Cover Story: Red Axes, Rock & Rollers With a Disco Soul

Red Axes are rock & rollers, first and foremost. But that doesn’t mean house and techno don’t explicitly inform their sound. Following the release of their self-titled LP on Dark Entries, John Thorp dives into the psychedelic palette and lasting friendship that defines this Tel Aviv-based duo.

20 min
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May 19, 2020
John Thorp

“If you talk to the average teenager of today, and ask them what it is about rock & roll music that they like, then the first thing they’ll say is the beat,” announces a spoken-word sample on ”Zeze,” close to the top of Red Axes’ new self-titled album. The record is the Israeli duo’s third complete full-length and their first for the celebrated San Francisco label Dark Entries. Both the label and band have been present for around a decade, each building a bridge between the cyclical reinventions of contemporary rave culture and a rich, freaky history of post-punk, EBM, disco, and no-wave.

Suffice to say, the Red Axes LP finds itself in the right place. A history of releases on labels such as Phantasy, Permanent Vacation, and ESP Institute have seen the duo of Dori Sadovnik and Niv Arzi lend a broad palette of sounds to some of the finest house and techno labels on the map. But make no mistake, Red Axes are a band, good and proper. Whereas other producers may lend themselves a touch of outsider credibility with the occasional post-punk riff or Neu! reference, the brotherhood between Red Axes was forged in the Tel Aviv live scene, energised by the feedback of busted amps and riotous crowds.

“Being in a band is not easy,” affirms Arzi. “It can be super fun for years, but to continue a band can be very, very hard. And then, suddenly, somebody has a family or somebody leaves to go here or there, and then you’ve lost it.”

It seems this is unlikely to be the case of Arzi and Sadovnik, who have been inseparable since their teenage years. In their spare hours away from school they formed a band called Red Cotton that also featured three more members, including Arzi’s brother. Despite what could be described a “super serious,” practice-heavy approach even in their formative years (“We thought we were going to conquer the world, actually,” admits Sadovnik), members did indeed drop out, and soon the duo was left alone as custodians of what had audibly blossomed into an unusual and promising sound.

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Tel Aviv has always boasted a fertile and distinctive musical scene. And although Red Axes had previously joked about finally getting their hands on Joy Division’s music “three years after Ian Curtis killed himself,” they are quick to acknowledge that the city now has a modern clubbing scene as strong as many other major cities. Still, 10 years earlier, the landscape was much different. For Red Axes, a temporary move to Amsterdam was needed. There, they catalyzed the precise, adventurous, genre-blending sound they’ve since become known for.

“When we grew up as teenagers in Tel Aviv, there were a lot of bars,” recalls Arzi. “It was OK, but it was about small dancefloors where you can play whatever the fuck you want. We would play for hours in very small cubs, sometimes for three nights in a row.”

“We weren’t going out clubbing much in Tel Aviv before Amsterdam,” he adds. “We went to psychedelic trance parties as teenagers and had kind of started to associate with the Tel Aviv nightlife before we left to go to Amsterdam. We were always in the indie and the rock scenes, but the club scene was very different, darker, and a bit more aggressive. In Amsterdam, I felt for the first time that I saw young people, shiny people, more colourful and also the music was different. It was during the huge Daft Punk boom around 2007 and the Ed Banger kind of hype was all over Europe. This was the first time we went to techno, dance, indie dance parties, and the environment and everything around it was a first for me. It made a big difference and was very addictive to go out every weekend to celebrate.”

In the days and nights in between, the pair’s musical passions began to run deeper, as they learned to blend dance music’s function alongside the form of their well-established influences. Unexpectedly, the band also found a manager; an acquaintance, and a former reggae DJ, a sort of third Axe, and an extension of their brotherhood.

“He used to DJ, but he’s not in electronic music,” explains Sadnovik. “But one day, he called me and said, “OK, I want to manage you.” It was such a weird thing, as I don’t think anybody in Israel who was DJing had a manager. At first, we weren’t even sure what it meant. For one year, we’d tell people to “talk to our manager,” and they would say, “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” After one year, it became clear why we did it. Now everybody has a manager! Even people who’ve made one track, they need a manager.”

However, management will only take you so far, and an hour deep in conversation with Red Axes quickly reveals just how seriously both Arzi and Sadnovik take the culture that they are contributing to.

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“When you play electronic music or any music, you need to have the knowledge,” stresses Arzi, who’s the more dedicated crate digger of the pair, as well as the most forthcoming. “We were strangers to dance music, and there are so many important things to know. That’s why we started so functionally, with classic house and techno. Because we wanted to understand the history and culture of electronic music, be that the American history of house music or Berghain techno. You can’t just put the kick over it.”

Still, wherever you go, there you are. As Red Axes have snaked through the scene over the past decade, it’s seemed nigh impossible for a production duo so closely interwoven and so dedicated to sound anything but themselves, dancing to the beat of their own drum. They have created tailor-made festival anthems such as “Sun, My Sweet Sun,” their 2016 hit that initially unfolds as a Burning Man-appropriate, shorts-and-sandals showstopper before introducing one of dance music’s more memorable pan-flute solos. On the previous year’s “Sabor,” released via Crosstown Rebels, the Axes take the label’s traditional house shuffle and drown it in their signature effects — particularly a slightly unsettling echo that sounds like it’s permeating from somewhere earthier and more psychedelic.

With Dark Entries, this Israeli rock duo are sharing a roster with some of the most unexpected characters in electronic music, from queer disco icon Patrick Cowley to Australian industrial pioneers Severed Heads. Nonetheless, they’re comfortable with their ambitions and traversing the many scenes that ring true with their values.

“I think it would be unfair for us to see ourselves as outsiders, as we get a lot of love from people and it’s very flattering,” stresses Arzi. “And to be really honest, it’s friendly music designed to bring joy to people. And if it’s more powerful during these times to communicate with people. It’s important that artists are making outsider music. We know what it sounds like and we are glad of it, but it’s not what we’re trying to do now.”

“We have tried to be a little bit clearer in what we are trying to say,” he continues. “We need the perspective of time, but it’s definitely the biggest record from us. The most amount of money spent, as well as energy and concentration.”

“When you end up playing in bigger and bigger rooms, you still want to represent what you like,” adds Sadnovik. “So I guess that this album really shows what is the DNA of Red Axes. This is what we are now, and whether we are playing a festival or clubs, it fits everything inside. I can say that this time, Niv and I knew where we were going.”

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2017’s album The Beach Goths, self-released on their own Garzen imprint, was a more outright rockist statement; an album that felt at odds with the duo’s intense tour schedule as in-demand DJs. On Red Axes, however, the band manages to smoothly split the distance between their distinct sides. Thankfully sparing us an “electro-rock” album, the majority of the LP’s 11 tracks barrel forward in a new direction, one with equal appreciation for the rehearsal room and the dancefloor.

In particular, a number of collaborations highlight a nous for memorable, leftfield pop. On “Brotherhood (Of The Misunderstood),” friends and fellow Israeli act Autarkic collaborate for a track that unexpectedly, even unfashionably, conjures the spirit of Manchester’s legendary Hacienda club and the wideboy walk of the ‘baggy’ sound pioneered by the Happy Mondays. Alongside vocalist Adi Bronicki, “Sticks and Stones” has the flow and energy of early M.I.A.. Indeed, the album is a hugely satisfying grab bag of ideas and influences, cooked to perfection.

Clocking up forty years of wide-ranging musical obsession between them, it’s clear Red Axes’ depth of knowledge and their enviable ability to write the sort of melodies and songs in the classic mold lends them a unique advantage and a distinct charisma in the era of overwhelming functional techno. But for the band, the situation is simple — and personal.

“It feels like a big advantage, but it really depends on where you want to go,” Sadnovik thoughtfully acknowledges. “Because sometimes, it can be an advantage to be the opposite, as you think and make music that’s more simple, more functional. There are different advantages for somebody who is making electronic music but has never worked in a band. For us it took so long trying to make everything work, it’s too much. We like the advantage we have, but only for our direction. It’s complex!”

“I’d say that nowadays, in Israel, electronic music is much more popular than alternative rock music,” suggests Sadnovik. “There was a huge movement in electronic music around the millennium, like in Ibiza. But I think, for us, we were too young and interested in something different. We were mostly into rock music and indie stuff. And I suppose the second wave of hype for electronic music has been in recent years. It’s booming all over Tel Aviv and all over the country, actually. Sometimes, we play in three different cities across Israel in one weekend.”

Despite their citizenship, Israel wasn’t always the most fluid experience for the pair, who observed the ‘Tel Aviv wave’ they were initially associated with have a much bigger, more exotic impact away from the city itself.

“For me personally, it was much easier to play the international gigs at the beginning than the Israeli gigs, back when I was starting to DJ,” reflects Arzi. “I really like Israel and the local scene, but it’s a state of mind difference. Going outside the country was easier. Maybe I felt something judgemental, or maybe it was to do with my own self-judgment?”

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Despite it’s profoundly experimental and ramshackle musical heritage, Tel Aviv has not escaped the white noise drops, pitch-black aesthetic and fist-pumping that has come to define the state of modern, mainstream techno. As DJs, Red Axes have thoroughly held onto their character, even when faced with a sea of Instagram friendly faces at some of the world’s largest festivals. Modestly, the pair feel less than comfortable “talking about other people’s records,” but are happy to pinpoint several acts whose influence on the band seems undeniable.

Genesis P-Orridge, is still, for me, the main influence,” enthuses Arzi in regards to the sometimes controversial English producer, experimentalist, and occultist. Porridge passed away shortly before our conversation in 2020, as did Arzi’s other primary influence, the DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall, whose organic but future-facing influence is audible throughout Red Axes 45 minute trip.

“I like how they did alternative music and I like how they did club music,” he continues. “Weatherall, of course, he was a huge influence for us in both club and other music digging. In recent times, I have liked going back to some ‘90s progressive house records and making them downtempo, pitching down the records a bit. But I don’t feel it’s so interesting now that so many people are doing it. Most of my influence comes from DJ friends who I share music with, such as Ivan Smagghe, Manfredas. But really, we just take a look at what is going on now and find the records within our aesthetic.”

“And there are so many of those records!” Sadnovik enthuses. “But the main influence for Red Axes, especially during the live DJ sets, is ourselves and what we reflect off of each other. Our main creative process is what we do together, and we were touring so much before the corona breakdown, that this was the main creative time we spent together. Not in the studio, but on the stage.”

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Analysing the past decade and the path to actualisation on the new record, admirers of the duo might enviably observe a streak of self-assurance in their output, which has allowed them to deliver such consistently good, unusually charismatic music — never mind the impressive frequency.

“We have had each other’s back in many situations during this career and the differences in our personalities create a strong synergy,” explains Sadnovik. “We like to jump in the water and see what happens. In the end, what people see is the cream of every artist. They never see the fucks ups or the hard work. When they see someone successful, they wonder why are they not as successful as them? It’s a big thing to know and to understand that it’s going to take time. The more you fuck up, the more you learn. It’s very common sense and we never took the fuck-ups too hard.”

“We always just decided to go for it,” adds Arzi. “I’m not sure it’s confidence but I think it’s a very good thing for an artist. To go with the flow and not think, at least not too much. Because what you make is just what you make now, and besides, it will grow and you will make something else. It’s a mix of hard work, passion and faith. We’ve had a big dream for a very long time and we’ve changed over the years. The dream has always been a big part of our friendship since we were kids, and the dream has grown and become real in the past years. And this is why it happened, because of this hard work.”

Rounding off the conversation, talk drifts to how subcultures have evolved, and how, despite the musical tribalism of the past seemingly breaking apart as the Internet provides new blends, Red Axes’ approach still seems like a difficult thing for many to get their heads around. And yet, just as those initially enamoured with guitars seem drawn into the dance, the reverse effect seems to be a far less frequent occurrence.

“That’s a huge point,” agrees Arzi. “Electronic music and dance music and the stuff that comes with it, it’s hard to separate. The experience of dance music is so much more than the music itself.” On Red Axes, those disparate worlds, like Arzi and Sadvonik themselves, are drawn closer than ever.

John Thorp is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. You can find more of his work here.

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