By now, anyone who's been to a Monotonix show — or has at least heard the lore — is familiar with the scene that ensues when the band hits the stage. For the Tel Aviv trio, now on its umpteenth visit to the states since 2006, "hitting the stage" is a bit of a misnomer (although the band eventually gets there), because Monotonix sets up right smack in the middle of the crowd.
And once the drum set goes up in flames and the first strains of Yonatan Gat's guitar pierce the air, vocalist Ami Shalev goes airborne and the entire room erupts in melee of heaving bodies. Throughout the night, with full complicity from drummer Haggai Fershtman, all three members of the band (and several audience members) contribute on drums.
Meanwhile, Gat criss crosses the crowd, his guitar neck clearing a path through the human thicket. Somehow, he manages not to botch his guitar lines, which are something akin to what Jimi Hendrix might have sounded like had he played during classic rock's late-'70s golden era and tried to project the sonic persona of an athlete on steroids.
Attending a Monotonix show requires participation. Simply by being in the room, you will have to dodge hands, feet, instruments, hair (lots of it), flying beer, Shalev's exposed ass cheeks, etc.
But while the band's driving motivation has never been destruction — the whole affair always comes off as rather good-natured – after about 600-700 shows (Gat's estimation), Monotonix's songs often get lost in the ruckus. Indeed, without the music itself – a rousing blend of garage and classic rock — there is nothing to give purpose to this orgy of full-body contact.
"Once," says Gat, "we played Toronto and people destroyed everything after 15 minutes. So we just took everybody outside and did a drum party because there was nothing to play inside."
Although Gat says that "it's been getting better," he also explains that the band doesn't oppose this kind of mid-performance implosion.
"We go with it," he says. "Obviously, we try to play as much as we can, but if that's the atmosphere and everybody just wants to go crazy and the music kind of suffers from it, then that's that. We can't go against the atmosphere of the night or the room. We try to do our best to play the songs and make the music shine out, but sometimes it's really hard. It gets so crazy that it's hard to play a song from beginning to end."
More alarmingly, after four years of gigging behind what basically amounts to an album and a half — a self-titled demo produced by underground legend Kramer (Urge Overkill, Butthole Surfers, Will Oldham), an EP re-recording of some of the same songs, and last year's full-length, Where Were You When It Happened? (the latter two produced by Tim Green of the F—king Champs) — the band's exhaustive touring schedule allows very little time to write new material.
Thankfully, Green pretty much nailed the crunch and density of the live experience on record with Where Were You When.
"We didn't know Tim very well when we recorded the EP," Gat explains, "but I think he wanted to provide a service then. The second time, we told him 'do whatever you want.' We played everything really loud. I was playing three guitar cabinets without headphones. It was like the volume of the show."
Of the album's eight songs, however, certain numbers clearly sound as if they were worked out off the cuff, a strategy that may not necessarily pay off again as Monotonix prepares to enter the studio next week with noteworthy producer-provocateur and sonic purist Steve Albini (Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey). And Gat says that the band is looking to be even more spontaneous with the writing this time.
"We've only got like a couple of songs. We don't even know how many songs we're going to record. We're just going to go to the studio and see what happens," Gat says. "With the second record, we tried to make the atmosphere really free, but we're doing the same thing with the song writing now. I don't feel like we have that much to prove to anybody. It's much more laid-back. The older songs were really structured, and we worked on them a lot, but now it's about leaving things more open and having more fun with it."
It's likely the band will continue to incite joyful near-riots in every town it hits. A Monotonix show wouldn't be fun if everyone sat quietly (although Shalev does occasionally direct the crowd to do just that), but when one sees the band several times, it becomes painfully clear that some people might not grasp the difference between audience participation and derailing the show.
Are the fans, rather than riding the wave of energy to the sublime climax that it could be, trying to compete with it or cause it to implode? Would the show coming to a screeching halt signifies some sort of accomplishment? At this point in Monotonix's career, encouraging people to lose what few inhibitions they have left seems risky, but it's too late to turn back.
As the band prepares to work with its third innovative producer in a row, it would be a shame for the music to become an afterthought, or continue to get drowned out. And that's just one dilemma.
"It's kind of hard to find time to write," says Gat. "We're trying to write a record right now, but we keep getting offers to do tours. We think that if we stop performing, we're going to die."
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer.
who: Monotonix with Soft Opening and Thee Birds Ov Paradise
what: Rock mayhem
where: The Rocket Club
when: Saturday, Jan. 30 (10 p.m. www.therocketclub.net. $8)
Update: Friday, Jan. 29: Frontman Ami broke his leg
The following was posted on the band’s Myspace page:
“during the show in west palm beach, florida we did with surfer blood in ‘respectable st. cafe’ (which was our first southern florida show), Ami had a bad landing on his feet during the first song. he was on Haggai, then he jumped down, and got a bad pain in his right knee, it’s something he’s been carrying since a blow he suffered at a show in tel aviv in the summer of 2008.
“we kept playing the second song but obviously something was wrong with Ami, and we didn’t know if we should stop or not yet. he tried to keep going, but during the third song it was pretty obvious he can’t go on after he had to lean on people from the audience to stay standing. we never stopped a show in 700 shows, but yesterday it seemed like we should. Ami asked if there was a paramedic or doctor at the audience, and everyone thought it was a joke. even when he laid down at the side of the venue a guy that was helping him (which was a wrestling coach) kept asking us if it was a prank and he’s gonna get up and keep going in a sec. I was holding the ice on Ami’s leg and people kept asking: ‘are you guys selling merch?’ we stopped the show and Ami layed down. an ambulance came and Ami refused to get on it.
“we packed our stuff and drove to JFK Memorial Hospital close to Palm Beach and put Ami on a wheelchair. the doctor showed up asking for autographs and started having the nurses take his pictures with Ami and the band. other nurses kept coming in and out of the room with monotonix show videos playing on their ipods. the highlight of the evening was the doctor showing us youtubes of his 12 year old son playing drums while Ami is getting pain killer shots to his butt from the nurse. there was a commercial TV in the hospital room and the bill was tremendous.
“we’re gonna cancel tonight in Athens, but still try to make it to Charlotte and Asheville to finish the tour properly, and then off to Chicago to record. Ami is in good spirits, but still can’t step on his leg. we’re hoping it will be better soon.”