Leaving the Rebbe to drop some global beats
Growing up in religiously observant homes in New York, Zev Eisenberg and Gadi Mizrahi were not exactly prepared for a global music career. The Wolf + Lamb duo talk about finding their groove ahead of a first appearance in Tel Aviv.
My mother doesn’t get the concept,” says DJ and music producer Zev Eisenberg. “She asks, ‘You play at a party? What’s the party for if it’s not a birthday or a bar mitzvah?’ My family also doesn’t watch television and are culturally isolated from the world. My mother asks, ‘What instrument do you play? Who uses records these days?’”
The 30-year-old Eisenberg is half of the Wolf + Lamb duo, together with his good friend Gadi Mizrahi, 36. The two New York Jews specialize in slow, groovy disco and house music. In the past few years they have become one of the hot names in the world of clubs and electronic music. They tour internationally, run three flourishing music labels and have been favorably profiled in the dance music media, as well as in the more mainstream media: Indeed, the Guardian, reviewing a serious of parties they gave in New York, called them “a talent hothouse [that] demands serious scrutiny.”
Praise for the duo is on a constant upswing: Mixmag magazine named their 2010 debut album “Love Someone” one of the five best albums of that year; last year they made the list of the 100 top DJs of the year, compiled by the online magazine Resident Advisor. There’s more where that came from, though not enough to make it clear to Mama Eisenberg what her boy Zev does. Maybe because this is not exactly the career they had in mind for him at home.
Eisenberg is the third of eight children in a Chabad Hasidic family from Brooklyn. At the age of 15, Zev, whose childhood in New York included an unforgettable meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself at the age of seven, was sent to a “strict rabbinical school” in Bnei Brak, a largely ultra-Orthodox city adjacent to Tel Aviv.
“I grew up Haredi, but I didn’t believe in it,” he says by phone from New York. “I always found it ridiculous. I went to study in Bnei Brak in order to give it a last try, [feeling that] maybe I had overlooked something. But Bnei Brak is such a backward city that it felt like I was in the Third World. If this is the religious lifestyle, I thought, I have no connection to it.”
Eisenberg subsequently moved to Jerusalem. “I lived with relatives and gradually shed the Haredi way of life. During the first year I learned once a week with a friend of my father’s, so that my parents wouldn’t worry. But that became once a month and then never. I started to do graphic design for a small magazine, picking up the profession on the job. Every time I came home I wore fewer marks of religion − beard, skullcap − until they all disappeared. My family is cool. I am among the older siblings, so they didn’t have anything special to say, and anyway I didn’t care what they thought. My father respects his children’s decisions. After two years in Jerusalem I returned to New York.”
The music he heard at home was mostly religious pop (“It’s really depressing − someone sings about how terrible life is and how God will improve our lot”), but in Jerusalem, of all places, he discovered new sounds.
“When I was learning how to be secular there, I also started to try drugs,” he says. “There is a large community there of kids who were sent by their parents to be religious and discovered that the secular world is more fun. One day we were walking toward the entrance to Jerusalem after a night of partying, and I heard music coming from the direction of the convention center. We went over to check it out. It was a psychedelic trance party, Infected Mushroom style, and I thought: Oh my God! This is where we have to be! I didn’t like the music − it was too fast for me − but the idea of so many people coming to hear it really resonated with me.”
Gadi Mizrahi also comes from a traditional, albeit less pious, family. “My parents escaped from Egypt in 1967, or before one of those wars. My father was in the Egyptian army and a few years later in the Israeli army that fought the Egyptian army. He escaped to Italy and a little later to Israel. He fathered four children there before I was born. The family moved to New York in 1975, where I was born a year later. I attended a modern-Orthodox Sephardic school, even more ‘lite’ than Chabad. Shabbat and kashrut are observed, but without a skullcap. “My parents listened to Arabic music − Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kulthum. I listened to a lot of hip hop, Funk, R ‘n B. And then 12 or 13 years ago an Israeli friend introduced me to trance and later on to minimal techno. I also listened to the music my older brother liked: New Wave, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, and also Prince, Sade, Stevie Wonder.”
Mizrahi was also sent to Israel to have his faith reinforced before entering college. At the age of 20 he moved to the Old City of Jerusalem; he spent two years there, studying and afterward teaching at the Shehebar Sephardic Center (which runs rabbinical training and other programs). But he too lacked inner conviction. Back in New York, he studied psychology, and worked for a few years in the family’s hip hop clothing store. Then, about 10 years ago, Mizrahi’s nephew introduced him to Eisenberg at a party. The connection was immediate between them.
“We started living together and discovered that we were both excited by music,” Eisenberg says. “I already had records and turntables, and I played at small parties. Gadi’s older brother was also a DJ. So very quickly we started to play for friends.”
Two years later, Mizrahi suggested the stage name Wolf + Lamb − the English translation of their first names − “because ‘Zev and Gadi’ wasn’t a catchy name, and we started to produce parties that were appropriate to our music.” The brand developed, and Wolf + Lamb became the name of a successful line of parties in New York, a thriving music label, and the name of a collective of artists who release music under that label, among them Seth Troxler, No Regular Play, Soul Clap and the rising star Nicolas Jaar.
“It’s a comprehensive musical concept,” Eisenberg notes. “The artists who work with us see it as a family way to create and disseminate music, as a community.”
The two manage another label, W+L Black, which releases reedited old pop and disco hits. Plus Gadi also has a label of his own, Double Standard, which enables him “to expand musically − I like to discover and manage artists.” One of the artists he has signed in this framework is “a kid from Givatayim” named Pinhas Falah, who contacted Mizrahi via Skype. After he was signed he took Mizrahi’s advice and adopted the stage name Double Hill (a translation of Givatayim), because “in English Pinhas sounds like penis.”
As befits a collective, Wolf + Lamb and their satellite groups do guest spots on one another’s albums, remix each other, write together, play gigs together and sometimes even live together. Last year, for example, Gadi and Zev rented a place in Florida along with the two members of Soul Clap. Deniz Kurtel, who is also a member of the collective and who recently issued a new album, has been Gadi’s partner for the past four years and is naturally part of the close group.
“I wrote part of her album with her,” Mizrahi says, “but it doesn’t flow smoothly like when I’m working with Zev. She also has a strong personality. With Zev it’s give and take. With Deniz, these are her first years in music and she is still trying to prove herself, so the dynamics are different.”
“But that’s how we work,” Eisenberg sums up. “With everyone around.”
Clearing the floor
In the new Wolf + Lamb album, which is due out “in July or September,” Gadi and Zev felt their lack of formal musical training for the first time. It happened as “our tracks became more melodic and less based on loops,” says Eisenberg.
“We reached the limit of our expressive ability in the previous album,” Mizrahi says. “That’s why the new album has a guest from our label on almost every track. They helped us round off the work, because at first we weren’t satisfied with the result. There’s a limit to how much we can do musically. The album is very diverse. We try to be more pop, indie dance, like Metronomy or Little Dragon. And we started taking piano lessons together, to help us improve.”
Their success has been translated into a successful international career. After wintering in Florida, Gadi moved to Berlin, while Zev stayed in New York. They will spend the coming summer together in Ibiza, off the coast of Spain. In recent years, they have usually played separately.
“I had health problems, so I had to stay home,” Eisenberg explains. He’s referring to cancer of the thyroid gland and of the testicles. The disease attacked him three times in the four years after he turned 23. “Every time we started a tour I got sick,” he says. “For the past three and a half years, everything has been fine. The last time I did natural therapy after the operation. Five days after starting chemotherapy I left the hospital − I didn’t believe in it anymore. The first times, I did everything the doctors said and had radiation treatment, but the cancer came back.”
“We have only played together twice since releasing ‘Love Someone’ two years ago,” Mizrahi adds. “The fact is that we haven’t yet done a tour together as we should have. This is our first real joint tour now.”
As part of the tour they will DJ at the Block Club in Tel Aviv on May 10. A hint of what to expect can be found on their “DJ-Kicks” album, which they released last year (together with Soul Clap). It features a continuous mix of the kind of music they play.
“In the past few years we have played at ever larger clubs,” Mizrahi says, “and we still play deep and slow, under 100 BPM [beats per minute] at the peak. That has become our niche.”
It took time for clubbers to digest the idea that dance music could be so slow during the entire party, they explain.
“In a gig in Costa Rica, and also in New York four years ago, we started to play and cleared the dance floor,” Eisenberg recalls. “It was hard and upset us in the short term.”
Mizrahi: “But it strengthened our distinctive musical identity. And even if the whole audience doesn’t dance and go wild, I hope people come out of it with something. One time we played in Berlin and the people in the first three rows went wild, but everyone else just stood there. At the end of the evening the owner of the club told us that it was a breakthrough and special.”
Their growing popularity has encouraged the duo “because when we come to a new place, people have usually already heard of us and know what to expect,” Mizrahi says. “Our reputation precedes us and we know that people have come to hear us. We also have rules − namely, that whoever opens must not play fast techno but only ambient or hip hop, so the energy doesn’t fall when we start to play.”
Eisenberg: “Our agent makes sure that it’s understood what we will play and that whoever goes on before us knows he is not going to steal the show.”
Yiddish in Berlin
Wolf + Lamb plan to spend three or four days in Israel, “and if it goes well, we will come back often, because we will be based in Europe,” Gadi says. “It’s exciting and a little scary. There is no other place we identify with like Israel. And because I was in Jerusalem and not Tel Aviv, I didn’t see the Israel that everyone talks about, with an enthusiastic audience of dance and clubs. It’s important for me to make an impression. I want us to be wanted over and over. We are friends with [internationally acclaimed Israeli DJ] Guy Gerber, and Nicolas Jaar and Deniz Kurtel have already played in Tel Aviv. We heard good things about the Breakfast Club and the Block Club.”
The two also have relatives in Israel (Mizrahi: “My big brother lives in Herzliya Pituah”; Eisenberg: “I have uncles and aunts and cousins in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh”). After growing up religious and spending time in Jerusalem, they understand Hebrew but are too shy to use it. As a result, the interview was conducted in English. “Hebrew is my third language, after English and Yiddish,” Eisenberg notes.
Did your common Jewish roots help connect you?
Eisenberg: “In a deconstructive way: We helped each other to be less Jewish. We left the Jewish identity behind.”
Mizrahi: “Berlin was the center of the music we used to listen to, but to tell our families that we would play in Berlin was weird.”
Berlin is now known for its hard, dark techno, which is not so much your niche.
Eisenberg: “We play in different styles, and people like diversity. We also got along with the German sense of responsibility and the way business is done there: very professionally, very precise. We manufactured our records and discs there.”
Mizrahi: “It’s also very cheap there, and there is a very large American community in Berlin. We always had work there. And you don’t have to speak German.”
You could try Yiddish.
Eisenberg: “Yes, but I preferred not to.”