Before meeting the guy, I envisioned Yonatan Gat as some latter-day guitar god, a reincarnation of that tradition of males whose sole purpose in life is to descend from the heavens (or in this case, Israel) at the permanent age of 27 to spend a brief but divine moment here on Earth, shredding away. I wasn’t alone– Yonatan Gat has been dubbed a “composer,” referred to as a “world music-inspired maestro,” and compared to Jimi Hendrix. It seems that whoever’s looking at him perceives Gat as rock-idol progeny. So when I found myself walking up to an actual castle in Brooklyn Heights, my suspicions seemed all but confirmed.
The occasion for my visit to Gat’s home studio is the arrival of his band’s new EP and fourth proper release as a solo artist, Physical Copy, set to drop September 18 on Joyful Noise. I can’t say I wasn’t jealous upon seeing Gat’s amazing digs, particularly since he’s only been living in Brooklyn for five years.
The new record finds Gat and his band at their rawest. The drums are relentless pounders, unlike the smoother, almost jazzier (though no less speedy) beats on 2014’s Director, Gat’s first record with his current band. The style of Physical Copy is vastly different from both that effort and Gat’s first solo record, Iberian Passage, a more joyous, twangy even, but above all romantic instrumental freeform blitz.
What remains is Gat’s characteristically fluttering guitar playing which glitters with pure energy in its manic pace. I’ve personally spent a good minute locked inside a noise bender, so long apparently that I forgot guitar playing could sound like this. Or maybe it’s the first time I’ve heard a guitar used in this way at all. Gat taps into some wildly worldly influences, the implication being he spent his 20s caravanning around the globe, collecting ladies for his harem and exotic sounds for his music box.
But this underlying sense of virtuosity, of distant, weirdo genius, turned out to be a mirage. Given the comparison to decadent guitarists of yore, I half expected Yonatan Gat to be spaced out, dressed in jewel-toned velvets, his curly hair sprawled out on a beanbag while he paused from puffing on some hash to utter two-word answers to my stupid questions. But this ecstatic soloist, this untouchable prodigy was, thankfully, not at all the guitar god of my silly imaginings.
Gat greeted me barefoot, wearing suspenders and stripes, but looking like he’d spent the day sipping coffee and reading a book, hiding from the heat and sun rather than dropping acid and mingling with babes while noodling away on his one true love. He’s comfortably past the magic death year (Gat’s 33), and while he technically lives in a castle (“it’s a 19th-century mansion, but we live in the servants quarters,” he explained with a wry smile) his angular studio space where we sat for the interview struck me as less palatial and more crawlspace.
But he seems happy here. “For an immigrant, for a foreigner, I think that New York is the best place,” he told me. “I’ve been all over the United States, to every major city, and it’s hard to imagine myself living in America proper, and I feel like New York is not that. It’s a place where nobody is surprised by your accent. It’s the one American city, and maybe one of the cities of the world that is its own place.”
However all my expectations were suddenly turned upside-down. “The guitar thing kind of just fell on me,” he said, casually dismissing his reputation as a virtuoso. In fact, for a long time Gat played bass– widely regarded as the easiest of rock band instruments save for the tambourine– and only really started playing guitar when Monotonix formed in 2006.
That Tel-Aviv-born band was so serious– more so than any of his other projects, which he tabled– that it required all of his attention (Gat said Monotonix played 1,000 shows and cut only three albums during their seven-year existence), so he started playing guitar every day.
“I never considered myself a fast guitar player,” he explained. “I don’t practice much. I like playing with other people a lot, but I’m not the kind of person who will sit and play alone for more than an hour.”
Eventually, the guitar became “the only instrument I can really express myself on.” But as romantic as that sounds, he was quick to dispel that feeling. “I never look at the guitar as such a big deal,” he said. “I really look at it as an instrument toward something.”
He eschews fetishization of the guitar to such a degree that he doesn’t even own a fancy guitar of his own. Gat pointed to a reddish ’79 Les Paul. “I don’t own that one, my friend lets me play it.”
Burying the final wunderkind myth and slaying any sense that he’s a “composer,” Gat explained that he never learned to read music properly. “I never had the patience,” he explained. “Sometimes I really envy being able to read music, but at the end of the day, I think there’s something really limited about composing with a pencil as opposed to composing with human beings in a sweaty environment where you can just be yourself.”
And as far as being the sole, beaming light that shines from the band as the other members are cloaked in obscurity, that’s out too. “I feel like in our project it’s more about improvisation, it’s about what we do together,” Gat explained. “For me, being a virtuoso, or impressing people with how fast or how good my guitar playing is, was never the point.”
Instead, it seems that Gat’s intention is to express his own very original viewpoint, and if the only way he knows how is through guitar, then so be it. Though he’s humble about his abilities, improvisation does require not only a set of other talented musicians, but an alignment of personalities.
The result is something halfway between what an interesting jam band might sound like (oxymoron, I know) and free jazz on a quartet’s most energetic night. But at the same time, Gat’s not constrained by either of those influences.
“Now I listen to jazz music a lot, but in the past I used to think jazz music was fucking hilarious,” he said. “So I don’t come from that at all, I used to listen to punk rock and think that any virtuoso thing is pretty ridiculous.”
Gat denies being a “jazz guy” and says that his bandmates wouldn’t qualify as such either. “I go to rock n’ rollers and either try to find ones who can improvise– our drummer [Gal Lazer] for example, he was a jazz-head when he was a kid and he came to punk rock later, so he’s this amazing combination, and our bassist, Sergio Sayeg, is an amazing improviser, but he never did it before he played with me,” Gat explained. “So it’s just about finding the right people. Improvisation isn’t something you can teach— you can definitely get better at it— it’s just a level of openness, it’s about knowing yourself.”
In fact, serendipity is so much a part of Yonatan Gat’s musical philosophy, the first song the band ever played together became the first track on Director. “That’s another thing about improvisation, you write songs all the time,” he explained. “You write songs at shows, you write songs at sound check, you write songs when you practice, you write songs in your head. It’s not even writing in a way, it’s just living.”
But actually, it’s difficult to think of a rock band as functioning properly in accordance with true improvisation. Like, really, how do you remember your songs? How does a live show even translate to a record? And maybe most importantly for your fans, how does a record translate to a live show?
“I try to record stuff so it won’t be forgotten, but sometimes I don’t have time to listen to everything,” Gat explained. He seemed not so sure of the answers himself, before concluding: “If an idea’s good enough, it will find some way to resurface. I guess I’m becoming less married to every single idea. There’s something kind of liberating to that — it’s okay, not every good idea is worth millions of dollars. There are a lot of them, just take them as they come.”
I began to think that maybe it’s this casual approach to music that’s evidence of a truly talented individual. If someone were so worried about ideas fluttering away, the implication is that maybe that idea was an alignment of accidental circumstances in the first place. Clearly Gat doesn’t believe that his achievements are coincidental, rather they’re the result of intentional thought and very real capabilities.
Saying simply Yonatan Gat is technically really good doesn’t even begin to capture his sound. Gat is a musical sponge, and each new effort reflects what he’s currently submerged in.
As evidence, Gat recorded Iberian Passage while living in Portugal, where he met his then-drummer, a Portuguese guy named Igor Domingues. The album is clearly an Iberian album to some extent, with vaguely Spanish-sounding guitar, quiet horns, and moments where the sound of low conversation and clinking glasses makes it feel like you’re hanging out at midnight in some ancient back alley of Porto drinking wine and grooving.
“I think it’s pretty impossible not to do that,” he explained. “Being somewhere, whether you live there or travel there for a long time, it seeps into you, it influences you for a long time. I think the way people behave manifests itself in music in many ways.”
Yonatan Gat (the band) is a transnational outfit not just in its sound, but in its very fabric. “What we do with our music is look for a broader definition of what we are. I don’t think what we are is once style of music. Especially when we have a Brazilian in the band, two Israelis in the project, a Portuguese drummer. So it’s a lot of asking, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What are we together?’ and ‘Where are we?’”
As such, the band’s recordings and performances are multilingual affairs: Hebrew, English, Portuguese all make appearances. On one hand there are definitely some American influences in the music, but on the other hand saying that Gat’s music is “world music” (which is a sticky term anyway, wtf) would be downplaying its achievements. It might sound over the top, but it seems that Yonatan Gat’s output is indicative of what we’re going to see more of in popular music as American hegemony in pop culture and art continues on its decline.
Even if Gat doesn’t see it that way himself…
“I’m not from here, I was born somewhere else and lived in Israel until age 25, but everybody else who grew up in a part of the world that considers itself Western, like Israel, is American in a certain way, because the TV shows I would watch as a kid were American, the music I would listen to was American,” he explained. “So it’s not that [the culture] is completely foreign to me, but there are still elements of it that are pretty obvious to you as an American, but that still surprise me sometimes. I guess it’s called being an immigrant, which I think is a really interesting position for an artists or a musician, as opposed to being this person who was born in this place.”
But Iberian Passage, and for that matter Director (which was recorded in California at the end of that tour and is imbued with a West Coast jam band vibe), are not just imitations by a visitor dabbling in the local customs and returning home to show his friends how well-traveled he is. There’s something more going on here and Gat remains loyal to his garage punk roots through heavy distortion and grating punked-up guitars as well as his own stylistic leanings.
“I don’t think the idea is, let’s cross genres and styles, like ‘I really enjoy samba music, so I make a conscious decision to combine it with rock n’ roll.’ Those thing have been done — successfully, too,” Gat explained. “But I’m more interested in finding out who I am through the music rather than making a decision about doing something like that.”
Physical Copy despite being an EP, follows in the same steps as the previous recordings, even though Gat calls it “such a big left turn.” Though it was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini–and has was Gat describes as that “really, really specific Steve Albini sound”– the EP was inspired by Brooklyn.
“It started when we’d go to these underground hip-hop parties in Brooklyn,” Gat explained. “We listened to all these crazy electronic beats and would see people’s reactions and we thought to ourselves, ‘What would happen if we did something similar but with, like, dinosaur instruments like bass, guitar, and drums? Just do it the way we do it.'”
The songs are hardcore-short and as veritable bursts of energy are in stark contrast to the meandering jams and lingering meditations of what the band has put out so far. The drummer has always been lightning fast, but Gat said the beats on Physical Copy “are so intense and inhuman that just after a minute and a half our drummer couldn’t go anymore.”
But you’d never for a moment confuse Physical Copy for EDM. “We wanted to simulate that rave vibe you get from electronic music,” Gat explained. “But the recording process had nothing electronic about it at all. We had three musicians playing live to tape, no overdubs, no computers used in any part of the process. We just recorded to tape, mastered the tape, and that’s it.”
He truly has a knack for hearing beyond superficial genre cues and understanding deeper sonic nuances. At one point during our conversation, Gat switched on some West African guitar music, and began bobbing his head. “This is totally punk rock.” But as an outsider, it’s also easier for him to finds new things in what native-listeners might take for granted.
Gat’s career as a musician really came about through Monotonix, a band that seemed more like a punk rock negation of the cultural and musical atmosphere of Tel Aviv, where he grew up. Though not punk in any truly gritty sense (Gat said the band had enough money to pay Albini for two solid weeks of recording, whereas his current outfit could only pull together enough money to afford one day, and Monotonix’s first show was in a bar owned by the frontman), they were an anomaly in their home country.
“Israel is a really wild place– there are no rules, there’s no standing in line– it’s just wild and loud and insane, but the music is very mellow,” Gat explained. “I think the reason for that is there’s so much insanity in the street, that people just want to relax when they go out at night. When they watch a show they want to hear some slow, minor key songs, and listen to the words, whereas in the U.S. things are much more ordered and structured in daily life, so there’s a lot of demand for chaos in entertainment.”
But Monotonix embraced the insanity of their punk godfathers like the Stooges. “We were known for crazy shows, energetic sets, and getting confrontational with the audience, not in an aggressive way, more in a playful way,” Gat recalled. Some of the crazier incidents involved the lead singer Ami Shalev breaking his leg during a performance and a fan setting himself on fire during a show in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Though they found a great deal of popularity abroad and played to tens of thousands of people at massive festivals, it became increasingly difficult for them to book shows at home. Neighbors were calling the cops, promoters couldn’t handle their volume, and people just didn’t understand playing on the floor. “Once a promoter in Haifa threw a beer at me and it just splashed on the wall,” Gat recalled. “After that happened I was like, ‘Maybe we should try somewhere else.’”
The band began touring dive bars and DIY venues across the States. “We didn’t know anybody,” Gat explained. “I started emailing these really shitty bars that would book a band from Israel nobody’s ever heard about, and we were just starting out, so it’s not like we were a great live band or anything.”
Gat found that he was more comfortable in the U.S. “What we felt, as opposed to Israel, was the people were curious about what were doing,” he recalled. “I would turn up my guitar and instead of people covering their ears, people would listen and you know rock out and enjoy it.”
“For me, it’s a better place for music,” he added.
Eventually Gat would return to the States on his own, after Monotonix went on indefinite hiatus. “With Monotonix, I think our tactic was to play the same show if there’s five people there and even if there’s 5,000 people there,” he explained. “With this band, I’m never sure if we should do the same thing, with improvisation it’s a little trickier.”
By all accounts, Yonatan Gat puts on an insanely awesome live show, even if it’s a bit less raucous than Monotonix’s act. With his own band, Gat has been able to pursue improvisation rather than structured songwriting (as with the case with Monotonix) and balance between live shows and recording.
“With this band we average going to the studio once every two months,” he explained. “Almost every tour we finish something in studio.” Even if it seems as if Yonatan Gat is making records at a breakneck pace, he says the band mulls things over very carefully before hitting the studio and recording in a hyper-compressed atmosphere. “It’s very intense, [we spend] something between two and four 12-hour days recording, we just make hours and hours of music, playing live a lot.”
The same multifacetedness that comes with having a foothold in a variety of genres and a collection of sonic souvenirs from all around the world, is echoed in Gat’s approach to recording. The guy has so many new projects, you’d need a flow chart to keep track. “I don’t even know what the next [album] is,” he admitted.
While Physical Copy hasn’t even been properly released (that’s September 18, y’all) the band is already wrapping the album that could follow this EP (if all goes as planned). Those tracks were recorded in Olympia, Washington at Dub Narcotic Studio and feature Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening) singing in Hebrew.
If having the next-next album already recorded sounds nuts, then consider Gat was also editing some tracks from a session at Daptone Records in Brooklyn, which could possibly be the next-next-next album. But for now, we need only worry about what’s just around the corner.
I wondered if Gat ever felt like he needed a break from all this, particularly since music has become a job and not simply a hobby. “I feel like I never need a break,” he said. “The most exciting thing for me about finishing it, is that I can move onto the next thing. I fantasize about the next one while I’m doing this one, it’s like a dream.”