music (2007-10)

In Your Face

Israel punk band Monotonix takes the expression literally

The guys in Llama Train learn the virtues of versatility

by John Sewell

Remember that punk-rock cliché about how no performance is successful until the barrier between band and audience is broken down? Well, thirty years into the history of punk and its endless, ever-evolving permutations, we've all learned that the best performers are, in truth, ever-mindful of the proscenium and of the dramatic focus provided by the stage.

Heck, it's cool when proselytizers like Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto spout the party line about being "just average guys." But when these rockers cross the invisible, but still clearly delineated, stage/audience boundary, it's clear who's in charge: Every eye remains focused on the singer, who leads the audience to ecstatic bliss through bacchanalian rites of exorcism and catharsis.

Israel's Monotonix is yet another band with a wild-eyed singer intent on creating chaos, or at least inspiring the audience to cast aside its inhibitions and rock out, man. In a little more than a year, Shalev and company have amassed a throng of vocal supporters, many of them belonging to the upper tier of America's rock elite. With a history of two international tours and a growing buzz in the underground, the band must be doing something right.

"At our shows, people get the opportunity to speak out," enthuses guitarist Yonatan Gat. "Basically, we play our shows among the crowd, and that requires some participation. Our shows are a lot more in your face.

"We played in New York City a couple of days ago," Gat continues. "And people there usually just stand or, at best, nod their heads. But we ended up getting a lot of people involved and dancing. It ended up being a band of like 40 people."

While the group's off-kilter sensibilities have led to its being classified as "an Israeli SST band," the band seems more similar to the proto-metal, classic rock primitivism of Led Zeppelin, Cream, or Free. Perhaps Gat's jazzy and sometimes atonal guitar skronk has inspired the SST comparisons.

"We grew up listening to a lot of American music," says Gat. "We still get the White Stripes and Lightning Bolt comparisons because of the setup of the band.   But our primary influences are things like Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and especially Thin Lizzy."  

And don't be fooled by the band's minimal instrumentation. With only a guitar player and a drummer, Monotonix creates a full sound that's eons apart from the stylized ineptitude of your standard, much-too-cute guitar/drums only combos. Gat and drummer Ami Shalev are in total command of their instruments, delivering a wall of sound that never seems lacking.

The band begins its current U.S. tour having recently finished recording its first album, the self-released Monotonix , with Kramer, the legendary producer of indie stalwarts like Royal Trux, Low and even GWAR. The band and producer seem ideally suited, and the resulting long-player is raw and crunchy, yet chock full of poppy hooks that will stick in your craw.

The dalliance with Kramer is one of many high profile connections the band has made in its short life. Monotonix has shared stages with Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Oneida, The Thermals and Bonnie Prince Billy. Interestingly, the band first came to this country with the help of The Silver Jews. Of course, it's difficult to look beyond the irony that an Israeli band would bond with the Silver Jews, but we won't go into that.

"We seem to be able to make friends easily," says Gat of the band's influential supporters. "We met Kramer through our MySpace page. And it seems like every time I email a band from the U.S., they want us to open for them. So we're constantly thinking about relocating to America."

While having connections has certainly eased the band's stateside progress, the group is still following the DIY path, which entails financial difficulties. The band is shopping its new album in hopes of finding a label in the near future. "It's been pretty hard, touring so much," says Gat.   "We all do studio work at home, but we're never there anymore.

"I think one of the reasons that people are shocked by us is that we have a different mentality," he continues. "The shows are kind of wild. Every couple of shows there might be some kind of confrontation," he continues. "But of course, there are never any injuries or anything like that. The confrontation is all done in humor. We pass our instruments out to the audience and try to get everyone to join in.   The shows are great because we entertain the crowds while we're entertaining ourselves. We trust people, and that's why the whole thing works so well."

What: Monotonix w/ Woman and Tim, Chad & Sherry (members of Silver Jews and Lambchop)

Llama Training

by Mike Gibson

Knoxville's Llama Train has one of those self-consciously earthy names that smacks of neo-hippie inclinations. You know the kind of names we're talking about--rustic-sounding, quasi-agrarian monikers like River Moon Band or Uncle Hayseed or Cornfed Mule Mama that conjure patchouli-scented images of shag-topped guys in paisley shirts, bellbottoms and bad goatees.

It might come as a surprise, then, that their local EP debut Siren Sounds , released in spring of 2006, has more in common with the Beatles and Big Star than Leftover Salmon or Tea Leaf Green.

And then there's Llama Train's live show, which is a whole 'nuther beast entirely. To be sure, these four 23-year-old current and former UT college kids can play their axes pretty well, and they're not afraid to stretch out when the spirit so moves them. But ultimately, Llama Train rocks out far more often than it jams out, never sacrificing the punching power of a truly good rock'n'roll band for the sake of an extended groove.

"A lot of people have us pegged as a jam band, I think because of our name, and also because we like to trade off instruments on stage," says (primary) drummer Matt Honkonen, referring to the band members' penchant for switching almost interchangeably between guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, and percussion.

"We've always included some of that type of stuff in our set list, some Grateful Dead and some reggae," adds guitarist, etc. Dave Epley. "But no one in the band would have ever used the 'j' word."

Llama Train saw their current lineup come together, and discovered a new MO in the process, through a bizarrely serendipitous series of events a couple of years ago. Ambitious lads, the founding lineup of Epley, Honkonen, singer/guitarist Scott Faw, and another bass player had planned an early morning practice session in the garage of the house they shared in a North Knoxville neighborhood.

Not a good idea, when you live in the suburbs : Neighbors were irked, police were summoned, and the boys were kicked out of their home. Adding insult to injury, their bass player quit in disgust.

So the remaining members called a friend, J.P. Plumlee, a guitar-slinging Memphis expatriate, and asked if he owned a bass. He did, a 1957 Fender Telecaster that Plumlee describes as "one of those instruments you can tell has made the rounds, covered with nicks and bloodstains and cigarette burns."

The Telecaster became Llama Train's bass of record. But rather than forcing Plumlee, an accomplished guitarist, into the role of full-time four-stringer, the Llamas chose instead to divide bass duties among all four members of the band. The move was intended to save any single member from having to take on an unfamiliar instrument full-time, but it had the unexpected consequence of making Llama Train a better band.

"It's given us all a lot of insight into writing songs, into what the different instruments should be doing," says Plumlee. He notes that all four members contribute more-or-less equally to songwriting, although Faw writes the majority of the band's lyrics.

"It also makes us seem like a different band every time we change instruments," Plumlee continues. "It made us more of a unit. I've never been in another group where we worked so well together, where the ideas just clicked."

Llama Train then honed their already considerable chops as a de facto house band at the now-defunct O'Charley's Restaurant on Cumberland Avenue, playing sometimes four hours per night, sets split evenly between covers and original songs. Not all of their covers were planned, either: "We stretched a lot, learning to play songs we didn't know as we went along," Honkonen says. "As an up-and-coming band, you end up doing a lot of weird things."

As a result, their repertoire of cover songs is impressively sprawling, running a twisted gamut from Grateful Dead favorites to Radiohead to classic country nuggets, should they so choose. They even play two different, yet equally potent versions of a rocker called "Ride" by former Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson; one is a loose, funkified take with an extended hip-hop breakdown, while the other is a droning hard rock rendition that comes off like the Doors aping the MC5.

But though their cover songs are well-chosen, and often cleverly re-imagined, the guys in Llama Train are determined to forge ahead on the strength of their original music. They're currently working on their first full-length studio release, a record they hope will capture some of the explosive spontaneity of their live act as well as the songwriting smarts already evidenced on Siren Sounds .

"We have a 'safe' side, which is what you hear on our EP and we have a more exploratory side," Faw says. "We're trying to find a nice middle ground in there somewhere.

"People always ask you what kind of band we are; I think the best way to describe us is that we're a college band. If some people think we're a jam band, that's fine. We invite everyone," Faw continues, pausing for a chuckle. "The hippies can come too."

Who: Llama Train, opening for Led Zeppelin tribute Zoso