For Tsvika Frosh, Yonatan Miller, Nadav Lazar and Itai Kaufman—the beardy freak-folk quartet known in Tel Aviv as the Raw Men Empire—American folk music has been a presence in their lives even before they could interpret it.

“Tsvika’s the main songwriter in the band and his dad had a big vinyl collection when he was growing up,” the Raw Men wrote in a recent email chat from Tel Aviv, “so as a little kid Tsvika used to play those records at random, choosing them by their cover art, mainly. One time he picked up a Joan Baez album and, although he didn’t even speak English back then, he was enchanted by her voice.”

Tsvika was hooked from childhood, and when he met his fellow Raw Men as the result of three separate musical projects that strove to rebuild Western folk designs with a Middle Eastern palette, the chemistry was undeniable. A week after their first rehearsal, the Raw Men already had their first gig, and their infectious onstage energy built a quick fanbase.

A typical Raw Men Empire song consists of at least one acoustic and one classical guitar, meandering bass, shuffling percussion and a seasoning of melodica, glockenspiel, flute and, according to the Men’s myspace, “smile.” These ingredients are stirred into jaunty, wonky folk/rock confections that play like a more stripped-down, Mediterranean Fleet Foxes; Devendra Banhart in a tallit. Lyrics come in two primary forms: frisky and heartfelt. The pro-peace shanty “Israeli Women” is a tongue-in-cheek set highlight during the Raw Men’s shows, though a clutch of demonstrators at an Israeli social protest, ironically enough, missed the point and tried to boo the band offstage. (“They were booed back by the rest of the audience.”) Songs like “Between You and Me”—a duet between childhood buds Tsvika and Yonatan—are tender, slow-motion friendship ballads rimmed by chopping seas and dusky cliffs.

“Tsvika and Yonatan wrote it together, and it’s basically about their relationship and different personalities,” The Raw Men said, “however, a year ago a very good friend of ours died in an accident, and in the show that followed the tragedy we decided to spontaneously sing ‘Between You and Me’ in his memory. All of a sudden the song transformed. Phrases like ‘In the end you know we’ll meet again’ got new meanings. We all had tears in our eyes.”

Between You and Me (single version) by The Raw Men Empire

Recently, the Raw Men have tried to hone a chunky, rocky studio sound that better captures the energy of their live performance. The band built an ad hoc recording studio among the archaic paintings and statues of an art gallery in Caesarea (“the city was actually the capital of Israel during the Roman Empire times. Being the Raw Men Empire and all, we felt right at home.”). The Raw Men all but locked themselves in the gallery for a few days to produce several salty new singles—the first teaser is below—but for now, while they master their new direction, the peace-loving globetrotters are already plotting their next Raw Men invasion.

“We keep hearing Beirut is the Arab equivalent of Tel Aviv,” the band wrote. “When there’ll be peace in the middle east we’d love to go play there.”

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