There have been many political bands over the years whose lyrics strive to effect some kind of social or governmental change. Then there are bands whose music is the main focus, but politics remain at the forefront of their very existence.
Such is the case with RockFour, an ambitious quartet that hails from Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. As the lone Israeli indie rock act touring the states right now, the members are in a unique position to comment on the world's most hot-button topic.
"We're used to it," said drummer Issar Tennenbaum, when addressing whether the group tires of being asked about politics more than music. "You keep living it. You keep reading it on the Internet every day. It's natural. It's not like we don't want to talk about it it just won't go into our songs so much."
Indeed, RockFour's tunes are hardly appropriate for political strongarming. The band expertly combines the lavish harmonies and trippy soundscapes of acts such as The Byrds, The Zombies, Cream and David Bowie ("early Bowie," Tennenbaum emphasized).
"I notice that most of the (American) reviews of our music bring out the influences," Tennenbaum said. "I kind of like it because it's a different way of reviewing. A lot of times in Israel when we get a review, the first thing they do is go through your whole career. Then the last few words they talk about your new album or new song. Here, right away they put you into some kind of category. I think it just helps people who don't know your music to know if they could hook up with it or not."
It was while serving in the Israeli military that RockFour first hooked up. Originally a trio, the members (Tennenbaum, vocalist Eli Lulai and guitarist Baruch Ben Izhak) began jamming together on Beatles covers as a way to pass the time during their mandatory three-year enlistment.
Within a year they had self-released a record, and by 1994 had added a fourth player (bassist Marc Lazare) to help emulate the Western quartets with which they were so smitten.
In 1998, RockFour made the decision to sing entirely in English a move not without repercussions in its homeland. Israel's largest commercial station broadcasts only artists that perform in Hebrew.
"(English) gives us more opportunity outside of Israel," he said. "It's easier to write, more fun playing and the exposure is much better. It's the language of rock and roll."
Although the band had been gaining exposure through the indie press and previous U.S. tours, RockFour was anticipating its big break last September when scheduled to play at New York's eminent CMJ Music Festival.
"On Sept. 11 we were on the way to the airport to come to New York," Tennenbaum recalled. "We were at home packing and making last-minute arrangements. All the sudden the phone rang, and we were watching and not believing. The first reaction was, 'What do we do? Are we going? Is the tour canceled?' After a few minutes we didn't even care. The world was coming down. Our careers were on hold right then."
Eventually, the band decided to keep their scheduled appearance in the United States, though the circumstances had obviously changed.
"It was put off by a month, but it was still pretty traumatic," he said. "We got to see New York, with the burning smell and all the missing peoples' pictures. It was pretty horrifying. But we did the show and felt like we could probably get back on the road."
Considering almost a year has elapsed since that experience, RockFour is in a slightly better frame of mind. Now relaxing at a hotel in Los Angeles, Tennenbaum said the most troublesome aspect of the current tour is the traveling.
"It's very intense," he said. "Driving is a drag, but the shows are great."
The four members take turns on the road, and since they don't have a major label providing tour support, they each hold other duties. Tennenbaum's vocation was in hotel management before the band went full time, so he arranges all the lodging. ("I'm the demanding one," he laughed.)
RockFour spends a large portion of its year performing live Tennenbaum estimates over 100 gigs, many of which are obviously held in Israel. Surprisingly, he maintains the security at these concerts is not all that stricter than at U.S. shows.
"Venues, you won't find too many problems coming in," he said. "It's more in restaurants these days where you go through two or three barriers and an intercom device. Then there are like a couple bodyguards outside. 'Do you have any weapons?' is usually the first question. No one asks us here if we are carrying any weapons."
RockFour will finish out the tour in New Orleans at the beginning of September. Then it's back home. The band plans on making a return to America, considering most of its long-term goals involve this country more than its own.
"We want to record here in the states, in L.A.," Tennenbaum said. "We want to sign with a major label. We're getting a few approaches from two or three big labels. Then we want to work with a producer. We've self-produced ourselves for years. We're looking for a challenge. If Neil Young could hear about us, or Todd Rundgren or Brian Wilson or Tony Visconti, that would be a dream. But we would probably settle for someone less famous."
The one issue that the members are unwilling to settle on involves the fate of their homeland. It's a complicated issue, and like everyone else they have definite opinions on what can be done.
So is there a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
"Yes, but not now," Tennenbaum replied. "Maybe 20 years from now. It needs time to calm down, and a generation will change, leaders will change. It takes time. We're a young country."