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For ex-Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat, improvisation is more exciting than dodging elbows

A Different Danger

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As the co-founder of Monotonix, guitarist and composer Yonatan Gat was part of a band that was consistently hailed as being one of the most viscerally intense live acts in the world. Over the course of five years, the Israeli trio performed more than 1,000 shows, each one as much a contact sport and circus spectacle as a rock 'n' roll concert. Most of the performances quickly devolved into shirtless, sweaty pandemonium, a boisterous maelstrom built from chaotic sing-alongs, pyrotechnics, gravity-defying acrobatics, thrown trash, piss, spit, beer, and wanton disregard for personal safety. One 2010 show in Florida even came to an abrupt end after Monotonix frontman Ami Shalev broke his leg. The band would only miss one show.

Though Monotonix is no more, Gat is still committed to physically intense performances. Case in point, his current project, the eponymous power trio Yonatan Gat, still sets up on the floor among all the sweaty dancing bodies, performing not only to the audience but as part of it. But nowadays, Gat's concerts are defined by a different kind of theatrics.

"When it comes to pyrotechnics, Monotonix was 10 times more dangerous," Gat says. "That's definitely not the focus of this band. To me, this band is just as dangerous as Monotonix because we allow ourselves to improvise, which means the show can really, really, really fall apart at any minute. To me, the show is musically dangerous.

While Monotonix exploited every cubic inch of a venue with vigor, Gat seems to want to scour every corner of the music world with equal intensity. His post-Monotonix experimentation began with Iberian Passage, a freewheeling album recorded in Portugal with drummer Ivan Domingues. The result is a genre-bending sound that finds Gat and his band — bassist Sergio Sayeg and drummer Gal Lazer — seamlessly exploring Brazilian psychedelia, Afrobeat, and Middle Eastern surf and garage rock, often in the span of just one song. And it's all weaved together on the fly in the style of improvised free-jazz, though Gat's careful not to classify himself as a jazz guitarist.

"In the West, we look at most of the music, the composed music, where the composers are the most celebrated, but in South America and Asia, it's not really about who writes the song — it's about how every musician adds a little embellishment and about improvisation.

"We definitely don't look at ourselves as jazz musicians," he says. "But as punk rockers, we can definitely take a lot of their ideas."

To wit, Director, Gat's second post-Monotonix release due in March, takes some direct inspiration from jazz titan Miles Davis. Not long after Gat formed his new band, and less than three days into a U.S. tour last year, he took the guys into the studio with little more than basic song structures and ideas. The goal was to capture the riotous and intricate improvisations of the band's live show.

"Right now, we've only been together, for eight months," Gat says. "When we made the record, we'd only been playing together, like, three months. I felt like when we were making it, I felt like the band needs to be really comfortable in the studio, so I just put us in a room and we played for, like, 10 hours straight every day. And that was the natural thing for the band, and then I was thinking to myself, 'I'll figure it out later.'

"And that ended up being a very, very long process," he adds with a laugh.

In the months that followed, Gat and engineer Chris Woodhouse, who's helmed records by hot-shit garage acts Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees, sorted through the hours of material the band recorded, editing the musical experience to a glorious narrative whole — not unlike how Davis and Teo Macero stitched together Bitches Brew (though Gat professes more fondness for the jazz great's In a Silent Way) with razor blades and Scotch tape.

While Director doesn't sound remotely like Davis' jazz-fusion classic, it possesses a similar aesthetic and attitude, dancing from ghostly melodic vamps (the wistful and gliding "Casino Cafe") to ramping chaotic freakouts (the pummelling "Gibraltar") before collapsing into shimmering, foggy nadirs ("L'Atlantis"). Inspired by soundtrack virtuosos Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, Director is a cinematic circular journey around the music of the world. Anchor tracks "East to West" and "North to South" are at once propulsive and meditative, while Gat's guitar-playing bridges Oriental tonalities and Occidental overdrive. Throughout, the rhythms of Lazer and Sayeg are rooted in both West African pulse and Brazilian groove. It's about as far away from Monotonix as Gat could get — and that's entirely the point.

"Monotonix was kind of a traditional rock 'n' roll band, in the sense of writing songs and arranging them and then playing them when the band is really experienced playing those songs," Gat says. "This is kind of the opposite."

And the improvised nature of the music keeps around the element of danger Gat is used to.

"It becomes about the person who you are at the moment," he says. "Especially when you do it every night — the first two, three, four shows of a tour, you have this fresh energy. And then it just becomes this process, something you do every night — it just becomes you, which is really hard. You have to keep yourself in a very focused place all the time. For me, that's much more challenging than avoiding elbows in my face like at Monotonix shows. For me, this kind of danger is much more exciting — and much more dangerous."

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