When Israeli rock band Monotonix kicks out the jams at The Casbah this weekend, there may be a fire truck on stand-by. And an EMT. The power trio from Tel Aviv tends to douse stuff with lighter fluid (themselves included) and break things (themselves included).
First they have to show up, though, which may not happen, says lead singer Ami Shalev. “I am in Vegas and we just won $1 million and now we must cancel the show because we're rich,” he says in a thick Hebrew accent.
Actually, Shalev is calling from Bakersfield, and Monotonix is still very much on the road, leaving wide-eyed crowds and weary club owners in their wake at every tour stop. In the band's hometown of Tel Aviv, most venues have issued an anti-Monotonix memo.
“We're banned from most of them because they think we're too wild for them,” Shalev says. “We take it as a compliment.”
It's just as well.
“Rock 'n' roll is not really in the Israeli culture, and the scene is very small,” he says. “It's a small country, but even for a small country, it's a small scene. Rock 'n' roll is not in our tradition. If you want to get in a rock 'n' roll band, you have to go in the U.S.A.”
Monotonix, which also includes guitarist Yonatan Gat and drummer Haggai Fershtman, formed in 2005. The band's sound—MC5- and Thin Lizzy-lifted rock that's heavy on the riffs, light on the nuances—doesn't hold a candle to their infamously fiery live shows. Shalev says the onstage antics are incidental.
“It wasn't the idea when we started the band,” he explains. “But we kind of feel like we want to get free about things.
The live show is very important for a band like us, for every band playing this kind of music. The live show is the most interesting and important thing in the band experience.”
Call it chutzpah or chaos, but there's no escaping it. Shalev and his cohorts tear shit up, lighting floors on fire, spraying beer on the crowd (including fans like Fugazi's Ian McKaye at a recent D.C. show), dumping trash on each other and shaking incredibly hairy asses inches from awestruck faces.
“It doesn't get violent,” Shalev says. “It gets wild. Violent is never the vibe of our show. I've never said things have gone too far.”
Tell that to his bruised and battered body. Shalev, who's in his early 40s, takes the brunt of it, though his much-younger bandmates get their fair share, too.
“I have a lot of injuries,” he laughs. “In New York, I broke my left shoulder. And then a few months after that, I broke my right shoulder.”
When Monotonix left Israel in 2006, the band spent the next year or so playing more than 300 shows, including a super-hyped 2007 showcase at South by Southwest and opening slots for their friends Silver Jews. Monotonix also recorded a debut EP, Body Language, produced by Tim Green of The Fucking Champs and released in 2008 by Drag City.
Shalev acknowledges that compared with the band's ferocious onstage performances, the first recording falls flat.
“I like the EP, but I think it's too far from the live show,” he says, adding that Monotonix recently spent several weeks in New Orleans working on new material, which they'll soon record in San Francisco.
“We take recording very seriously. I mean, I don't know if we can do it, but the basic idea about this album is to capture the energy and vibe of the live show. It can't be the same and it can't be done in the same way, but we're working on it. It's going to be hard to do it, but I think we'll succeed more this time.”
Live energy isn't the only thing lost in translation. English is the band's second language.
“The lyrics, I can say, it's in English, but it is in a very hard Hebrew accent as you hear right now,” Shalev says. “The way that I think about things, it is in Hebrew, not in English. The language is in English, but the ideas—the way I think about it, the way we all think about it—is in Hebrew.”
The band's sense of humor transcends language, though, both on stage and in interviews. Back in Israel, before Monotonix's rock 'n' roll days, Shalev says he was a farmer.
“I was working in the fields, and, eh, that's how I used all my excess energy. The drummer Haggai was a hunter. And, eh, the drummer Yonatan was a fisherman.”
Take everything he says with a grain of kosher salt. Though Shalev insists he's being sincere, he and his bandmates have a reputation for being perpetual pranksters. Only when asked what he misses about Israel does he seem to tell the honest truth.
“My wife,” he sighs.
Oy vey. It's always the wild ones who surprise you. Monotonix play with Kill Me Tomorrow and Hostile Comb-Over on Saturday, April 11, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/monotonix.