"Being electronic and rock & roll and doing it really well—it's not so easy." Ray Philp meets a duo who are doing it better than most.
Making light work of decades' worth of musical styles—from "Sun My Sweet Sun"'s Balearic daydream to the lo-fi, Factory-flavoured Shem series—the Israeli duo are an echo of what John Peel once said of The Fall: "They are always different; they are always the same." As Sadovnik and Arzi mention throughout our Skype call, this fluency has taken patience and discipline to realise. Finding their sound involved "time and practice," said Sadovnik. Arzi said much the same of learning about electronic music after encountering it for the first time.
They also owe a lot to what Arzi called "an explosion" of culture in '80s Tel Aviv, which absorbed the aftershocks of British post-punk, especially from Manchester and the north of England. Of all the bands Israel produced in that period, Minimal Compact's tight rhythm section and lean, angular guitars are the most obvious analogue to Red Axes, though Arzi also mentioned Rhetorical Band, Room 101 and Siam as influences. "I don't remember me and Dori as kids sitting and listening [to this music] at the time," said Arzi. "But when we became Red Axes—and even a bit before—we explored a lot of music, and also this music. Minimal Compact is a big influence for us. I'm not sure it's the main one, because we have a lot of records that we like and are influenced by. But this particular sound that came from Israel, I still feel it."
Among those central to that sound was Siam's Hadar Goldman, who described Tel Aviv to me as an "island"—both politically and artistically—separate from the rest of the country. "We have an expression in Israel," he said. "When the Israeli wants to slag us off they say, 'Oh, you Tel Aviv people.'" In the '80s, its remoteness from Europe meant that certain records took time to reach Israel. Punk, Goldman said, didn't land until 1980, three years after its peak in the UK. War And Peace And Inbetween, Siam's post-punk indebted album, emerged in 1989, well after that scene's highpoint. "There was only one record shop in Israel that would bring records, LPs, from Rough Trade, from 4AD, from Beggars Banquet," said Goldman. "When we heard the first albums of Joy Division, it was fucking two years after Ian Curtis hanged himself."
As children, Arzi and Sadovnik were both drawn to music. Arzi's father was a "fireplace singer" who sung Israeli ballads, and encouraged Arzi and his brother Yovav to play guitar from an early age. Sadovnik played guitar, too, but his parents had other ambitions for him. He'd played tennis since the age of six, and under his father's guidance he turned professional at 11. At 14, he helped Israel secure victory against Germany in a European tournament—a career highlight. At one point he was around 800th in the ATP world ranking. Choked by the rigours of tennis and three years in the Israeli Defence Force alongside Arzi, Sadovnik saw music as his release valve. He stopped playing tennis when he left the army.
"I remember people going to watch Dori play," said Arzi. "He was really good. It was him and Dudi Sela, who is now in the top 100. It was a big decision to leave tennis."
Arzi and Sadovnik met as 14-year-olds, bonding over games of table tennis at a house party Arzi was hosting. (Sadovnik "beat everybody's ass," Arzi said.) Soon they were writing songs and recording the results at Arzi's place on a "really primitive camera." Around 200 people—mostly friends and family—came to see their band, Cookies, play their first show. (It was also their last.) Three years after meeting, they formed Red Cotton, a four-piece that included Udi Naor and Yovav, Arzi's brother. They played "a kind of psychedelic rock with a bit of an '80s touch," said Sadovnik. "At the start it was a bit more psychedelic, more rock, then it became a bit more '80s new wave."
The year after releasing their debut album, 2006's memory card, the band made plans to go to London but only managed to reach Amsterdam. In the four months they spent in the Dutch capital, Arzi and Sadovnik fell in love with its dance music scene. "We started to produce a beat, our own music," said Sadovnik. "Like, really, really rough, but we started something, and so it was natural, you know. We started to go to parties a little bit. We liked the sound, we liked the fact that we can produce something and then play it the same day, in the club or something. At the end of the tour the band, how you say, 'broke.'"
In Amsterdam, Arvi and Sadovnik encountered DJs who could reconcile their enthusiasm for clubbing with their rock music backgrounds—Joakim and Tiga, who straddled both scenes, were among their favourites. They also went to a Daft Punk gig—"a really important show to see," said Sadovnik. Club 11, a club, gallery and restaurant on the 11th floor of a building, was their go-to venue. "We really enjoyed the moment during the shows where people were dancing. And for us, to see for the first time outside of Israel a big club, a party, where everybody danced together to alternative music, it was something really special that gave us a lot of influence. And we felt that we should do it."
And so they did, setting up a party called Break It! on their return to Tel Aviv. DJing the music they liked came more naturally than producing it. Following heavy-handed tech house EPs for Statra Recordings and Plattenbank Records in 2010, Red Axes began to find their feet a couple of years later with Tour De Chile, on which a remix by Soft Rocks signposted a way towards a more organic sound. The mutant disco dub of "Josef Cookies," from 1970, sounds like their "eureka!" moment, which they explored more thoroughly on their next EP, Silver Bed. But their album Ballad Of The Ice was the real watershed. Released on Cosmo Vitelli's I'm A Cliché—as with their three previous EPs—it bloomed with fresh ideas. Alongside the choppy rockabilly of "The Watkins," fragile Kraftwerk synths ("Neon"), fairground lullabies ("Papa Sooma") and gothic Bauhaus covers ("Bela Lugosi's Dead") seeped into the duo's dub and disco foundations.
"There was this album we heard a lot," Sadovnik said, "Solid Space's Space Museum, which we really like. And a lot of bands from that era—I could give you many names, but I think Solid Space had a major influence. You can really feel the approach, the simplicity of it. And also writing good songs, with choruses and strong textures. This is something me and Dori really connected to. We really like keeping the song vibe."
"Working on the album, it was something I felt made a change in the Red Axes vibe," said Arzi. "What we wanted to develop and how we wanted to do it in the studio, and how we wanted to do our DJ sets and everything."
"It's hard to collaborate the sound and be good," Arzi went on. "Being electronic and rock & roll and doing it really well—it's not so easy. I don't know, maybe a lot of people like rock, and then electronic, but they don't know how to put it together. It's a challenge."
Of all the labels Red Axes had sent their early demos to, only Vitelli's had shown more than a passing interest. He was struck by how easily they'd grasped "the codes of dance music," and said he'd never come across a demo with as much personality as Sadovnik and Arzi's. Most of Vitelli's input at the beginning was in selecting the tracks that "would make the most sense, both for them and for the label's evolution." "After that, they needed less and less intervention from me," he said. "I'm not sure they really need anyone anymore. They have clear ideas of where they want to go and don't get lost easily. I've been very impressed from the beginning by their ability to be constantly very creative and productive at the same time. Some weeks I'd get four or five new tracks, and very few would disappoint. It was actually both exciting and a bit frustrating as I could only release some of their stuff."
Arzi and Sadovnik enjoy close ties with fellow Tel Aviv musicians, a result of numerous collaborations. The duo co-produced a track from Hello To Mrs Blank by Autarkic. They also helmed Xen's new wave-flavoured Bells. Both EPs, as well as a recent house 12-inch with Moscoman, Dikembe Manutu/Rage In The Cage, suggest a wider scene whose instincts mirror Sadovnik and Arzi's. Within this pool of talent is Brazilian-born singer Abrão, a semi-regular presence on Red Axes records, whose smoky voice could either break your heart or steal it. On the Crosstown Rebels-released "Sabor," he sings hesitantly, as if bruised by failure. His whispered words on "Waiting For A Surprise," on the other hand, are seductive to the point of wickedness. Mostly, though, he softens Red Axes' edges.
"He brings much more than vocals," said Sadovnik. "He brings a really different kind of vibe. It's really weird because we don't speak Portuguese, and when we started, the first track we did was "Caminho De Dreyfus," and I remember that we really felt, like, 'Wow'—you know what I mean? What the fuck is this? I couldn't imagine our music suddenly with a Portuguese singer."
Releases on Crosstown Rebels and Permanent Vacation have recently brought Red Axes' music to deep house dance floors. It's not hard to imagine Sun My Sweet Sun going down well at a Lost In A Moment party, and yet its psychedelic jangle of chimes and flutes feels like a polish, not a dilution, of their post-punk core. Red Axes aren't hung up by notions of authenticity; they place faith in learning and exploration and remain agnostic about the "right" way to do things. As a counterpoint to their house tracks, last year Sadovnik and Arzi set up a 12-piece band under the Red Axes name. In October, they self-released a 12-inch, Ahuzat Bait, on which they showcased a rougher new wave sound while singing in Hebrew. They intend for Garzen Records releases to showcase more Israeli music in the future—a reissue of Siam tracks is forthcoming.
For a duo whose music is now widely embraced, they had plenty of people to convince on their return from Amsterdam. When Sadovnik told his parents he was quitting tennis to join a band, they sort of understood. When he told them he was going to become a DJ, the generational gap began to yawn. "For the band, it was easier to relate," said Sadovnik, "because it's a band. But electronic music, you know—'What are you doing?' For older people, when they think about electronic music they don't like it. They think it's like, boom-boom-boom and that's it. It takes time to understand."
Some of their friends also took some persuading. Arzi said they'd jokingly been called "cheesy." I asked if they'd managed to win some of them round since. "Yeah, yeah," said Arzi, laughing. "But now everybody's convinced."
Red Axes play the inaugural edition of Love International festival, which runs June 29th to July 6th at The Garden Tisno, Croatia