Keepin’ the Funk Alive – An Interview with Monophonics
Monophonics are an analog band in a digital world. Eschewing your typical pop formula in favor of soul stirring ballads that hearken back to the golden years of funk, the band makes honest music with an old school bent that still manages to sound hip in this day and age.
Embarking on a European tour and finishing up with a US run in support of their latest album ‘Sound of Sinning,’ band members Ian and Kelly were kind enough to take the time and chat with me about everything from the origins of the band to being involved with the upcoming Northern Nights Festival in July.
Kendall B- Well first off, how long have you guys been playing together?
Kelly Finnigan– Actually we’re playing a show tomorrow night in Marin County – where most of the band is from – to celebrate 10 years as Monophonics.
KB- That’s pretty awesome. It says on your profile 7 years so I guess they missed 3.
Kelly– It’s probably old. It happens a lot with bios that are floating around the internet, people grab old ones.
KB- Has the lineup changed at all over the 10 years?
Kelly– When I first started it was a six or seven piece band. It was a seven piece. Drums, bass, guitar, keys, trumpet, saxophone, and percussion. Then over a couple year span they started having guest vocalists to try and change things up because it was mostly an instrumental band. Then in 2010 I joined full time and the percussionist started to pursue a different career so it became a six piece and over the last five years we’ve basically become a vocal band. We still play some instrumental music but our focus is songwriting and writing vocal tunes.
KB- Yeah this new album definitely seems aimed in that direction. Do you feel like it was conscious departure from your last work?
Ian McDonald– No, we were concentrating more on writing more song-based songs instead of just grooves. We kind of pursued that even more so on the last album because we were kind of going for more of something that is coherent as single-based music. A three and a half minute song that can be played on the radio or whatever. We were more conscious about writing music that had more of a universal appeal.
“…we still want you to listen to the record and be like
‘Oh you know what? There’s something about this music.'”
KB- That makes sense. It seems like you’re more of a live band as opposed to a studio band. Is that right would you say?
Kelly– We take both. The reason we flourish live is based off of our records and there being demand for us to play. I think that’s pretty important first off. If promoters don’t like the recordings you’re sending them, they’re not gonna really appeal.
In the beginning when you’re just a baby band, you have to go off the record you’ve made or it’s not gonna appeal to the buyers. I would say we flourish off both because we work with a lot of artists in the studio. We also all write for other artists. We collaborate with other groups and other artists so we stay quite busy in the studio. I’d say we actually have a great balance.
Ian– I agree with Kelly. The connection between live and studio is very important as a band and having both of those be equally as strong. I think the great thing about Monophonics is that we can go in the studio and do a wide range of different styles and sounds and production as well as putting on a great live show which is very important to us; to have both sides of the spectrum.
KB- So are there any differences as to how you approach each medium-live and studio? Is that something that comes naturally?
Ian– Yeah after doing two records, ‘In Your Brain’ and ‘Sound of Sinning,’ I think we found a flow and I think we’re really into keeping that momentum going. As far as live, a lot of us have been playing for more than just 10 years in the band. In the last 3 to 4 years we’ve been touring constantly playing hundreds and hundreds of shows so that kind of comes natural.
KB- Do you have any favorite cities? Awesome tour stories?
Kelly– Tour stories? Whenever anyone puts you on the spot you can never think of the good ones. Everything from being in crazy traffic and being late to a show, so late to the point where you send the people at the theater pizza and show them a movie. The struggle of getting there. Being so close to getting to the venue and actually running out of gas. But where we broke down was right in front of a farm. This was in Pennsylvania. The farmer actually had a gallon of gas in a can that he gave us and we got to the gig. That’s just one that came to mind right away because it was a crazy night and we got the show.
We love going overseas and playing in places like Greece, Paris, and Netherlands and Germany. Those are all really great live music experiences from our perspective, being a musician. How they react to the music. On this last tour we just did we had great shows all over. The ones that stand out are San Francisco shows and Seattle, Chicago, Brooklyn, New Orleans, LA and San Diego. Those were all really good shows.
KB- Is this the first festival you guys have played? The Northern Nights Festival coming up?
Kelly– This is the first time we’ve played Northern Nights. We’re excited. From what we’ve heard from a lot of festival goers and just music lovers around California, this is a really great music festival. It’s cool to be one of the bands that are part of it too. I know there’s not tons of bands on the bill.
KB- So dream festival lineup. Who would it be for you guys?
Kelly– Alive or dead?
Kelly– Oh wow how many bands do we get to choose?
KB- We can go with five just to make it easy.
Kelly– OK. Let’s say as obvious as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, but then you gotta have Otis Redding, Booker T and the MG’s, Sly and the Family Stone…
Kelly– Funkadelics, early Funkadelics.
KB- Yeah that would be an awesome show. There’s definitely a clear funk sound in your records. Is that what you guys were listening to growing up?
Kelly– Honestly we grew up listening to everything from old rock and roll and soul, and rhythm and blues, and funk, to what was popular back in the 80’s like Thriller by Michael Jackson. We all grew up in the 80’s so we were listening to popular music at that time. It was a little more well rounded than it is today but we were all lucky to grow up in families where music was really important. Just going to shows or always listening to it in the car, or just having family members who played instruments.
KB- I was curious about the title of this new album. What influenced it and what influenced the body of work as a whole?
Kelly– Like Ian said earlier, we were writing songs and putting a record together that felt accessible. Everybody in the band likes all types of music. There’s nobody in the band who’s a purist like ’I only listen to this’ or ‘I only like these bands.’ We’re all very open to music and new bands, older bands that are undiscovered, or anything that just turns us on. So that was really a goal.
You might just listen to Kendrick Lamar and Jay-z and all this hip-hop, but we want you to hear our record from a standpoint ‘This is cool and different.’ The same thing goes for anybody! You might just listen to rock n roll or psychedelic rock or just pure soul. But we still want you to listen to the record and be like ‘Oh you know what there’s something about this music. There’s elements of that. There’s a spirit in the music that comes through that speaks to me as a music fan.’ I think that we all strive on trying to do that. Turn on everybody in terms of the vibe and the tone of the recording and song writing. It’s all very like crafted from that standpoint. We really spend time making these records. We don’t just make it and then ‘We’re done, on to the next.’ We really put energy and love into each song.
To answer your other question, ‘Sound of Sinning.’ I was just vibing off of music just feeling off the tone of how I was feeling at the time and when I came up with the term ‘sound of sinning’ it just felt right. I liked it and it had a ring to it.
It’s pretty hard not to be challenged by making some sort of bad decision or getting into trouble or just doing something that hurts somebody you love or someone you don’t love. It’s like there’s an evil part of every human. Whether it’s greed or jealousy or hate or whatever you want to call it, its in all of us. When you put all of that together in the world, that’s what we’re living which is life. That’s the sound sinning.
My whole thing when i’m writing is the human experience. I want to write about things that everybody feels on a daily basis whether it’s joy or pain you know? Ups and downs, that’s life.
“I would say keep fighting the good fight and
stay positive and just don’t give up. Believe.”
KB- It seems like when you guys did the cover for ‘Bang, Bang,’ that was a jumping off point for you guys.
Kelly– Yeah for sure.
KB- How did that come about? What made you decide to do the cover and how did that all come together?
Kelly– It’s just one of those songs. If you really like dig into it, there’s tons of really good covers. When we started diving in there’s a lot of really good covers of the song. Not only the original by Sonny and Cher but obviously the Nancy Sinatra one which is famous with the Kill Bill movie. Then there’s a really cool Vanilla Fuzz version, there’s a cool little Stevie Wonder version. There’s tons of different versions. There’s actually a Chinese version by an artist named Benny Chung, and that version is probably the closest to what ours sounds like.
There’s also combinations of those other versions. It was kind of just like ‘Oh this is such a good song’ no matter how you present it. You just sit down with a guitar or piano and you sing it. It’s just a really clever and hip song so we knew if we just produced it in a certain way that it would pop off. It was one of those times when everything falls into place and it came out really well and struck a chord with everybody and still does today. When they [people] come to the show the first time and they’ve never heard our music, that one’s definitely a song that just stands out in the set or on the record.
KB- Awesome. Well that’s all i’ve got. I appreciate your time!
Kelly– Of course man. Are you gonna be at the festival?
KB- Definitely! Wouldn’t miss that it’s my first time going so i’m pretty excited.
KB- Any last words? Any advice for aspiring musicians, instrumentalists, artists?
Kelly– I would just say dude just keep going. Do what you love.
Ian– Don’t give up. Don’t get frustrated.
Kelly– You’re gonna have good days and bad days. Being in a band, when you get to a certain point you’re really gonna turn into a business. As much as we still all love music and it’s a blessing to do what we do and it brings us happiness, there could be tough days. I would say keep fighting the good fight and stay positive and just don’t give up. Believe. All that cliche stuff is really true. Following your dreams or just doing what you believe you should be doing out there.