Intoxicating Music - An Interview With Monophonics
by Brian Brinkman - @sufferingjuke
Last week San Francisco’s Monophonics headlined a show at Martyr’s. A band with ten-years of touring experience, and a workingman’s funk approach, they’re an incredibly powerful and engaging live act. I sat down at spoke at length with guitarist Ian McDonald, organist/singer Kelly Finnigan, and bassist Myles O’Mahony before their show. The conversation leapt from a general overview of their history, to some of their historical influences, to their approach to crafting an album. We also touched on the difference between European and American crowds and the impact of having Sonny Bono cover as a hit single in Greece.
How are you guys doing? You had a pretty long drive here today?
Ian McDonald: Yeah, we came in from Tulsa today. Twelve hours on the road.
Do you guys still do your own driving?
IM: No, our tour manager started driving for us, which helps out a lot. We used to just do big shifts, and then play. That was pretty rough.
Do me a favor and give me a rough idea of how Monophonics started, and how the band has evolved...
IM: Monophonics started from a couple bands from college. Myself, the drummer, Austin, and the trumpet player, Ryan, have been playing since college, and then we formed this band originally as an instrumental unit. We started playing locally in the Bay Area, and got a gig at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco, and then just started touring outside of the Bay Area…
And when is this, like 2005?
IM: Yeah, just about ten years ago. So we’re coming up on our ten-year anniversary as a band. We were a bit of a different outfit back then, but this current incarnation has been about five years. That’s when Kelly came on board.
So your first two records were all instrumental, how has the infusion of lyrics, and Kelly changed you guys as a band?
As a band we always wanted a lyricist. It’s not as though we wanted to be instrumental. It was only out of necessity that that’s how we were. We’d worked with about three or four other singers and artists for a couple gigs here and there for a little bit, just as guest singers on a few songs, but it was never anything permanent. And there was nothing in those shows where we felt it needed to be. Not until Kelly came on did the show shift to 90% lyrical songs.
And does Kelly now do most of the songwriting, or is it a group thing?
Yeah, it’s a pretty collaborative effort. He usually writes the lyrics, but we get together and write music on the spot. We’re really lucky to have our own studio, so we can practice and write and then press record when it feels right.
So, the first five years, were most of those songs written around jamming, and finding a groove?
And now is there a bit more proper songwriting, or are you guys still finding the pocket and writing a song out of a jam?
IM: Our process has definitely stepped up as far as the songwriting goes. The approach towards writing more concise songs is more emphasized. Earlier on we were more concerned with having a groove, and writing from a more traditional jazz approach where you have the head, solo, head, breakdown, out...rather than a proper song. Something where you have more space to jam in a live setting.
So now does Kelly come prepared with lyrics and you guys write music from there?
IM: Usually it’s the music that comes first. But if there’s something he’s inspired by, or if there’s a vibe we want to all go with, we’ll go from there.
I wanted to ask you about your most recent record, In Your Brain. There’s this warmth to that record. It feels like a vinyl even coming through my iPod. There’s a flow to it from one song to the next. It feels like a proper album rather than simply a collection of songs. And it’s really easy when listening to get lost in the grooves you guys are living in. Were there any goals you guys had while making that record?
Kelly Finnigan: It’s kinda the first “Do It Yourself” record for the band. Before I joined the band the guys were going to a proper studio and paying money to record with an engineer, and a producer who didn’t really understand the genre these guys were going for; he’d recorded a lot of rock and punk bands before. And they tried to push this guy to do certain things with their sound, and he kinda discouraged it. He just didn’t get it.
So when I came in, Ian and I started talking about records we liked, and how we wanted our album to sound, and bands like Sharon Jones and Orgone – bands that are recording themselves – came up, so that inspired us a lot. Ian and I both went to engineering school, and we’re both really interested in production, and that whole side of record making. So it was really perfect timing for all of us. The songwriting took a step up, and we focused on crafting an album, and growing as a band.
We talked to some people, we got the equipment we needed, I had just moved into a house in the Presidio in San Francisco, and I had a basement that was being used as a rehearsal space, and we just started shoving gear in there, putting mics up, experimenting, and trying things out.
So In Your Brain is truly a home-recorded record.
KF: Oh yeah. It was done in the basement to a ¼ inch 8-track with some old mics and old amps, some new API pre-amps, so there was a lot of experimenting going on. Ian spent a lot of time listening to old records and trying to nail in how to -- not imitate or copy -- but catch the vibe of these records we really loved.
What are some specific records you guys were listening to at that time where you found the sound you wanted?
KF: We became fast friends with L.A.’s Orgone. And we really hit it off with Sergio Rios, their guitarist who does all their recording, when we were in New Orleans. It was kinda like meeting a chef you really admire and trying to learn exactly how they make some dish you really love. And he sat down and showed us all the ingredients. Plus we read a lot of articles from writers like Gabe Roth whose Shitty Is Pretty is kinda looked at in a Biblical sense in terms of how to get that lo-fi, dirty tone. He says in there how all theses hip-hop artists are spending all this money sampling old lo-fi records, but that he can give you that sound with a shitty RadioShack mic.
And so, this was the sound that I was working towards with the band I was recording with, and these guys were trying to get in the first two Monophonics records, and we kinda figured out a way to craft it in our own way on In Your Brain. The only downside to this recording process is the fact that sometimes these songs that you listen to from old records, just can’t transfer live. Sometimes that vibe and that mic they used on the recordings don’t cater to a live show.
What you guys are talking about reminds me a bit of Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes. There’s this vibe on that record where you know these guys were trapped in the wilderness, and in their own heads, and that comes through the recording, andIn Your Brain has a similar vibe to it.
IM: Those Basement Tapes sessions are in some ways the first home recordings in rock. Cause they just got in a barn and hit record. Exile On Main Street has that vibe as well, although I feel like that was written in a bigger mansion.
KF: Still though, when you read about those sessions, you read about the struggles they had with where they were going to place the horns, and how they were going to isolate Mick, and how they were going to run all the cables.
Plus, Keith’s guitar would go out of tune between every take because of the humidity.
IM: Yeah, and he was junked out…
KF: There’s a vibe to it all. There are those classic stories about how Keith used to fall asleep and then wake up and the engineers would want to go to sleep, but the band said they were going to get the take right this time, and they’d record at like 3am.
So were you the only one living in that house at the time, or was the whole band there?
KF: I was the only one living there, but at that point a lot of the guys were living in the city. Ian was right near Haight & Ashbury, which obviously has historical resonance. Myles, our bassist, was in the city. So everyone started getting together every weekend and writing and trying to come up with ideas.
It’s cool you mentioned the flow of the record, because we really thought hard about how we wanted to put it together. We thought a lot about the influences – from Memphis to Detroit (Funkadelic) to Chicago (Curtis Mayfield) to the Bay Area (Sly & The Family Stone) – that we wanted to touch on throughout the record.
And it’s interesting, because, unfortunately, trying to address all your influences, can often times lead to a choppy record. But it doesn’t here.
I remember two of the songs that really resonated live for me, and then also hit me hard when I listened to the album, were “There’s A Riot Going On,” and “Bang Bang,” which work as kind of bookends to the record. You start with this really gritty, counter-cultural party, where you’re almost celebrating chaos, and then at the end there’s “Bang Bang,” which is super soulful and just works as a conclusion in a really good way.
KF: I feel like “Bang Bang” was one of the first songs we did, in terms of that new sound we were going for, where Ian and I kinda told the rest of the band to just trust us. We were really trying to grow at that point, and the result of it made everyone kinda go, ‘Oh Wow,’ like, ‘this is what we could sound like!’
IM: It was something we did that, at the moment, we didn’t really know if it was gonna be that vibe. Especially since we didn’t realize how much of a global response it was going to have. Especially in Europe, and really, in Greece.
KF: It’s still played on the radio in Greece. It’s still in rotation.
IM: I was just in Greece and I heard it like five different times. Like the really cool, hip local radio station that plays it. We actually played there a couple years ago. My girlfriend is from there, and she still lives there, and talks about how it was played all summer, and how people say it’s their favorite version of the song.
KF: It’s come to the point where some younger music fans just think that it’s our song, and don’t realize it's Sonny Bono.
But yeah, that song kinda jump-started things for us. And shortly after that we recorded “Riot,” which I’d already written lyrics to the song, but we didn’t totally know what to do with them. And then Alex came back from Egypt, and literally two days later major riots started, all the Occupy stuff was starting to happen. And I was listening to a lot of Sly & The Family Stone and it just clicked, and I threw away all the other lyrics, and I started writing what became “There’s A Riot Going On” and I showed them to Ian and he was like, “that’s the vibe.”
IM: The original lyrics were about a girl leaving, I think the song was called “Be Gone” at that time. And, obviously, there’s a lot of material we do that’s in that vein, and Kelly touches on it really well. But it was cool to be able to play something that, while it wasn’t necessarily political, it was really active in terms of what was happening at the time. Lyrically and musically that song was a stamp in time.
In a lot of ways it feels like we’ve moved beyond that era. Like, so much of the momentum that was building is gone.
KF: I feel like with a lot of the music that we as a band listen to, there’s a lot of conscious writing. And I feel in a lot of ways like that’s gone now. Especially with bigger artists. Like, back in the 70’s you had a big group like CSNY say, ‘we’re gonna write “Ohio,” and we don’t care about the implications.’ But who’s doing that now? Like who has a voice in a position of power, and is gonna stick their neck out for something they really believe it.
IM: Those kinds of songs don’t sell records. The club, and partying sells records.
KF: Too many songs nowadays just focus on the good things.
TBP: What sort of modern bands do you guys listen to?
IM: I’ve been listening to a lot of Tame Impala recently.
KF: Truth In Soul, and Lee Fields, and everyone in the Daptone Records Family.
IM: Anything that Shawn Lee does.
Myles O’Mahony: I like Beach House.
IM: We love Grizzly Bear.
KF: I just saw Arcade Fire. Which was an incredible show…
You know there are times where people see us and give us the whole: "Music’s not dead!” thing, and it’s like, well of course not! We’re just one band in this whole thing that’s trying to make real music here. There’s no shortage of amazing bands out there. The only shortage is in the way that radio works. You’re not directly exposed to great bands anymore. Now you have to search.
It seems to me like, nowadays, there’s almost this speeding-up process from say the Doo-Wop bands of the 50’s to the Psych-Rock bands of the 70’s where back then it took 20 years to evolve, now you have bands that are almost this amalgamation of all those styles.
Totally. And there’s a lot of that mixed into the newer stuff we’ve been writing. There’s a lot of Doo-Woppy background vocals on the new songs.
Have you guys been writing a lot in the last few years?
KF: You know, In Your Brain came out, and I don’t want to say we shut off the process, but we did kinda turn off the faucet of creativity and focused on touring. I think that we’re looking towards not doing that anymore. We want to focus more now on writing new music. And if it doesn’t come out, it doesn’t come out. But just keep writing, and not get trapped in the cycle, of ‘write a record – tour, write a record – tour…’ Now that we have a lot more free time, we’re able to focus more on writing.
So you guys are full-time in Monophonics now?
KF: Yeah, we all do side things, but the band is our number one priority.
MO: We’ve done a couple other writing projects. Like Ben, who’s playing sax with us right now, is from Paris, and we recorded his album with him. We definitely took time off writing for Monophonics, so much so that I was a bit concerned by it. But when we came back and started writing together, I was really surprised at how easily it came together.
KF: I think everyone has grown. And everyone in the band has big ears. They hear really well. So writing with people like Ian and Myles is easy. They’re so fast. We bounce ideas off each other really well. But there are definitely times where two people will be in a groove, like the other day, Myles and Ian were going off on an idea, and you just have to step back and let them go. And that’s important. You have to give each other the time and space to see if their idea can snowball into something else. You know, I was bouncing back and forth between the control room and where they were playing, and I was taking notes on what the song was going to be about, and it’s really fun that way. Letting it happen, rather than come up with an idea and then be like, ‘oh this is cool, but let’s meet again in a week and keep pounding the idea home.’ If we feel it: roll tape. And it forces everyone to be a little more thoughtful about their part. And it might take a couple takes because like, say, Myles just wrote his bass part, but you have to be thoughtful because we’re recording live, and we don’t want it to turn into this huge process. We love music that’s imperfect, so there’s no point to get caught up in just one note or something.
So it seems like you guys are more concerned with energy, which makes me think about your live show. I’ve only seen you guys once, at the Caspar Inn in 2012 right after Halloween, and it was a really special show for me. And I’m curious if there are any shows you guys have played that really stick out in your minds, and as a related question, do you approach your live shows with a bit more focus on improv, or do you try and stick really close to the songs?
KF: When it comes to our original songs, we don’t want to stray too far from how we wrote and recorded them. The vibe of the band isn’t really to jam anymore. We really think our songwriting is key to what is going to make people fall in love with the band. We know the musicianship is there, we definitely lock in, but at the end of the day, we want you to walk away from the show thinking about how much you loved the songs, and that you need to buy this record. We kinda take that same approach with our covers, where we want you to wonder throughout the show if a song is a cover or an original.
IM: I think the biggest difference between the show and the record is that we take the time in the studio to really produce a record. And we love to have that sort of ear candy element in each song. And for however lucky we are to have a lot of different instruments and sounds in our band, sometimes it’s hard to recreate those exact sounds live. So, the live show ends up being more about energy and the vibe, and a presentation of the song as a raw form than any specific sounds.
KF: For me though, a show that sticks out in my mind is the first time we played here at Martyr’s. I’d just joined the band, and we hadn’t toured a ton, especially outside of the west coast, and hadn’t really played too many major markets. And we opened for this really cool band, and I remember getting this incredible reaction from the crowd.
IM: I remember we did the Portland Waterfront BluesFest in 2012 and that was the first time we’d really played in front of a lot of people. I think there were like 10,000 people there, and it kinda blew us away. Definitely playing at the Fillmore in San Francisco was a milestone for us.
Do you get nervous before a show like that, or do you just throw nerves out the window and embrace the vibe?
MO: I get nervous whenever friends and family are involved.
KF: Or if there are other musicians you respect in the audience. That puts me on edge. Which is always a good thing. We played in France over the summer with Ben, and we played in like this 1300-year-old amphitheater and opened for The Daptone Super Soul Revue, and I know I was definitely nervous before that. Because I really admire those guys and think they’re doing this whole thing right. But they were super nice guys, and they had some really great things to say about the band and our show. We hung out with them, which helped to calm the nerves.
I know the first time we went to Europe was a huge milestone. We toured France and Belgium and Switzerland and Greece for the first time, and it was unreal.
MO: Every show in Greece was mind-boggling because, on the way to each show, our song was playing on the radio. We had no idea what the reaction was going to be like, and it blew us away.
IM: The first show we played in Patras, Greece, was like on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was packed. We’d been seeing Greek comments on our YouTube page and it turned out a guy who owned a club in Athens was passing us around so we did 5 shows throughout the country. And every show was totally packed. It was incredible.
KF: When we walked into the room in Patras we were kinda freaked because it was the middle of the week and the room was huge and we didn’t think anyone would show up. We did soundcheck, then went out to get food and came back, and the room was completely full.
IM: We learned that there’s a different approach to live music in Europe. Especially if people dig the music, it’s almost as if they have to come and see you. And if there are Ex-Pats there who are craving music from the States, they’ll come see you. It becomes an event. It’s always humbling to play in Europe because of the way the fans really appreciate music.
In some senses the American market is a bit jaded because there’s so much live music available. So when a band like us goes to Europe there’s this sense from fans that they have to see us now because they probably won’t have the chance in six months.
It’s interesting to hear you guys speak about the difference between playing in Europe versus America. I lived in Europe for a while and I saw a lot of music there, from small shows to bands like Wilco. And while I was there, I was amazed that people really paid attention to what was happening. Where as here, there are people on their cell phones, and people talking.
KF: Yep. And we’re gonna see that tonight. You know, we’re used to it by now, but when we play a show in America you have some people getting down, and others hanging out at the bar. But in Europe, when we play a club show and there’s a bar in the back, the bartender doesn’t pour one drink during the show. He’s watching the show too.
IM: We also see the groups of people who are standing and watching, and we wonder sometimes if they’re really into it, and then we talk to them after shows and they go into serious detail about the show, and we realize they were really kinda studying the performance.
I definitely saw a guy at the first show I saw you guys at evolve from a chin-stroker to dancing his ass off.
KF: Yes! We love those guys.
MO: But it’s funny because when we go to shows, we’re often the ones in the back studying.
KF: Yeah, I don’t go to shows to go crazy. I’m sitting there watching and listening to the musicians and trying to take it all in. I’m studying. But I’m having a ton of fun watching it.
In five words how would you guys describe Monophonics to someone who’s never seen you or heard of you?
IM: Soul, energy, passion, tone, vibe.
MO: We like to think of it as intoxicating music.
Lastly, what’s it like for you guys as a band when everything just clicks on stage?
IM: There’s this organic and mechanical feeling to it where everything just feels right.
MO: For me, it’s when everything sounds and feels like the most natural thing ever. And it’s all about making it easier to get to that place.
KF: It’s one of those things that doesn’t necessarily happen every night, but it happens way more often now than when we first started playing together.
IM: Tonight, when we soundchecked we were all blown away by how good the sound is here. And, when that happens and you’re able to just get on stage and play, it comes naturally and that’s when great things happen.