Interview: Yotam Ben Horin on the Punk Scene in Israel, Going Solo

Interview with Yotam Ben Horin | By Kevin Wells

Yotam Ben Horin has fronted Israeli punk four-piece Useless ID for almost 20 years. In 2008, he went solo, and now, has released his second emotionally raw acoustic effort, California Sounds, this past October via Hardline Entertainment.

How did you first get into punk rock music?  

I first discovered Nirvana when they broke in ‘91. I was a 12-year-old Brooklyn kid in a yeshiva, and that pretty much yanked me out of the hip hop and whatever I was into at the time. That was kind of like my first introduction to “Holy fucking shit! This is angry, pissed off, and I can do it too,” but what is it? I was already familiar with a lot of alternative bands, and was always drawn to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. more than Metallica or Pearl Jam, but I had a feeling that something was missing.

Two years later, when my family moved to Israel, I signed up for a new school and I was the outcast; didn’t really speak to anyone, kept to myself, so I discovered The Exploited, Sex Pistols, The Pixies, and the Ramones, which I love dearly, but it was all about discovering through cassette tapes, ‘cause none of us had money for CDs and there was no Internet and this is fucking Israel we’re talking about! That summer, I saw my first punk show, kinda, when Babes In Toyland came to Israel. Luckily, I got thrown out of the school I was in a year before and applied to an Art school [for] kids who didn’t do so well with grades, and that’s where I discovered punk. The class was full of skater dudes who introduced me to “Plan B,” a classic skateboard video of the time with a punk and hardcore soundtrack. Then, I got dubbed tapes of Black Flag, DRI, Gorilla Biscuits, Minor threat, Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX, and then, Green Day blew up, so that was it for me.

What was the punk scene like in Israel back then?

In 1994, [guitarist] Ishay [Berger] from Useless ID was a grade above me and had a band called 911 Pigs, so I started going to their shows. They would play pretty much every weekend into 1995, when I formed my first band, Rampage. I had been jamming with two dudes on grungy stuff and that fell apart. After a half year, I called them up and said, “Listen, I got some new songs and it’s really fast shit. I have a feeling this will work.” Useless ID were around at the time, rarely played, but all the kids, including me, knew about them and used to hang at their rehearsals. I wasn’t in the band yet. As far as shows, the scene was just starting to pick up by 1997. We had a whole scene we called “Haifa City Hardcore,” a handful of good bands that just started doing shit and creating a scene. I’m actually gathering shows and videos for a movie, which I will make on those years in Haifa.

What is the punk scene like in Israel now?

Well, everything is so accessible these days, there’s no real mystery. I remember, I got Descendents’ I Don’t Want to Grow Up, and for years, I actually thought they looked like their cartoons. You just didn’t know what band people looked like if they weren’t in hip magazines or on MTV.

So, now, there are many bands doing great things like Mondo Gecko, Not On Tour, and Kids Insane. I play in a hardcore band called SPIT with my brother. I’d say the scene is happening low-key, ‘cause there’s much other shit terrorizing the industry here. People are more obsessed with Facebook posts and videos than they are about actual songwriting. Sorry I took a detour from the question, it just pisses me off.

How did you first decide to start playing solo shows?

Useless ID had recordings coming up, which would end up being The Lost Broken Bones, so I was in writing mode anyways. I wrote a few quiet songs to try to start another band with; that didn’t really work out, and when I let one of my friends hear it, he was like, “You should go out, do solo shows with this stuff, and call it Yotam Ben Horin.” I was terrified out of my mind at the thought, but booked a show where I ended up playing sped up versions of all the songs and didn’t raise my head once to look at the crowd. I have to say, I’m much better these days [laughs].

When did you start going into the crowd and singing?  

That actually happened by mistake. I did a solo tour in New York in 2012, and the first show I booked had no stage. There was a balcony, and you’d have to sing your ass off in order to be heard over the bar noise, so in the last minute, I changed the keys of my songs and that opened up my world to singing with no mic. Then, I started playing the streets [and] subways for a bit and thought that it would be cool to incorporate that element into my show somehow. Now, it’s quite out of control. Crazy shit always happens when I go into the crowd. I start improvising, someone might start heckling, sometimes drunk dudes just don’t let me sing, so I write a song on the spot like, “He’s So Wasted” [February 2015 at The Vu Lounge]. There was even one show where I was in the crowd for two hours straight, one of the best.

Is the rush different playing live shows solo than with a band?

The whole experience is different. I like both equally. I have this theory that if I don’t sweat my ass off, the show wasn’t good enough. I give all I got all the time, no excuses.

When and where did you record California Sounds?  

I recorded it at Flying Blanket Studios owned by Bob Hoag over the course of two days this past May in between West Coast tours. I wanted it to be sort of like an “in and out” experience, ‘cause I never recorded a live studio album to analog equipment, and, after so many shows with these songs, I felt confident enough to do one to two takes of each song and move forward.

There is a song called “Tony Sly” on the record. Did you set out to write a song for [the late No Use For A Name frontman], or did it just kind of happen?

The day I heard the news, I [had] just come back from a friend’s wedding and thought it was a hoax, then the whole net was flooded with all these “RIP Tony” and “such a loss” [posts]. So, I called [Useless ID guitarist] Guy [Carmel] in the middle of the night and he told me it was true, we spoke for a bit and hung up. I put the phone down, started crying, and strummed the guitar. The song I wrote is the melody that I came up with. It just comes to show how much Tony had an impact on my subconscious, and as a tribute, I wanted to put lyrics to it in dedication of Tony, the writer and the friend.

Were all of these songs recently written or had some of them been around awhile?  

A few of them had been written prior to me coming to the States to tour alone. I just did so many shows, tried so many songs live, saw what worked, what didn’t, and pretty much played my set list at the studio and called it my new album. It’s funny, the last song I wrote is actually the album title, “California Sounds,” and the music was written while I was killing time at this dark penthouse in the heart of Hollywood. The lyrics came to me on the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco one month later, while I toured with Sic Waiting.

Is there anything else you want people to know about you or the new record or Useless ID?

With the record, I am trying to present music in its truest and most honest raw form, and I am very proud of what Bob and I captured at the studio.

With Useless ID, we’re working on our next record now, which we will recorded at The Blasting Room with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore this coming December. We’re really pushing ourselves lyrically and creatively this time to make a record we are very proud of. I can say that there will be more shorter and faster songs on it than the previous two had.

In February, I will do a one week record with Joey Cape, so I’m writing for that too now. So, it’s all exciting and great right now, reading books, writing, keeping the flow going, and thanks for the interview!

I’ll just end this one by thanking people who still believe in true and honest music from the heart.

Pick up California Sounds here.

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