Slipping into Tel Aviv under the radar

A holiday side band for ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck will be helping Ozen Hashlishit celebrate 25 years.

March 20, 2012 21:38
Co-founder of REM with new band Venus 3

Venus 3 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of Third Ear)

It may be the most understated arrival of a rock legend that Israel has ever seen. But that’s part of the reason that REM co-founder and guitarist extraordinaire Peter Buck plays in The Venus 3, the offbeat ensemble consisting of veteran British rock eccentric Robyn Hitchcock and two of Buck’s REM touring cohorts, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin.

“There’s a vastness about being in a superband like REM was [the band called it quits earlier this year after over 30 years together],” explained the wry-witted Hitchcock, who has been playing with Buck on and off since the late 1980s. “It has its own trajectory, a big onslaught for nine months or so and then they’re off for half a year. People like me, I’m here all the time.”

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“Peter has always liked that aspect – to keep playing without having to pull an enormous lever to open a vast door that brings out a big train that takes you to high steps up to a big carriage. With the Venus 3, it takes much less effort to get it all going. You don’t have all the attendant hired help and handmaidens, people giving you things and taking things off you and leading you into rooms. You have to do a bit more by yourself, but it’s quicker and easier.”

Buck and friends will be joining Hitchcock in helping Ozen Hashlishit (The Third Ear) celebrate its 25th anniversary as part of the music/film store’s Lost Weekend from March 22-24. In addition to a slew of shows by local artists, The Venus 3 are giving a one-off concert on Saturday night at the Barby Club, which will be preceded on Thursday night at the Ozen Bar by an acoustic show by Hitchcock in which he’ll perform his classic 1990 album Eye in its entirety.

A huge cult star or a minor mainstream footnote, depending on your orientation, Hitchcock has enjoyed a varied career, first as leader of the influential 1970s punk/pop band The Soft Boys, later as a 1980s college radio favorite with his band The Egyptians, and now as a respected solo artist and one of Buck’s favorite collaborators.

Their mutual attraction? According to Hitchcock, they like the same shirts.

“Our tastes are similar, whether it be shirt styles, or the same guitar sounds, and a lot of the same music,” said Hitchcock in a phone call last week from his office in London. “Our musical senses are pretty similar – he was more into punk and garage rock than I was. I’m a bit more spindly and English. But our guitar sound is similar.”

The two met in the early 1980s after Buck liberally borrowed from The Soft Boys’ sound when creating REM’s trademark chiming guitar rhythms. Forming a mutual admiration society, Buck joined Hitchcock and The Egyptians whenever he had free time away from the REM juggernaut in the later 1980s and appears on their two most commercially successful albums, Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis.

“Peter became sort of an honorary member of the band, and he’s now one of my oldest musical colleagues, ancient musical colleagues actually,” said Hitchcock.

When REM graduated from indie college favorite status to mainstream superstars in the 1990s, the collaborations between Hitchcock and Buck subsided, but picked up again in the ‘00s when the idea of the Venus 3 was hatched.

“We found an outlet that lets us play together again, and now we have this little combo,” said Hitchcock of the group, which has released two acclaimed albums of oddball, jangly pop – 2006’s Ole Tarantula and 2009’s Goodnight Oslo.

“We’re called Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 but it’s really just a bunch of guys getting together occasionally. Even though Scott and Bill also played in REM, for Peter, it’s a different world really, and he’s been nice about playing my songs.”

HITCHCOCK’S SONGS are the main appeal that has attracted people like Buck to him throughout his varied career. Even though his time on the pop charts was marginal and short-lived, centered on his late 1980s “hits” with the Egyptians, Hitchcock has remained a vital artist in the quirky singer/songwriter genre where he’s been favorably compared by Rolling Stone to Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.

Eye was one of Hitchock’s first solo albums after he disbanded the Egyptians and marked the beginning of a new direction for the guitarist, who performed in Israel for the first time last September for two well-received, highly entertaining shows at the Ozen Bar.

“If you don’t know anything about my stuff, I would describe Eye as songs without drums, I suppose,” said Hitchcock. “It probably sounds kind of old-fashioned and quiet. But there are more songs from Eye in my live repertoire than from any other album or time period, going back to Soft Boys music in the late 1970s and right on up to music I’m writing today.

“It was a record I made between worlds – the end of the ‘80s, in which I was leaving my earlier life and stepping into what has become the future. The intensity of that feeling probably went into the songs, which makes some of them quite uncomfortable to hear, but at least makes them alive. I didn’t get to drift off much making Eye, it’s not one of my dreamier records.”

Tel Aviv audiences will get to see both sides of Hitchcock this week – the slyly humorous acoustic troubadour on Thursday night at the Ozen Bar, and the psychedelic Syd Barrett/Byrds-influenced rocker with Buck and the Venus 3 on Saturday night.

Like most things Hitchcock does, the Venus 3 show was planned off-the-cuff after Buck convened the group for the first time in a couple years to perform in January at benefit show in Mexico.

“We didn’t really work it all out, but since everyone was free, and we had already played together in Mexico, we figured, ‘let’s go play Tel Aviv while we’re still warmed up.’ It seems like a good idea, and I figured it would be nice and sunny by then so we can go sit on the beach a bit,” said Hitchcock, whose positive experience on his September visit to the country may have encouraged his band mates to accept his offer.

Hitchcock’s shows in Tel Aviv in September marked the first time he had been back to Israel since spending time as a kibbutz volunteer 40 years ago.

“It was warm and sunny, the food was great, everybody was receptive and the shows went so well. I was amazed at how many people turned up,” said Hitchcock, whose CDs and albums have long been a staple in the music showroom of Ozen Hashlishit, downstairs from the Ozen Bar.

“I guess the Third Ear has been kind of an outpost for me for quite a long time without my even realizing,” said Hitchcock with a chuckle. “Apparently, it’s some kind of magnet for the general psych folk scene in Tel Aviv, which, I’ve been told, is the genre I am.”

Go see Hitchcock with or without the Venus 3, and decide for yourselves.

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