*Beefless in Media City* – An Interview with Stephen of Monster Island

Damnably has been a fan of Monster Island since they spotted we’d put gigs on with Lonelady and 7 other Manchester bands (in 06/07) and approached us with a typically cheeky email.
The UK as, Peel used to say doesn’t always have a vast amount of interesting home grown talent. There are phases and right now it’s Twee/Psyche/Shoegaze/Post Rock acts but not so many bands that write really cracking songs about something other than the 1 or zero words that make up their song.  Monster Island have all the words, words in context, words out of context, phrases stolen from offices haunted by Capital FM banality and half chewed words found in puddles of vomit at the end of a miserable night.
Ignored for years by the powers that be and kind of growing some monstrous energy and pride from that isolation, their new album is ace and pretty dense so we asked Stephen to break it down in this interview “Beefless in Media City” (sorry- no ‘Seattle’ Rhyme today).

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So you have a new album (House of Lancaster) out can you talk me through the process you have of writing and recording
and how is it different (if it is) with the new band members to before.

Almost all of the words tend to come when I’m walking round Manchester on my own. Sometimes if I’m on a train/tram/bus. I can’t really sit down with the intention of writing, it never works. The only time I’ll work on words at home is when editing all the random bits of paper or notes in my phone into something that makes sense, finding friends for all the similarly themed snippets of lyrics and then mashing them into each other so they become a song with a cohesive theme. This part is probably the most fun bit of writing.

Musically I used to arrive with fully formed songs to practice and Wes would provide the drums, then we’d record the drums on their own and I’m go home and layer everything else on top. This was the case for the first two albums. Then Lewis joined and things became increasingly more collaborative.

Nowadays a lot more songs are born in practice, about five on the new album came out of random jams we did in the first practice we did for the album.

It helps having an extra person in practice to play guitar/keys as I can focus on coming up with a vocal line without worrying about playing anything. Often Ryan/Aiden/Brendan will sometimes come up with something entirely new and decent before I’ve even finished setting up my gear

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The downside is it makes rescuing a song that’s going nowhere in practice about ten times harder when there’s four elements to control, and it normally means everyone gets a lot more depressed a lot more quickly, and things fall apart more easily.

The style of musicianship is noticeably different to my ears than before. Aiden has a more frantic, springy bass style, Brendan’s drumming is more nimble and jazzy, and Ryan adds a new element entirely – that said we still just got compared to the same bands (band) so what do I know.

The last two albums have been recorded live, which should have sped things up but the last one took far longer to finish than any of the others. This was partly because I was more particular about re-recording my extra bits if they sounded crap, and also due to the extra instruments confusing my head.

Did Dom mix and master this for you and was it really recorded in a pub? Who is Dom?

I mixed the album at home and in our rehearsal room on a digital multitrack over the course of what felt like about 10 years but was probably about 8 months. I don’t really like mixing very much, it’s stressful, frustrating, rarely rewarding and gives me a headache. For some reason though (money, control freakery) I’ve mixed all but one of the albums (The Retaining Wall) and even that involved a shameful amount of micro-management on my part.

Dom Bojanic mastered the new album and did a cracking job. He’s in a band called Queer’d Science from Manchester who I think may have broken up but are/were one of our favourite bands from round here.

All but one of the songs (J.Horrocks) were recorded live in the Black Lion pub in Salford where our old practice room was (we were kicked out for reasons unknown about 12 months ago). Most of the vocals and overdubs were done in the subsequent rehearsal room in Miles Platting. We have now also left this room also as we used it about twice a month and it was working out at about £100 a practice to do a handful of songs, drink warm cans and take the piss out of Aiden for being able to read.

What’s the inspiration for these songs? could you give a song by song breakdown

J. Horrocks – When I did the mail out for the House of Lancaster I touted it as a concept album about a self-hating northerner. This song is basically the scene-setter for that idea.

We tried recording it twice before as a band – once for Cathedral Steps and once for this album. It never really worked so this is a one-man stripped down version done very last minute It begins with ring-mod guitar. The prior album ended with ring mod. This wasn’t really deliberate and seems like something that Dave Grohl might do.

It’s called J. Horrocks because Jane Horrocks’s Tesco adverts seemed to nicely sum up how annoying northerners can be, especially when hamming up their own crappy accents, and how their thick as pig shit voices are often used to sell stuff for big business.

The Food Court that straddles Market Street is a real thing and one of the things I hate the most about Manchester. Though I do occasionally like to go there for KFC.

Lancaster House – The first flat I lived in in Manchester city centre was in an old warehouse on Whitworth Street called Lancaster House. This song has nothing to do with that. It’s mainly a continuation of the self hating northerner thing but more about the music scene. We are the Slow Motion Branding Disaster btw.

Fag Packet Mathematics – In working life one may sometimes be asked to do something ‘back of a fag packet’ style. One day I’d like to release a compilation of all our “work songs”. I’d estimate there are ooooh…about eight. Prize if you can guess them all. I wrote the lyrics for the verse in the studio seconds before doing a vocal take during our first attempt at recording this album (which we then canned) while the engineer was distracting me with an anecdote I can no longer recall. An apple can be a good cure for a hangover if water isn’t doing the trick.

Managing Expectations – for some reason unknown Brendan refers to this as the “Kings of Leon one”. I suspect this is his attempt at humour as I can’t see the link. Perhaps it’s similar to an obscure KoL b-side or something. He would know. It’s another working world phrase but not a song about work. I’m not sure it’s about anything. Hand signals might be a loose reference to secret societies, “Gervaisian Atheists” – fairly self-explanatory. Beer cured my headaches? Yes it did. For a bit.

This would go on the “half-serious conspiracy songs” compilation with Kitchen Witch, Flattened, Cooked & Et, and Zoom, Zoom, Zoom.

Inner Ring Road #2 – This song came together in about five minutes. I knocked out a two note synth riff and somehow everyone just pulled out incredibly complex music to fit around it almost immediately. It loosely describes the journey a 200,000 year old commuter on the Manchester Metrolink. The bass in this song, particularly the crazy bit in the breakdown, is one of the reasons I love Aiden in spite of his hideous personality. Someone said this sounded like the Fall which blew my mind – sounds like Kid A or something to me.

Brandnotman – Reminds me of a Mclusky song but I’m not sure which. It’s one of them that seemed too simple to be decent when rehearsing but once recorded we realised it’s one of the better songs on the album. The lyrics are a composite of various people. This song is a good example of how Ryan can knock off a keyboard riff about 30 seconds after hearing the song that’s better than every other element.

Priest Town – The first half of this song is fairly old, but we never got round to using it. The couplet “History driven into revision as the king learns to sing in the lingo of Accrington Pals” was the only bit written in 2014 which explains why it’s better lyrically than the rest. Being better at words is one of the only aspects of being 30 which is superior to being 21. Priest Town = Preston, which was where we used to play often years ago and where we first learned about hating all other local musicians. Aiden and Lewis were in one of the few local bands we liked, Inside the Black Square who I believe are on the popular social media website Myspace.com

Hangover Notes – The bass line from this started as a piss take of the band in the rehearsal room above us who kept playing the same daft two note bass riff over and over. We by coincidence ended up seeing this band play this song at some festival about six months later which was genuinely thrilling from a comedy perspective. This song has a second drum kit although it’s buried fairly low in the mix. There’s a break in the song which sounded rubbish so I put some distorted harmonica over it which can be said for a surprising amount of our output over the years. My favourite song of all time is Porno by Clinic, which features some cracking 2 note distorted harmonica.

Beef with Everyone – half joke, half therapy. It’s full of veiled digs but nothing truly malicious. We haven’t really got beef with absolutely everyone, but I’d be proud if we had the energy too. There should be more local music scene beefs, I’m not sure there are any real beefs in Manchester, everyone is best pals except us. Reviews of our last album called us bitter and miserable, we’re not really but I will say this – if you’re a failing artist and you’re not even slightly bitter, you probably don’t care enough.

Inner Ring Road #1 – A smear on psychogeographers, and all intellectuals who ringfence that which anyone with an imagination will have already explored from an early age. I get slightly OCD about the area which surrounds Manchester. Not the blight and decay, but the redevelopments which scupper the opportunity to repair it into something that flows in a human way. It can be incredibly disjointed, and every new addition to it that reinforces the crapness makes me feel a bit wonky headed.

EJ Woods – In September 2002 I actually did have a job interview. It was my first proper job interview and it was at a company in Darwen that sold Christmas decorations all year round. The guy who interviewed me was the owner, he ran the company with his daughters. He wanted some youngster to come and figure out how to sell their products over the internet, but he seemed suspicious of my dedication to the cause. The company was called E.D. Wood – the title is misremembered here rather than a deliberate distortion, EJ Woods sounds better though I think. I Googled them a couple of years ago and it turns out they were bought out by some European company a few years later. I’ve tried tapping into this basic sadness here.

How is Manchester for you guys now? did you fit into the scene more after seeming to be ignored for the early years?

I’d say we’re ignored now more than ever before. I’m not really sure what happened to be honest. Being arseholes on social media probably doesn’t help but in all likelihood it’s a combination of us not having made the effort to build up any solid alliances over the years, not being new, and people simply not being that into the type of music we make. Which is fine.

There are a few people that have consistently given us the time of day over the years and for that we’re grateful.

I sometimes email the larger local promoters asking for gigs but after five years of doing this I’d consider just getting an emailed response from one of them a cause for celebration.

One nice thing we did get asked to be involved in at the start of the year was playing Video Jam in Manchester Art Gallery, where we got to perform to a bunch of people while soundtracking Katharina Huber’s video project ‘Tangram’. It’s on Youtube.

Sleaford Mods were around for ages before breaking through to find an mass audience, whilst different musically
they share an ear for the new fads in language. Do you think the BBC will ever embrace Monster Island in the way they have SM? and do you care?

I care in the sense that I’d like a wider audience to hear our music but that’s it. It’s pretty depressing to work on an album for 18 months and then barely anyone hear it. There are a few stations (Damnably included, Dandelion also, Cloud Sounds – now defunct) that have been very kind to us over the years though, and play music we actually like so that’s a massive thing for us.

One of the songs from Cathedral Steps got played on 6Music by Huw Stephens at about 2am, and Tom Robinson has played us a few times back when we were fresh You’d kind of assume if any BBC employee might be open to our music it’s Salford-based DJ Marc Riley, but I think his intern may have added our email address to his spam filter in about 2007. Or maybe he just thinks we sound too much like a band he used to be in (The Shirehorses).

DIY is a buzz word again and you have been your own label and producer/engineer, doing your own gigs and tours-what’s your take on DIY?

I’m proud that every aspect of the band has been created independently by the band since the start, but DIY is basically a pain in the arse. I wish someone would do all the hard work for us. I wish someone (other than Aiden) would carry my amp. I wish someone would research label and radio addresses and post all our cds out for us, and write arse kissing emails to everyone.

I read an article somewhere that says you should personalise all emails to bloggers etc. Like a job application. I propose a new system whereby bands are chosen for increased exposure using a random number generator, rather than their creative email correspondence. You’d probably get more interesting results.

The first time we ever worked with someone outside the band was the album the Retaining Wall which we recorded at Kraak with another guy called Dom. He did a great job but for the House of Lancaster we went back to recording it ourselves because it meant we could tinker with it as much as we want without having to pay for the time. However if we could have afforded to have paid someone to have done all the hard work so we could focus on writing and drinking then we would have.

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You went down well at Incubate in Tilburg and Brighton’s Great Escape. How were they? and any festivals coming up?

When in a highly unsuccessful band getting to occasionally go on these kind of excursions in the name of music is one of the few rays of joy, and we seemingly like each other’s company so we enjoyed both festivals a lot.

In Holland we stayed with a very nice couple called Max & Marieke who like many others in TIlburg volunteer each year through the festival to offer bands free accommodation. The idea of that happening en masse in England seems really bizarre which I guess says something. They did make a point of telling us that bands never get asked to play two years in a row though so perhaps they didn’t really enjoy having Monster Island in their home – I probably wouldn’t have.

The performance in Tilburg there was one of our best, fuelled in part by all the tension of being heavily drunk/hungover in either a ferry cabin or a Volkswagen Polo for a great deal of time. We had also accepted no-one was going to turn up but fuck it, and were also feeling great relief after the promised backline turned up five minutes before we went on stage.

Great Escape in Brighton was also fun. David Thomas of Pere Ubu technically supported us. I’m sure he probably goes round telling everyone that too. We played for Resonance FM who were really lovely people and we felt very happy to play for them. The hotel we stayed in, which was a B&B ran by a burlesque dancer and her husband, charged us £300 for smoking in the room (we didn’t, we just stink) this soured things slightly but we got our money back.

We don’t currently have anything planned but we’re going to try and get to Europe again next year.

What are you listening to at the moment? and who did you see live that you enjoyed and are you still in Gareth’s band too?

Myself and Brendan have been in Stranger Son for 3 years but it’s been a very fluctuating involvement. I’m not sure if the band is still going or not – I think Gareth may be taking an extended break from things currently. Or maybe he’s fired us and not told us.

Locally I’ve recently enjoyed the stylings of Naked on Drugs, Locean and Total Victory, and not so locally I’ve started listening to Tom Waits again for some reason. I’m also going to see Clinic soon, who are one of the few bands I liked when I was sixteen that I still love now.

Now most of the bloggers have given up music writing to start running street food vans it feels like less is happening in underground music, but then they were all writing about the same four bands anyway so it’s no great loss.

One of the worst things about being in a band is not being able to enjoy music in a pure sense because you carry all the baggage of being in a failing band yourself. If we ever quit I hope one day I can get back to just enjoying music in isolation, but for now I reckon we’ll just carry on into the void out of spite.