On “Pilgrimage of the Soul,” Mono Reflects On Their Storied Past and Ascends to a Bright Future (Interview)
There's really not many bands out there like Mono—and not just in terms of how they sound. Having managed to produce eleven studio albums in just over twenty years with only one lineup change (drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla joined in 2018), they're a consistent creative powerhouse that's never seemed to run low on inspiration or drive. As their latest album Pilgrimage of the Soul marks the beginning of their third decade of existence, the experimental rock band continues to push their sound to new heights. It's not so much that they've evolved to something different—their sound has always been uniquely theirs—but every new release from the band seems like an aggregate of what's come before as well as new ideas and sounds, just as beautiful and thoughtful but also different. Pilgrimage of the Soul comes as the band's first post-lockdown release and, sharing the collective global sentiment, bursts with energy ready to finally be released.
The opener "Riptide," deceptively quiet at first, represents this cathartic release: with no hint of warning, it breaks into some rather heavy riffage, backed by Cipolla's energetic drumming, including lots of busy fills that act like a high-intensity workout to help excise all the pent-up frustration. Here, and on the follow-up track "Imperfect Things," Cipolla significantly influences the album's character—though it's not his first record with the band, the usage of heavier drumming here and disco beats on "Imperfect Things" brands the album with his own style.
The softer, classical side of Mono hasn't gone anywhere, though, and songs like "Heaven in a Wild Flower" show off the quiet, contemplative compositional style that should sever any thoughts of Mono as a strictly post-rock band. Of course, that's an element here, but it's a color on a palette, not a theme.
While pretty much every Mono record has sounded good, this one really hits home: recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago, as with many of their albums, the production is tight, occasionally devastating, and ethereal when it needs to be. Electronic elements take a greater focus here, adding nostalgic synthesizers to Mono's already complex sound without taking away from anything else. Although it's often mellow, Pilgrimage of the Soul, at many points, feels agitated and Albini's production provides the crystal-clear loudness to bring that anxiousness to the forefront.
As I've listened to Pilgrimage of the Soul, I've found that not listening to it in full feels like an injustice: even if I'm on a drive and get back to my house, I have to start it over. It takes the listener on a journey sonically and within the mind, steering through everything the band has to offer. It'd be like starting a book from the middle. This album conclusion is worth the investment, anyway: like the soul's journey it's named after, it ends with a final passage beyond: "An Eternity in an Hour" is an incredibly poignant closing track that weaves strings, guitar, and piano into a classical exhibition of the band's skill at songwriting.
Pilgrimage of the Soul is a very cinematic record, and fittingly, the two music videos that were produced for it (with the help of Alison Group, an art collective) provide thought-provoking storylines that help enhance the music, but also provide vivid depictions of some of the emotions at play. With a pandemic still at our doors and, honestly, just about everything getting worse by the day, Mono's ability to distill a massive range of emotions into a near-continuous experience is just as impressive now as it was when I first heard them.
Below, read an interview with Mono guitarist Takaakira "Taka" Goto about the album, their collaborative Exit in Darkness EP (with A.A. Williams), and Mono's plans in the COVID era.
Pilgrimage of the Soul marks the start of MONO's third decade as a band, and it's your eleventh full-length album -- and your sound still seems to evolve with each new release. Did you go into it with any overarching concepts in mind or things you wanted to experiment with?
Taka: I always want to continue to evolve. Of course, I'm confident about the music I've been writing and satisfied with them but I want to pursue music more and more. The feeling of wanting to write even better music hasn't changed ever since I was young.
When we finished our 20th-anniversary show in London, due to the excitement still, maybe, I couldn't fall asleep for a long time that night (it was also the final day of our year-long 2019 world tour).
That's when the last 20 years flashed back suddenly and I felt that one of our journeys that we continued to run relentlessly had just finished.
The journey felt like a pilgrimage, like how Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist's main character felt. That's when I thought about describing our last 20 years on the next album.
This record is your second full-length with drummer Dahm Cipolla, and his playing on this album definitely feels faster and heavier than on Nowhere Now Here. How has his playing style impacted your writing process and your overall sound?
The band was completely reborn when the new drummer Dahm joined; he joined before the recording of "Nowhere Now Here" and we completed an over year-long world tour together including a set of special 20th-anniversary orchestra shows.
We felt we were doing the most satisfying live performances and as a band, we could welcome the best time. His drumming was like a gift from the universe.
This was the first record I wrote ever since Dahm joined. I was able to write very freely while imagining his drumming. Even if we incorporate beats or electronics that we've never used before, I feel that we can sound like us. The range the band can express now has expanded exponentially.
I think things will continue to evolve more and more. I'm really looking forward to it.
Last year, you released a rare collaborative EP with A.A. Williams, Exit in Darkness. What was it like working with Williams to create that? Were you able to meet in person at all while recording?
We got to know AAW's music through our European booking agent Haydn. When we heard her singing for the first time, we were immediately drawn into the world and vaguely we felt, it may turn into something special if we can make something together.
The first time we met was when we performed at Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. She played the cello for us then and I think that's when we told her we want to make something with her.
After, whenever we found time between our tours, we collaborated over emails for over half a year and eventually recorded together in London.
It was a very artistic and fantastic collaboration. This time, due to our schedules, we could only make two songs but I'm thinking it would be nice if we could make a full album together one day.
Unfortunately, COVID has locked things down pretty much ever since you released that EP -- how did it affect the writing and recording process for Pilgrimage of the Soul?
This album "Pilgrimage of the Soul" was written between January to February 2020 right before the pandemic and we planned to record in the summer of 2020. The only issue was that we were not even sure if we could enter the US to record. We looked into this thoroughly as well but no one could give us a clear answer.
Although a lot of people around us recommended not to, we weren't thinking that seriously. If we can enter, we're lucky and if we can't, we can simply postpone — we were relatively optimistic.
But despite all of these feelings, we had a strong wish to record. All of the songs were finished prior to the pandemic and we also had just successfully finished our 20th-anniversary world tour so our motivation was very high.
Since our drummer Dahm lives in the US, the rest of us practised together in Tokyo and communicated with Dahm remotely. Then once we got to Chicago, we all met up, rented one of Steve's studios, rehearsed over several days and we recorded.
We had worries, of course, but in the end, everything went smoothly as planned thankfully. Back then when no one knew what would happen to the world, the only hope for the future was to make an album.
I really enjoyed the music video "Riptide", especially in how the song doesn't start until almost halfway through the video. Both this and the video for "Innocence" were created working with Alison Group, a filmmaking group based in Spain. How do the concepts for the videos connect with your visions for the two songs, and what was the collaboration like?
The encounter with Alison Group was also truly lucky. When you think about it, we're blessed with so many great encounters.
Before the short films' production started, I shared the concept of each song with Alison; how I wrote each song with what kind of emotion, what I wanted to express.
As I mentioned just before, "Pilgrimage of the Soul" is a portrayal of the last 20 years of our journey as MONO. The opening track "Riptide" is about what we were feeling when we formed the band; being trapped in a man-made cage so-called society, and conflict and escape from its rules.
I wanted to express that no matter how big the risk may be, we will continue to move forward with the paths that we believe in because especially in Japan, playing unprecedented original music feels almost like suicide.
I always write a story for the whole album like a movie. These two short films were exactly what I was picturing in my head; it was almost like Alison looked inside my head.
The collaboration with them was really like a miracle. Through these short films, I believe we can connect with each listener deeper and more specifically.
You've announced tour dates starting in Europe next year, with North America dates following. How has the gap in live performances affected you? Do you think that touring post-COVID (or at least post-lockdown) will be significantly different than in the past?
Our first show on the next tour will be our first show in two years since the world was affected by COVID. I never dreamed that there would be a day in my life where I couldn't play on stage for two years, especially because we've been touring more than any band ever since we formed the band.
At first, I was confused. But after having just finished the 20th anniversary and decided it was a good time to prepare for a new journey, I was able to spend my days systematically.
Because Dahm lives in the US and the rest of us are in Japan, it is difficult to make sounds together but because of that, all of us are wishing even stronger that we can be active again and our morale is higher than ever.
I'm certain our new tours, including our new album, will be the most powerful ones ever. I can't wait for the world to return to a normal and safe place soon, and share our music live with all of our fans!
Pilgrimage of the Soul released on September 17th via Temporary Residence.
Mono US Tour 2022 Dates:
- Apr 1, 2022 @ Turf Club—St. Paul, MN
- Apr 2, 2022 @ Lincoln Hall—Chicago, IL
- Apr 3, 2022 @ The Loving Touch—Ferndale, MI
- Apr 5, 2022 @ Velvet Underground—Toronto, ON, Canada
- Apr 6, 2022 @ Theatre Fairmount—Montreal, QC, Canada
- Apr 7, 2022 @ 3S Artspace—Portsmouth, NH
- Apr 8, 2022 @ Space Ballroom—Hamden, CT
- Apr 9, 2022 @ Music Hall of Williamsburg—Brooklyn, NY
- Apr 10, 2022 @ Underground Arts—Philadelphia, PA
- Apr 12, 2022 @ Motorco Music Hall—Durham, NC
- Apr 13, 2022 @ The Earl—Atlanta, GA
- Apr 15, 2022 @ Tulips—Fort Worth, TX
- Apr 16, 2022 @ The Parish—Austin, TX
- Apr 18, 2022 @ Rebel Lounge—Phoenix, AZ
- Apr 19, 2022 @ Lodge Room —Los Angeles, CA
- Apr 20, 2022 @ Great American Music Hall—San Francisco, CA
- Apr 22, 2022 @ Alberta Abbey—Portland, OR
- Apr 23, 2022 @ The Biltmore—Vancouver, BC, Canada
- Apr 24, 2022 @ Neumos—Seattle, WA, United States
- Apr 26, 2022 @ Neurolux—Boise, ID, United States
- Apr 27, 2022 @ Urban Lounge—Salt Lake City, UT, United States
- Apr 28, 2022 @ Bluebird Theater—Denver, CO, United States
See the band's tour page for more info.