Useless ID – ‘When you play songs for years, they take on a newer face’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Useless ID were part of my life for years now. Ever since I first heard ‘Redemption’ back in 2005 or 2006. Their unique sound, and balance between skate punk and melodic hardcore on one, and pop punk on the other side, was always just the right combination for me. And every record after that just cemented the love I had for the band. Now, the Israeli punks are back with their latest release, the live album ‘Live In Tel Aviv,’ released via Double Helix Records. The album, not only displays the power of the four-piece as an amazing live act, which I had the chance to witness firsthand at Slovenia’s Punk Rock Holiday in 2016, but it offers a great retrospective of the band’s 25-year-long career at the time of recording, over the course of 28 songs. With the record finally being out, it seemed like a good idea to catch up with the singer and bassist, Yotam Ben Horin, and learn more about it. 

Useless ID / Photo: Gil Rubinstein

Hi, how are you? How does it feel to see this one finally being released?
It feels great. This is the first time we’re releasing a live album, so that’s the big thing about it. We’ve always felt that we’re a very good live band, or at least in our heads, we are. (laughs) And we thought it would be nice to document it. That’s where most of the excitement is about this release.

How did you decide to go into a serious project like this in the first place, especially now when live albums are almost like a forgotten art form?
Yotam: Yeah, it was serious. As you may or may not know, we had just completed two European tours, and lots of those shows were with Descendents. And I can speak for a few of us, but they’re one of our favorite bands and some of our favorite people. They’re like mentors for us as well. We look up to those guys, and they are a bit older than us, from a different generation. So, it’s always fun playing shows and interacting with them. And watching them play live, you’re always blown away. So, after a few shows with Descendents, I think we collectively felt we were kicking ass every night. (laughs)

You know, when you haven’t played for a while, the first few shows you’re going through the motions to see if you remember everything, trying to stay focused and not fuck up. And we were at that point where it’s, kind of, like autopilot, but in a good way. Not that we’re just standing there playing, and we don’t care. We’re standing there, and we’re just on fire. So it just made sense to try to get this recording going at the last show of this tour, which held place in Israel, in Tel Aviv. And that’s like a hometown show, so you got the added excitement. And we always talked that if we would do a live recording, it should either be in Tel Aviv or Japan. In Japan, we always have great shows and crazy crowds. Not taking anything from the rest of the world, but I think Japan and Tel Aviv are equivalent in the intensity of the crowd and us as one.

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And you even went one step further, by teaming up with Double Helix and releasing it on vinyl, which would not be the first media I would think of for a release like this.
Yotam: I don’t think we put that much thought into it. Early on, we were talking to Jeff and Em from Double Helix about how we’d wanna release it. And I think everyone’s so used to just getting the music these days. You take the phone, and hit the button – “Oh, that was released, let’s listen to it.” It wasn’t talked about, but I think the idea behind it was that whoever really likes the band and really appreciates us, they’ll get the first run. They’ll buy the record and be the first to listen to it. Just like it was back in the day, you know? Not that I was around when Ramones released their live album in the seventies. (laughs) I was either very young or wasn’t alive, but that’s how it was. It’s like a look back at the way it was done in the past with punk bands and bands in general. Eventually, it will be on Spotify and the rest of the platforms, but I like the idea that the first batch was released only on vinyl.

That show also marked 25 years of Useless ID as a band. How does it feel for you to listen to it, and hear how some of the older songs sound now, played by a band that’s been together for more than two decades, compared to how they sounded 10 or 20, or more years ago?
So, back in the past, I used to bring out full demos to the guys. I would have all the parts in my head, which gives less room for interpretation. So, at some point, I realized that it’s maybe better for me to bring in a guitar and a voice demo. And then, we build up on that together. Then, when we come to the studio, we kind of take the song apart with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore. The lyrics are open, chords are open, so we make changes. Then we start recording and make more and more changes. We’re building the song in the studio. So, by the time the song is mixed and mastered, we have a version of the song that we don’t really know. Like, we know it, but we have to relearn it with the new stuff.

Now, to answer your question – once you learn that song, and you’ve been playing it for five, ten, or fifteen years, the song takes on a newer face. Someone may wanna extend something in the song. Something that was only two measures, you wanna make it four. You want to give Corey [Ben Yehuda], our drummer, a solo in the middle of a song. You make all these breaks that weren’t on the record. So the songs, as time goes by, they morph into something a bit different. And I think that’s the magic of capturing this live show. You could hear how certain songs changed throughout the years.

So, did you get into it all already knowing it will be the live record, and having the plan laid in front of you?
Yotam: We wanted to make this a live album, but we didn’t do anything too over the top. Actually, in the middle of the set, we had this band come on stage and interrupt our set. And one of the songs – ‘Always The Same,’ fell apart. So, we didn’t bother fixing it. We didn’t bother inserting the guitar because someone stopped playing or where the vocals stopped. We just left it in the way it was. We didn’t have some over-the-top plan for it. We were just like – “Okay, at the Descendents shows, we played for 40 minutes. In Israel, we have to play for an hour and something, so let’s add more and more songs.” And funny enough, it came out as a 28-song set, and it comes out on the 28th year. 

So, there is one thing I am curious about, coming from a non-English-speaking country with bands that sing in English, and I know how those shows usually go. How did you approach stage banter on this one? On the one hand, you know that the recording will go to an international crowd, but on the other, it might feel a bit silly or pretentious to speak in English to your hometown crowd.
Yotam: Exactly. So, we had a little debate about that. We have a lot of stage banter. Not too much, we don’t talk as much as NOFX (laughs), but we do have our share of talking. We say something funny or something. It changes every time. We don’t have that one thing we say in certain spots. So, listening back, we realized we spoke too much Hebrew and that it could be weird for our non-Hebrew-speaking fans from all over the world to listen to a minute and a half of that stuff. So we cleaned it up a bit. There’s not that much talking. There’s a bit here and there, but if we did edit something, it was that. (laughs)

And you just did it song after song on the record. But it works really well.
Yotam: That’s what we normally do, anyways. I mean, with time, we learned to play like four or five songs, and then do a little break. You know, we’re not machines. We have to stop somewhere. And playing a Useless ID show is very physical for everyone. So, it’s good to stop and be like – “Hi! How’s it going? How’s everyone doing?” But yeah, I think that if we would’ve spoken English to our Tel Aviv crowd, it would’ve just been awkward. (laughs) Like, in the middle of the songs, I could say something like – “All right, let’s go! Are you ready?” It just comes naturally to me from just touring all over the world, so I do that. But just talking, you know – “All right, Israel! How are you?” It’s just funny. (laughs)

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So, the ‘Live In Tel Aviv’ show marked 25 years of the band, and the album is marking 28. And soon, that number will go to 30. How crazy is it to look back at everything you managed to do in these three decades as a band? Especially coming from where you come from, and not from places like London, New York, or Los Angeles.
Yotam: We did so much, that at one point, I started fearing that I might forget some of it. So I started to write a book. (laughs) I started writing a book about all those experiences and how I felt at the time. But it’s still like a side note, I am still working on it. But it’s such a big and crazy thing. Most of my relationships with women don’t last 30 years. (laughs) I mean, I’m kidding, but what I am saying is that none of the relationships in my life had lasted as long as Useless ID. It’s like a second family. We’ve been through so much together. We know each other inside and out. We know how not to step on each other’s toes, and know how to give space to each other. We know when to get back to play and rock out, and everything’s awesome.

As a band, you were never afraid to speak about the things you find important, and feel passionate about, whether it is something deeply personal, emotional, or socially and politically charged. Knowing the situation in Israel, and how turbulent that part of the world can be, how hard was it to tackle some hard topics, in a way that was in no way cheap, generic, or do it just for the sake of doing it?
Yotam: I think, as a band from Israel, it was, kind of, expected of us to write more political stuff. Very early on, we would give Fat Mike Useless ID recordings, or even before we would start writing, and he would be like – “You guys should go political.” But I didn’t want it to come from someone telling me I need to write about politics. You know, in my heart, I’m a punk rocker, and if someone tells me to do something, I do the opposite. (laughs) I wanted it to come from me. So throughout the years, we’ve had little bits here and there in our albums, although more social than political.

But with the album ‘State Is Burning,’ it was so in your face. At that time, in Israel – around 2013 and 2014, there was so much going on, and I was living in Tel Aviv, so I witnessed it firsthand. Normally, I’d either be on tour, or I’d be in Haifa or one of these other quiet cities. But I was living in Tel Aviv and witnessed sirens and alarms, bombs going off, explosions, and people hiding in shelters. One day, my roommate woke me up and said there was a siren, so we have to go and hide. And I was in bed, and I was like – “Fuck it, I don’t care.” (laughs) I was over it, you know? But it was so close to home that I felt I had to write about it.

And it wasn’t hard. I didn’t find myself struggling to find the right words because I just wrote whatever I felt like I was witnessing. I wasn’t trying to please a certain crowd that expects me to raise my hand in the air and say “Fuck the system.” It was just something that came from inside. And everyone was on board. I know that Guy [Carmel], our guitar player, for years, wanted us to go more in that direction while I was singing more about my stuff and relationships and life. Which is also great, and I love songs like that. But that was the point in time when it was the right thing to do. And circling back to Fat Mike, when he heard ‘State Is Burning,’ he loved it. And he said that it should have been our first record. (laughs)

Also, next year, or 2025, will mark 20 years of ‘Redemption,’ which was the first album I’ve heard from you guys, but also a big album for the band. Is there anything in the works to mark the occasion?
Yotam: I think that was the album where we found the band’s sound. And once again, thanks to Bill and Jason, and everyone at The Blasting Room. Up until then, we kinda had producers, but it wasn’t in that sense. When we worked with Chris Roe from The Ataris, he was in the studio with us, helped us with the songs, helped us change vocal melodies, and stuff like that. But with Bill and Jason, it’s like a factory, in a way. It’s like a robot, like a transformer. (laughs) They take everything apart and then put it together, making it bigger and better than what you started out with.

So I feel like we popped our musical cherry on that one. It’s been my favorite album for the longest time as well. I love what we did after that. But, you know, I’m not the person to tell because I wrote these songs. But that was a very exciting time in the band’s life. We had a few drummer changes, and then we got the drummer we wanted to be in our band. Everything made sense together. We had a political song on that album. We had love songs. It’s like everything from everything. I think we made it a special record, not only for listeners but also for us.

But for the next few years, we have a few things chasing each other. This year is the 20 years of ‘No Vacation.’ Next year is 30 years for the band. And then a year after that, as you mentioned, is 20 years for ‘Redemption.’ (laughs) We’ve spoken a bit about it, but with us, it all depends if we’re all in the same place. That’s where we start doing stuff. Everyone’s busy with their lives. I’m busy with mine. I’m in the States, Guy is in Costa Rica, Ishay and Corey are in Israel, and everyone’s busy with work, other bands, and other musical stuff. So once we’re together in the same place, that’s when Useless ID gets going. But, yeah, hopefully.

But it’s also about the balance, as you don’t want to look too much in the past, and not into the future.
Yotam: I’m always pushing forward. I don’t like to live in the past or look too much into it. Unless I’m writing and I need to yank out a story from the past. (laughs) I live in the present and forward. I’ve written a bunch of songs as well, but at the moment, it’s just about getting everyone in the same place. Even sending demos online, you’re distracted by other things all day. Unless you just take a break from your life. Then you could deal with these online demos and recordings, sending each other recordings and all that. (laughs)

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And that is my next question. How challenging is it to keep it all together and keep the band going being scattered across the world? And how hard is it for you to find the balance between Useless ID, your solo records, and other projects you are involved in?
Yotam: So, here’s the thing. From the beginning, Useless ID was an Israel-based band. The guys did try to live in the States for a while and make it into the US band, but two of the guys wanted to go back, and that thing was over with. So, we are not a US band, and we decided early on that the base for this band is Israel. And it worked great when we were all living there. You know, we go on tour, come back, go on tour, go record, come back.

But I think it was around 2014, with the war and all that stuff I was writing about in ‘State Is Burning,’ that I decided that I didn’t wanna live in Israel. I’ll come and visit, say “Hi!” every once in a while, but I don’t wanna live there. It’s a very demanding life, for me at least, to just fucking chase the monthly paycheck. It’s hard as it is, so if it’s gonna be hard, why not put myself in a harder place like the USA, and start from the beginning? (laughs) No, I’m joking there. (laughs) But once Useless ID was less of an Israeli-based band, that’s where things, kind of, had to become a bit more dynamic between all of us. Then Guy was like – “Okay,” so he moved to Costa Rica.

Actually, during Covid, I spent a lot of time in Israel because I couldn’t leave the country. So I was there for the longest time, but Guy was stuck in Costa Rica. (laughs) So, the three of us were there, but he wasn’t. And now I’m in the visa process, so I can’t leave the US. So, life happens, but we find ways to do it. We got some offers for next year, for the 30th anniversary, and we’re trying to line it up, but it all depends on if and when I’m gonna be able to leave the US. We would’ve been in Japan again by now, but we have to keep that stuff on hold at the moment.

And do you think that Useless ID slowing down is giving you more to focus and explore your solo work?
Yoram: I mean, I mean, I’m always doing that. The thing with the solo work is that it doesn’t have a base. It’s me. I can decide that it’s in Italy. So if I’m in Italy with my wife, I can tour Europe. You know, no strings attached. It’s just me really loving songwriting and songwriters, and doing that thing. So you could say it has become my main thing because it just never stops. It’s always going, and it doesn’t matter where I am. And I do some other stuff. I have this project called Tommy and June, and we have an EP coming out in the Summer. And we’re in the States, so I give my attention to that at the moment. ‘Cuz, what else can I do?

It’s interesting that you mentioned that, as I always loved your songwriting. I always felt like you were able to give a certain poetic note to punk rock, somewhat in a way Tony Sly and No Use For A Name did. And they are one of my all-time favorite bands because of that.
Yotam: Do you know what the trick to that is? It’s really simple. Not to put anyone down, but I feel like many bands these days are ignoring that and only focusing on getting the sound of the songs. Fast beats, certain guitars, but underneath all that, you can’t find the song. You could hear like ten songs, but you won’t remember anything. The thing that was special with No Use For A Name, and you’re saying that we have it too, is that both Tony and I come from songwriter backgrounds.
I remember Tony loved The Beatles. I also love The Beatles. Tony was a fan of Elliot Smith. I love Elliot Smith.

We always had this connection. Even on early Useless ID tours with No Use For A Name, I would talk to Tony, and we wouldn’t talk about punk bands. We would be like – “Did you hear the latest Saves The Day? Did you hear the latest that thing?” It was never about punk stuff, but I always related to it. And then suddenly, one day, he said that he loved Nirvana. And I was like – “Oh really? That’s my favorite band ever.” We all grew up with all these bands and later on became friends with them. They really influenced us. You know, NOFX, Good Riddance, Propagandhi, No Use For A Name, Lagwagon, all great bands. Even LagwagonJoey is a songwriter. Joey also has that. He doesn’t write the style. He writes the song, and then the band plays it in the style. That’s the trick. If your song translates well on acoustic guitar like the songs from ‘Redemption…’ I could take all these songs and play them acoustically, and they are still gonna be songs, you know?

Yes. I mean, one of my favorite Useless ID albums is actually ‘Symptoms,’ which is not a typical punk rock album.
Yotam: I think you could say that we worked very hard on that one. Not that it’s hard to do, but if you’re coming from the other side of the world to record an album, and it’s gonna cost a lot of money, you wanna be sure that you came over with a bag full of good music. Now, with ‘Redemption,’ we came in with 12 songs, and five of them didn’t have lyrics. So, we wrote the lyrics at the studio, but that’s not something you want. It just makes everyone uptight and stressful. And you wanna enjoy it. That’s why when we came in with ‘State Is Burning,’ the songs were already written. I wrote like 40 songs for it. And then we narrowed it down to 18 or 20, recorded all of them, and then put the 15 on the album. So I’d like to think that everyone had a nice experience with that album. ‘Symptoms’ was a bit heavy. (laughs) That was one of those where we’re writing parts at the studio.

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So, Useless ID had often been labeled as a skate punk band, and you are loved by quite a few skaters I know. As a band, did you ever feel that connection with the skate community, and were you ever involved in the skateboarding community yourself?
Yotam: Well, I’m a terrible skateboarder. (laughs) I’ve done it since my childhood, but I’ve never gone far with it. I fell on my face a few times, fell on my hands, and you know, I need these hands to play music. Guy was a skateboarder for many years. I know Ishay skated for a while to get around ’cause he wasn’t driving. Corey surprised me. He was like – “Yeah, I was never any good.” And then he is like flying around and with it and ollies all that stuff. And I’m like – “So if you weren’t any good, what does that make me?” (laughs)

But we’ve done some skate events in the past. Some were in Israel. You know, Useless ID started out as a band that loved melodic hardcore. Bad Religion, early Green Day, even though I like some of the later Green Day, all the Fat Wreck stuff once NOFX came into the mix. Even before I joined the band. But once NOFX came into the mix, we were all about being a Fat-sounding band. But we felt like we could add our own spin from the other side of the world. Like Frenzal Rhomb from Australia. They do that style, but they gave it their own spin, there is a certain thing going on there. Millencolin bring their own thing from Sweden. So we are the ones from Israel doing that style. (laughs)

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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