A Tel Aviv Suburb's Answer to Britpop

Kfar Sava band Kerach 9 is often linked to '90s groups Pulp and Suede. But its roots are a bit noisier than that.

“I had a gig as a DJ at a Purim party for the Hanoar Haoved youth movement in Kfar Sava,” says Noam Rotem, singer for the band Kerach 9, describing his first meeting with bass player Roy Hadas and drummer Uri Meiselman. Both were 15 years old at the time. “They put on a spoof based on Zvika Pick songs. I was looking for people to play with and I really liked them.”

Now, a dozen or so years after breaking up, Kerach 9 is reuniting on February 6 at Tel Aviv's Barby Club. The band is shooting a clip for its new single “One of the Best.”

Kerach 9, founded in 1993, was identified with Britpop, then at its peak. The band broke up eight years and two albums later. Kerach 9 means Ice-nine, the fictional material used by the Manhattan Project in Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Cat’s Cradle.” “It’s an unstable compound,” says Rotem. “We didn’t pick the name at random.”

The band’s 1997 debut album “The Beginning of the Right Life” included hits such as “Movies,” “Young Mothers” and “With Him Forever,” perhaps the band’s biggest hit; it would later become the anthem of Israel’s gay community.

After Rotem met Hadas and Meiselman, all the band needed was a lead guitarist. They got Ohad Koski to come hear them play, and the guitarist joined up.

The day of the interview with Rotem and Meiselman, Pulp and Suede, two leading Britpop bands of the '90s, released new singles. Kerach 9 even opened for Suede in the summer of 1997.

“I arranged it with the two British bands,” Rotem jokes. “I said, ‘Let’s go on tour together, it’ll be really cool.’” More seriously, he notes that Kerach 9’s debut album came out around the time Suede and Pulp were heading toward the top.

“So we didn’t really have a chance to become overly influenced by them. We were more influenced by the same music that influenced Britpop: David Bowie, the Smiths, the Cure and Television. Plus the Britpop label describes something amorphous; you can’t really say Pulp is anything like Supergrass.”

More like Sonic Youth

While Kerach 9 may be considered the band that brought the Britpop sound to Israel, its roots were a bit different.

“Not many people know this, but at the start, Kerach 9 played very tough, very noisy alternative stuff, inspired by bands like Sonic Youth and Cardiacs,” says Rotem. He never connected with the grunge sound produced by Nirvana, Soundgarden and the like.

So how does a noisy alt-rock band become a Hebrew Britpop group?

“I think the songs were more important to us than their arrangements, and we were looking for a better showcase for them.” Rotem says some of Kerach 9’s biggest hits, including “Movies” and “With Him Forever,” led the change from the band's head-banging origins to its sound today.

“You should hear those versions, this weird avant-garde. I still have recordings of the first versions in some old box. I don’t think people would be interested in hearing them,” Rotem says.

“We weren’t the first band to do what others call Britpop. Long before us there was Knack Pop. The difference is that we were maybe the first to take this sound out of the margins where we had operated before releasing the album.”

After the band broke up in 2001, its members started playing with other groups. Four years later, Rotem launched a solo career and has released three albums. The tour supporting the latest album, “Iron and Rocks,” also featured Koski. According to Rotem, “We really connected. We’d always been in touch and we worked together before, but not at this level of intensity.”

So what changed?

"Suddenly something interesting started happening. We stopped trying to play like we used to. We were always trying to reproduce the old sound and couldn’t do it, because no one has invented a time machine yet. We decided to try to meet the old songs as we understand them now. You can hear the difference in the new arrangements, even though it’s the same band.”

Making it complicated

For now, the band doesn't plan to release new songs or a new album, but it does want to play festivals and special events this year. “There’s no planning. If one of us comes up with a new song tomorrow and says, ‘Let’s record,’ it could happen. We were never all that great at planning our careers,”Rotem says.

“It’s as if this is a way of fixing an old wrong, because we’re simply much better musicians now than we were then. Kerach 9's songs were always complex, with lots of chords and complicated transitions. Even songs that sound simple – we managed to complicate them."

That’s the reason the band’s songs weren’t played often after it broke up. “A lot of the time I couldn’t play Kerach 9 songs because I couldn’t remember the chords," says Rotem, "and also because I hadn't played them for so long, certainly not during the ‘Help Is on the Way’ album.” Back then, Rotem was also dealing with his wife’s struggle with cancer.

He adds that the late songwriter Ehud Manor, whom he didn’t know personally, was once asked to select five videos for a TV show.

“Out of five, he picked two Kerach 9 clips. I think the first was ‘My Girlfriend’ and the other was ‘With Him Forever.’ And this was Ehud Manor, the guy who wrote like half the songs in the world. That really moved us.”

What Rotem loved most about that TV show was that Manor said the band members had never explained anything about one of their songs except to say that it was about love.

Koski wrote the first stanza and the chorus of “With Him Forever” in the feminine, but because the band had no female vocalist, Rotem sang it in the masculine, “so then I just kept going and wrote the second stanza the same way.” As for it becoming a hit and a gay anthem, Rotem and Meiselman say they’re very happy.

Love is at the heart of the song, and only the frame of the story is gay, says Rotem. He adds that “J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series, didn’t have any practical experience with magic and witchcraft but had plenty of practical experience with being an orphan and having to struggle. That’s really what the books are about. ‘With Him Forever’ is about unrealized love, something everyone knows something about.”

Ilya Melnikov