Band on the Rhine: Israeli Classical-turned-rock Musician Brings Netanya's Groove to Germany

After studying with the first double bassist of the Berlin Philharmonic,Israeli-born Micha Kaplan has returned to rock with a new band and a new eclectic album.

Just one note goes from Netanya to Berlin, and it’s the loud and dirty sound of an open string played on the bass. “Just let me play an open string all day. It gets me high,” says Micha Kaplan, an Israeli musician who lives in Berlin and runs, among a slew of other projects, the band Netanya, which is named after the city near Moshav Avihayil, where he grew up.

A month after Kaplan started playing the bass at the age of 15, he recorded himself playing. Recently, more than 20 years later, he found that old recording and listened to it. “It’s clear that I’m a much more advanced musician today, but my mindset is still the same,” he says. “I was really glad to hear it. I’ve stayed the same person. The animalistic, instinctive thing was always there, and it’s still very present. Netanya’s new album begins with the sound of an open string being plucked on a bass.”

When Kaplan says he is a much more advanced musician than he was in his youth, he is putting it mildly. At 21, after he played in the band Sadraney HaDeshe and was a member of one of the incarnations of Ziknei Tzfat, Kaplan exchanged his electric bass for a double bass, left rock for classical music, and went to Berlin to study with the first double bassist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Netanya’s new and excellent album, “We Are One Two Three,” documents his return to rock and to the electric bass, to which he brings the sensitivity and insights he accumulated during his extended classical training in Berlin.

When you play rock music on the electric bass today, can what you learned from the first double bassist of the Berlin Philharmonic be heard in your playing?

“Definitely. I learned from him not only technique and self-expression, but also how to tell a story through music. It’s got nothing at all to do with the style. It’s just as important in classical music as it is in rock. The moment you realize that, you understand what to brighten, what to darken, how to connect one thing to another. It’s something I’m very much aware of, and I express it even when I’m hitting it hard.”

Netanya’s music can hit listeners over the head one moment and be delicate and complex the next. It contains a collision between contradictory moods and frenetic movement between various musical worlds, from unrestrained rock to experimental pop to what sounds like Oriental post-disco. “It’s not deliberate or defiant,” says Kaplan. “It’s how I write. I have a tough time with music that fits a pattern. It bores me. I’m obviously a sucker for perfect pop, but my music has to have some kind of twist. Maybe it’s my personal signature: identifying the musical or emotional tension and having fun with it − a sweet-and-sour kind of thing. Dualistic. I’m naturally attracted to those places. Maybe it’s also the influence of post-Romantic classical music: taking melodies that could be very simple, but using subversive harmonies to twist their shape and offer a completely different meaning.”

Kaplan says that the eclectic nature of Netanya’s new album is also the product of his emotional situation. “This album had a very obvious trigger − the collapse of my marriage and my fight with my ex-wife over our son,” he says, wishing to add nothing further except the fact that what he calls “that drama” ended well for his son.

“Over the past few years, I touched emotional extremes,” he says. “On the one hand, I touched the toughest feelings and the lowest places; on the other, the relief and happiness of change and of a new path. All these feelings are documented in the album − pain and joy. In one song, I sing, ‘Up there in Heaven I touched my misery.’ The album has lots of songs about love, but no love songs.”

Most of the album was recorded in Berlin, with some Israeli musicians ‏(including the singer Sarit Shatzky and bouzouki player Liad Vanounou‏). After the recording sessions were over, Kaplan put together a band that would play the songs live. “They told me the songs sounded like the B-52s on crystal meth. So be it,” Kaplan says, smiling with irony and pride.

Before Kaplan is asked why he called his band Netanya, we have to find out what people in Berlin think of the name. “What do they know about Netanya?” laughs Kaplan. “They think it’s a pretty name for a woman, like Tanya. Or they say, ‘Hmmm... interesting.”

After playing with Sadraney HaDeshe, which had an album produced by NMC ‏(the producer was none other than Berry Sakharov‏), Kaplan began studying the double bass with Eli Magen. “After two years, Eli told me I had to study in Berlin with this guru, who was the first double bassist of the Berlin Philharmonic,” Kaplan recalls. This great teacher, Rainer Zepperitz, already had an Israeli student, Gil Smetana, who had gone over to classical from rock. Kaplan went to Berlin in 2000, and for the next seven years played no rock music at all.

Did you miss it?

“No. I was deep inside classical music. I gave it all I had. But after I completed my studies, I realized that I had to go back to writing. Today I combine everything. Recently I played in “Fidelio” by Beethoven, but I admit that it’s less interesting to me now. I have a duo of double bass and classical guitar with Italian music. I play with Yoni Rechter in Esther Ofarim’s band, and I compose music for the theater and for dance.”

Did you have any problem going back to rock and the more basic style of playing after putting so much into the classical world?

Kaplan mulls over the question. “I see no contradiction between them. What, like rock is animalistic and classical is intellectual? Come on! Listen to a Beethoven symphony. Take the Eroica for example. The Malvinas ‏(one of the heaviest and most massive rock bands − B.S.‏) have a way to go in comparison to that. On the other hand, the Malvinas have things that our friend Ludwig never knew about. None of these definitions is worth much. To me, the most important thing is to play amazing music.”

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov