NEW YORK — At 10 pm on a Friday night, the Mercury Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is brimming with an ecstatic crowd encircled around a band playing in the center of the dance floor. Beads of sweat drip down the three musicians’ foreheads; their expressions are focused yet vacant as their hands move at lightning speed while improvising a symphony laced with elements of jazz, punk, and psychedelic rock.
In this gig, composer/guitarist Yonatan Gat is joined by drummer Gal Lazer and bassist Sergio Sayeg, who have played with the musician for the past two years. Gat’s style transcends any one musical category. He says his goal is to create a sound that is wholeheartedly Israeli.
“I’ve been very interested in what it means to be an Israeli, especially since I left,” says the 33-year-old Brooklyn-based guitarist who departed his hometown of Tel Aviv more than five years ago. “I think that there should be a thing called Israeli music, but I think it doesn’t really exist. Israel is getting to an age where it should be an exporter of culture and music, but everything you hear coming out of Israel has a strong smell of its influences.”
Israeli music is a patchwork of Middle Eastern, Russian, American, and European flavors, Gat continues. Even his own music echoes everything from the Velvet Underground to west African guitar chords.
“You can be influenced by many things, but that doesn’t stop you from being yourself,” he says. “Many times for artists, the first instinct is to imitate. Knowing I have this limited thing to work with called ‘me,’ I started incorporating elements of music I enjoyed into a sort of soup that hopefully represents who I am and the Israeli connection of it all.”
Although he infuses his music with his Israeli identity, it is better known abroad than in his home country. He formed his original band Monotonix in 2005 with singer Ami Shalev, who owned the Tel Aviv club where Gat worked. Gat and Shalev were joined by drummer Ran Shimoni, then replaced by Haggai Fershtman. Into theatrics, Shalev would often make a scene during shows, setting small fires or swinging from pipes.
“Promoters didn’t allow us to play shows anywhere,” says Gat. “I had a promoter throw a Coca Cola bottle at me once. I couldn’t help but feeling unwanted. Our shows were too confrontational, energetic, and loud.”
Monotonix toured the globe, accumulating fans throughout the U.S. and Europe.
“We played shows in New York, Baltimore, Boston, wherever we could get whatever sleazy bars to book a bunch of Israelis no one had ever heard of,” says Gat. “I felt like people were intrigued. They said, ‘You guys sound good. If you come again, maybe we’ll come again.’ Wow, in Israel no one told us that.”
‘It’s more about the sound than the words’
After over 1,000 shows, the band eventually broke up in 2011.
Gat stayed in New York, where he finished college at Columbia University, studying history and anthropology. He then founded the Yonatan Gat band, initially as a solo guitar act.
Gat’s songs are often in Hebrew or without lyrics, making the music more abstract to its American listeners.
“It’s more about the sound than the words,” he says.
Yonatan Gat already has a full-length LP called “Director” and two EP’s: “Iberian Passage,” which he released solo, and “Physical Copy.” He’s working on two more albums, neither of which has been named yet, which he hopes to see on shelves this year.
“Titling is the last to happen. In instrumental music, the only language is the title,” says Gat, “so you better think pretty hard about what you want it to be.”
He studied music as a child, though grew bored of neatly packaged piano lessons. Gat’s piano teacher, the mother of a childhood friend, became his early audience and encouraged his improvisations rather than sticking to Chopin.
“Improvisation liberates you from your own conventions. It’s a really methodological way of throwing everything out the window, but it’s not random,” says Gat. “Look to the places that scare you most, fascinate you the most, then scratch that. It keeps you sharp and connected to the essence of yourself as a musician.”
He uses his audience as part of the improvisational process. Playing in the center of the dance floor — technically called immersive “space intervention” — allows the band to connect with the audience.
“We relate to human beings,” says Gat. “I will not play a show before barricades twenty feet from the audience. I don’t see the point, we can project a video.”
Since the show is improvised with nothing predetermined, being close to the audience helps the band connect with what the audience wants, he says.
“Interacting with the crowd in a direct way is very Israeli. The groove, the rhythm is very Israeli. The attitude is very Israeli,” he says. “Israelis are direct. That’s my favorite thing about Israeliness.”
Yonatan Gat is now on tour throughout the Americas. They played at SXSW and will be in Chicago, Iowa, Ohio, Toronto, and in Brazil by May.