mono: the latest sound epidemic spreads among American hipsters

By Yoshi Salaverry

Yoshi: When I first heard the opening of mono’s “Karelia (Opus 2)” from their debut album on John Zorn’s label Tzadik, I didn’t know what to expect. Initially, the quiet, echoing guitars seemed reminiscent of “Where the Streets have No Name,” but the song takes even longer to build; as it did, it slowly dawned on me that this 12-minute epic wasn’t even in the same multiverse as U2’s pop song. It is more a squall of distortion, ethereal violin, and tribal drums than a conventional “rock song.” Then the thunder and lightning gradually subside, but—to continue the metaphor—that’s just the eye of the storm. A good five minutes into the song, when many a group would have let it wither into the next track, lead guitarist Takaakira Goto lets out an electric howl and plunges us once more into sublime chaos.

Ben: If you’ve never heard mono’s sound of extremes, it could best be described in poetic terms as a desolate, snow-covered Scandinavian landscape—at once inhospitable, dangerous, and beautiful as the aurora beckons in the sky. (As Yoshi mentioned, one of their songs is actually called “Karelia,” and another is called “Finlandia”). Indeed, mono’s characteristic song structure of haunting build-ups and explosions of transcendent noise conjures strong images in the listener, not unlike the soundtrack to an imaginary movie.

Y: We were very fortunate to be able to catch up with mastermind Taka and his bandmates before their recent gig at the Fireside Bowl alongside Pelican, and he confirmed our feelings. “I do enjoy watching films, and I would love to create a soundtrack if a director was ever to approach me, but on tour the images I see change so quickly, I don’t really have time to take it all in. So when writing songs I usually start from a very personal experience,” Goto explains. “I write music every day, almost like a journal. Then I show it to the band and each member adds his own interpretation of the material. Finally, I’d like the audience to interpret every song in their own way, too.”

If you’ve ever heard mono, then you’ll understand the temptation to describe their sound in images. But don’t be misled into thinking mono are overly cerebral or avant-garde. Their minimalist palette can seem stark, but it’s also deeply emotive and human. In fact, Taka says that their upcoming album, recorded here in Chicago with celebrated indie rock producer Steve Albini, will be more gut-wrenching than ever. “I wanted Steve to capture the feel of our live performances and to create a rich, humanistic, and very emotional sound. Of course Steve turned out to be all that we could have hoped for.”

They also intend to widen the scope of their aesthetic. Taka explains that there will be even broader instrumentation than on their previous efforts, including more strings and some experimentation with the Rhodes piano, an old electric instrument.

As for the concert, we were glad to see a healthy crowd show up to the dilapidated bowling alley to wrest a few more minutes of ecstasy from fate. People came to be rocked, and rocked they were. We could scarcely believe that the building, already on the verge of collapse, didn’t cave in from Yasunori Takada’s relentless beats or Tamaki’s ominous bass. Compared to the last time we saw them, when the two of us literally comprised about 20 percent of the interested audience, it was heartening to see the hipsters being uniformly shaken.

“I think American audiences get more excited,” Taka exclaims, when asked about differences with Japan. “Japanese audiences tend to be more subdued and shy.” However, another reason for mono’s almost incessant touring of the U.S. and Europe may be the current situation of the Japanese music industry. “In Japan there is a very strong domestic music scene, and the industry is constantly churning out new artists. However, this leaves very little room for originality and it’s difficult for bands to exist apart from the mass market. Also, while it is completely natural for American bands to tour Europe and Asia, Japanese bands are rarely exported. I wanted to try and tour the U.S. right from the beginning, and I have found that this has worked really well for us.”

By touring so extensively in the U.S., mono have met bands of a similar ethos and this has assisted in their export to Japan. They’ve helped to establish a network of musical exchange across the Pacific that has introduced Japan to bands like Explosions in the Sky and Kinski, and us to them. So how much stock does Taka place in generic classification, which places mono alongside such groups as Mogwai and EITS? Very little, it seems. When we asked him about what influences his songwriting, he laughed and said, “mainly I listen to Beethoven and Sonic Youth.”

Intrigued parties will have to wait until May 18 for mono’s next release, when they plan to visit again.