Music News

A look at the minimalist music and maximum insanity of Monotonix

He looks like a cross between a young Albert Einstein and a biblical prophet. With a wild mustache and a shock of curls bursting from his head, clothed only in shorts so tiny they look more like a loincloth, Monotonix vocalist Ami Shalev gesticulates like a man possessed as the band, set up on the floor in the middle of the audience, launches into its first song.

The crowd loses it. A wave of kids presses in on the band and writhes as if in Pentecostal ecstasy.

This is a standard Monotonix performance.

What happens next is less a shock than an inevitability: Shalev, dismounting from the drummer, whom he has crawled atop, shifts his weight onto his leg and something snaps inside it. Shalev — his knee "shredded," in his words — summons the tenacity to push through a few more minutes.

"Is there a doctor or paramedic here?" he says, only after the song is over.

Immediately, someone yells: "You fucking pussy!" The crass thanklessness of that remark is weirdly heartbreaking, given the history of Shalev and his band. Though Shalev is modest about it, noting Monotonix is not the first band to make a policy of setting up in the middle of the audience by a long shot, Monotonix is very possibly the first to do it with such utter disregard for personal safety. Shalev has climbed up to balconies, dived from great heights onto masses of fans and even set himself on fire in performances, never missing a beat.

Drummer Haggai Fershtman routinely endures both Shalev and random fans crawling on him and his drum kit while casually maintaining perfect time. Guitarist Yonatan Gat has mastered the art of throwing down blistering licks while being molested by throngs of drunks. In the history of rock and roll, there's rarely been a band to throw itself so wholly into every single show.

Shalev, meanwhile, is nonplussed. "Pussy yourself, you motherfucker," he remarks.

"The pain was insane," Shalev later recalls over the phone from his home in Tel Aviv, Israel. "After, I think, 700 shows, it was the first show that we had to stop in the middle."

Here's the impressive part: Monotonix canceled one show, which was scheduled for the next day, and then kept touring. Shalev, whose accent is more Borat than Arafat, laughs about that now. "I sang while I was sitting, and it was toward the end of the tour, so we only had to do two more shows. But I was sitting on the bar or something like that. And people liked it; they appreciated that we would do the show in this condition."

If you can describe Monotonix in one word, that word is "relentless." It's evident in the band's music, which is something like Iggy and the Stooges recorded on the other end of a telephone, rooted in driving bass-drum hits and overlaid by screeching, often one-note guitar lines and Shalev's Gogol Bordello-esque vocals. With only a bare-bones setup that notably excludes bass guitar, the band generates a preposterous amount of noise and aggression.

It's also evident in the band's touring schedule, which stretches on for months with daily — or twice or three times daily — performances. And it's evident at those shows, which are legendarily chaotic.

Take the time Shalev broke both his shoulders after he fell out of a trash can. Why he was in the trash can in the first place is as much a mystery to Shalev as it is to anyone else.

"I don't know," he says, laughing. "There was a garbage can around, and I decided to jump into it. There's no particular reason I could say to jump into the garbage can. It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time."

That kind of attitude betrays a certain zen to the way Shalev sees his band and his music. Things don't necessarily happen for any reason; they just unfold that way. Not playing on stage wasn't really a conscious decision; it was just something the band had an idea to do at its first show. It worked out, so the band kept doing it.

"At that first show, the vibe and the energy between us and the audience was so good. So we decided, all right, let's do it like this," he explains.

The approach got Monotonix banned from almost every venue in Israel. "People here weren't ready for this experience," he says. "From the beginning, I mean, promoters and venue owners, they thought that we just wanted to trash the place. But we never do want to trash the place. If something happens to the equipment or things like that, and the owner or the promoter wants us to pay for it, we do it without arguing or anything. But still, probably about 80 percent of our shows got stopped by the promoter or by the police or things like that."

"Right now," he adds, "this problem is solved, because we don't play in Israel anymore."

Rather than get upset about the resistance, Monotonix took its show on the road and started touring Europe and the U.S. with a near-obsessive work ethic. Now, says Shalev, the band uses its time at home to unwind.

"When you're doing so much, you want to chill out, you want to be with your family," he says. "You don't want to perform on your vacation."

That whatever-happens-happens attitude is also something Shalev says the band applied to making its newest record, which he anticipates will come out around the beginning of next year. Shalev says the new record will feature a more stripped-down sound — and it was pretty stripped-down already — that he thinks makes the songs "more energetic." But he also says it wasn't really intentional to make them that way.             

"It's not something that you can control. I mean, we write the songs that came to us; we don't choose which way to write the songs, and which songs we want to be more energetic," he says. "It's just this time, I think, we are more experienced right now. The things that came out this time – I mean it's not like we set out to be more minimalistic or more energetic. It's just that's what happened this time, in a natural way."

By the time Monotonix comes through Denver, the band will have finished recording the album, following a three-day session with famed producer Steve Albini. Albini made a name for himself producing bands like Nirvana and the Pixies with what at the time was a radically minimalist aesthetic that eventually spearheaded a paradigm shift in the way bands were recorded. It's hard to think of a more perfect band-producer match-up.

Even in the way the band was formed, the members took what they had and just made the best of it. The lack of a bassist, for example, was simply due to the fact there "wasn't one around" when the band started out. Shalev says now he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's worked out fantastically for us," he says. "When you have a bass and a guitar player, they need to work together, they need to coordinate tuning and the way they play and these things. This way we can give everybody more space and more freedom about what they want to do with their instrument. There's only one rhythmic instrument, one harmonic instrument, and then one vocal. So everybody's very free and has a lot of space to do what he wants."

And that's what Shalev wants people to do at Rhinoceropolis this Sunday, July 4 —an oddly fitting date, since the band has a reputation for lighting both its instruments and its members on fire. (Shalev, for the record, says the band doesn't do the fire thing anymore because it became too dangerous.)

"The message that we want to deliver to the people and send to the people," he says, "is to come to our show, have fun, do whatever you want to do — and don't hurt anybody else, but have fun. And let's party together."

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte