February 22, 2020

After ‘Delete Airbnb,’ PORTNOY Has No Complaints

PORTNOY Music. Photo from Facebook.

Don’t let Sruli and Mendy Portnoy, the eponymous duo behind Jerusalem-based band PORTNOY, fool you with their boy-band good looks and feel-good melodies.

Acerbic lyrics such as those in their recent viral hit, “Delete Airbnb” — “I’m gonna take you off of my phone/Until you stop discriminating on my home” — belie their dulcet tunes and velvety voices.

Yet the England-born brothers are loath to be thought of as political commentators. They want to be valued as musicians — period. Last week, they practiced their accidental anthem lambasting the vacation rental giant while in a taxi on their way to an interview with pro-Israel group StandWithUs, which shared the song to its Facebook page and received 128,000 views. As tends to happen in Israel, they got to chatting with the taxi driver, an Egyptian Arab.

“So there we are at the traffic lights, singing this song about Airbnb’s anti-Israel policy and playing the ukulele, and suddenly the Arab driver pulls a flute from the glove compartment and starts jamming with us,” Sruli said. “It was this absolutely brilliant scene that you can’t make up, and I’m thinking this is what it’s all about. Playing arenas is definitely on the to-do list, but I really cherish those intimate, one-on-one moments you have with other human beings sharing in the music.”

That’s not to say the Portnoys haven’t had a taste of the big time. They’ve opened for Israeli superstar Idan Raichel in 3,000-person gigs, were included in the list of 100 most influential olim in Britain’s Jewish News, and have released viral covers ranging from the pop anthem “Angels” to the Israeli classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” as well as an homage to George Harrison that was included in a website playlist alongside Harrison covers by Eric Clapton and Santana.

Yet, they haven’t let those accomplishments go to their heads. Their modesty may be the result of growing up with nine other musical siblings and a conductor-cum-rabbi father. At the age of 7, Sruli performed at a wedding; and a year later he was leading Kabbalat Shabbat services at his father’s synagogue.

“I was never going to do anything else — I couldn’t really do anything else,” Sruli said. “I was either going to hate or embrace the performing-monkey side of being the rabbi’s kid.”

The Portnoys’ music always contained a strong element of altruism. At 12, Sruli released his first single honoring victims of terror. In later years, the brothers played for Israel Defense Forces soldiers along the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Defense. For six years, PORTNOY was also the in-house band at Camp Simcha, a summer camp for children battling cancer.

“I know it sounds corny, but we’ve been given this gift,” Sruli said. “It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to humankind. It’s not mine any more than it is the listeners’.”

That sentiment is nice but it doesn’t bring home the (kosher) bacon.

Mendy, the younger and markedly more sarcastic of the two, quipped: “My 1-year-old son wakes up every morning and runs straight to the piano. I’m still trying to convince him he should pursue a more stable career, but I feel like he just doesn’t understand me.”

PORTNOY’s main earnings come from playing private functions around the world — from weddings in Ibiza to evangelical churches in America’s Deep South.

In the Spotify generation, when 10 dollars a month buys access to unlimited music, they’ve had to turn to other means to support their music. PORTNOY recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for their second album, “No Complaints” — a nod to Philip Roth’s simmering novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and are set to mark the release of their first single, the aptly named “Spotified,” at an event at New York City’s Highline Ballroom later this month.

Safeguarding their autonomy and artistic independence has also meant the brothers have chosen to eschew TV talent shows such as Israel’s version of the The Voice, despite being hounded by scouts.

“There’s so much noise and the industry is so saturated that even the record labels don’t know what the correct path is,” Sruli said. “It’s like this mass confusion. So we just figured, instead of having someone else guess in the dark, we might as well guess in the dark for ourselves because at least we know who we are and who our fans are.”