Pretty much everyone knows the story of that one Australian musician guy who came, band in tow, to Berlin for the inspiring, creative mecca that it was, but ended up leaving later after the city’s alluring and addicting nightlife—and not his own lack of self-discipline—distracted the band from its goal. Sadly, his story is not an isolated case, as many artistic types are drawn to Berlin for its rumored low-priced lifestyle and creative atmosphere. But while many of them fail at reaching their idealized goals, there are also people who do succeed in creating—people like Adi Gelbart.
Gelbart moved to Berlin in 2005, a place that appealed to him as somewhere he could escape from his hometown of Tel Aviv.
“Tel Aviv is unbearably warm in the summer; it’s loud, hyperactive, stressful, and small—you cannot go anywhere without bumping into someone you know,” he explained. “Berlin was cheap, calm, spacious, and I could be virtually invisible if I wanted. This is unfortunately not so true anymore, as the city changed, but it is still a beautiful place and I thank my luck every day that I [get] to live here.”
Upon arriving here nearly a decade ago, Gelbart wasted no time in getting down to making music, something he’s been doing since he started his first band at the age of nine.
“[My older brother] got a double cassette tape [deck] for his birthday [and] I used it to start making songs on my own, because I could overdub layers of organs and vocals on top of each other without needing other players. This process sort of repeated itself in the high school years—first I played in a few bands, and then software sequencers showed up and I could start making my solo projects,” Gelbart shared. “Initially, I used the computer to compose modern classical music, but after doing this for a while, I began to see that that world felt too closed—not really avant-garde as it [was] originally set up to be, and too far away from my personal experiences of life—so I started working more with electronic sounds and aesthetics that I borrowed from the world of pop music.”
As part of this experiment with sound, Gelbart began to use new instruments, some of which he even makes himself, using vegetables and wires. And it’s an ongoing experiment, as he continues to acquire and learn additional instruments, not only out of a desire to learn more, but also due to the costs involved with hiring musicians to play on recordings for him.
“I used to work a lot with analog synthesizers and drum machines, and for a time I really enjoyed mixing them with electric guitars. In the [past] years, I began to tire of the synthesizer architecture and became much more intrigued by old transistor organs, with their primitive sounds and built-in spring reverbs. My current favorite is one made by the East German company Vermona. I bought it a few years ago in Gera from the son of its owner, and it’s still my main instrument when I’m writing new music,” he said. “My newest additions are a harpsichord and wind instruments. Unfortunately, getting musicians to come to my studio and play is difficult and can be expensive, so I am trying to teach myself as [many] instruments as I can. I can now play a pretty decent saxophone, a half-decent clarinet, and a questionable trumpet. When layered on top of each other, they sound like a small town’s high school orchestra, but if the writing is good and there’s enough reverb, it works out fine.”
A quick perusal of Gelbart’s bandcamp page displays 18 releases dating back to 2001—many of them free to download—the most recent of which is 2013’s “Vermin.” It was inspired by a short animated science fiction film Gelbart made, with the second side consisting of a rearranged version of the film’s soundtrack. The page also has music from other projects of his, including The Lonesomes and AKA Gelbart.
“[They] were born out of a need to work in different worlds of music. The Lonesomes were a made-up band of cows, and because they were a country band, it allowed me to do more song-like structures and to have [a] ‘band’ sort of sound as a starting point, instead of my usual drum machines and synthesizers. I used the cow voice from an animal-themed keyboard to ‘sing’ the melodies, [and it’s] a voice that I find really pretty because of its dryness, its otherness, and a weird underlying feeling it gives, that this song is not directed at you, a human, but at other cows. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable committing to lyrics, and having a cow sing the songs is an easy way to avoid that,” Gelbart explained. “AKA Gelbart is a name I use when I want to do more stripped-down guitar music. There was a banjo-themed album, and then a few years ago, when I stopped smoking and was looking for something to keep myself from going crazy, I recorded cover versions of the entire first Beatles album in a rehearsal space—that probably cost me less than a week-long supply of cigarettes.”
And though it’s not much of a surprise, Gelbart is also working on new music, which he said mixes hand-played acoustic instruments alongside electronics. The result is that the next album will be even more melodically minded than its predecessors.
When it comes to live performances, Gelbart plays alone, but he is not interested in sitting in front of a computer screen and making music—which is why he tries to use as many instruments as he can, including keyboards, an electronic scratching device built around an Arduino processor, and an instrument he built from an old Israeli state-made phone. And though his guitar isn’t utilized as much on stage these days, it will make a special appearance when Gelbart plays with Thee Oh Sees this week.
Meanwhile, as long as there is inspiration to be found—which for Gelbart, comes in the form of “long walks, good books, Japanese monster films, hidden lakes, sailing ducks, and any music that mixes beauty with strangeness”—he will continue composing and sharing his art with the world, a gift that he feels would be otherwise wasted.
“There are endless possibilities in the act of creation, yet it’s always just a handful of people who dare use it to create something truly original. The ability to create is, in my view, the biggest gift evolution handed to us humans,” he said. “Then, on the other hand, evolution also plagued us with the instinctive need to conform and be accepted. People who transcend this need and let their imagination run free are my heroes. Without people like Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Olivier Messiaen, Stanislaw Lem, and John Dwyer for that matter, the world would have been a pretty dull place.”
Gelbart plays Wednesday at Berghain in Berlin. The show begins at 20.30.