Interview: Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf
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For more than two decades now, New Jersey's Monster Magnet has been a band out of time. Existing at the amp worshipping crossroads of Black Sabbath, Hawkwind, and The Stooges is hardly a recipe for riding some buzzworthy micro-trend into fleeting omnipresence. And yet, by spurning such ephemera, the band further proves that rock and roll is forever. More to the point, though, Monster Magnet is just the type of band to give a word like "ephemera" a gleefully cackling boot to the marbles before revving off into a never-darkening western sky.
Monster Magnet's center of gravity is Dave Wyndorf, whose quick, lecherous lyrical wit keeps the listener grounded even as his band's music promises (or threatens) to blast your entire house to the moon on a rainbow powered by a robotic unicorn having a rough come-down from a snout full of drugs. It feels impossible to do time with a Monster Magnet record or read one of Wyndorf's interviews without becoming at least a little infected by an exuberance that runs right up against (but never quite tips the scales into) arrogance.
Wyndorf's lyrical persona simultaneously evokes a pulp science fiction writer, a hustling pornographer, and a street-corner end times prophet. On Monster Magnet's new album Last Patrol, those three thrusting tropes are alive and well, but musically, the band has redeployed its finely-honed sleaze and straight-ahead garage rock instincts into a much more outwardly psychedelic album. Last Patrol activates the same yawning cosmic abyss of bona fide Magnet classics Spine of God and Superjudge, but fits that psych-sprawl into a tidy narrative arc that reminds us how the quiet times can be groovy, too.
Wyndorf and company begin a month-long North American tour in November, which is the first of its kind for Monster Magnet in something like a decade. We asked Wyndorf about the album, the upcoming tour, and whether or not it was cool if we just sat him down in front of a giant Uncle Sam poster to guilt him into touring these parts more often. Last Patrol came out via Napalm in the U.S. on October 15; read on below for the interview and tour dates.
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The new album Last Patrol has a really interesting flow. It feels like the whole thing was arranged very deliberately, whereas Mastermind felt a bit more back-to-basics, with pretty direct, sleazy rockers. At the same time, Last Patrol has a couple of songs--the title track and "End of Time", in particular--that hearken back a bit to the old days of Spine of God/Superjudge. Do you approach those longer, psych freak-outs different now than you would have 20 years ago?
The freakouts are a bit more organized than in the past. I record a scratch guitar track that establishes the length, build and vibe. Then we build from the drums up. That means writing exciting drum parts that build the piece and have a certain amount of variation. That's all Bob [Bob Pantella, Magnet drummer] needs to be set loose in the studio. At this point there's a "freak out map" of sorts. Bass and lead guitar improvises over that map and it all comes together.
Did you really write the whole album in a week? Is that unusual for you, or do you always work that briskly?
Well, I only wrote the lyrics in one week. The songs (minus actual words) took about a day per song but were written here and there between tours of Mastermind. Working up the songs with Phil, Bob, and Garrett took about a month. It's pretty quick, though. Funny thing about songs, for the most part they either work or they don't. No sense in taking too much time in developing them.
What is the songwriting balance between yourself and the other guys these days? At what point do you bring them in on the process?
I write a more or less complete version of the song with a designated "feel" to the parts. Everybody listens and then I work with Bob (drums) Phil (bass and guitar) and Garrett (guitar) separately. I'm the "musical director" for lack of a better term. Sometimes I guide 'em through and sometimes they just take it and run. These guys are fantastic players with great instincts. Phil and I co-wrote a song on this album as well.
Monster Magnet obviously had some pretty mainstream success with Dopes to Infinity and, in particular, 1998's Powertrip, with huge MTV and radio play, slots on Ozzfest, and so on. You had already been on a major label for quite some time, even though to the average radio/MTV listener, it probably seemed like a brand-new band making a splash with Space Lord. What has that been like, navigating from smaller labels to a major and now on to Napalm, a sizable but mostly metal-oriented label? Does it feel like your fanbase has changed along with those developments?
Hmm, sharing an identity with any record label is always weird. I think the degree of exposure changes with the size of the record company (for obvious reasons) but I also think that the people who dig a band's style would hopefully find them eventually no matter what label they're on.
Speaking of Napalm: Like I said, they're mostly known as a metal label. How do you feel like Monster Magnet fits in? Do you feel any affinity with metal, despite being a pretty devout follower of all things rock?
I never felt Monster Magnet was an easy fit on any label so I've always just taken the best deal offered and plowed on.
Let me try this proposition out on you: The primary theme of Monster Magnet is lust. Maybe not always sexual, but I always feel like the music--and your vocals--are leering at me.
Lust! Absolutely. You nailed it. What a great word, LUST.
How would you like the listener to react to Last Patrol? Do you want us to dance? Trip acid? Break things?
Well, someone once said that the "audience is the final collaborator" in a creative project so I'd hope they would listen to the music and react in any way they chose. Don't break things, though. Copulating is good.
What does rock and roll mean to you? Is it a competition? A celebration?
To me, Rock and Roll is a number of things. It's music of course but live performance is where Rock and Roll really separates itself from other artforms. A high volume celebration with an almost unspoken back and forth energy between audience and band in real time. Really cool.
The style of music you've made your Monster Magnet career with is, maybe paradoxically, both always and never particularly fashionable. I mean, young kids are probably always going to keep bashing out loud greasy music in garages across the world, but garage rock, heavy psych, all that stuff, seems pretty unlikely to ever be the hippest shit around. Do you feel that tension?
Oh yeah. (laughs) It's not exactly the blueprint for fame and fortune. But you gotta follow your heart, y'know?
There are several lyrics on the new album that seem to be toying with the listener about Monster Magnet's future. Not just the title track ("Oh Mama, don't you know? This is my last crusade."), but also the closing track, "Stay Tuned," which contains the following lines:
Ain't no targets to aim for, man, / Ain't no mountains to climb.
Whats gonna happen now? Will the good guys pull through somehow?
Stay tuned til next time, and we'll see what's what.
Is that just the winking, self-referential world-weariness of a rock and roll lifer such as yourself, or should we be reading more into that?
I think that's more about quitting modern society in general. (laughs)
You're going to be heading out in November for your first North American tour in, hell, almost forever, right? Anything in particular you're looking forward to on this tour? I can only assume we're going to be treated to a very mild-mannered, tux-and-tails, "Evening With" kind of performance, right?
A celebration of life as we know it. Laughter, tears, babies being born...
On that subject: Over the years Monster Magnet has spent significantly more time playing over in Europe than back here in the States. I know touring bands often talk about how absurdly difficult it is to tour America--it's such an enormous country that the logistics alone are a nightmare. But, there's got to be more to it than that, right? Something about the culture of live music, or the fanbase, or the infrastructure? But I don't know, man, don't you ever feel like America needs you?
Naw, all America needs is good cell reception and solid broad band. (laughs) For us, the States has been out of gas for awhile. They weren't buyin' what we had to sell, simple as that. But right across the ocean Europe was wide open with opportunities. It's still a very live oriented music scene over there. But here it's like pulling teeth for us to get a decent crowd. I sense the USA turned a corner a ways back. It makes sense. The USA has always pushed convenience as a priority and the fantastic tech of today has afforded us a lot of choices in entertainment so it's natural that the live scene would dry up a little. (or a lot in our case) Europe has cheaper ticket prices and better venues, key components to keeping the live music scene vibrant and alive. Whatever the case, I tend to go where I can have fun and playing some dried up old metal bar with a shitty PA with an all male crowd ain't my idea of fun. (laughs) That's what you get in a lot of cases in the States. Sad but true. But after 10 years I'm curious to see what it's like out there so we're goin' in.
I don't know Zodiac, but Royal Thunder is a kickass band to have coming along on tour with you. Do you have a say in choosing your opening acts, or is that a smoke-filled backroom kind of thing between labels and business types?
It's a balancing act. Bands you like. ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS. Availability. It's a wonder these things come off as good as they do. This is a great package.
One of my favorite lines on the new album is when you wind up rhyming "appetit" with "creep." Do you have any personal favorite one-liners you'd like to leave us with?
Don't take any wooden nickels.
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MONSTER MAGNET, ROYAL THUNDER, ZODIAC TOUR 2014
11/14: Grand Rapids, MI @ Intersection
11/15: Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews
11/16: Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
11/17: Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
11/19: Denver, CO @ Marquis Theater
11/20: Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
11/22: Seattle, WA @ Neumos
11/23: Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theater
11/24: Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
11/26: San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
11/27: Los Angeles, CA @ House of Blues
11/29: Tempe, AZ @ Club Red
11/30: Albuquerque, NM @ Launch Pad
12/2: Austin, TX @ Red 7
12/3: Houston, TX @ Fitzgeralds
12/4: Dallas, TX @ Trees
12/6: Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
12/7: Charlotte, NC @ Amos Southend
12/8: Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Sound Stage
12/10: Toronto, ON @ Lee's Palace
12/12: Boston, MA @ Sinclair
12/13: West Chester, PA @ The Note
12/14: New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
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