the gold standard for live recordings. They allowed their fans to bring in tape recorders long before file sharing made do-it-yourself reproduction seem like a natural right. The Dead were famous for their vast repertoire – set lists often varied wildly from one night to the next – and what aficionados call “space,” the unstructured jam sessions that would convey the show from one song to the next. Although Monotonix concerts include a good deal of sound that isn’t found on their limited discography, it lacks the distinctiveness, shorn of its setting, to inspire collectors. What gives their shows character is not the way they sound, but how and where the sound is made.

In a way, this makes Monotonix more like the Grateful Dead than its members or fans would likely acknowledge. The Israeli band’s live performances also involve “space.” But in their case it’s the musicians, more than the music, that moves. That’s why concert-goers who are possessed by the impulse to document their experience turn to video. These days, young people are accustomed to hold up their phones or cameras to capture shots of a band for absent friends or their own archives. The show at Club Congress took this practice to another level, though. As the performance rapidly escalated to a fine simulation of anarchy, many individuals decided that they had to record the whole concert. Some, clearly prepared for what they were witnessing, had brought high-definition cameras with them, which they gripped precariously above their heads amid the intense moshing.

Because it was often difficult to see the band from where I stood, I had the sensation that I was witnessing a “flash mob,” in which a group of people converge on a location and engage in a common activity that appears uncommon to the precise extent that they are doing it together, in public. Monotonix, I concluded, is the perfect band for the YouTube era, in which people not only feel the urge to document their meaningful experiences but share them with the world. The fact that Shalev would periodically strike a pose and hold it for several seconds, making sure the amateur documentarists had a clear shot of him, only reinforced this notion.

This is where the good that the band is doing to promote an alternative image of Israel has the potential to be compromised. Although it may be fashionable these days to assert that there’s no real difference between participating in an experience for its own sake and participating in it for the sake of storing memories for later use, the distinction still matters. And it holds particular significance for American attitudes towards Israel. The tourist so overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Land that he shuts off everything but his camera is an appropriate figure for a broader failure to see the country as more – or less – than a thrill ride. As powerful an experience as a Monotonix concert can be, the band’s insistence on making transgression into a ritual, performed as dutifully as their set list, threatens to limit the power of their example. The best tribute to Israel’s progressive heritage would be to inspire people to move in concert, not only during the show, but long after it is over.

This article was written with the assistance of Annie Holub