When I first saw Yonatan Gat, it was 2008. My boyfriend at the time was opening for a band from Tel Aviv called Monotonix. I didn’t know what to expect, but when the fire was lit atop Haggai Fershtman’s drum set, and the trash can was thrown on top of his head, I knew I was in for something amazing. Something that would ignite my soul. After that show, I saw Monotonix a number of times in different cities and states. Each time, the show was different. Always insane, but different every time.
Yonatan Gat was the ever so quiet one of the outspoken punk trio.
He was always looking down and strumming maniacally away at his guitar, occasionally whipping the cord around so he wouldn’t trip while Avi and Haggai bounced from corner to corner of the room, across the bar and into a tree outside. When I heard Yonatan was a solo act and touring, I knew it would be special.
In 2013, the Village Voice named him the Best Guitarist in New York City, and with two full albums released, his cult following has only expanded.With his solo career, Gat has backed away from the Monotonix face-melting delirium and has taken a more fluid approach to his music. Known for his intimate and fully improvised live shows, Gat draws attention to the experience rather than set start and end. Currently on tour to promote his latest masterpiece, Director, Yonatan Gat is joined by drummer Gal Lazer, and bassist Sergio Sayeg.
Speaking with Yonatan Gat was like listening to his music; a complete stream of consciousness that flows into your ears, and through your soul, giving a 360 perspective on what it means to make, see, feel, interpret, and experience music.
Yonatan Gat and his band play at the Happy Dog West in Cleveland, Ohio on September 10, 2016 at 9:00 p.m.
How would you describe the process of moving on from Monotonix to find yourself as a solo artist and creating your own sound?
It’s weird. You need to accept that if you’re doing your job really well, everything you want to happen will happen, but you can’t predict when and how exactly it’s going to happen. I always knew that after Monotonix was done I wanted to do something else completely. I didn’t want to try to mimic what Monotonix did. It was a unique combination of the personalities of the people in the band. If I did the same thing, first, I would be terribly bored, and second of all, I don’t think anyone could do what we did better.
I took a few years away and started working on my music and thinking about how I wanted to create music. There was always an improvisation element in my writing process. I remember as a kid taking piano lessons, I could never bother following the sheet music. I would always sit there and have the teacher listen to me improvise. I kind of went back to that experience which happened in Monotonix too, but in a different way. I thought to myself, ‘Who says you cannot do it in a punk band?’ There is a lot of improvisation in jazz and other sides of music. But a little less in punk music. Punk relies on three chords in song writing. I think it’s a little hard in punk.
If you want to use improvisation as a way to jam together, but to take it further like jazz musicians in the 60s and build around it. It’s always something I loved. With my own project, I didn’t have to take into account other people, and their limitations, and I could make music the way I envisioned it. I think the result is something I did with Monotonix. It’s the same energy. It’s a similar direct way. We lay on the floor. We communicate with the audience, though not in the exactly same way.
You’re not throwing trash on each other?
Yeah exactly. But in a way we are throwing things at each other… just different. The concept and the songs and the writing process is different from Monotonix. I was responsible for certain things. Avi [Shalev] was responsible for other things. And with this project my hand is in everything. It’s a bit more of a mind crutch sometimes. Other than that, it doesn’t feel different except for the type of music and the fact it is very reliant on [musical] improvisation. Monotonix was reliant on improvisation when it came to performance art. When it came to the music, it was the same song. It was still exciting. Monotonix was always fun when it was happening, but I would play the same song for a thousand weeks. But pretty quickly when I wasn’t with the same people, I realized if I backed away, and started something new and did my own thing, I wasn’t going to limit myself to play the same songs every night. And I don’t.
When you’re writing an album, what is the songwriting process like? How do you take those improvisations and record it? When performing live, what constitutes what will be played?
It’s complicated. There are many, many ways. That’s part of the point. The composition just happens all the time. My problem with art sometimes whether it’s music or something else is that it’s very separated from life. You see a movie about musicians in the 20s or 50s and life is so raw, sexual and crazy. But then musicians get on stage and everything is so formal and different.
What always interested me, and this happened with Monotonix, is breaking that barrier; That the stage performer goes here, the audience goes there on the floor mentality. I think the composition process is the same. I don’t want to live a life like anyone else’s. To stick with a pen and paper and articulate life… other people have done really well at that, but I want composition to take place all the time. I don’t want my music to be separated from the world as I experience it. And the way I know how to do it, is to make music all the time. When recording, I record things around me all the time and it makes its way in the music. At band practice, if a riff or groove emerges that can become part of a song, or disappear and resurface in the studio a few months later. I try to foster an environment where things just come out.
We very rarely sound check because I’m not interested in that. When we do, we just play a riff or some sort of song that just comes about and it becomes a song. Or we forget about it and a year later it comes back. I don’t even bother to record every tiny idea because it will resurface, even if it’s months or years later.
When I did Iberian Passage, there was a riff from the song “Seven to Seven” that I had to cut out because I felt like it was getting long and the point was made. The riff I really liked, but I forgot about it and didn’t play it at all. When I started playing with my current band, which is Gal Lazer and Sergio Sayeg, the first song we ever wrote was “East to West” [on Director]. The chord from that song was the forgotten riff cut out from “Seven to Seven”. No one noticed it because no one heard the full version of “Seven to Seven”, but the chords of the first song is the riff from the one of the last songs on the previous record. Maybe it’s a coincidence and maybe it’s not. But things can surface like that and it’s random and weird.
In a strange way, the audience gets to be a part of the composition process, and not in the cheesy interactive way. It’s in a legitimate way because someone thought it was a moment worth taping.
Sometimes people record our shows and send them to me. People see a concert and something triggers them where they think, “I must record this”. I will look at this video, and if the music is really interesting, I’m like “huh”, and then it might make it into the record. “East to West” is a collage of different compositions and was one of the first songs I recorded with Serge and Gal. The chorus was something I already recorded, but the very beginning of the song is just bass and drums for over a minute. That’s a musical idea that only happened because some guy shot our show in Nashville, and that’s what I was doing in that moment. If that person hadn’t shot that video, who knows? In a strange way, the audience gets to be a part of the composition process, and not in the cheesy interactive way. It’s in a legitimate way because someone thought it was a moment worth taping. So many things happen at our show, I have no idea what I’m playing sometimes.
Our show has a certain structure, but within that structure, anything goes. Somebody can choose something, and all of a sudden it’s a musical idea worth considering for the next record.
Compositions happen in sound check. Compositions happen in practices. Compositions happen in the shower. Compositions happen when I wake up. Compositions happen when I dream. It’s just all the time and all around me. You just need to give a chance to those things. Compositions are organic and you just need to let the music surface.
Compositions happen in sound check. Compositions happen in practices. Compositions happen in the shower. Compositions happen when I wake up. Compositions happen when I dream. It’s just all the time and all around me.
You use lyrics sparingly, why is that?
That’s different in each project. The record I’m working on right now has a lot more vocals. There are a lot of things I’m bringing back from the grave. I see myself as a guitarist. When I started this project, I built it around my guitar because it’s connected to the way I write songs. I think a lot of people struggle with instrumental music because they are used to vocals. The human voice is completely separate from instruments. The human voice is so much and it’s the person and it’s very powerful.
When you think about the amount you use it, songs have a structure that’s becoming useless today. Vocals are used so much like 80% of the time. What if I did the opposite? What if vocals are the interlude? The new record I’m working on, vocals are used in a new, and exciting way that is very different. I can’t say too much about it because it doesn’t have have a release date, but it will come out next year. Vocals will be very prominent.
How do you feel about the added attention you’ve received in recent years?
I’m content. I’m breaking my balls on the new record, and that’s what I concern myself with. I like the good reviews because they’re functional. The idea is to keep creating music and have stellar musicians to be able to work with and amazing engineers and great record labels. I have been so fortunate. You need some money, but not much. Many people will volunteer to help because it’s a strong spiritual community. Getting attention gets people to come to shows and gives me a few more hundred dollars to pay the musicians who work with me and continue doing that. That’s what it means to me. I’m much more intrigued to hear a particular individual’s thought on the record. That fascinates me more than this game that music is all about reviews and gatekeepers. I appreciate it and I am fortunate, but personally, it’s not what drives me.
I enjoy communicating with the audience and getting their input and ideas. I love talking to people about what they get from the record. The records are very open to interpretation. You can add a lot of your own ideas to the music. If I’m lucky, I get to do that for the rest of my life.
I feel like Monotonix embodied who I was in my 20s and really absorbed all that energy and craziness. Seeing your shows now in my 30s represents this era in my life. Introspective, fluid, etc.
I feel exactly the same way. My story is the same. I was in Monotonix in my 20s and now I’m in my 30s doing my solo project. That’s the kind of feedback I’m interested in getting rather than a good review. I think you need to appreciate the music, and be aware of it. The way it presents itself is important.
I think a big part of what I’m trying to present to the world is a different way of hearing things. Hopefully, that might help people think about different ways of seeing, smelling, touching and feeling things.
What do you want your lasting legacy to be?
That’s a huge one and it will probably change in a year. If you asked me in my 20s it would have been something stupid and I would have regret having said. Let’s see if I can swing an apathetic answer that I won’t read when I’m 40 and think, “Fuck, what an asshole.” I think people have the ability to think in very different ways than we think. Society and a lot of powers around us from childhood through adulthood affect us in very different ways and are hidden and we don’t always see them. I think a big part of what I’m trying to present to the world is a different way of hearing things. Hopefully, that might help people think about different ways of seeing, smelling, touching and feeling things.