Paul Amitai
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Paul Amitai

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"Profile: Paul Amitai: Musician, artist, filmmaker, mixmaster"

Paul Amitai sat inside Rochambo Coffee & Tea House on Brady Street in a T-shirt and jeans, his long legs jutting out from beneath a small table. Between quick sips of hot tea, he chatted about his latest artistic endeavors while quietly giving props to friends coming in and out of the shop.

A music man and visual artist, Amitai, 30, is keeping busy with the debut of his solo album, "River of Shadows," an electronic mix with dark vocals that dropped Aug. 13. He has also been preparing to show a film in the Milwaukee Art Museum's "It's All Wrong ... Right?" film and music party featuring area filmmakers and bands (see page 24).

Amitai isn't the type of guy to blurt out that he received one of four Mary L. Nohl fellowships for emerging artists last year, that he was the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for the ska band The Pacers, that he has shown work at galleries in Brew City and Chicago, that he DJs, that he is Milwaukee city editor for The Onion or that he was commissioned for a project in St. Louis.

Instead he's modest and passionate. And although having been successful in multiple arenas, there is still one thing Amitai wants to do - be in the black.

"Basically, breaking even would be a nice next step," he said, dunking a basket of tea leaves into hot water. "I'm trying to play more and do more shows. I'm at a point that you just can't (only) show locally."

Having said that, Amitai announced that he is on his way to New York City this September, making sure to note that he's not turning his back on the city he calls home; rather, he's ready for the next step.

"I'm ready for a different challenge," he said. "There's a lot of art going on there, and being in a creative industry would be easier."

From ages 16 to 20, Amitai, a Whitefish Bay High School grad, played with The Pacers. In 1994, the group recorded "Strictly for Lovers," produced by Fishbone's Chris Dowd and recorded at Pachyderm Studios, the same studio where Nirvana recorded "In Utero."

By 1995, band members had gone separate ways, and Amitai found himself at UW-Milwaukee studying film and sound art. After graduation he worked as a sound engineer, played with down-tempo electronic quartet Jookbeet and painted houses.

Following an internship in New York City at the famous Knitting Factory (where he booked shows), Amitai returned to the Mil and went to grad school for art at UWM. During that time he got into video installations, in which moving images are manipulated in ways that play with their meaning.

For the Nohl exhibition last fall, his "Old World" used footage taken at Old World Wisconsin. The images were mixed with sound and projected on to several walls to make a point about tourism and perceptions of country life.

His video work is often characterized by images of people filmed in public places that are then played over and over, giving the viewer a number of viewpoints of a certain concept. He has captured folks at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Potawatomi Bingo Casino and the Mall of America engaged in what he considers a fake existence.

"It's about how culture is represented. It's the Walt Disney mentality of creating this spectacular experience that is supposed to be reality. I'm fascinated by them. It's a very artificial, superficial experience," he said. "But the reality of this work is that it's difficult to sell."
-- Sarah Hoye, MKE, August, 25, 2005 - MKE


"Amitai's solo debut CD reflects years of work"

Paul Amitai is a fixture on the Milwaukee scene and has been for a decade now. He started out as singer and guitarist for local ska favorites The Pacers and later was part of the downtempo electronica outfit Jookbeat.

In between, he studied film and worked as an engineer at Citizen King's Bionic Studios and has been writing, recording and performing as a solo performer and as part of numerous collaborative projects.

So, it might come as a surprise that Amitai is just now releasing his first solo CD, "River of Shadows." What's not unexpected is that the disc is as wide-ranging as Amitai's musical career to date.

As he prepares for a collaborative performance with Collections of Colonies of Bees that will serve as the release party for "River of Shadows," Amitai talked to us about the record and about playing well with others.

OMC: It seems like the first disc is long overdue. How long have you been working on it?

Paul Amitai: Yeah, it's been a long time coming. Some of the songs go back almost 10 years, but the recording process began in earnest about four or five years ago. It's evolved as I've gone from putting together rhythm tracks on an Akai MPC sampler to multi-track recording on a Roland digital eight-track to more heavy-duty editing and processing when I finally bought a computer three years ago.

The scary thing is that I haven't put anything out really since the days of The Pacers, even though I've been busy performing and recording all along. I recorded and produced a full-length with my former band Jookbeet in '98, but never put it out. So this is my first "official" album in a long time.

In a lot of ways, I think it was good to let it incubate for a while. If a song still holds up three years later, that's a good sign. I've had time to perform stuff live, go back home and re-arrange it, adjust it until it feels complete. At the same time, eventually you have to move on or you'd keep tweaking it forever.

OMC: You've got such diverse and wide-ranging tastes and the record reflects that. Do those influences just come out in your music or do you consciously plug them in to the music?

PA: I think the album is a pretty honest reflection of where I'm coming from, more so than anything I've done in the past. The influences are all pretty well synthesized in my brain by this point, but over the years I feel I've become more comfortable in my own voice. I have greater control over my own abilities and limitations as a singer/instrumentalist/songwriter. There's definitely elements of many things that move me: The Wailers, Jacob Miller, King Tubby, Steve Reich, Nina Simone, Bowie, Coltrane, Sly Stone, etc. But it's not a conscious thing on my part to try collage together all of these references. I am, however, interested in trying to find a meeting point between soul music, electronic music, and more experimental forms.

The songwriting process develops in a lot of different ways for me. Sometimes it will start with lyrics, vocals and some skeletal chord changes, sometimes it starts with a sequenced rhythm idea. Sometimes I'll have bits and pieces of each of these elements and I'll just randomly plug them in together and see if they work. I'm definitely into chance operations. Whatever I can do to get outside of my own clich├ęs.

OMC: How do you strike a balance between electronic elements and traditional instrumentation?

PA: I don't really think about it. Whatever suits the mood, or suits the idea best. It's not necessary to have both to make the idea complete. But I do like the combination of traditional instruments with more heavily processed elements. Incorporating singing also seems to warm things up in relation to the digital/electronic. The human voice adds some immediacy or intimacy to the music. But since I've played in live bands as well as worked on more studio-bound projects -- film soundtracks, music concrete "tape pieces" -- it's a pretty fluid transition between "live" performance, programming and editing.

OMC: Tell us about your live collaborations, such as the upcoming one with Collections of Colonies of Bees. Will you do your music or theirs or a bit of both? What do you take home from these kinds of collaborative projects?

PA: Collections of Colonies of Bees will be backing me on my songs. I'm a big fan of the Bees as well all of the members' other projects. Jon Mueller and Chris Rosenau were in Pele among other bands. Mueller runs his own experimental music label called Crouton Music. Jon Minor and Jim Schoenecker had a really cool electronic label called Topscore. Minor and Schoenecker also recorded and performed as Dartanjal and Lo-Fidelity Index. All of the music these guys have been making has been among my favorite stuff. So whenever I'd see them, I would always hit them up with CDs of the songs I had been working on. I was flattered to find that they were really into what I was doing, and they approached me about playing together. Secretly, I h - OnMilwaukee.com


"The Onion AV Club: Calendar"

Paul Amitai & Collections Of Colonies Of Bees w/ Emotional Joystick, Digitata & DJ John Bts.Wrkng: Onopa Brewing Company, 10 p.m.
A jack-of-many-trades whose resume includes time with long-ago local bands (most notably The Pacers), solo exhibitions of his accomplished visual art, and journalistic contributions to various local publications (including this one), Paul Amitai frees his muses through many outlets. Lately, he's divided his creative energy between sound-and-video installations and music, often letting the two mingle in rock clubs and art galleries. This weekend, Amitai will usher in an intriguing new disc, River of Shadows, which he's been working on for nearly five years. The album melds seemingly disparate influences -- pop, soul, electronic, dub -- into a shape that not only makes sense, but begs the question why no one as done it quite like this before. For this performance, Amitai will be joined by the local experimentalists in Collections Of Colonies Of Bees to create a unique, one-time presentation of his songs. It'd be a good idea to catch hi now, too: Amitai plans to make artist-friendly Brooklyn home next month.
-- Josh Modell, The Onion, August 11, 2005 - The Onion


Discography

River of Shadows (2006 Jookbeet Musique)
Full-length release available from CD Baby and iTunes.

"Cruel Fate of Spring" (2006 Mush Records)
Collaboration with electronic artist Caural featured on his full-length album, Mirrors for Eyes.

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Paul Amitai is a Brooklyn-based artist who performs as a one-man operation. With an array of digital and traditional instruments, Amitai mixes electronic music with avant-rock, soul music with dub reggae production, and darkly rendered vocals with gritty sonic textures.

As both a solo performer and a member of various bands, Amitai has shared the stage with a diverse range of musicians, including Run-DMC, The Skatalites, The Specials, Califone, and Crooked Fingers.

During the early to mid 1990s as the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter of The Pacers, Amitai toured the States and recorded a number of releases while still in his teens. The group developed a national following, headlining shows at venues such as First Avenue, the Metro and The Rave. In 1994, the group recorded the full-length album Strictly for Lovers produced by Fishbone's Chris Dowd and recorded at Pachyderm Studios, birthplace of Nirvana's In Utero.

From 1995 to 1999, Amitai fronted the downtempo electronic group Jookbeet. In 1998, the quartet of Milwaukee and Chicago musicians recorded the full-length album Underneath the Winter Glass.

From 1999 to the present, Amitai has performed as a solo artist and in various collaboratives. Bridging the gap between the rock scene and the gallery scene, he continues to play clubs as well as alternative spaces and galleries, melding video and sound performance, pop music with experimentalism.