A few weeks ago, I was attending a high-profile educational conference in Tel Aviv when I overheard the beautiful people in the trendy T-shirts sitting behind me talking about that evening’s must-see concert, a gig by a band called Men of North Country. Excitedly, one of them held up an iPhone and played a few bars from one of the band’s songs, which sounded like a sweet mixture of Wilson Pickett and the early Kinks. Sulking in my seat, I was soured by the thought that I had failed to hear of this cool, new British band, now evidently popular enough to acquire fans and tour the world over. I chastised myself for getting old and promised myself that as soon as I got back to the hotel, I’d learn more about these lads. I did. That’s when I found out that even though they sang in English and were signed by a posh London label, Men of the North Country originated not from some suburb of Liverpool but from the north of Israel, which is where their lead singer grew up. On a kibbutz.
“It’s true that ours isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of Israeli music,” said the singer, Yashiv Cohen. “But musically, I had the privilege to grow up in Kibbutz Kfar Blum. The founding members of the kibbutz were primarily from the USA and the Baltic countries, and it opened me up to British and American music from a very early age. My mother’s family emigrated from Brooklyn, and growing up in my house was a bit like something out of Woody Allen’s Radio Days. I grew up listening to American records, to classic American rock, Heartland rock, and some soul music. Pretty soon soul became my favorite music. As I dug deeper into the genre I fell in love with Northern Soul, a dance movement that emerged from the Mod scene in northern England in the late 1960s, and from that point I pretty much fell in love with everything Mod.”
The Mods were Britain’s hipster kids, the ones who dressed sharp and rode stylish scooters and adored bands like The Small Faces. None of those things fit too snugly in Tel Aviv, a sweaty city on the shore of the Mediterranean, as far from northern England as anyplace could be. But Cohen didn’t care. After completing his army service and leaving the kibbutz for the big city, he started the Tel Aviv Soul Club, a monthly series of parties in which he and a few other friends played old soul 45s.
They soon became a hit. Like the gruff Dubliners who fall in love with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, the circle now congregating around Cohen realized that soul music worked its charms anywhere on earth where hard-working, hard-living young people come together for company and pleasure. Cohen became a sought-after DJ, but playing other people’s music just wasn’t enough. He felt the need to sing.
And so, he did, at his parties, over well-known tunes, a kind of clandestine karaoke. Those present, among them many of Tel Aviv’s leading musicians, took notice; loving Cohen’s delivery and his effortless yet heartfelt style, they suggested he start a band. Sometime in 2008, he did, and since the local soul scene wasn’t very big, he turned to other bands for collaborators. From Electra, a kickin’ rock band with a razor-sharp sound, he recruited the guitarist Nitzan Horesh, the drummer Boaz Wolf, and the bass player Doron Farhi. They were soon joined by the unimprovably named brothers Sizzling—Sefi on trumpet and Ongy on sax, both local horn luminaries—as well as the trombone player Ido Kretchmer.
The music they played was fast, but progress was slow. Making a living off of music is hard anywhere, even more so when you sound like no one else and sing in a foreign language. They all had day jobs—Kretchmer, for example, is a legal clerk in Israel’s Supreme Court—but they kept the band together. They called it Men of North Country, a name largely influenced by Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” a song that, with its lyrics about the winds hitting heavy on the borderline, seemed to capture their mood. And they recorded, often in their own living rooms, homemade tapes of their compositions, sending them around to friends.
One such friend happened to live in London and happened to be chummy with Andy Lewis, a British musician best known for playing bass for Paul Weller, the former leader of The Jam and the man who so influenced the Mod revival that he is known as The Modfather. Lewis loved what he heard; himself also a DJ, he started playing Men of North Country in London clubs. It wasn’t too long before Acid Jazz—the prestigious London label and home of such indie darlings as the James Taylor Quartet and the Brand New Heavies—came calling, offering Cohen and his friends a record deal.
In 2010, the band released its first single and made an instant impression in Britain. Metro, London’s omnipresent free tabloid, selected it as one of its featured tracks, calling it an “extremely likable Northern soul concoction.” The album, released earlier this summer, is getting similarly positive attention. Drowned in Sound, a deeply influential music blog, featured one of the album’s songs and stated that “if you stand on the sidelines when this comes on, don’t be surprised if someone shimmies over and—though grinning—calls you a joyless berk.” A European tour is scheduled for later in the year.
With so much attention being paid, it’s only reasonable to ask whether the men of Men of North Country are considering leaving Tel Aviv for greener pastures. I did, and they are not. “It’s true that our sound would make more sense abroad,” Cohen said. “Our lyrics are universal, and to me they are as personal—and, therefore, also as Israeli—as could be.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.