Listen to Yonatan Gat’s ‘Universalists’ Exclusively on TIDAL
Travel around the world (and myriad dimensions) with Yonatan Gat’s new record, Universalists, exclusively on TIDAL.
The album drops on May 4 via Joyful Noise Recordings, but it’s on TIDAL now streaming in full. Gat is perhaps best known as the founder and guitarist of Israeli garage rock band, Monotonix, but lately he’s been doing his own thing as a composer in New York. He merges both those roles on Univeralists, a boundless, borderless world that mixes and melds field recordings of a choir in Italy with a cadre of Native American singers with pure punk.
The record also features a bevy of guests and producers, including: David Berman (Silver Jews), Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening) and Daniel Schlett (Ghostface Killah).
Listen below and check out a comprehensive Q&A with Gat himself.
Why the title? What things do you think are universal? How do those things function on this record and what cultures are represented?
Music pushed me to leave my home country and end up in a place like New York. Because of that, I always felt like I had no choice but to look at music as something universal. In Israel, every time I played a show I had the plug pulled or the cops called; my music wasn’t only ignored, it was seen as ‘wrong.’ There is also a three-year mandatory military service that is required by law, which forced me to confront the oppression of nationalism head-on. It forced me to see its pathological side.
Being born where I was born forced me into that reckoning, or else I would have found myself joining a war, which I had no intention of doing. When I left, I felt like I had no home. Until the thought dawned on me: Maybe it’s OK. Maybe no one does. Maybe the only home we have is in our imagination.
Making music from that perspective informs everything I do, and the title has something to do with coming to terms with these feelings. I’m not trying to say my music comes from thin air. Everything we all do comes from an enormous history of artists coming up with styles, musical instruments, groundbreaking ideas and new sounds. What I’m left with to try to do is draw from everything – every style, instrument, idea and sound I can get my hands on, and try to be honest to myself while doing it.
How did you collect these sounds and how did you choose how to juxtapose them?
It’s a trial and error; it just has to feel right. I use sounds that I have a meaningful interaction with and try to be respectful of my collaborators. That also applies when the musicians I’m collaborating with are no longer alive and cannot exchange ideas in a direct way.
For example, when I heard the original field recording that ended up on the track ‘Post-World’ I was out of breath. It’s a gorgeous a capella. A work song about harvesting, or the feeling after the harvest. It was performed by a farmer called Catalina Mateu in the 1950s. She lived in Mallorca and probably spent her days working on a field, but she was also an incredible singer with a powerful voice that had so much feeling. I have never heard anything like it.
When I finally picked up a guitar and put a rhythm and harmony underneath, it felt like something connected. It was as if the idea came from her, and the guitar was shaped by her voice. But then the guitar, in its turn, shaped the voice back, creating a two-way relationship – not just me imposing my ideas on her. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder, ‘What would Catalina think? How would she have felt if she heard an electric guitar with her voice?’
How do you define an audience versus a performer? How has that relationship changed or evolved over the course of your career?
It’s similar to the relationship between musicians; it’s a back and forth. Since I started touring, I have always performed on the floor, in the middle of the audience. I do that because the performances are mostly improvised and I want to have a back-and-forth with the audience. When I’m in the same space with them, I can feel how they breathe, how they respond. Then I have the amazing privilege of deciding if I should give them what I think they want, or hold back.
I think over the years, I’ve been learning to hold less back and be less afraid to show the emotions I feel as they are happening, no matter how terrifying that may be.
What is your earliest memory associated with music?
The first meaningful memory was when I was a kid and heard the Velvet Underground for the first time and realized there are so many ways to express feelings in music. Before that moment, it felt like most music I was exposed to only tried to accomplish one thing, which was to be beautiful and reassuring.
When my friend handed me a CDR of The Velvet Underground & Nico and I heard that crackling glockenspiel followed by the chaos of the later tracks, I thought to myself: ‘There is either something wrong with this burned CD, the stereo or the speakers – or my life just changed forever.’
It was beautiful and harmonious at times, but also dark and dissonant at other times. It was soft and sweet, but it was also aggressive. It was so versatile and contained such a dynamic emotional range and I remember really being taken aback by the vastness of feelings in that record. I’ve been inspired by that versatility ever since.
Please describe the last song or sound that was stuck in your head. How do you characterize an ear worm?
Songs get stuck in my head all the time but I don’t think that necessarily says anything good or bad about a song. Sometimes we act like being ‘catchy’ is a strength in music, but are the noisier Velvet Underground tracks something you whistle in the shower? And if not, does that mean they’re not as worth listening to as contemporary pop songs?
Music serves so many different functions – ritual, dance, sex, religion, sleep. It can be used in so many different ways. In Indian classical music, they have songs for different hours of the day. The Eastern Medicine Singers, who are an Algonquin pow wow group I collaborated with on the album track ‘Medicine,’ will never play some of their songs outside of their ceremonial context, like at a funeral or a ‘naming’ ritual, in which a newborn baby receives a traditional name such as Two Hawks or Strong Wind.
Sometimes, music is supposed to sound familiar. Sometimes, it isn’t. Some music is designed to make you think, some is meant to put you in a trance. Some do both…
Like anyone, I love a good hook, too, but we’re missing out on a wide variety of musical experiences if we’re only listening to the hits. Same goes for genres or cultures – we’re missing out on so many approaches, perspectives, attitudes and experiences if we limit our musical intake to one style of music from one part of the world. If all the songs you hear are sung in English, can you really say you’re getting a full picture?
How do you see music functioning and changing in the future? Where should we be looking in terms of the future of music?
I once read that the only trend in history is convergence, meaning things tend to merge. I think styles of music that we now see as worlds apart will come under the same umbrella, creating new approaches to music that we can’t even imagine today.
Maybe to look for future sounds we need to look everywhere with an open mind and without biases, and preconceived notions of what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in art. Oscar Wilde said ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’
(Photo Credit: gigi ben artzi)
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