YONATAN GAT: THE PHILOSOPHY OF A NEO-IMPROVISATIONAL VIRTUOSO

Many people first became aware Yonatan Gat as the guitarist who drove the music in the unpredictably flamboyant Israeli rock band Monotonix. Since leaving the band back in 2011, Yonatan has since released two solo LPs that have garnered the respect and admiration of fans and major music outlets around the world. His newest release is becoming increasingly anticipated as time goes on.

I’m sure that when people see you play live they must come up and talk to you about what you did with Monotonix as opposed to what you’re doing now on your own.

Yes, they do, and I tell them that it’s two completely different things. With Monotonix it was more structured, but now I’m free to play what I feel, and that’s something that is very important to me. That freedom allows me to do anything that I want to do or anything that I can think of doing. I get to play with some of the best people in the world and everything that I do, I do because it’s something that I want to do. It’s not that I didn’t like playing with Monotonix, it’s just that now I have the freedom to do things that I might’ve held back on at that time.

So that lack of feeling certain obligations is freeing to you.

Exactly. I might decide to do something completely different tomorrow. If I decide to do it, I can do it without worrying about who else might be affected by the decisions that I make for myself.

As far as the live setting goes, I know that it’s a different experience to see you perform now as opposed to what it was to see Monotonix live. But at the same time, you maintain closeness audience that something is obviously important for you, I would assume.

Yes, for sure. At a Monotonix show we would act out within the audiences, jump on their tables, or our singer might go up to someone’s girlfriend. Now, though it’s not the same kind of activity, I do still want the closeness with the audience because the energy is incredible. And the live experience is about the energy, and I’ll always love having that around me when I play.

It’s kind of like going to war, there’s a basic plan and strategy but once you’re out there, whatever happens, happens. That’s how I see my shows. I have a basic idea but once it begins anything can happen. That’s a big reason that I love what I’m doing now as an improviser. I want to create an atmosphere there in the room. The audience is there, so why not go out and have an experience with them. It’s an experience that we will all have together. For me, part of the art is the way the audience responds to me and the way I respond to them. It’s a natural creation of interplay, so again, that is a big part of the art for me.

Being an improviser is something that you feel is necessary for you, isn’t it?

Being an improviser lets me be out with the audience, where I feel that I should be. If I wasn’t improvising I would just play on the stage every time. But that’s not who I am as a musician or a performer. Having that connection is a necessity for me.

Has it ever been a concern that your performance could be interpreted as more of a gimmick than performance?

It’s now 2016, the object isn’t to shock people or try to draw attention through novelty. I think the most interesting and important thing is the connection that you can have with your audience. That’s the only reason I perform the way I perform. Nothing that I do is done to attract attention or attempt to be different by standing out in some silly way. That wouldn’t be the truth. The energy that can be created is as true and honest as it could be and that’s the experience that I want to have every time that I play.

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I know that it can’t be every time that you get to play in the preferred arrangement, like the Nelsonville Music Festival, for instance. You were on an elevated platform, but the crowd was 360° around you. That was a cool set-up, itself. Was that something that you stipulated or was that as close to accommodating your preferences as possible?

When we look at the tours and festivals those things are usually discussed and it’s done mostly in advance. They always know what they’re getting when they book us. For that show the trio was on the platform and the audience was on all sides, and that’s a good example of how things can be unpredictable or different. Nothing is ever going to be the same, so it’s [playing at audience level] my preferred way of doing things but places usually find a good way of accommodating my needs, like that.

To shift over to the music itself, I know that when you are in the studio it’s still the feeling that we’re hearing rather than some mapped out course. I can only speak for myself of course, but for me you are similar to a 21st-century Charlie Parker, who thrived on letting the unknown come at him.

Oh, whoa! Thank you! Of course, I certainly don’t see myself as a Charlie Parker but that is such a high compliment…

Well, it’s your individual approach and attack, the way you go into your work and what you put into it. I think that you have the potential to do for rock ‘n’ roll guitar, as an improviser, what Charlie Parker did for jazz in his time. Though you improvise, you certainly have a style. Can you recall how you came to where you are now as a musician and artist?

Well, I think it’s like we mentioned earlier, about being in a band. That situation can be very formulaic. I would prefer to not have a predetermined formula or set way of approaching my work. I prefer it to be spontaneous. Formulas can be predictable and I don’t want to have to do any certain thing or follow any set guidelines. I want to see where the music can take me, or where I can take the music.
I don’t make decisions consciously about my sound.

I grew up in Israel so there’s a lot of Greek influence everywhere. For example, I was exposed to a lot of Greek music and culture so, as a result, that influence is there, but it’s not a conscious decision to be there or put it there. Influences like that, or anything really for that matter, just surface. It’s only natural that that would happen. Being an improviser is like lying back and letting go, in a way. It can be a struggle to have to always stick to a certain formula or follow a determined path, and that can happen very when you find yourself making certain conscious choices and decisions.

For someone curious about your style, as it were, which is obviously and fundamentally ‘Yonatan Gat’, would you say that it is not so much about the musical styles that have influenced your playing as it is the things that constitute who you are from the inside, as both a musician and a person?

Yes, rather than thinking about what genres will suit you, think about the things that inspire you; think about what you like, think about what you’ve connected with, think about the things around you, who you are as a person and the things that have inspired you from the beginning up to now and have made you who you are.

Through our general encounters in even basic education we’re taught that rules need to apply and there’s generally one right way to do most things. Music theory and composition seems to at least help project that notion. Has that ever been an issue in your mind?

Not really for me, at all. I can understand both the logic in theory and creative imagination. Some people just work in one way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that just because I don’t do it in that one way. For example, Schubert and Mozart composed with pen and paper and it worked very well for them, using logical theory and creativity. They did a great job doing things that way. Just because that’s not the way I go about it doesn’t mean that I’m incapable. Absolutely not! It’s just not me, it’s not who I am.

Do you think that it is difficult for people to wrap their minds around what it is that you’re doing, maybe because of the context in which you perform it?

With rock ‘n’ roll you do get a little bit of improvisation, but there is typically a plan behind it that you go back to. Improvisation is really a jazz thing, but I’m not a jazz player. I play rock ‘n’ roll. Now, I’m not saying that people don’t improvise in rock ‘n’ roll, because they do, it’s just not a common thing. I think there’s a misunderstanding when people refer to improvising. The mind is typically drawn to jazz when it thinks of improvisation. But there aren’t any rules saying that improvisation is for jazz only, it’s just the way it’s perceived.

Have you ever been discouraged from doing something that you feel may be too much for the audience to grasp?

No, never, I don’t have any problem being who I am in front of the audience. It’s always a good thing to try something new and see where it takes you.

For the sake of concluding with some insight and self-awareness, on the subject of who you are, do you know what you’re looking for, if there is anything in particular?

I guess I’m looking for, as a lot of jazz players do for example, that disconnection from however it is you want to put it; the body from the brain, the mind from the soul. That truth that seems to get deeper and deeper. I’m looking to achieve a different state and my playing. But the whole purpose for playing music is to learn more about yourself, for me anyway.

There are people who contend that logic tends to cancel creativity out with the ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ theories.

That is just not true, that one can’t exist with the other. I use both in what I do. Just because you’re a creative individual doesn’t mean that what you’re doing has no logic or reason or thought behind it. It absolutely can. For me it does.