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Monkey Power Trio - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 16 / 8 / 2004



Monkey Power Trio - Interview

intro

The Monkey Power Trio play together one day a year, but since 1995 have released a vinyl EP each year on their own Bulb label, With their latest EP just out , Mark Rowland talks to all five members about the unique concept of their band and label


It’s hard to introduce the Monkey Power Trio by picking up on one specific, interesting fact. There’s just too many of them. So instead of taking any angle introducing this interview, here’s a list of things you need to know about the Monkey Power Trio: 1. This American group been playing together since 1995. 2. They only play together one day a year. 3. There are five of them. 4. They never practice and all their songs are improvised. 5. They release a record for every session they play together. 6. They will keep releasing records until all the members are dead. 7. They never play live. 8. Fox Sports used one of their songs in a commercial. 9. They are surprisingly brilliant. 10.They are Mark Maynard, Mike ‘Number 4’ Bell, Matt Krizowsky, ‘Deadhand’ Dan Richardson and Dave Miller. Now you know the facts, we can talk about the music. It isn’t the work of great musicians or people with a serious message to get across. It’s about having fun and making noise. You’d be hard pressed to find a more punk rock band than the Monkey Power Trio (they are probably the punkiest band of all time) and you’d also find it hard to find a more diverse sound – rock, disco, folk, country, soul – you name it, the Monkey Power Trio have tried to play it. It actually surprises me that the Monkey Power Trio aren’t better known, be it through the unique band "gimmick" or the band’s music. Fans of bands and artists like Moldy Peaches, Daniel Johnston, Sonic Youth and early Sebadoh would love the Monkey Power Trio, who have everything those bands have but are much more fun. That said, the Monkey Power Trio are never going to grace the cover of a mainstream music magazine, but with students' favourite John Peel playing songs off their latest record, ‘Hacking through the Tentacles of Despair’ a few more ears in Europe are starting to take notice. PB : How did the concept of the band - no practicing, no touring, only playing for one afternoon a year, etc. - come about, and who came up with it? MM : The idea, I don't think, was any one person's. It just kind of evolved organically. As we live in different parts of the country, it came out of necessity. (Necessity, as they say in our country, is the mother of invention.) Basically, we all wanted an excuse to get together once a year and make noise, so we made this pact. That, in a nutshell, was the beginning. MK : I don't remember exactly how it came up, but it probably was at a bar in Brooklyn in the summer of 1995. Mark was in Brooklyn for a while so it seemed like a good idea before he went back to Georgia PB : You seem to be becoming quite popular through praise from people like John Peel and, to an extent, the Fox sports commercial. When you started did you expect a lot of people to take notice, considering that your records are released in a low key way? MM : I can't say as it really mattered to us one way or the other. The records are what they are. We just put them out there. Everything else is in the hands of people like the good Mr. Peel, who continues to play our music and promote us. He, however, is a rarity. There don't exist many people like him the US. We are played by great, influential and respected radio stations, like WFMU, but they don't really have the same reach... So, to answer your question, no, we didn't expect any attention, at least not so early into the life of the project. I think we all expected that we'd get attention, but we thought it would come after a few decades. As it is, we've only been at this band thing for ten days. DM : From a sales and marketing standpoint, I fully expected nothing to happen for us until at least the 25 year point. I really thought the longevity, not the music, would be the thing that got us noticed. It's great to get a little attention along the way though. It feeds the band's energy and keeps us creative. For example, after we sold the song to Fox sports the next year we spent a good two hours of our session recording songs that were 30 seconds long. We did an anti-smoking song to try to sell to tobacco companies who wanted to show us they were making good on their courtroom promise to discourage smoking among teens. Unfortunately, I think our song was too catchy and it really would have discouraged teens from smoking which of course the tobacco companies do not want to do. We also recorded a 30 second spot for the garage sale market. It turns out the marketing budgets of most garage sales are too small to license our stuff since we're an internationally known act and all. That, and it's tough to nail a song to a telephone pole. We also did some more generic pieces: 'Buy This Product', 'I Never Was a Man Until I Had This' And then, of course, 'Save Time and Money' was successfully released on our 2001 record. So, our early success was a bit of a surprise, but our integrity remained intact. It would have been very easy for us to, say, rehearse before a session or sneak in two days of recording one year. PB : You've been recording and releasing records for almost a decade now. Is it becoming more difficult to think of different colours of vinyl? MM : This is a ridiculous question and I refuse to answer it... You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Rowland, asking us stupid questions like this. Sorry. I shouldn't have blown up at you like that, but vinyl color is something I take very seriously, much more seriously than the music itself. Here is something of an answer. Vinyl colour is completely dependent on how much money the band members can come up with in a given year. In the year or two after the song got licensed to Fox Sports, we had expensive colours. This year, however, we had black. Given the fact that none of us are wealthy, or perhaps even marginally successful in our real careers, there's a very good chance that the vinyl will stay black for the rest of our lifetimes. Now, more importantly, why vinyl? We press on vinyl because it is timeless. Vinyl records are not dependant on technology. You can listen to them with coconut shells and sharpened peanuts. There is a very real chance that our music will be the only music available in twenty years, once modern society collapses in on itself, once electricity becomes a memory. MK : Um, we basically choose from whatever colours are available at the record press that we hadn't tried before. I think we've had to repeat after 9 years. PB : Although all your songs are very Monkey Power Trio, there are also a lot of different influences in different songs. Does the style depend on how you're all feeling on the afternoon you come together? MM : Yes, of course. That's the beauty of it. It's completely dependant on the situation, and how we are all feeling about being there, the amount we've drank, and whether or not we're feeling well. One year several of us were sick. That was a drag. The songs were still good though... Listening to the songs, it's fun as a band member because you can remember the circumstances. For instance, one year we had a really antagonistic relationship with the guy doing sound. It was a pretty angry year. I just hated the guy, his attitude and the energy he brought to the project. None of us knew that would be the case when we walked in, but it was. It just kind of unfolded in front of us. The record to some extent is a snapshot in time, a recording of what we were feeling,and so on. DM : Yeah, it kind of sucks if you're not feeling particularly creative that day. I've had some sessions where later I realized that my playing was boring. Oh well. There is always next year. MB : The one thing that I like best about the day of our session is that, even as a band member, you have no idea of what to expect. The mood changes by the hour. The ideas seem to come out of nowhere. In our last session, for instance, one minute we were playing a song about Japan, the next about Sasquatch Back Wax and then on to Johnny Cash confronting two department store robots. These and numerous other images all came to life in a mere six hour Monkey Power Trio session. PB : Has it ever been difficult to get enough songs written in an afternoon session? Can that time limit cause a lot of stress at times? DM : Let me explain something to you. Each record has a maximum of six minutes on a side. That's 5 men, 24 hours, 6 minutes, 2 sides. The last two years we've gone digital so that’s 8 bits in a byte, 12 channels, 16 bits per channel at 44,100 samples per channel per second. Does that sound like stress to you? It's a piece of cake to get enough songs. We actually have months-long fights over which songs to release. Some good stuff never gets out. MM : God willing, you will never have to experience the kind of stress that we have to deal with in the studio. I suspect that it would kill most men. I've never defused a ticking bomb, but I imagine it's like that... The truth is, in spite of what Dave's just told you, there's a ton of anxiety tied up in all of this. Usually though, a few hours into it, once we do something that we all kind of like, it dissolves to some extent. Once we say "That'll make the record" about one of the tracks we tend to loosen up. That, at least for me, is when the session gets more fun. Until then, it's a drag. DR : Once we started creating songs I really liked, on the fly, I would get stressed about being able to top or even match the magic the next year. Now, after ten years, I'm beginning to learn to relax in the knowledge that something I'll like happens each year. 12 minutes of something that'll either make us laugh a lot or that we'll be proud of as a song (or both) will happen every year, I'm convinced. We've also had the idea of releasing a recording of just our screaming arguments in the studio, of which there are always well over 12 minutes. If we crap out one year on songs, we can always do that. MK : I'm always stressed out immensely at the session because I feel awkward improvising parts. After about two hours of playing and eight or so beers, the stress is relieved. But I'm ready to quit when the time limit is reached. MB : The session, for me, actually relieves stress. I do feel an obligation to play my instrument as best I can but since everyone else sucks also I never feel any pressure. I also have confidence in the band that creativity will never be a problem. We always seem to make it work with the talent that we have...or lack. PB : When did you decide to release your own records? MM : A few of us were in bands together before this. One of those bands was called Prehensile Monkey-tailed Skink. The members of that band decided to release their own records so we started a label called Bulb. (Our friend Pete was in the band with us and he continues to run the label.) So, we'd done it before. Plus, we didn't think that anyone else would invest the money to release stuff we'd done in a Brooklyn basement in about an hour. (That first Monkey Power Trio record was made by beating on things in a basement while standing around an old tape recorder.) So, we knew we had to release it ourselves, and we kind of knew how to do that. We all chipped in some money and sent the tape off to be pressed. It was pretty easy. PB : How difficult was it for you to go about releasing your own records at the beginning? Is it second nature to you now? MM - We still don't do a very good job of it. We don't, for instance, have a very good mailing list, and we don't really follow up with the people we do manage to send them out too. The bottom line is that this isn't run like a good business should be. If we wanted to really sell records, we'd probably make CDs instead of pressing vinyl. And we'd probably look for a bigger company o distribute for us. In spite of all that, we're still doing OK though. We're still getting played. We're even selling the occasional record. It's really not too bad considering the amount of effort we put into it... My hope is that one of us has a really ambitious kid one of these days who loves our music and wants to handle the business side of things for us. That, I think, would be pretty cool. MK : Actually, it's surprisingly easy to have a record pressed. All it takes is money. It's an expensive hobby. PB : How do you solve the problem of distributing your records? MM : We don't do it... The last record, ‘Hacking Through the Tentacles…’, is still sitting in boxes. We sent about 25 out to radio stations and that's it. I keep meaning to send them out to magazines for review and things like that, but I never get around to it... As for sales, they aren't carried through any stores, so all of our sales are though the internet. DR : Yeah, all four of our sales are through the internet. PB : How did John Peel become involved with you? What kind of response were you getting from Europe before he picked up on you? MM : I can't remember the specifics, but we must have sent Mr Peel a copy of our record a few years ago. That was it. We just wrote a note and sent it off. He must have listened to it then and liked it. Since then, he's been playing our stuff. We've never spoken with him, or exchanged emails or anything, but it would seem, from what he says on his show, that he takes some pleasure in our method, and perhaps even in the music itself. My suspicion is that he appreciates the simplicity of it, the fact that we aren't looking to get a big record deal, or even sell tickets to a show. We're just doing it for fun, and because we like making noise together. I would imagine that that's pretty rare in today's world. You'll have to ask him though. (If you do, I'd like to know what he says.) DR : Yeah, and as for the second part of your question, the answer is simply, "none." PB - You release records with hand coloured sleeves. Is that a difficult task and does it limit the number of records you can put out? MM : They aren't always hand-colored, although some years they are. As for making it more difficult, yes, it does. Lately, however, we've gotten into a groove where we're packaging and sending off one record the same weekend that we're recording the next one. (Does that make sense?) So, if we're meeting for a weekend, we might all colour the last year's record the night before that year's session, while we're drinking and catching up with each other. It makes it easy when we're all there, sitting around one table, colouring... And, if that doesn't work, a few of us have kids now, and kids like to colour. Plus, it's not like we're churning out thousands of these things, just a few hundred. MK : So if you think 300 is a limit, yes. PB - Considering you have rules against practicing between Monkey Power Trio sessions, do any of you find it difficult to avoid picking up your instruments all the other days of the year? MM : I certainly don't. I've got too many other things going on to think about music. I have, on occasion, thought about forming another band though, one that's closer to where I live, that would play more than once a year. (I miss playing live, in front of people.) I kind of wonder what kind of songs I'd write if I really worked at them. I'd like to think that they'd be brilliant, but I suspect that wouldn't be the case. Anyway, I haven't pursued this idea of another band, but, if I did do it, I don't know that it would interfere in any way with MPT or our agreement. I think as long as we don't work together or pre-write pieces before the session, that we can do whatever we like. I happen to know, for instance, that Dave, as well as playing druns for us, plays upright bass for a few bands in Portland. That's OK with us though, as it's not the instrument he plays with us, and as he's not working on stuff for the Monkey Power Trio before the session... I just wouldn't want us coming into the session each years like the Beatles did toward the end, each member with his own songs all worked out, etc. That might work, and we might even get better songs, but this project is about improvisation. It's about just cracking open your mind and seeing what oozes out DR : The only real rule is that we can't practice together. I noodle around on my guitar throughout the year, although I'm doing that less and less as I get older and busier. I might be the only one, actually, who picks up his instrument outside of the Monkey Power Trio session. I know Mark never sings beyond that one day (although any screaming he does might be considered practicing his instrument), I doubt Matt ever lubes up his double-reeded crumhorn outside the studio, and I can tell that Mike never practices because he gets worse every year. And Dave, although he does professional gigs as a bass player, only drums on one day. I know, because I hold the drumsticks in Brooklyn, NY, 3000 or so miles from Portland, Oregon. MB : Okay, wait, I get WORSE every year? Crap, I thought I was actually improving. Maybe I am just drinking more during the session. Seriously, Dan learns a lot from me each year. Usually he just follows my lead...or should I say rhythm, and plays some filler over it to round out the song. It's really not needed but it gives our songs that sloppy amateurish sound that we like. I do pick up the guitar every once in a while during the year, but I play bass a lot during the sessions and, since I do not have a bass, I make do with one day a year. I usually will play the week before the session just to get my fingers in shape so they don't start bleeding until the last hours of the session. Ironically this is when some of our best songs are created. PB : Seeing as there are no pictures of you on your website (or anywhere for that matter) can we assume that you're not very handsome lads? Or is there another reason for your secrecy? MM : We're old. No one wants to see us. That, I think, would ruin the illusion... It would also mean that we'd never sell a record to a young lady again. As it is, we just kind of exist in a timeless plane. I like that. We're not quite real. You just know our voices. I like that. I don't know if we consciously left our photos out, but I like that we did it. People don't need to see us. It would be a distraction. MK : We play one day a year. We've made no pledges about group photos. We used to have our video for our song 'Smeet' up at the website; you can see us in that. MB : I have to admit that I am much better looking than the other members so it really wouldn't be fair to include them in any band photos. Especially Dan with his 'problem' PB : You say that Monkey Power Trio will continue until you all die. Be honest - after almost ten years of the Monkey Power Trio, can you genuinely see that happening? Is it strange when you think that you've essentially sold your souls to the Monkey Power Trio? MM : I don't know about everyone else, but I look forward to the day when all my bandmates are dead and I can relax... Actually, I didn't quite understand the pact we'd made until this year. When we entered it, I thought that we all had to keep recording until we died. But apparently that's not the case. The last one of us only has to record one solo record before he can retire. That's much better that what I thought that I signed up for. I thought that the last living member had to keep cranking out records until he died. That would have sucked for the last guy. Now, it's not so bad. So, to answer your question, no, it doesn't bother me to have made the pledge. I'm actually quite happy that we have this contract in place. At least in my mind it legitimises our project. In other words, I think it's gotten to the point where my wife just accepts it. I don't have to feel guilty about running off and hanging out with my friends for a weekend instead of working around the house or whatever. I just say, "Look, I have to go. You knew the deal when we got married." I kind of like that and I suspect that the other guys do too. DR : The first ten years flew by, and I know for a fact that we will all be dead in the next five years, so it'll be a breeze. MK : I feel trapped in the Monkey Power Trio until everyone else dies, yes. MB : I actually can't see it not happening. It is an accepted part of our lives. The Monkey Power Trio will not die until we do. And actually, that's when the projected revenue stream should start flowing in so I am looking forward to that. PB : A follow up from a previous question: What was the most troublesome Monkey Power Trio EP to record? Has there been any points when you've felt you cannot go on, or does the fact that you only meet once a year keep you from getting tired of the band? MM : We did a record in Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years ago. I can't remember the year, but the record was 'Flying Through Glass'. I suggested the name for that record because, during that session, I wanted to fly though the glass and throttle the young man who was recording the session. You see, there was this big glass wall between him and us, and there was no privacy. He could see everything we were doing. What's more, he wasn't the least bit interested in it. Sometimes I'd look up and see him nodding off. Other times he'd be shaking his head like he was thinking, "What in the fuck are these uncool old fucks doing." I'm not a violent man, but I wanted to snap his teeth down to stumps with a chair leg. Ever since then, we'd have a rule that the engineers can't be visible to us. That helps some. It's still weird knowing that a stranger is listening though. I generally obsess on the fact that I think they hate us. I keep imagining them laughing at us and calling up their friends so that they can hear us and share the laugh. Oh, then there was the year in Atlanta when almost all of us got deathly ill. Seriously, I was sicker than I'd ever been. It was horrid. I was puking and shitting my guts out for days. That was worse. So, if I can change my answer, I'd like to say that that was the worst session ever. I fucking hated it. And it didn't help matters much that we were stranded in the god-awful suburbs of Atlanta. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. It's funny though, the music from both of these sessions, I think, was quite good. MK : I would say the first session, which we recorded on an old boom box cassette recorder in a Brooklyn basement. I had a hangover, I think we all did. I'm the only one who didn't get sick at the third session. MB : The only session in which something happened that pissed me off was our most recent one in which technical engineering difficulties completely ruined one of our songs. When you one get one chance a year, something like that can really screw things up. Luckily things got straightened out and even with that one gem stolen from us (and our fans) I think our next release will be solid. The shitting and vomit year of 1997 was also a bummer although we managed to record some good songs before being completely incapacitated. As far as being in the suburbs, I actually prefer it to the city (which also has much to offer) so that's never been something that bothered me. Being more tolerant and less obsessive compulsive than some members of the band, as well as the Alpha-Male, it's, however, second nature for me to adapt to my surroundings and to make the best of it. PB : Thank you. More information about the Monkey Power Trio can be found at www.monkeypowertrio.com



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Monkey Power Trio - Interview


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Monkey Power Trio - Interview



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profiles


Interview (2006)
Monkey Power Trio - Interview
The Monkey Power Trio only play together for one afternoon a year, but have released an EP a year since 1995. Mark Rowland speaks to them about their latest EP 'Spiders in the Blood Supply' which has been released on their own Monkey Power Trio label


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Who Cares What the Vultures Want? (2011)
Fantastic lo-fi punk on latest release from the Monkey Power Trio, who have got together for one afternoon a year for the last sixteen years to record an EP
Spiders In The Blood Supply (2005)
Hacking Through the Tentacles of Despair (2004)


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