In a recent conversation with Johnny Lynch aka the Pictish Trail, he described the new Monoganon album as “Mind-blowing!”. I really couldn’t argue with that summation, as ‘Songs To Swim To’, their forthcoming long player is one of the most stunning releases I have heard all year. Monoganon are fronted by John B McKenna, who at the tender age of 22, has already established himself as a bit of a stalwart in the Scottish music scene.
Having recently released their new album on vinyl, the band are now set to give the album away as a free download. Yes, they’re giving it away for nothing. Fuck all. Zero pennies. They’re clearly insane, as they’ve crafted a classic album that has completely caught me off guard. Quite simply, wow…
Would you care to introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is John, I’m 22 years old, I enjoy photography and music. I work in a bar (Stereo) and in my spare time I play guitar, go out trips with a photography club (called SNAP) to different locations in Scotland (We’ve been going a year and we only experienced bad weather once, we went to Mecca Bingo to get out the rain and entered a game for £1.50, an old woman beside us won £500 and gave us £20, so we bought another booklet with pound signs in our eyes and ideas of funding albums and studying a masters which slowly dwindled to the realisation of ‘we’ve been in Mecca Bingo for 3 hours now, lets gtf out of here.’
How would you describe the music you make?
It’s a question I often ask myself, not because I believe it’s indescribable, but because I don’t have the correct vocabulary and I don’t care enough to research the correct definition or genre. I usually say “it’s pop music”… wait a couple of seconds, gauge their reaction, then say, “but it’s not really just pop,” and blabber a wee bit until the other person starts speaking again. I guess it’s experimental while maintaining pop structures, and it’s not folky but has that elemental feel maybe, and it’s not rock music but it has some stones, even if they are small, and only appear every-so-often.
How did you come together as a band?
I met Andrew through mutual acquaintances and remember him playing guitar at a party and thinking that he was pretty good, later realised he was a lefty playing a right-handed guitar, I think I asked him then and there if he’d be up for playing and then maybe 2 years later he came to my bit to jam and write a part for a song I was having nae luck with writing. (song is called “flesh” and it’s on winningspermparty.com inside the release “Monoganon – Elephant Pregnancy“). Andrew plays with the band Lyons who are amazing if anyone needs something fresh to check out.
Colin started work in stereo with me ages ago and he offered his drum skills to me upon hearing some songs, and down the line I think he gradually started to have an appreciation for the music we were making beyond what he initially heard. He offered us his musical know-how and his knowledge, anything you know is common knowledge, everything he knows is Colin Knowledge.
Rory offered his guitar skills after I played a gig with The Ballad of Mable Wong. I was coy at first as I fucking love the wong and was all swooning to those skills being offered. I came to the realisation that the music I was writing was not music for one person to play, so I enlisted these Monoga-brethren to help realise the realisation into reality. So we played some gigs during 2009 (our first was with David Grubbs and people seemed to enjoy it so we continued) we recorded (Elephant Pregnancy) with winningspermparty.com‘s Duncan Young in his basement. We released that for free on wsp as part of a Christmas mp3 hamper with Blood of the Bull, Orzelda, and Ballad of Mable Wong!
We were awarded Scottish Arts Council funding in 2010 and we started practising and recording “Songs To Swim To”. We played the Winning Sperm 10 band studio party at the Practise Pad in April, which was good for realising some aspects of the songs we were about to record.
We also recorded songs without having played them together at all, Colin and I just played guitar and drums together on song 6 “Lullabies for the sedated” Andrew was forced to improvise in real-time as he recorded the nylon guitar in Duncan’s close. I wish I had kept him saying “what should I do here” in the song. In the last song we had our pal Tim (Davidson) play lap steel in one take over it, these additions and alot of the improvised material remained intact in the album and it wouldn’t have been the same without them.
We recorded piano in Carluke at my mate Christopher’s family home in May, while he was out painting the fence (he wants some recognition for this but it wouldnt fit on the thank yous of the album – as in he wants recognition for painting the fence). While in Carluke we went to a resevoir I used to hang about at, and recorded 4 takes of song 4 “needle green” – each with a theme of fire, wind, earth or water. After recording I went away interrailing and went to primavera. I recorded many samples and used the most significant ones on the album for instance: An ambulance siren in Amsterdam that went double-time as the doppler effect happened as it passed by me, a single ribbet of a frog in the Czech Republic, the insane echo of a man’s whistle in the nazi-built olympic stadium in berlin, and the reversed sound of a seagull that sounds like a seagull backwards and forwards. We mixed the album carefully during a very rainy July, although everyone thinks it was sunny because June was a scorcher while I was away and they were all still doped up on the vitamins, I was on a downer to be back in Scotland to be honest. The album got mixed with samples added on the very last day in some fucking palava to do with sending to Colin’s phone, him sending to a computer, sending it to the mainframe. Only the most important samples made it through in this process.
Most recently we have been practising with Susan Bear (Vendor Defender) on bass and it has been going great with her, we always shared the bass frequency in the past, its great to have a dedicated pilgrim of bass guitar!
How did you start out making music?
I bought an 8 track with the intention of making songs when I was 16, I had mucked about with plugging my guitar straight into audacity for long enough to know that I needed a bigger run. 8 track provided this. I have many many recordings of some really teenage stuff packed in a box somewhere, never to resurface hopefully. As I entered Paisley University studying Music Technology I decided that being honest about teenage life was adding insult to injury and wrote and recorded some songs that were meant to be about something else. Side A of the album is these songs. I planned to bury them after playing them for a year or so, but was playing so much that I just went through them all in a cycle seeing which ones were best. After recording Elephant Pregnancy using only one of these cusp-teenage songs I decided to re-record some other songs in a recording quality and style that I wasn’t ashamed of. Side B of the album is songs I wrote most recently of the album.
What process goes into the way you write songs?
I’m playing guitar a lot for my own enjoyment, I don’t have any technique as to what sticks or not, most of the time I go out to write a song that serves a purpose. Track 7 – To Glass In The Blast, was a song to relax/send people to sleep… that’s why it’s at the end of the album. However I have heard of someone who listens to music while they sleep, and says that only that song wakes them up. I like the idea of songs having a use. I like putting on certain types of music in the morning, or in a bath, or cooking, so this thought-process is involved when writing. As for lyrical content, I always write down funny ways of saying things, or phrases that hold a genuine emotion, or phrases that will age well, or phrases that will age badly in a good way – Melt all that stuff down when I find a common cause for them.
Who are your big musical influences?
I can only speak personally here, and I feel I was subjected to a certain group of music before I knew what was going on. Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and all others on that popular vein were very apparent all through my life. Discovered my peer’s musical companions at around 12 which were Nirvana, Radiohead and Blur. After this I tagged along on the discovery of friends being the Pixies, Fugazi and later Rilo Kiley. In between here something interesting happened, where my friend and I went to see Fugazi at the Barrowlands to see them play supported by Eska, Colin’s band at the time. This coincidence was patched up over time between Colin and I. Anytime after this the musical cycle entered fields such as Tom Waits, all the fields of my childhood taste, TV on the Radio, Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear (supported them in 2007), local acts such as Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad, Errors, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Over The Wall, Lyons (Andrew’s main band), Fur Hood, Ballad of Mable Wong (Rory’s band), Uncle John and Whitelock, Plaaydoh (winningspermparty.com old favourite) and more.
What kind of influence do you feel that where you come from has had on the music you create?
Carluke seems strange to me now, I can’t convey it in any special way at all. My experience was living right on the edge of town with countryside one way (great childhood spent in the fields making treeswings, fires and walking) and a heavy town-vibe the other way. I still think in small town terms, it fucks with my mind when I see huge spans of houses (5 persons to a house average) plastering the countryside of Europe, I can’t even picture it to be honest, I just have a sense of it being big and fucking terrifying but lets not think about it eh? Lets just go down to the crown for a pint.
What can people expect to see/hear from your live shows?
I’ve been filming a lot of stuff recently to show at the live show. Macro-fruits, fungus, shadows, weaves and patterns found in the macroworld, mixed with footage of porridge cooking and breakfasts, landscapes, pixels and colours. Stuff to tag the mind along while people watch a performance of the music from the album. I have plenty of bad chat to offer at live shows too. Live shows in the past have seen Colin interrupting my verbal diarrhoea by counting-in to the next song, I like this, I’m glad someone had my back.
Has there been a particular gig that has stood out for you so far (good or bad)?
I played with Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit in 2008 and I think I realised then that I couldn’t keep playing as a singer/songwriter for what I was playing. I played solo with Sun Kil Moon around that time and realised there is a place for solo performers. I played with Jeffrey Lewis around that time and realised that solo performances that are received well can leave you feeling great. Personally a favourite gig was with the band in November with Mr Peppermint, Ballad of Mable Wong, Make Love and Lyons in November 2009. A great gig we organised ourselves and great bands played, and the audience was attentive and we all had a laugh.
What are your plans for the rest of the year and beyond? Do you have any new releases planned for any time soon?
We have plans for more albums. We will release songs to swim to for free on winningspermparty.com at the album launch in Mono on the 7th of March! We play the Fence Homegame this year in May, and plenty more. “Monoganon’s got legs” as Rory said about the stupid name I came up with in ma bed splicing words together.
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