Long before they joined forces to found Mashina, arguably Israel’s most popular rock band, Yuval Banay and Shlomi Bracha were 16-year-old surfing buds, catching waves along the Mediterranean coastline.
So it seemed fitting that three days after selling out the 5,000-seat Tel Aviv exhibition Hall with their ‘Mashina Celebrates’ show — marking 40 years of their band’s existence — vocalist Banay and guitarist Bracha, both 60, were celebrating themselves by heading off to Sri Lanka to once again indulge in their shared passion.
“I can’t believe we’re going, I have to go pack,” Banay tells Variety with childlike glee near the end of his first interview in the last 15 years. He was sitting in the band’s spacious rehearsal space in a Tel Aviv warehouse that doubles as a museum for all things Mashina, including their gold records, posters from their first show in 1983 at the famed punk club Penguin, and still-wrapped cassettes and vinyl from their illustrious catalogue.
While surrounded by the past, Banay is well aware that these are the good old days for Mashina. In addition to receiving rave reviews from the famously cynical Israeli music press, the band is headed to New York for the first time in a decade for a show at the fabled Beacon Theater on June 1, which will be filmed for a documentary being made by Banai’s daughter Amalia.
“We decided it was time. We’re in great shape, and we’ve been getting hints from the huge Israeli community in the New York area that they miss us,” says Banay.
Still lanky and spry, Banay is a member in good standing of one of Israel’s most illustrious musical families. His late father Yossi was one of the country’s most beloved singers and actors, and cousins ranging from Ehud to Evyatar Banai are ranked among the standout singer-songwriters the Jewish state has produced.
So, it was only natural that when Banay and Bracha finished their compulsory army service at age 21, invigorated by the late 1970s punk/new wave musical energy they were hearing from England and the U.S., they decided to form a band. After various configurations, they recruited drummer Iggy Dayan and bassist Michael Benson, with keyboardist and saxophonist Avner Hodorov joining at a later date and adding much of their distinctive sound.
Mashina’s standout self-titled debut album released in 1985 quickly propelled them to high eminence in the Israeli rock pecking order. With energetic and jagged ska-inspired music that recalled the vitality of Madness and the English beat and humor-filled hipster lyrics, the band was a breath of fresh air to the somewhat stagnant Israeli music scene of the mid-’80s, overstocked with MTV-influenced pop stylists.
“Like any young band with a vision, we wanted to conquer the world, but the success of that first album surprised us and we weren’t ready for it,” says Banay, who added that some of the songs on the first album were re-recorded in English but all attempts to break out beyond Israel’s tiny borders fizzled.
But as quickly as they rose in their home country, they became yesterday’s news when their second and third albums failed to generate the same response.
“Nobody bought them and nobody was coming to our shows, even though they both had some super strong songs,” he offers. “Then in 1995, we re-recorded a collection of all the strong songs from the first three albums ( the double album “Time Machine”) — and then we broke out anew.”
However, that same year, fueled by “the full glass of egos, emotion and all the things that are written in books about rock ‘n’ roll bands” Mashina decided to take an undefined hiatus that ended up lasting nearly eight years.
Says Banay: “We had gone through 10 years of intensive work and an unreasonable number of albums. We needed a breather, and it turned out to be the right thing to do. Instead of breaking our friendship, it made it stronger. And it gave everyone the foundation of not being in a band and having to stand alone. Only today do I realize how important that was for all of us.”
Their longevity with an original lineup, as well as their musical integrity, brings to mind U2, a comparison that Banay doesn’t dismiss out of hand.
“There is a parallel there. I can’t think of any other band like us besides U2, with the same members from the first album until now,” he says. “And like them, we’re a group in every meaning of the word. We are partners and share everything equally. Karl Marx would have been very pleased with us.”
When the band did reunite in 2003, it was as the returning heroes of Israeli rock. The credo they’ve followed since then can summed up by the title of their fourth album released before their hiatus — “Goodbye Youth, Hello Love “
“I’m a student of rock ‘n’ roll, and if you look at the career trajectories of most artists — whether they be Springsteen or Bono or Dylan, there’s a bright beginning and then around age 40, nobody loves you anymore; radio doesn’t play you; and you’re in the graveyard,” says Banai. “Then around 50, a new life begins and you use all that experience and wisdom and you’re suddenly able to make music that nobody else can. And it can last into your sixties, seventies and eighties. That’s what happened to us.”
For Banay, that’s what makes the Celebration show that’s coming to New York a real celebration — the band has gotten over its middle-age hiccups and settled into a powerful force that’s at one with each other and the world.
“We’re celebrating 40 years of friendship, of creativity and of performing,” Banay says. “The show touches on our entire career, starting chronologically with our first song and ending with our most recent. It’s the best of the best of the best. It touches on all of our signposts and it’s big, long and enjoyable. We’re 60 but we’re at our peak.”