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Saturday, May 12, 2012

MonstrO: The Heavy Planet Interview


Sometimes it's strange to sit down with a band who blew your mind with their sound.  You almost don't wanna know some of their quirks and secrets. When a band thumps your speakers, rattles your brain, and leaves you with little to say beyond "Christ, I fucking love these guys," it's nerve-racking to engage in conversation and hope to capture their humanity, their humility, and their gratitude.

MonstrO has stunned listeners since September with their debut self-titled album, an accomplished and trippy drift through boundless thickets of cosmic stomp that's im-fucking-possible to dismiss.  But hey, Heavy Planet and our readers knew that.  So we've gone a step further, a fathom deeper... We had to meet these up-and-humming anti-heshers and, later, catch their live show. We already know they're mind-blowing on tape, sure.  But these dudes have scored gigs with Kyuss Lives!, The Sword, Black Tusk, and Clutch!  Small peanuts don't boast narratives like that, so we had to follow up.

Luckily, once this quartet settles in to the cozy confines of their new rig, they shed the larger-than-Zeus persona thrust on them by audiences and melt into four of the coolest motherfuckers on the planet.  Heavy Planet caught up with Kyle Sanders (Bass), Bevan Davies (Drums), Charlie Suarez (Vocals, Guitars), and Juan Montoya (Guitars) for a little chat-chit before Juan's endless search for a mailbox (turns out he had to send Mother's Day wishes to the coolest woman in the world).  These dudes are accomplished, introspective, hilarious, and grateful for every accolade they richly deserve. And it goes somethin' like this...

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Heavy Planet: You guys all have pretty impressive resumès, as far as the bands you've been in. What brought you guys together for MonstrO?

Davies: "It started with Kyle and I playing together in Bloodsimple. That's when I met Kyle and when that band disbanded, he and I both lived pretty close to each other and we just wanted to keep playing together, put something else together. We weren't sure what it was gonna be. So we decided to wait until it felt right and got the right people involved. It might have been almost a year later, Kyle hit me up and told me about Juan. So that's when we got back together and started playing again, but it was already pretty understood that Kyle and I were gonna do something together. That's how it came about."

HP: And you guys are from Atlanta, both of you are?

Sanders: "Yeah. Juan's from Miami but lives in Atlanta now. Charlie still lives in the Fort Lauderdale-area."

HP: Not to touch too much on anything negative, but I know things with Bloodsimple didn't work out.

Sanders: "It was one person in the band just totally destroyed their personal life. We were right in the middle of touring and, you know, had some momentum going on that second record (Red Harvest). So when he said that he can't tour right now, we said we'll just give it a minute and let it settle and see if things work out. Because you can't just be in this business and not tour, y'know? That's just not an option. So a month went by, then another month went by and we had to turn down a couple good tours, then the summer was gone. It was like 'okay, I gotta face reality. It's either hang it up or start over again,' which was a horrible decision to make. But obviously, you gotta keep goin' so, yeah... we just had to face the facts. Me and Bevan were talkin' that we wanted to do something, just didn't know what. Then we met up with Juan and he had actually just gone through the same type of situation with his band, Torche. And he wanted to do something, didn't know what. We were on the same page as far as the musical direction we wanted to go in. So we all got back together, beginning of '09, the three of us just got in a room and started playing and the chemistry was there. We knew we were turning out a lot o' music, we just did that for as long as we could until we figured out what we're gonna do about a singer. That's the worst thing in the world to have to look for, I've never had to do that before; always had one. So the end of that started with the beginning of this."

HP: You guys are pretty productive, I've read. You guys are always writing?

Sanders: "When we were home, we wrote a lot; like before we had a deal, before we had anything. We were very productive in a short amount of time. We wouldn't get together every day, but when we would we would produce a lot. We had a little tape recorder, we'd record everything, go home and start piecing it together."

Montoya: "Yeah, the day that I met Bevan... five minutes later he was already on the kit and we had an amp set up and everything."

Davies: "And those very original jams that we did that first day have made their way onto the album. That stuff lasted. And the cool thing, as far as work ethic goes... there is an upside to Charlie still living in Florida because when he does come into town it's for a definite period of time and we know we've gotta get a lot of work done while he's there. So we work our asses off, we don't waste time when Charlie's in town. So everything else gets put aside and we focus really hard on the band. And then when he goes home, we can conduct our normal lives. So it works out pretty good that way."

HP: You guys have been touring pretty relentlessly, it seems...

Montoya: "Yeah, the record came out in September. First tour was with Kyuss Lives! and The Sword, that was a blessing. Y'know, we got to play in front of Kyuss's crowd which was a mixture of older and younger people. And our music is diverse, not only that it can appeal to kids, but the parents, as well, can get into it. People down with Zeppelin, Sabbath can get into it without us being a retro band."

HP: What's been the response from the audiences?

Montoya: "So far, so good. I mean, like I said... we're lucky. We went out there without anybody knowing who we were.  As a whole, we all had to start from scratch.  Which is rough for someone that's been doing music for ten or fifteen years or so.  But we were received very well, y'know."

Davies: "I think we were on the right tours because we're selling tons of music every night.  I mean, those fans definitely like what we're doing.  So it's been a good pairing, all the way."

Montoya: "And I think what they like, also, is that's it's very personal.  We're at the merch table every night and people come up and they're like 'Hey, you're the guy in the band! What are you doing out here?' I'm like..."

Davies: "Buy a record! Buy me a drink! What's your girlfriend's name? Do you have any pictures of her? (laughs)"

HP: I brought my wife tonight, so if you guys could take it easy that'd be great.

Montoya: "So we did that, we started in September and then we did a tour with Black Tusk in December.  It was a little bit rougher, just weather-wise. Kinda clustered, bein' in tight spaces, pretty rough and scruffy.  But you have to do that, too.  We were just so, like I said, blessed to be able to do a tour like Kyuss Lives! for our first one.   So it definitely exposed us to a lot of people. And this has been a great tour.  The guys from Clutch, I can't say enough nice things about everybody."

HP: They're all pretty cool?

Montoya: "Yeah, please mention that!  Absolutely!"

HP: What are some of the highlights from this tour? Anything really stand out?

Davies: "The crowds! I mean, virtually every show is sold out.  And they come early, so we play to a full house almost every night.  That's priceless."

Sanders: "For a first band, first of four usually play to somethin' like fifty people or somethin'.  People show up early and they're here all night.  This is the perfect tour for us."

Montoya: "I wanna mention that Clutch fans are pretty open to new music just to see what they're involved with. So they'll come out early just to see who's there in their company."

HP: You guys stoked for Bonnaroo?

Sanders: "Yeah, Bonnaroo's awesome, man!  I've been out there three times. Not playing, just being out there for various reasons.  It's amazing, it's an awesome festival.  And it's close to home, too... It's only a few hours from Atlanta.  It's gonna be great, I'm pretty excited about playin' there."

Montoya: "Two words: Kenny. Rogers.  I'm gonna go out there, I'm gonna do a duet with him.  I'm gonna have a mic in one hand and a piece o' chicken, a chicken leg in the other."

Davies: "Just put on a blonde wig and the boobs, dude.  Islands in the Stream."

HP: Who else you guys excited to see?

Montoya: "Bad Brains!"

Sanders: "I haven't really looked at it.  Alice Cooper, Colin Hay is playin'."

Suarez: "Radiohead's playin'.  Red Hot Chili Peppers."

Sanders: "There's a good list, man."

HP: It's a hike for me.  And I've got three kids.

Montoya: "Yeah, but it's a show you can bring your kids to.  Except for, uh... the rape tent."

(Laughter)

HP: I wondered where this interview might go.  I was gonna ask you guys if there were any tour hi-jinks...

Montoya: "That's what I've heard about festivals! Like, Woodstock... everybody's just, like, free! Like in a community."

Davies: "Hi-jinks. The joke is always on Juan.  He's the butt of all jokes."

HP: I read about his emergency piss bottle.

Sanders: "Yeah, in the bathroom!"

HP: Yeah, what's the point?

Sanders: "Yeah, 'I'm gonna go the BATHROOM and piss in a bottle! And leave it there!' (shakes head)"

HP: You could've done it in the kitchen!

Sanders: "OR he could've used the toilet."

Montoya: "Our tank was damaged on the tour, and driving is..."

Davies: "RIDING!"

Montoya: "Riding."

(Laughter)

Montoya: "We couldn't even handle it, we were like 'dude, let's not even piss in that restroom anymore, so fuckin' I just started pissin' in a bottle, closing it up, and throwing it away whenever I get a chance."

Davies: "Whenever someone reminds you. 'Don't drink the yellow Gatorade, dude!'"

HP: Let's talk about the album.  You guys worked with William Duvall from Alice In Chains.

Montoya: "Yeah, an old friend of Bevan's."

Davies: "He and I have a band together, it's called Comes With The Fall.  We technically still exist, but we obviously don't have time for it.  We haven't functioned since probably 2007.  We occasionally get together and jam, record something.  He's got his hands full and I've got my hands full.  But it's something we'll just revisit down the road from time to time.  But he and I have been playing together since about '96."

HP: What specifically drew you guys to him to work on the album?

Sanders: "He showed interest, didn't he?  To you?"

Davies: "Yeah, I mean he started asking me 'When you guys doin' the record, have you got somebody in mind to produce it?' And there were a number of reasons, but it really started crossing my mind that I know how he thinks and how he plays and how he writes.  That guy is so full of melody and very, very, very intelligent.  A very musically-minded person.  And I knew that he was getting what we were doing.  Even from our earliest demos, I was sending 'em to him saying 'Dude, there's something going on here and I think you'll hear what I'm talkin' about.' Before we had Charlie in the band, these were instrumental pieces of music and they were very LONG pieces of music.  We weren't even trying to trim 'em up and shape 'em into songs yet, they were just long jams.  And that's where William is really at his best, is crafting songs.  And so even way back in the day I was sending it to him going 'Dude, I think you'll get what we're doing.  We just haven't really trimmed the fat yet. I'd love, one day, for you to have some input and then help us really craft these things into songs.' So I was kind of already thinking that, and he had the time off.  It benefited us all to do it in Atlanta.  We have a studio that he and I have been working out of for a really long time.  It was just kind of a whole 'all-things-included.'  Once I brought him into the fold, everything fell into place."

HP: Just listening to the album, some of the songs have this crushing sludge rhythm in there somewhere, and then at the same time some are soaring, atmospheric-type stuff.  How do you guys pull that off?  So many bands struggle with blending those sounds or transitioning between 'em, but you guys...

Sanders: "It might be a clichè, but it's all about chemistry.  That's the exact kind o' thing me and him (Davies) talked about a long time ago, what we wanted to do.  We wanted it to be heavy but in a different, kind of psychedelic atmosphere.  A cinematic kind of way, y'know?  But what you want and what you get are two different things.  So you don't know until you start getting together.  And he (Montoya) usually comes up with a riff and it depends on what we do behind it.  If it's something that doesn't work, then it wouldn't have come out this way.  It has to be the right people."

Montoya: "And sometimes heavy doesn't necessarily mean you have to be like double-kick or crunch it or just start to scream.  There's stuff like what Pink Floyd do, just leaving all that space in-between each measure and stuff like that, leaving it so quiet, drawing out a certain tension.  So that's pretty much the trick, is to not overdo anything.  Less is more.  I think Melvins is one of the bands that were actually able to get that a long time ago.  Even though sometimes people didn't get 'em because they might have been a little too weird, they knew the formula.  They knew that it was pacing yourself, creating a mood, creating something that'll let you form your own story in your head."

HP: I saw Melvins last week, they played just a few hours from here.

Montoya: "They played our hometown; they even played my hometown, Miami, and they never play there. The only time I saw them was in '91 during the Bullhead tour, and then I saw them once opening for up for L7 and once opening up for Primus.  And that's a perfect example, a lot of people didn't get it during that time.  And I think that's what's going on with us, some people are still kinda like 'They don't sound like THIS band, they don't sound like THAT band, but they're definitely interesting.'  And I kind of magnify it."

HP: That's the highest compliment, if you don't sound like anybody.

Sanders: "Yeah, these days it's almost impossible, y'know?"

HP: You guys can't be labeled; just the layers and complexities, it's just great.

Montoya: "To be honest with you, man, the record's one thing... but we still have a lot more going.  The live show definitely shows a whole different thing or two."

HP: You guys talked about influences, but you guys sound so distinct and fresh.  Do you think that's due to the chemistry you talked about?

Montoya: "Chemistry and being SUBTLE with your influences.  There are bands that one minute sound like they have a heavy metal part and then a soft part and then something different... it's the way you weave the blanket, in a way that's very subtle.  Someone that's my age might know a lot of the stuff I'm into, but a 22 year-old person might not get it.  But hopefully it'll trigger something.  Y'know, instead of discovering new bands I'm actually digging bands from the late '60's, Greek bands, stuff from all over the world.  Japanese bands, stuff that's incredible.  And that's exactly what Metallica was doing during that $5.98 EP, checkin' out some of that new wave of British heavy metal stuff.  Bands like Budgie are incredible, little bit more balls, y'know? That's what got me into music anyway; 'what stuff are these guys influenced by?'  I'm an older dude and I might be jaded but I'm still discovering music that I love!  And the good thing is that's it's going through me and it's going through them."

Suarez: "Like a musical juicer."

Davies: "Like a musical juicer!"

HP: Is there any stuff that's not on the album that we might hear tonight?

Davies: "Yup, tonight's seven-minute long CRUSHER."

Montoya: "Called Parallels."

Sanders: "It didn't make the record.  We kinda... we knew we could use it for SOMETHING, y'know, just didn't know what. Soundtrack or whatever.  So that one slipped itself into the set as one of the highlights, it seems.  It's only thirty minutes, so we only got so much time to work with. What's that, six or seven songs? But yeah, that's one of the highlights."

HP: How's Vagrant (Records) treatin' you guys?

Sanders: "They got the record out.  Y'know?  That's where it started.  Now I just feel it's always up to us to make it happen, y'know.  They're doing their job on their end, that's fine.  But we're the ones out here sluggin' it out every day.  Kinda like night and day, bein' in the studio and then bein' out on tour... two different animals.  We're just bustin' ass, pluggin' away, tryin' to stay as busy as possible. A lot o' stuff happens, band to band, gettin' to the next tour. I just always feel like it's on us to make it happen."

HP: Where'd you guys get this thing (addressing the band's immaculate new RV)?

Sanders: "We made it happen on this tour.  They don't even know about it."

HP: I wanted to ask about the artwork.  You guys won 'Album Cover of the Year' with...

Davies: "Dying Scene"

HP: Tell me about Kelly (Keith).

Montoya: Kelly's an old friend o' mine.  When I was touring with Torche, she booked a show with Big Business and Pelican and she included us on the bill.  She saw those guys as two separate bands and she knew that we were more compatible.  So thanks to her, we're friends with Pelican, we're friends with Big Business.  That was when I found out Jared (Warren) was gonna be joining the Melvins, and I was like 'ho-ly shit' because I was a big fan of Jared during Karp days.  So meeting Kelly has led to a lot of really cool things.  She and I have been great friends for years . Y'know, the day that we met I actually stayed at her house, I walked into her home and she just had beautiful artwork all over.  She told me it was her artwork and I was just mesmerized.  I walked around the house for hours just looking at surreal drawings, commission portraits of her and her friends.  The style she has is incredible and I've always wanted to work with her.  With Torche, I always wished we could seal the deal and work with her.  But luckily, I've maintained that friendship.  I went up there to see her work.  I wanted to take pictures so I was able to document the whole thing.  I was only there a few days, and the first day we start out and she's painting and I'm like 'Excellent, excellent.'  By the end of the night, she's like 'NOPE.'  She scrapped the whole thing.  So I'm like 'Oh, shit.'  But in the morning, we got there and had a nice breakfast.  Her studio's located across from a cemetery.  It was close to Mother's Day, so it was full of flowers, beautiful flowers.  That kinda influenced the flowers in the album art, also.  Y'know, I brought a bunch of my favorite records and just laid 'em out in the studio.  We talked about art and just listened to music the whole night.  Not just paying someone to do our art, we kind of turned it into a whole... ceremony!  So it turned out really cool.  By the time I had to leave she was almost done and she spent the last couple days with touch-ups and I brought up Beatles records and Kiss records, y'know?  A good combination of Kiss's Destroyer and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I wanted a colorful, vibrant..."

HP: Well, you got that! It's bright, it's cool.  It's trippy!

Montoya: "And she was actually into the whole obstacle of doing the whole portrait of us.  We sent her different pictures of us from different angles that we, personally, liked.  So they're kinda like different perspectives.  It was so weird, but she was able to formulate it in her head, and just kinda like, get the perfect perf.. per.. persp.. uh..."

Sanders: "PERSPECTIVE."

Montoya: "Thank you.  Of all of us and our personalities..."

Davies: "It's cool.  The actual image of what we're doing in the painting is from a little video that was found outside of the recording studio.  We were outside goofing around.  And what did you do, like pull a still out of the thing and she kinda went off of that?  We had only met her once at a show in Charlotte, I think. So, she didn't have a whole lot to work with, as far as facially and stuff. So Juan was sending her separate photos of, like, my face, and stuff from different angles.  It's amazing she did what she did with what she had with that process."

Montoya: "Definitely one of my favorite artists and one of my favorite friends."

HP: The studio isn't really a studio, right?  Where the album was recorded.  It was more like...

Sanders: "It's a studio but it's not advertised, yeah."

Davies: "It's an amp repair shop and the owner runs a studio out of the place. It's a cool, cool little studio.  And I had recorded there so many times with William that as soon as we talked we were like 'Dude, let's definitely call up Jeff Bakos and see if we can lock out some time in there,' 'cause we can turn out somethin' cool in there."

Sanders: "That studio's a studio that nobody knows about, but it's been around for a long time.  A lot of Atlanta bands did demos there, recorded there.  But more so, people got their amps fixed there.  It's called Bakos Amp Works.  If you wanna look it up, you'll see.  I don't think you'll find a website... Or a phone number..."

Montoya: "But the cool thing that you'll see, from his brother's band, like pre-Mastodon... There's history there, but it's so hidden.  It's, like, in a corner of a rough neighborhood.  A lot of Atlanta's pretty rough.  You get used to it; I come from Miami and I experienced something like that with the whole Mariel Boatlift. The crime wave they had during the drug wars and everything when I was a little kid.  So you know, moving up to Atlanta was pretty rough, but I've seen rough."

HP: So when you guys play back in Atlanta, what's the response?

Sanders: "We haven't played that much.  This tour didn't go through, the Kyuss tour did.  It was awesome, that was probably our best Atlanta show. We've done a couple of smaller-club, headline shows which were very good. We've probably played there three or four times."

Montoya: "We played one super-awesome show, though.  We played first out of like, 70 bands"

Sanders: "Every show we've played Atlanta's been awesome."

Davies: "We've been real selective about our hometown, we definitely don't wanna over-saturate."

HP: That's really about all I've got.  Anything you guys wanna touch on, anything I missed?

Davies: "Just a big thanks to Hellyeah, Clutch, and Kyng. Kyng's another really awesome band on this bill. You're gonna enjoy them.  Three-piece, they kill it every night."

Montoya: "From Los Angeles, really good guys.  They throw down.  Them and Clutch, they're making this whole tour very comfortable for us."

HP: I'm looking forward to the show tonight, guys.  Thanks for takin' the time to talk with us.  Heavy Planet fully supports you guys, we love the record and our readers do, too."

Montoya: "Let them all know we're very, very thankful for the support! Please mention that!"

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MonstrO took the stage first, but they play with the swagger and self-assurance of seasoned veterans.  Plowing through an all-too-short set, the band led off with Anchors Up!, tore through Solar with blistering intensity, and never winced as the crowd soaked up Stallone.  The sludge roll-out of Concertina had the entire gaping audience rubber-necking.

Oh, and when the interview touched on Parallels, "the seven-minute crusher," no justice was done.  The song slugged and grinded and all-out fucking rocked.  Helios was the perfect farewell for an opening band that nobody wanted to stop hearing.  Looking around, everyone knew what was happening. MonstrO grabbed the clouds, shook the fuck out of 'em, and stole the thunder from every other band playing anywhere in the world that night.

The next time they're in town, do your mom a favor and tell her MonstrO says hi.  Then steal her keys, head to the show, and wait up front.  Trust us.



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