Director’s cut: Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat trades wild shows for wilder improv

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Rock musician Yonatan Gat leads his new trio in a very punky version of jazz at the Tea Bazaar on Wednesday. Photo: Joe Engle Rock musician Yonatan Gat leads his new trio in a very punky version of jazz at the Tea Bazaar on Wednesday. Photo: Joe Engle

Perhaps Israel wasn’t the best environment for Yonatan Gat to grow as a musician.

“The thing about Israel is, it’s very small and very isolated,” said Gat, who now lives in Brooklyn. “Personally, I found the kind of music that I am excited about is not a really good fit for Israel. It’s a very intense place; it’s just crazy. Politically, it’s very charged. People are direct and honest and there’s no such thing as standing in line. Everything is just crazy. It’s more about sad, minor songs. So I think people don’t really need the kind of release that’s a Monotonix show, or that’s my show, or that’s punk music.”

As the co-founder of Monotonix, Gat was part of a band that was consistently hailed as being one of the most viscerally intense live acts in the world. Most of the trio’s all-entropy performances were marked by 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. That rawness might not have been suitable for Tel Aviv, so Monotonix took its raunch global: Over the course of five years, the Israeli trio performed more than 1,000 shows, each one as much contact sport and circus spectacle as a rock ‘n’ roll concert.

But as Monotonix wore on, Gat felt oversaturated with the combustible garage rock, largely informed by 1970s American punk, that defined the band.

“Sometimes you just get tired of what you’re listening to and you want to listen to something radically different,” Gat said. “Some bands just remain very, very isolated in their own world and keep listening to the guitar they’re playing in the van and keep doing their own thing. When you’re a professional musician, you get to travel a lot, so all you have to do is open your eyes.”

Monotonix disbanded in 2011, and Gat’s since shed his former band’s arena-ready heft and shtick in favor of a freewheeling, genre-blurring sound that finds Gat, bassist Sergio Sayeg and drummer Gal Lazer scouring every sonic corner of the world, seamlessly exploring Portuguese fado guitar, African Brazilian psychedelia and Middle Eastern surf and garage rock, often in the span of just one song. It’s weaved together on the fly in the style of improvised free-jazz, but Gat’s careful not to classify.

“I come from punk rock,” said Gat. “We definitely don’t look at ourselves as jazz musicians. But as punk rockers, we can definitely take a lot of their ideas.”

Gat’s just-released second solo disc, Director, takes some direct inspiration from jazz titan Miles Davis. Not long after Gat formed his new band, and fewer 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. The trio improvised for hours at a time, and it took months for Gat and engineer Chris Woodhouse (who’s helmed records by hot-shit garage acts Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees) to splice 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, which vibrates and crackles with life and unspools its breathtaking instrumentals like Miles running the voodoo down, doesn’t sound remotely like Bitches Brew, it possesses a similar aesthetic and attitude in that the music is about improvisation, about the moment. It’s about as far away from Monotonix as Gat could get—and that’s entirely the point.

“It’s the opposite of what I did before,” Gat said. “This is about creating something new in the studio, because I feel like that’s something very basic that people forget sometimes. The idea of rock ‘n’ roll is people getting together in a room and creating this kind of atmosphere that’s unique to rock ‘n’ roll. It exists in American rock ‘n’ roll. It exists in Turkish rock ‘n’ roll. It exists in European rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a part of the music. So I feel like no matter how much time changes or technology changes or how we’re definitely not living in the era of rock ‘n’ roll anymore, if we’re still making that music, the idea of that energy, the idea of musicians playing together, which it exists in jazz music and it exists in classical music, too, but rock ‘n’ roll is just the next step of that.”

There are still parallels between Gat’s current and former musical identities: His band sets up not on the stage but on the floor, performing not to an audience but inside of it, as part of it. His performances ripple with the same exploding-fireworks intensity and display the same physicality, in energy if not in movement or mayhem. After all, Gat’s about a different kind of chaos this time around.

“I have seen many dangerous situations at rock shows that I’ve played resolve themselves and everything was O.K.,” Gat said. “That’s definitely not the focus of this band. For me, this kind of danger is much more exciting.”

“The idea,” he concluded, “is to forget about the fact that you exist—to not exist while you’re playing music.”

Yonatan Gat plays at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on March 4.