Artist Spotlight: Tamar Aphek

    Singer-songwriter Tamar Aphek has been a prominent figure in Israel’s underground scene for over a decade. After joining her first band as a law student at Tel Aviv University, she went on to form Carusella and Shoshana, two duos she formed with drummers Guy Schecter and Jonathan Harpak respectively. In addition to touring across Europe and the US and sharing the stage with the likes of Deerhoof and M. Ward, she also helped organize the country’s most prestigious festival, Indie Negev. Though already recognized in different places around the world, her music found a new international audience when her debut full-length album, All Bets Are Off, was released by the legendary Kill Rock Stars at the end of January. Following her 2014 EP Collision as well as her score for Asaph Polonsky’s acclaimed 2016 dramedy One Week and a Day, the LP serves as a staggering display of Aphek’s wide-ranging influences, melding soaring guitars, fuzzy bass, and shape-shifting percussion that attests to the artist’s boundless creativity. Recorded at the funk and soul imprint Daptone Records and mixed by Daniel Schlett (War on Drugs, DIIV), the result is dynamic to the point of being at times deliberately overwhelming, but Aphek possesses an almost cinematic understanding of space and atmosphere that turns the album’s conflicting textures into a cohesive yet rivetingly chaotic whole.

    We caught up with Tamar Aphek for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series, where we showcase up-and-coming artists and talk to them about their music.

    I read that before you turned 18, you weren’t really interested in rock music and had a very classical musical education. How would you describe your relationship to music during that time?

    My mother used to tell me that when I turned 7, she asked me if I would like to play the piano, and I immediately answered yes. And I remember that while some of my friends used to tell me that their parents forced them to play the piano, for me, practicing the piano was never a problem. I feel like I didn’t choose to do music as much as music chose me. When I turned 13 I went to the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where I joined a children’s choir. It was a wonderful experience, I had the opportunity to meet huge conductors and musicians. Practically I was dealing with music most of the day and I think this was the biggest enjoyment for me. 

    You’ve said that it was artists like Fugazi and Slint and Sonic Youth that changed or broadened how you view music. How did you come across these kinds of bands, and what was it that drew you to their sound?

    At the time, when I started the service in the army, there was this very cool venue in Tel Aviv called The Patiphon, which means “The Vinyl”. And I learned a lot about all these bands in this club. And once you start hearing one thing, you start hearing everything you can grab. And also, I started playing guitar with a teacher and he too introduced me to some stuff. At one point, it just got out of control. I started buying albums like crazy – you know, bands like Fugazi and Blonde Redhead and Unwound, these bands caught my attention, because I remember listening to bands like Fugazi that have a lot of punk songs, but they also had an album like The Argument. And all of a sudden I discovered that there was jazz in it and all these cool time signatures, and you know, these guys do have musical education. They opened new horizons for me. And for me, coming from classical music where the sound was so clean, and suddenly hearing these distorted sounds, it was like entering a magic world of distortion with a lot of nuances. The distortion of a band like Pantera isn’t like the distortion of Nirvana, isn’t like the distortion of Shellac, there are a lot of kinds of distortion. 

    I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on the underground scene in Israel and Tel Aviv specifically and how that has evolved over time.

    Well, around 10 years ago I did a festival in Israel, which was the first alternative music festival in the open air which I did for 3 rounds. It was kind of a pioneering project. At first came 700 people, then 1500, and finally 2000. At that time I finished my law degree and I started planning tours abroad with my band. By the time I was touring and got some hype in Europe I was not involved that much with the Israeli underground scene. People in Israel took the torch and continued with open air festivals in different places which attracted between 10,000-12,000 people. So I think a lot of people in Israel helped build the alternative scene. On the whole, I don’t think there is much difference between the Israeli underground scene and all the other equivalent underground scenes all over the world. Especially when with the development of Spotify and social media, sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference between Israeli underground music and any underground music abroad. I don’t see any Israeli specific features of the underground scene even when the Israeli bands sing in Hebrew. The Israeli underground music scene is part of the global underground scene. I think there are a lot of influences from the global scene. Basically, I think it’s so amazing that people from all over the world can listen to what you’re doing, and vice versa. So I think these mutual influences are fantastic and did help to develop the Israeli scene. 

    You mentioned being involved in the music scene in different ways before this album, but why did you feel like this was the right time to record a project under your name?

    I had a couple of bands, and I think it had to be a different name because it was a band that did one thing, like it was one concept; on the musical production side, it was pretty much all hell breaks loose. It was like a war, you know, we would come to a venue like soldiers, carrying these crazy marshals and opening this really loud volume and performing in the middle of the floor. It was supposed to be this crazy physical experience. And I feel like in that sense, it was like a movie I did. And I think I just realized I don’t have to invent a lot of bands now, you know, I don’t have to invent a band for every movie I want to do, but rather treat an album like it was a movie. Recording my album was like creating a movie about the soundtrack of my musical experience and my interactions with audiences and partners during the last years.

    I’m interested in something you mentioned in the press release about how there was a lot of space for improvisation during the making of the album, but the post-production process was very calculated. Could you elaborate on that and tell me more about what the dynamic was like during the different stages of making the album?

    When I spend time with musicians, producing a song, I tend to encourage things that maybe other people wouldn’t tend to encourage. For me there was no problem with working three months with a drummer, and I think my only instruction was “Play as crazy as you can.” I encouraged my bandmates to use the song as a platform to fulfill their imaginations, and not to be afraid to improvise and take risks not to abide by basic rules When we finished recording, besides overdubbing some instruments, I sat a lot of hours with the materials and edited them. And at one point, I started feeling like I created my own samples, and I started playing with the samples in different creative ways.

    So when I finally entered the amazing Strange Weather studios, you know, Daniel Schlett ended up mixing the album and he was amazing, and he brought a lot of himself to the process. But when I met Daniel, I had in my mind at least 10 ways the song ‘Crossbow’ would sound like. But still I was very flexible and I was willing to accept Schlett’s interpretation. I feel that I came to Daniel so prepared that it was not difficult for me to understand what is the way he was going to take each song.  

    I’m also interested in how the theme of uncertainty is reflected both musically and lyrically throughout the album. I’m thinking of especially of the song ‘All I Know’, with lyrics like “all I know is that I’m not really me.” Could you talk more about the idea behind that and how those themes came about?

    Well, I chose the name – I’ll answer you, but I’ll start a little bit before – I chose the name All Bets Are Off before the pandemic. And the name was meant to describe situations in which we have all these uncertainties in life, and it creates this cognitive dissonance, when you struggle with all these different contradictions and you don’t know how things are going to develop. And for me, it’s like this prophetic thing because nowadays we have this virus, this small factor, you know, just a little virus that changes realities and all the former expectations are not relevant anymore. And that was the idea of the album, how all the assumptions you had before aren’t relevant anymore; that’s the meaning of “all bets are off”, but people also use it when they want to say, like, everything is open, all the possibilities. And I felt I wanted to create this feeling throughout the album, the feeling of stress and panic and loneliness that most people feel when things are not going the way they planned.

    ‘All I Know’ was a song that is meant to bring one of those feelings, trying to capture – you know, there are many songs about love, but many times these songs are like, “I love you and I miss you.” And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want an “I love you and I miss you” song. I wanted a song that deals with a deeper issue. When we talked about Carusella, it was like hell breaking loose, this was a band that was like going on war – many times I feel like I’m an actor in my song, or the people I play with are actors in my play. Sometimes I get into a character for a song and I try to understand what motivates this character. And the thing I think that bothers the character in ‘All I Know’ is more the question, “What does she know?” Like what can she say say she knows for sure? She doesn’t say, “I love you, I want to be back together,” you know, she says, “I’m not really me and there’s a problem here, like obviously if I’m not really me I can’t be with you.” So eventually nobody knows who is who in the song.

    With that in mind, I was wondering about your choice to end with a cover of ‘As Time Goes By’, especially in relation to what you said about inhabiting a character like an actor in your songs.

    ‘As Time Goes By’, I think it’s a very special song. I chose it because I wanted a love song, and Casablanca is considered to be one of the most romantic movies of all time. And you know, the plot of the movie is not like this boy meets girl, happy kind of story. In the end, they sacrifice their love for the greater good, whether you agree or not, but that’s what they believe. But then you have ‘As Time Goes By’, and that’s like their song. It was written by Herman Hupfeld, and I feel like this is more like a love song about the concept of time itself. That’s what really caught me. I wanted a love song, but also, it has an edge. For me, this song is a celebration of time and how time can heal wounds, and what an amazing thing time is, it’s so beautiful.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Tamar Aphek’s All Bets Are Off is out now via Kill Rock Stars.

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