The Raw Men Empire can be found somewhere between folk and surreal, in a small room in South Tel Aviv with dozens of musical instruments, several computers and two cats, one friendly and one aloof. Coming from different musical backgrounds Tsvika Frosh, Yonatan Miller, Itai Kaufman and Nadav Lazar have been playing together as The Raw Men Empire for a year and a half, taking the word playing to unexpected places – just when you think they’re four guys fooling around, they create beautiful melodies with undercurrents of ironic harmony and complexity. Dangerously addictive.
With 2 EPs out – The Rise and Fall of and Elodie, and just before they embark for their first European tour (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – click here for details) The Raw Men Empire will perform at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv on Friday, January 14, 2011 at 21:30 with guest singer-songwriter Daniel Bedingfield from the UK.
In a studio visit with the band, almost any question led to spontaneous song, random philosophizing or simple hilarity. Their quadraphonic conversation of solo riffs, baroque counterpoint and folk meanderings was hard to sort out when transcribing the interview recording; any errors in attribution are deeply regretted by Midnight East. After a raucous take-off on Tom Waits – on thumb piano – Tsvika told me that he and Yonatan are childhood friends. Asked if they grew up playing music together, the wild conversational romp began:
Tsvika: “Actually we’re just playing D & D together and it really like made our imagination work for us. D & D is like a really good exercise to write songs in a later age [insert: sound of laughter all around]. So if you want to write songs you should definitely play D & D. No, I’m kidding…like we always had imaginary friends and worlds…”
Yonatan: “I didn’t have any imaginary friends.”
Tsvika: “It sounds exotic, flow with it…Everybody has a different story here, for myself I can say that I started with music at the age of 27- 28.”
Nadav: “He’s a late bloomer.”
Tsvika: “It really came to me in a very intuitive way because I’ve been writing words or stuff all my life. I studied art and cinema at Camera Obscura six years ago and when that was done I suddenly realized all I wanted to do is play music somehow and took the guitar and started to make some noise or started to make some melodies.”
A clip from the show launching their 2nd EP Elodie, gives a sense of their vibe:
I asked Tsvika whether he was the main songwriter for the group.
Tsvika: “Yes and no. Maybe sometimes I bring the songs but it really feels for me and I guess for everybody here that this is like, we don’t like have this hierarchy or anything here. Everybody brings their soul into this and like together we have our voice.”
Ayelet: “You describe your music as “freak folk” what does that mean to you?”
Nadav: “Weird folk.”
Itai: “Fake folk.”
Tsvika: “It means nothing because labeling music and genres-”
Yonatan: “Is for losers.”
Tsvika: “I feel that every time people ask you ‘what do you play?’ instead of saying ‘we’re four people with instruments and we’re singing in English’ it’s easier to say – we’re freak folk.”
Nadav: “It helps you communicate.”
Tsvika: “Yeah, it helps you communicate and convey some ideas but at the bottom line it doesn’t say a lot. It’s folk that’s kind of freaky, but then again it’s so general.”
Yonatan: “It falls short.”
Tsvika: “Most songs write themselves up they’re just there and you just have to pluck them – whether it’s just me and the guitar or me and Yonatan…we just meet, we play something. For myself I can just say that I’m a melody buff, words come second. And it’s all about the vibe and what’s beautiful here is that every body comes from different worlds and we somehow like really connect.”
Nadav: “Each one brings something different.”
Tsvika: “Miller studied jazz for years and he’s a singer/songwriter himself and this guy [Nadav] was playing in progressive rock bands – I mean, how gay can you be? He’s like a progger for Christ’s sake and Itai studied in Rimon and he’s a genius on keyboards and for some strange reason he plays on the drum.”
Nadav: “I think if you look at each of us, at our CD rack at home all of us have Tom Waits CDs or Beatles CDs or whatever but each of us has completely different tastes in music and this is what’s cool about it. It doesn’t sound like what Tsvika would make or what I would make it sounds like what all of us are making together.”
Tsvika and Yonatan wrote Between You and Me together.
They always invite a guest to perform in their concerts. Past guests have included Daniela Spector and Tamar Aphek.
Nadav: “It’s about bringing something new. It’s like adding a fifth band member for a week. We learn new things; we take something from the performance and incorporate it into the way we play the thing.”
Itai: “To the roman fabric.”
The guest for their upcoming Levontin 7 gig is Daniel Bedingfield, a singer-songwriter visiting from the UK who happened to meet Itai and Tsvika, and ended up writing a song with Tsvika. The multi-talented team create a video before each show, the Bedingfield video was not yet ready at the time of the interview, but their previous effort with Daniela Spector is well worth a look:
Talking about their new EP Elodie:
Yonatan: “It’s named for a French teacher who’s a big music fan. She goes to all the shows. She’s really a music fan, a real music lover, and she has a beautiful name.”
Itai: “We try to get the recording as close to live performances, sometimes we over dub it but we try to keep it raw as we perform. Try to lay down tracks live and be in the room all the time, everybody in the room all the time keep it raw.”
Nadav: “We usually record playing live and this is the basis for the sound – looking at each other. Most of the stuff is recorded right here…trying to capture something that happens in a very specific moment.”
There are a few extra minutes of silence on the EP. Why?
Yonatan: “They’re geeks that way – they lengthen the CD for a few seconds [to make it 18 minutes, 54 seconds long] which is the year of the first Atlantic or Pacific sinking. [Midnight East is a geek this way: the SS Artic sank on September 27, 1854, off Cape Race, Newfoundland, after colliding with the SS Vesta in the fog]
Tsvika: “It helps if before the songs we laugh or do something nice and then say the song.
If you play the song with too much seriousness it comes heavy and to get your mind off of it… even if we play something melancholic songs or more sad songs we still smile and put good emotions into it’s not like: ok this is sad, lets be sad. Because when you play something melancholic sometimes its just beautiful and you just have to let it shine, not be gray more like nice bluish.”
They played two songs for me that they have not yet recorded: Graduation and Orangeland. I asked if the songs were new.
Tsvika: “For me it’s old. I wrote it [Orangeland] like a long time ago. When I played it first it was like really ballad-like then came the idea for the bass line…”
Nadav: “It was on a sound check in Haifa and we were bored, jamming…”
Ayelet: “I like what happens when you’re bored.”
Tsvika: “That’s the best way to come up with ideas without thinking. When you think, it comes from here [head] and music doesn’t supposed to come from there…”
Nadav: “A different kind of music…”
Tsvika: “Most of our music is based on two chords, and if it’s complicated it’s three.”
Nadav: “When it’s four we call it jazz.”
Tsvika: “But it’s interesting if you take something really simple and if we mesh well and really feel connected then you can do all kinds of things on that, everything really.”
Nadav: “Like where I come from, progressive rock, a lot of my friends are very sophisticated musicians and I was talking to one of them I told him that most of the songs are just two chords he said ‘what really, I didn’t notice,’ because it sounds like a lot more is going on.”
As a relatively new band survival is always an issue, but they are committed to their music.
Tsvika: “If I work hard I would still have an overdraft and I’d have less time to play music and if I do less work I still have an overdraft and somehow manage to pay the bills and I have more time to play music. When I talk to musicians everybody feels the same way: if you really believe in what you do, you really have to be there. There isn’t a dimmer, like I’m going to do it on minimum. It’s like a toggle switch you’re either on it or off it. If you really want to do it then you should do it, and do it gladly with lots of love and be ready for everything whether it’s good or bad and just be there and feel it and experience.”
Braving the European winter for their first tour, they are gearing up with warm clothes. How do they feel about the tour?
Nadav: “We’re excited.”
Tsvika: “Maybe this will be our last interview we’ll ever make. We’re all gonna freeze to death on some deserted road in Poland. We’ll run in some field and start eating each other then they’re gonna find us with the last video we ever shot.”
Nadav: “We’ll freeze to death and two people are going to see us – it’s still going to be an amazing experience.”
The Raw Men Empire
Tsvika Frosh: lyrics, music, vocals, guitar, flute
Yonatan Miller: lyrics, music, guitar, vocals, smile
Nadav Lazar: bass, glockenspiel, percussion, guitar, melodica, programming, vocals
Itai Kaufman: beatbox, percussion, basss, melodica, programming, keyboards, charango, vocals