There are two things you need to know about Monotonix. The first is that they’re a truly, profoundly great rock ‘n’ roll band, the sort of monstrous outfit you rarely see anywhere in the limp skyline of contemporary music, where rock ‘n’ roll bands now include husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, xylophones and glockenspiels. The second thing that you need to know about Monotonix is that because they’re such a truly, profoundly great rock ‘n’ roll band, they’ll probably never, ever make it big.
The band was started in Tel Aviv in 2005, by veteran punk frontman Ami Shalev. As a young Israeli with left-wing tendencies and a passion for everything that was fast, loud, and out of control, Shalev was always something of a hero of mine. His first band, Subway Suckers, made the sort of noise that very few Israeli artists in the mid-1990s dared make. If you tuned in to Army Radio circa 1994—and you would, if you lived in Israel at the time, as there was precious little else to tune in to—you would hear sweet songs about love and loss and loneliness. If you want to get the vibe, swallow a pack of Xanax and listen to this late-term musical abortion. And then there were the Suckers. You can listen to them for yourselves here, or simply learn all you need to know about them by the fact that their one modest hit was named “Shit Country,” the chorus for which consisted of Shalev shouting “Shit country! And shit government!” All of the band’s members were stage hands and soundmen, hard-working dudes who had made their acquaintance with the stage and the limelight by schlepping heavy crates and setting up equipment so that someone else could look and sound great. The Suckers were the proletariat of punk. Like Fugazi, the greatest working-man’s rock act this side of the E Street Band, they had a strong DIY ethic. They were real, and it came through in every note they played on stage.
The same thing is true of Monotonix. Together with drummer Haggai Fershtman and guitarist Yonatan Gat, Shalev’s current band is a paragon of self-sufficiency. At first, they arranged for a few shows in Israel, but these didn’t end too well: A tense, on-edge nation, unsurprisingly, wants something soothing at day’s end, and Monotonix’s sound was too much for most Israeli venues. Some shows were shut down mid-song, and clubs got harder to book. The fans were there; the venues weren’t.
With that, the trio cast its glance toward America. They went online, found the names and telephone numbers of bars and clubs that featured live music, and before too long, they had booked themselves a 21-date tour. In July of 2006, they were off on the road.
Listen to “Before I Pass Away,” from Not Yet:
Judging from interviews the members of Monotonix gave at the time, the tour took its toll. For one thing, Shalev was already in his forties and a family man. And even though the band sang in English—not an uncommon practice among Israeli bands, particularly those working in genres, like punk, with limited homegrown audiences—the cultural scene in the U.S. was something the three musicians weren’t used to at all.
“When we started playing,” Shalev told the Israeli website Ynet in 2009, recalling one particularly rowdy show in Richmond, Va., “mayhem broke loose, the sort of chaos we really weren’t used to.” Monotonix started playing, and the audience, entranced, grabbed the musicians and lifted them in the air, passing them along like puppets in a frenzy of shouting and sweat. It was love at first sight.
Until Monotonix’s next visit the United States—they are currently on tour in Europe—the best you can do is to take a look at this video, shot live during a 2007 performance in Tennessee.
All the staples of a great Monotonix show are there: The band plays not on a stage but amid the audience, the drum snares are set on fire, and the crowd looks less like a pack of rock aficionados and more like a group of protesters in Tahrir Square hell-bent on revenge.
Herein, however, lies the problem, the reason why, most likely, Monotonix—despite a cascade of recent rave reviews in well-regarded music blogs and magazines—will never become a household name: To dig Monotonix, you need to see them play live.
Their album, Not Yet, released in January on the ultra-prestigious Drag City label (home of Pavement, Joanna Newsom, and Silver Jews, among others), is fantastic. The band’s second, it was recorded by Steve Albini, the so-called Indie Godfather who worked with the Pixies and Nirvana. It delivers more raucous fun in 30 minutes than most bands manage to produce in a lifetime. But listen to the album, and then take another look at the live concert video, and it becomes clear that something crucial has been lost in translation. The difference between listening to Not Yet and seeing Monotonix play live is the difference between sexting and having sex.
Listen to “Give Me More,” from Not Yet:
Further proof of this chasm—call it the mind/body divide—was delivered to me when I tried to interview Monotonix for this article. I asked for an hour-long telephone conversation. A public relations representative replied “no one gets an hour. My mom doesn’t get an hour with me,” and then signed off with the emoticon “:P.” I bring up this example not as a criticism on one particular public relations representative, or even as an indictment of the public relations representative as a subspecies of mankind, but merely to point out that when bands that set their drum snares on fire rely on people who use emoticons to communicate, something very, very bad is happening.
What, then, to do? First, go to Monotonix’s Myspace page, listen to samples of Not Yet, and revel in that filthy, fast, and freaky energy that, once upon a time, we used to call rock ‘n’ roll, before Vampire Weekend became the cool band to listen to. And if you like what you hear, pray that I’m wrong, and that Monotonix will make it big in America after all.