Only This Israeli Musician Would Release a Single During a War

Interview with Israeli sampler musician Asaf Eden, whose stage name is Ryskinder.

Dudu Bechar

Ryskinder’s latest single, “Luksus” (Luxury), was released on July 10, two days after Operation Protective Edge began. Almost no one released singles that week. It was obvious to everyone that it was not the right time to introduce the anxiety-ridden public to new songs. Ryskinder knew that, too, but still released “Luksus,” which had been written before the war, of course, but did not sound all that disconnected from it.

The song starts with an a-cappella line (an odd usage, as a-cappella is usually reserved for pure, beautiful singing and Ryskinder’s is anything but.) “Just to wash all the dirt off my body,” he sings, without accompaniment, followed by “To brush my teeth is a luxury,” in a cracked voice. Then come the primitive, aggressive-sounding drums, and he continues, “Maybe a war will break out here soon.” The drums go silent and an Oriental-sounding melody is picked out — “If you fall asleep on guard duty, it’s OK.” He draws out the last note for a few seconds, singing some convoluted ornamentation.

“Ram [Orion, the producer of Ryskinder’s new album] decided that this had to be an anthem for soldiers, that it was a song that talked about the difficulties combat soldiers have in maintaining hygiene,” Ryskinder says with a laugh. (Ryskinder is his stage name; his real name is Asaf Eden.) But then his smile vanishes, and he adds: “When was the last time you heard the Hebrew word ‘zohama’ [a literary word for “dirt”] in a song? Really, who ever sings that word? Just saying it in a song has an effect. Hebrew also has words that describe unpleasant things.

“In general, my feeling is that there’s an enormous black hole of reality that no one deals with,” Eden continues. “I don’t sing about the two-state solution now, but I think that my songs talk about what’s happening. If you sit at home and write the most beautiful love song, and there’s a rocket alarm and that doesn’t get into your song in some way, then what’s it worth?”

Eden, 30, says that all his songs deal directly with the Israeli reality, and it seems that he is right — though the way he writes does not always allow for immediate and clear interpretation. “I like to play with the Hebrew language,” he says. “I like to knead it, mess it up, probe it, speak it in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of intonations. I like cursing with it, mixing it. It’s a practical language that can be used to respond to what goes on here.”

Ryskinder’s new album, “Something Else Happened,” will be launched on next Sunday at the Mazkeka (Distillery) Bar in Jerusalem, as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture. (Additional launch concerts will take place on August 16 at the Syrup concert venue in Haifa and on August 19 at the Pasaz Bar in Tel Aviv.) This is the first of Ryskinder’s albums that was not recorded in his bedroom. It was recorded in Ram Orion’s living room.

Eden, whose main instrument is the sampler, creates collages that are small and sly, and that aesthetic is present in his new album. A guitar riff taken from an old surf album is put into a loop of Indian percussion, which is placed in an excerpt of an Italian aerobics recording. It may sound like a pile of junk, but Eden and Orion succeed in refining it in a creative way that preserves the dimension of freedom that is important to Eden, while adding a measure of logic.

“A great deal of thought was put into the production,” Eden says, “and I’m glad we managed to keep the collage style that I like. I didn’t want to turn it into a rock album. There are a few songs that maybe could have been rock anthems, but we kept that from happening. Writing a rock song but not really hitting people over the head all the way — that works for me. You don’t have to be smart to hit people over the head with it. Well — you do have to be smart, but that’s not what interests me in music.”

Eden got into music at a relatively late age. He did not play an instrument in his youth, and he was not interested in music. “I was a mega-nerd. I read books,” he says. He started recording at home after a friend showed him software for making music on the computer, and when he played his work for people in the indie and punk music scene in Jerusalem, they were enthusiastic about it and suggested that he make an album. He chose the name Ryskinder because his grandfather’s surname had been Ryskin before it was Hebraized.

He admits, a bit shyly, that he listens to a lot of Beck [Hansen].

What’s the problem with Beck?

“They’re always comparing me to him.”

To him and to Ohad Fishof.

“That’s right. In any case, I listened to Beck and said, ‘Wow, here’s someone who can’t sing, and it sounds like he’s sitting in his room with drum and loop machines, and he’s doing amazing things.”

Ryskinder’s first show — with only the sampler he had bought a few days earlier — took place in the living room of a private home, alongside a few punk bands. “I realized something important during that show,” he said. “I realized that what was important to people in the audience was not precision or the sound level, but myself, what I had to say, what I expressed.”

In the late 2000s, Eden was a soloist for the Ashkara Metim band, which took the “Jerusalem UFO” slot in the Tel Aviv indie scene for two to three years. Every weekend, Ashkara Metim would travel to Tel Aviv in a taxi van, do a show and return to Jerusalem. “It’s an awful cliché, but a certain hype was created around us because we were from Jerusalem, and truth to tell, I liked it,” Eden says. “You’re a young kid, you do a show, there are girls, alcohol, rock and roll.”

Is that what the song “Groupies” from your new album is about? Are you laughing at that?

“I’m not laughing at that at all. ‘Groupies’ is one of the less humorous songs on the album.”

He is right. The song could even be considered threatening. After Eden sings a line from it, we hear a sample of a woman saying, ‘It’s an unpleasant feeling... unpleasant, to put it mildly.”

Ashkara Metim had an ambivalent relationship with the concept of rock and roll, and they completely avoided the concept of “Israeli rock.” When they performed five years ago at a tribute evening to Berry Sakharof’s album “Signs of Weakness,” they looked like they did not want to be there. “We weren’t into Barry at all,” Eden says. “Once, we performed at a punk festival on a kibbutz, and the audience starting shouting ‘Israeli rock! Israeli rock!’ at us. They meant it as a curse, the worst curse of all. We were really unhappy about it because we didn’t want to be Israeli rock. We didn’t see ourselves on the same family tree as Arik Einstein, Berry and Mashina.”

And now you’re releasing an album produced by someone who is connected with that family tree.

“That’s true. He’s connected and he isn’t. I’m in a different place now. I still do only what I want, but I’m interested in reaching places and people that I wouldn’t ordinarily reach. There’s no reason not to. Ryskinder can be a pain in the rear for Israeli rock.”