At their most beautiful, The Monroe Transfer are able to lightly brush the places that so few other instrumental acts can. Primarily, the average person – the average listener – is touched by lyrics first and music later; they are, after all, our key communicator, the harmonised take on day-to-day conversation and social interaction. We’re raised to speak a certain language, to use particular lexicons in varied situations – a sit-down meal with your grandparents will have you using an almost entirely different set of words and colloquialisms to when you’re gutting back a kebab with your mates at 2am on a Sunday morning, eyes red and hair messy. So, it’s exciting when a band that features not a single singer is able to take you away to someplace other than the here and now on fabulous waves of orchestral sound. The Monroe Transfer, at their most beautiful, are that band.
Yet the London-based six-piece – Nick, Martin, Dave, Neil, Rhiannon and Ed – aren’t exclusively about all things ethereal – at times the sextet can devastate their audience with powerful bombast, albeit explosions contained rather than let wildly loose without restraints. Obviously certain critical circles will refer to them as post-rock, but while their songs certainly feature elements associated with the sadly stagnant genre, the impact is on an emotional level surpassed by few: fans of Mono and Godspeed, listen this way now.
The band self-released the really rather excellent Electric Old Wire Noise LP earlier this year – click here for DiS’s review; its follow-up, Vox Humana, is a work in progress – and they’ve kindly agreed to appear at DiS’s DiScover Club @ RoTa this Saturday, November 18. The free show – also featuring Adam Gnade, Ape Has Killed Ape and Viking Moses – takes place at the Notting Hill Arts Club, London, from four in the afternoon until eight; it’s an over-18s only event, and full details can be found here.
In anticipation of the DiScover Club @ RoTa show, DiS sent the band some questions via e-mail. Read on, digest, and then come on down on Saturday for some truly magical, and very free, new music.
Where and when did The Monroe Transfer come to life? Had band members previously played in other groups, and if so were they similarly minded, sound-wise?
Nick: Well, we’ve been through lots of incarnations, and members – at one point there were nine of us, I think. Everyone in the group now came together last year sometime, and it seems quite stable at the moment. As to the ‘other groups’ thing, every single person in the group has other bands they play in; I’m sure they’ll be happy to plug them, too. I think it’s safe to say that they’re all quite different-sounding.
Martin: I joined The Monroe Transfer around a year ago; I played, and play, solo as The Ladies, an indie-schmindie singer-songwriter to the bone.
Neil: I joined the group around the same time as Martin and Rhiannon, and it’s the first band I’ve played viola in. I’m also the vocalist/guitarist in a pithy pop/rock band called The Known Unknowns.
Rhiannon: The Monroe Transfer was the first band I ever played with, after leaving my violin to get dusty in a cupboard for a number of years. Recently I’ve joined the musical polar opposite of this band, a ‘neo-baroque pop’ group called The Irrepressibles, but I’m a dolorous post-rocker at heart…
Ed: I’ve been in the band since Nick first asked me, I think, in 2003. Although I’ve been in lots of different bands, none sound anything like this.
Dave: I've been in it since it first was a band, not just Nick masquerading as a band. I have played in many bands and still do, all dissimilar from TMT and mostly from each other – current ones include Porpoise Corpus, Hooverville, The Stefano Kalonaris Group, The Brian Abrahams Quartet, The Aisling Lavelle Quartet, Rhythms of the City, Ahora Si... blah blah.
What would you say your most obvious music-related influences were? I.e., if a complete stranger to your band was considering listening/attending, but wanted some point/s of comparison, what could/would you offer them?
Dave: I find people normally get their knickers in a twist when trying to describe this music by referencing others. I generally find adjectives and phrases such as wintry, repetitive, lush, delicate, (at times brutal) – all in a good way, of course – give people about as good an idea as they can expect to have without hearing us.
Neil: If pushed I’d say we sound like Arvo Part orchestrating Explosions In The Sky
Nick: Isn’t it always annoying when you’re forced to remember that your band isn’t completely unique-sounding? MONO, Explosions In The Sky, Steve Reich, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think, all that sort of thing.
Martin: The Monroe Transfer is instrumental music – which means people expect it to be difficult, but really it isn’t. It’s written with the listener in mind, not just an exercise in knowing proggery. It puts the ‘rock’ into ‘post-rock’. Zing!
Rhiannon: I’m pretty clueless about music so I always go with telling people the instruments that make up the band, and then the old chestnut ‘minimalist composition with rock instrumentation’. Oh there was an adjective string at some point – what was it? ‘Neo-classical-chamber-art-post-rock-noise’, or something…
Ed: I’m not well versed in what gets called ‘post-rock’, but I think Cursive and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are both useful references. For me the music is, above all, emotive; questions of theoretical approach or categorisation are secondary.
The Electric Old Wire Noise record isn’t your first release, even though it’s the first to be covered on DiS - what came before it? Is every release a limited-edition record at the moment? Do you make your old, out-of-print material available online at all?
Nick: Ooh, look at Mr Research. Yep, there were two little albums before Electric Old Wire Noise, but they were just made by me, in my lonely room, on a load of crap equipment, with very little idea of what I was doing. There was one called wedontknowhowyoufindtimeforallofuslordbutweregratefulthatyoudo and the second was 67 moons, and there were 50 and 67 copies of them, respectively. At that point I’d never thought of playing live, so there wasn’t really any way I could try to sell loads of them; besides, I was making everything, burning all the CDs and making the sleeves by hand, so it seemed sensible to only make a few. They were a bit noisier, and certainly more amateurishly produced, than our actual album. There are a few clips of things on our website, but I don’t think we have any particular plans to make anything available. We’re still very small and insecure – maybe if we get a bit more established, we’d be confident enough to let early, rougher material out into the world. Most of the stuff we play live is on the first two albums, in early form, though.
Ed: Nick did some amazing work on his own, much of which informs the way the band sounds now, although I think you can hear the years’ worth of gigging and playing we did before starting the recording.
Judging by the packaging of said album, aesthetics and presentation are clearly important to you. Does that mean you’re in any way against downloading, and the cheapening, if you like, of a musician’s art? Or is your packaging merely that way because it can be? Because you had the time to make it so…?
Nick: Hmm. Well, I realise this is an open invitation to be pompous, so… there are loads of decisions you have to make, at every stage of producing an album, and if you start taking the path of least resistance on any of them (chord changes, melody, lyrics, physical format, packaging, blah blah blah) then you’re probably not thinking about it enough, and that way lies cliché and pointlessness. One of the wonderful things about a physical medium is that the packaging isn’t just a vessel for the music inside, it’s a piece of art in itself. Or it can be, at least. I think that’s my problem with downloading – you’re not getting an album, you’re getting some music. (Murmurs of agreement from Rhiannon.) Also, music I’ve downloaded has been encoded so badly that I gave up listening to it, out of rage. And if you thought Electric Old Wire Noise was elaborate, you should see what Vox Humana’s going to look like…
Dave: Well I think that downloaded music gets listened to less. My only evidence for this is that I listen to it less. If it's not sitting on my shelf with a nice attractive box beckoning me I'm more likely to forget it's there.
Martin: The artwork, materials and text which accompany a recording can create a context for the music and extend the themes and ideas within it. Without these, though, you still have the music – the point of the exercise, after all. I’m personally for musicians getting paid for their work; they live in a capitalist society too, you know. But of course downloading is a valuable way to reach new people.
Ed: For me the packaging fits well with the rest of the aesthetic, which is the primary concern. I think people that like the packaging will like the music and that’s really important and intelligent from a sales point of view. I think you can chart a division in the way people have bought music over the years. Some buy singles as downloads and nothing else, whilst others look for heavily packaged or special edition releases. I think it’s the standard album format that’s been most significantly cheapened.
Do you find it easy to slip onto a variety of show line-ups? Or does being an instrumental act find you pigeonholed as only able to play with ‘post-rock’ bands. Is that a term that really shouldn’t be applied to your music, or do you see/hear why people might categorise it as such?
Martin: The term ‘post-rock’ is useful because it’s descriptive, and it means something to a bunch of people who like that sort of thing. Any night has to have some kind of feel to it; putting us on the bill with a funk band would be wholly pointless! So far I don’t think we’ve really suffered from being pigeonholed.
Nick: I don’t think we’ve actually played with many groups that someone would describe as ‘post-rock’; promoters seem to realise, consciously or otherwise, that having a lot of noisy instrumental groups on the same bill might be a bit too much for most people, so we tend to end up with groups that are quite leftfield in other ways – electronica, improvisation groups, that sort of thing. I’ve kind of given up caring about genres: anyone who cares knows that nothing fits that accurately into any particular genre. I do get a bit annoyed with people who try to gain some sort of indie-cred by name-checking a style that has some underground interest; but then, so does everyone, don’t they? If we can have our own genre, can we be ‘Steamcore’, please?
Neil: We’re quite a versatile group really, so when it comes to lin- ups it’s usually fine. Post-rock is an easy tag to use, but it has become pretty much redundant as a term. If it helps folk to identify with the music I suppose it is fine, but on the other hand we don’t want to put people off by thinking we’re a stuffy, po-faced group.
Ed: We’ve played with so many different groups in the past and, happily, found most audiences really receptive. I’ve noticed recently that our set tends to adapt naturally to the venue and crowd, which is positive. I’m expecting Saturday’s NHA club gig to be a lot rockier than last month’s Vortex gig, for instance!
You’re a sextet: does this ever lead to problems considering how small stages can be once loaded with drum kits and the like?
Nick: Yes. We all stand very still.
Neil: Well, we’re not contortionists but we can be pretty flexible when we need to be.
Dave: We don't always stand still. Sometimes Martin and Nick play guitar duets leaning back-to-back, whilst Ed throws his sticks at the audience, Rhiannon stage-dives and I straddle my large instrument and slap like it’s 2099.
Martin: No, we’re all slim and petite.
Ed: You should have seen the gig at the 12 Bar (Club, London; its stage is tiny)! We’re really looking to do more non-traditional spaces, which can be a little more accommodating.
Have you had the opportunity to hear any of the bands you’ll be playing with on November 18? If so, are you particularly looking forward to a certain set?
Nick: I’m looking forward to hearing Adam Gnade a lot; I hear wonderful things, and the tracks I’ve heard on the electroweb sound very good.
What does the future, i.e. 2007, hold for the band? Will there be more releases/shows/etc?
Nick: A little label called Yesternow are, potentially, releasing two one-sided 12” EPs early next year, which I think they’d like to put on a CD at some time (the first one would be ‘i dreamt i was a hammer & everything was glass’, which you can hear on our MySpace thingy, and the other’s ‘these are the bright stars (& this is how to find them)’, which we’re still working on); we’re hoping they’re going to have some sort of fancy etched artwork on the b-side. Of course, that’s all very much up-in-the-air at the moment. Oh, and we should have Vox Humana finished by early next year, we hope.
Rhiannon: We’re working with the filmmaker Gemma Burditt on an animation film to go with ‘i dreamt i was a hammer & everything was glass’ which we hope to have an opportunity to show somewhere swanky. She really gets the music and we’re lucky to have her – with any luck we can get some money together to make it (donations welcome)!
Ed: We would like to incorporate film and lights into the set. Definitely record another album and hopefully festivals.
Neil: Hopefully there will be some shows in the future when I’m in the country. (Neil is unable to make the RoTa show.)
Listen to The Monroe Transfer at their MySpace page, here, and read up on them a little more at their website proper, here. Full details of the free show on Saturday November 18 at Notting Hill Arts Club can be found here. See you there!