In 2010, Portland was extremely lucky to have musician Derek Monypeny decide to join our ranks. He was already a well-established artist in experimental circles as a member of Oaxacan, the Oakland-based group that enjoyed long swirling drones and melodies that were slowly colored by pure noise and tension. It was such an intense and unforgettable sound that Sir Richard Bishop asked the trio to perform as his backing band on the tour in support of The Freak of Araby album.
But as you’ll read below, Monypeny decided to leave the Bay Area behind and bring himself and his enormous talent to our fair city. The transition was, as you might expect, smooth and fruitful. He now performs solo, as a member of the long-running Portland Bike Ensemble, and with a new trio ALTO!. It is in that last group that Monypeny has been making some of his most exciting sounds to date. In it, he attempts to balance pure ambience with polyrhythmic whirlwinds, courtesy of the two drummers — Kyle Reid Emory and Steven Tomas Stone — that join him on record and in performance.
Having seen ALTO! and Monypeny perform a number of times and in a number of contexts, we had to know more. He was kind enough to submit to an e-mail interview about his work, his influences, and the experiences that have shaped him as a musician and a human being.
You wrote extensively about your trip to Morocco with Hisham of Sublime Frequencies…how do you think that experience affected your music and your writing?
My trip to Morocco and Western Sahara with Hisham Mayet happened in the fall of 2008. Well before this trip, the seeds of my interest in and passion for the art and culture of the Arab/Muslim world had been planted and had fully taken root, via exposure to a great deal of music and art as well as some prior travel experiences in Egypt and Turkey.
This trip, like all of my travels in what can broadly be termed “the Arab world”, was overwhelmingly stimulating on a personal, cultural, and aesthetic level. Having the great good fortune to be traveling with Hisham, who is so knowledgeable and so well-versed and well-connected in terms of the music culture out there through years of relentlessly laying the groundwork, and who (crucially) speaks Arabic, and is a fantastic, hilarious guy to boot…this was all absolutely invaluable for me. When it comes to music, Hisham knows what he’s looking for, and is extremely curious and fucking fearless about tracking it down. It was an absolute blast from Day 1.
If folks want to get an overall sense of what that trip was like for me, the best thing would be to read the piece that I wrote. But there was a specific musical epiphany that I experienced on that trip that I didn’t really go into in the piece, which very much influenced me musically later on. Let me tell you about it.
I have a section in the piece where I talk briefly and rather generally about my time at the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh. The Jemaa is a huge outdoor nightly pageant of Moroccan music and arts (besides musicians, there are plays that are performed as well as dance performances) which takes place in the famous Medina in the heart of the city. The Jemaa goes pretty much all night every night, but the first couple hours of it are very tame and kind of tourist-oriented. You have to hang in there until about 2AM or so, when the Euros have left and it’s locals only, for shit to start popping.
So at around 3, when it was really starting to get good, I came across an oud player at one of the stalls who was amplifying his oud by means of what looked like a cheap contact mic that was being run through a large blown PA speaker, which appeared to be powered by a car battery. You can imagine how awesome this sounded. I’d heard a ton of incredible oud players on recordings and in performance, but the oud is an instrument that is typically played with a great sense of delicacy. This was the first guy I’d ever seen or heard who was playing oud with an aggressive attack on the strings, and he was getting a raw, distorted sound that is totally antithetical to traditional oud playing. I wouldn’t say that it was intentional on his part; he was doing it out of necessity, just to be heard over everybody else. In any case, I was very happy to find this guy. I managed to make some surreptitious recordings of his playing, and these recordings, along with the visual memory of his approach to the instrument, were a huge influence on my LP of solo oud recordings, Don’t Bring Me Down, Bruce, which I released in 2011.
There was a point, after he had finished a particularly crushing little number, where this oud player guy saw me in the crowd and gave me a look that I can still remember vividly. He totally mad-dogged me. Looked at me right in the eye as if to say, “You should not be here. You do not get this. This isn’t for you” (I might have been the only white person still out there at that point). How wrong he was. I put a bunch of my money in his little offering-cup. I’m forever grateful to him.
Actually, he might have been looking at somebody else.
(P.S.: Sublime Frequencies released an LP called Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El-Fnaa a couple of years ago. Hisham recorded all the music live at the Jemaa. If you want to hear the real deal, buy this record! It is incredible.)
How did ALTO! come together? Was there an overriding philosophy in the creation of this group or with the music you’re writing for it/with the band?
The story of ALTO! really begins back in high school in Yuma, AZ, somewhere in the mid-80’s, which is where I met Steven T. Stone, who is one of the drummers in the band. He and I became very close back then, and have had an uncountable number of adventures and shared formative experiences, artistically and otherwise, throughout the course of our respective lives. He is my soul brother from way, way back.
Steven and I began our public musical collaborations in a somewhat fucked-up Thinking Fellers/Butthole Surfers-influenced band called Royce Union in the early-mid ’90s in Tempe, AZ. We got to play on some great bills and made some recordings (none of which I have any more), but never toured or made a record. After the band broke up, we found out that Greg Sage (the great Portland music legend of Wipers fame who had relocated to Tempe during that time) had obtained a copy of the somewhat fucked-up self-released cassette we had done, loved it, loved us, and wanted to record us at the studio he had just opened. Sorry, Greg.
The two of us, Steven and I, more or less went our separate ways, at least geographically, after the dissolution of that band. But we always kept in touch. And now, in 2012, here we are, living in the same town and making art together. Putting our dream on this planet, to quote Jandek. Brings a little tear to the eye, don’t it?
The overriding philosophy for ALTO!, for both of us, was basically to create a propulsive, organic rhythm onslaught. My strong conviction, after years of study, is that when rock music, or any music, is really fucking happening on a propulsive, organic rhythmic level, it never gets old. It doesn’t die. Why does CAN’s Tago Mago album still sound so alive, even after the millionth time you’ve listened to it? The answer is Jaki. Jaki’s drumming is impervious to trends and tastes and the vagaries of emotional whim. He crushes all of that crap. He is un-kiillable. CAN really just got it, in so many ways.
So yeah. As a musician in a band context, my stock in trade is rhythm, noise, dynamics, and emotion. Those are my tools. Not melody, and not harmony. I have great respect for musicians with melodic and harmonic gifts, but they ain’t me. Anyway – Steven and I wanted to get 2 drummers to really get it happening, and for it to be (our fucked-up version of) happy, party music. Hard-edged, aggressive, noisy, rhythmic mayhem. We were lucky enough to find a great drummer and great dude in Kyle Emory who is 100% on board with our conception of ALTO!, and so far it’s been a really fun, fulfilling, ongoing collaboration; there’s a great deal of inter-band creativity and excitement for this project.
As you’ve seen, though, Robert – we have this other side to the band where we do (our fucked-up version of) ambient electronic soundscape-type shit as well. Of the few opportunities we’ve had so far to play out, we’ve found that the venues that are willing to have us have often been quite small, with no way to really set up 2 full kits. So we do shows without any drums at all sometimes. We all have lots and lots of musical interests and we’re finding ways for the band to reflect many of them.
How did you end up moving to Portland from Oakland?
I moved to Oakland from Arizona in 1998, and lived there for 12 years. I have visited almost every major city in the U.S., and a lot of minor cities, and in many ways Oakland is still my favorite city in this country. It has a great, deep, scrappy soul. I have never seen a “Keep Oakland Weird” bumper sticker; it would be redundant. Many, many smart, talented, beautifully warped individuals there.
I was honored to be a small part of the thriving, inspiring underground culture of Oakland during my time there. I learned a lot from many great teachers.
My decision to move to Portland in 2010 was primarily personal in nature: I happen to have a small core of people who are very important to me, with whom I go way back (the aforementioned Mr. Stone being one of them), who have found themselves here independently of one another. As an unmarried guy without children, I thought it would be nice to move to what I perceived of as a nice, comparatively affordable, low-key town, have a lovely built-in core support system, and be comfortably middle-aged. I definitely did not come here for the music scene.
Sometimes the relentless cuteness of Portland still can make me feel vaguely homicidal, and I’ll never understand why there are something like 17,481 different wussed-out indiepop bands that sound like a bunch of neutered shit that was already played out in 1993, but I do like it here. It’s a beautiful town.
It’s quite easy, when you’re a grown-up adult person, to find reasons not to make an effort be nice and friendly to your fellow humans; I find that a very large percentage of Portlanders choose to be nice to each other in their day-to-day interactions. I admire that. “It takes strength to be gentle and kind,” as some narcissistic douchebag once said. Anyway, I’m planning to stay a while.
What were some of the music/artists that inspired you to go down your particular musical path?
-Barry Manilow (first artist whose music I liked – around age 6 or 7 – something like that – had multiple 8-track tapes – why did I like romantic music as a tyke? Confusing to me – but I first learned through Barry that music is a deep pathway to core emotions – thanks Barry)
-KISS (I was scared of them – was supposed to play in my friend’s KISS cover band called “Black Diamond” when I was a kid but I chickened out – I’m glad I had a time in my life when I was scared of rock)
-Cheap Trick (for my 12th birthday, my stoner aunt got me a gift certificate to the Licorice Pizza record store – I could get one free record and I chose At Budokan – it ruled then and it rules now – thanks Aunt JoAnne)
-The Who (seeing Pete Townshend mime along to “You Better You Bet” and other terrible late-period Who stuff during the very early days of MTV at my friend and first bandmate Brandon Lee’s house had a huge effect on me – I was about 13 I think – Townshend looked ugly and miserable and frustrated but was rocking the fuck out – I related so much to that – still do!!! – got way, way into them – still informs me, for sure – thanks Pete)
-Sonic Youth (Gateway drug to the truly weird, for me like many others – tho Confusion Is Sex and other early shit still works, I guess – showed me a lot about the guitar as a sound generator and the possibilities therein – saw them in 1988 at the Roxy in L.A. – stood right next to Henry Rollins in the crowd – never listen to them now but they were very very big for me – thanks SY)
-Sun City Girls (more about them later in this interview)
-Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band (everything about them/him – importance to me is impossible to overstate – THANK YOU Don, Drumbo, Zoot, Rockette, Winged Eel etc. – you are all #1 forevs)
-U.S. Maple (incredible band – managed to expand the language of rock music – go listen to them, people)
-Souled American (It’s too much to try and explain – they’re just a really profound band – I love them so)
-Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page saw, understood, and was able to fuse the links between traditional English folk music, Indian music, Middle Eastern music, and fucking heavy-as-shit rock music – all the stuff that I love best, he put it all together first and did it beautifully – thank you Jimmy – BONZO – enough said)
-CAN (mentioned them already – they are an ideal of sorts for the kind of music I think I can do with others – eternal inspiration for me)
-Fela (remember all that “propulsive, organic rhythmic music” crap I was spouting off about earlier? Thanks Fela, you megalomaniac)
-Fairport Convention/Sandy Denny (Sandy Denny has probably my favorite singing voice of anybody – their records with her just kill – solo Sandy is devastating too – thank you dear Sandy)
-Debashish Bhattacharaya (Hindustani slide guitarist – my favorite living musician – an absolutely transcendent player – taps into worlds I wish I could always live in – been lucky enough to see him play live 3 different times – big hero)
-Nass El Ghiwane (Great, great Moroccan band that I mention in the Morocco piece that I wrote – probably my primary musical influence of the last 5 years or so)
-Alice Coltrane (Her music makes you grateful that you got to share the same planet as her — Thank you so much Alice Coltrane – buy Journey In Satchidananda – it will change/uplift your life)
-Elaine Radique (Okay I need to stop now – her many beautiful long-form minimalist pieces have helped me a lot lately through many a struggle – thank you Elaine)
In the Morocco piece that you wrote you talk about your “desert roots” — can you elaborate on that?
It’s just been within the past couple of years or so that I have started to see my music – specifically my solo music, but it’s definitely there in the band stuff too – as being part of what I have started referring to internally as part of a “desert continuum” that exists only in my particular head.
I’ve spent over 20 years of my life in Arizona, all of it in the late ’70s-’80s-’90s. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have lived in AZ during the heydays of 3 great Grand Canyon State bands: Meat Puppets, Sun City Girls, Giant Sand. Of course for me it was all about the guitarists. I got to see Curt Kirkwood, Richard Bishop, and Howe Gelb rip shit up on guitar countless times in my early-mid 20s. Beyond the great records they made, it was these guys’ approach to guitar playing that rubbed off, and I could totally connect all of it with Arizona and with the desert. There is a tremendous sense of individuality in their playing. Kirkwood’s playing in particular is incredibly visual; I don’t know how they did it but Meat Puppets II and Up On The Sun sound the way that Arizona looks and feels. All these guys were able to channel the weirdness and otherworldly beauty and the stubborn isolationism of that geography through the speakers, somehow. And all in their own ways.
More recently, I’ve spent time in the Sahara desert and surrounding areas. I’ve listened to and met Tuareg guitarists, and guys out in Western Sahara. I’ve gotten obsessed with the amazing Jakwar guitar music of Mauritania, which is often played literally on sand dunes in the desert through amps powered by generators. I’ve been on a sailboat on the Nile coming in to the town of Luxor in Egypt, and saw how similar the river and palm trees and sand look to my hometown. I’m realizing why this stuff all resonates so powerfully, and now I am actively and consciously trying to make a singular kind of “desert music” that draws from all these dusty wells. I’m trying to evoke the alien and the otherworldly simultaneously with a strong sense of universal human loneliness. That’s the desert; those are my roots.
I’m pretty sure I’m moving back to Tucson to spend my declining years. Scatter my ashes in the Saguaro National Forest, please.
Is it difficult to move from working in a noisier context as you were with Oaxacan to the more melodic work you did backing up Sir Richard Bishop?
Just to give a little background here: Many of my life’s key interests and passions were originally presented to me via the music and art and just the overall example of the Sun City Girls. As a young, ignorant wannabe punker kid growing up in rural Arizona, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the SCG universe sometime in my late teens. Some friends and I drove up from Yuma, where I grew up, to a New Year’s Eve show at a small gallery in downtown Phoenix, where I saw them perform for the first time. Looking back, it was one of those experiences from which one leaves with the knowledge that not only is another world possible, another world already exists and there are people living in it, and so what the fuck are you waiting for, exactly?
Anyway…..to make a long story less long, I initially got my education in Arab/Middle Eastern music, along with so many more other deep life lessons, from my spirit uncles Alan Bishop, Richard Bishop, and Charles Gocher, Jr. These men have always taught by not spelling anything out, ever; they present the materials and trust their students with the results.
I think that the greatest punk bands provide not just inspiring art to their listeners, but actual models, actual possibilities in terms of a way to live one’s life over the long haul. The long fucking haul. The Minutemen did this; Mike Watt continues to do this. The Ex did and continue to do this. Neurosis did and continue to do this. Locally, Smegma and the almighty Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows are other great examples. And this is what “punk” truly means. The SCG definitely did this, for me.
So: I was already friends with Richard Bishop before he heard Oaxacan, but I think he got into our band, and subsequently asked us to tour with him and serve as his backup band, for a couple of reasons. He heard Oaxacan’s sense of intuitive, quasi-telepathic dynamic interplay and saw a reflection of what he used to have with Al and Charlie. I would never equate Oaxacan with the Girls, but Rick connected with this aspect of what we were doing; hell, I learned it from him!
Hearing that we understood dynamics and could make it happen on the fly, he realized he could work with us. And the music we played in his band was certainly more melodic and less noisy, but there was definitely dynamic interplay, and we had to make it up on the spot when shit went off the rails, and we did do one piece every night that ended with a long, totally freeform improv section.
Now to answer your question: No.
You’re very willing to put ALTO! recordings online for download by anyone — and this is an issue that a lot of musicians are trying to wrestle with — but how do you feel about the shifting dynamics of the music industry thanks to the ubiquity of online music services like Soundcloud, Spotify, and the like?
I’m really happy to see the collapse of the major-label record industry; it’s beautiful that it’s happening in my lifetime. I’m almost giddy about it.
If I were fool enough to try and make a living playing music, I might have different feelings about the ubiquity of online music services. I know that Spotify is shitty about paying artists. But really, I feel like at this point, for a musician to complain about this shit is like complaining about having to breathe oxygen.
Way more obscure artists are getting their work heard than ever before. This is leading to a lot more opportunities for bands that play live shows and tour. Live music seems to be thriving (for other bands, anyway). I find all of these developments very exciting.
I don’t necessarily disparage people who see playing music as a viable career path, but that has never been me. I self-released a vinyl LP in 2011 and people bought it. I dunno, maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask.
What do you do for work when you’re not playing music and does that work affect your art in any way?
I make a living as a librarian.
As this total freak kid growing up in Nowheresville, the public library was a godsend for me. So many other worlds were opened up for me there. Nobody directed your course of study, or cared what you were reading. You could take stuff from there and they trusted you to bring it back. I did so much research there, and made so many connections that still fuel my life.
As I grew older and gained political consciousness, I came to regard public libraries as socialistic institutions within the capitalist system. I felt that one could earn an honest living working within that particular institution.
My profession is dying out, for reasons too complex and tedious to go into in detail here, but I will just say that being a librarian is my calling, or my vocation, or whatever you want to call it. I hope I can continue to earn my living this way. Not super-optimistic about it.
What is next for you/ALTO!/any other projects you have going?
A few months back ALTO! recorded our debut LP here in town, with the generous and fantastic assistance of Mike Erwin. It should be out in the spring of next year. And we’re going back into the studio here really soon to record our 2nd LP. We’ve got lots of material that we want to get recorded. We’re always looking to play shows. We never really do the same show twice, so it’s always fresh.
I am piecing together a new solo record. I put out a solo cassette on the Bay Area-based tape label Underwater Experiences called Limerence a few months back; that tape was mostly solo guitar. For this new one, I going to be playing oud again as well as using field recordings. Not sure when or how this new record will come out.
I have a long-standing project with my dear friend Bryan Hillebrandt called the Oakland Afternoon Ensemble. It’s sort of a garage Fripp and Eno? Maybe? I really enjoy this project and think people might like it if they knew about it.
I was recently involved in the latest incarnation of the Portland Bike Ensemble! Feels like a great rite of PDX passage to jam with the PBE. We just had a track on a new compilation by the great L.A. based noise artist John Wiese. I hope this new version of the PBE keeps going.