For Monsters of Folk, it's in the stars

Brian Baker, September 2009

Time and tide do funny things to memory. When Matt Ward thinks back to how Monsters of Folk - the new multi-genre indie super group featuring Ward, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket's Jim James - came to be christened, he recalls that the name blinked into consciousness as though "it just came down out of the sky."

As poetic as Ward's description sounds, the explanation probably lies a little closer to Mike Mogis' recollection.

"Our tour manager was like, "You guys are like the monsters of folk,'" says Mogis. "It was very organic."

The general consensus of how the group actually got started seems to be consistent. Various touring combinations of MMJ, Bright Eyes and M. Ward (Matt Ward's solo persona when he's not with actress Zooey Deschanel in the duo She & Him) resulted in after show jams and eventual we-should-do-something-together-sometime discussions.

"When people ask, "Who thought of the idea?,' I honestly can't remember, and I don't think anybody can," says Mogis. "It was that synonymous in our feelings and thinking. We all kind of felt that it already existed."

Unlike most post-jam reveries, Oberst, Mogis, James and Ward walked the walk, assembling a 2004 tour, originally billed under the unwieldy banner of all four participants - An Evening with Bright Eyes, Jim James and M. Ward Acoustic - but ultimately dubbed the Monsters of Folk.

"We started calling ourselves Monsters of Folk because it was easier than saying all of our names," says Ward with a laugh. "It started out as an invitation from Conor to Jim and I to try an experimental tour where there wasn't a specific opener or middle act or headliner. He wanted to try something where we were all working on each other's songs and entering and leaving the stage at all times of the show, so as an audience member you weren't sure exactly what was going to come next. The tour went really well, and during that time, we decided it would be incredible to try and make a record together."

Eventually, the newly minted quartet made good on their desire to hit the studio to create a more permanent document of their collaboration. In some projects of this nature, the schedules of the participants are such that it often becomes necessary to complete recordings via e-mail, but MOF was committed to maintaining the interactive vibe that had defined their tour relationship.

"We were all in the studio at the same time for all the recording," says Ward. "We started off in Omaha, and then we recorded some in Malibu, Cal."

Once their massive scheduling issues were addressed, the foursome assembled in Mogis' Omaha studio early last year for what they had planned as preliminary work for the debut Monsters of Folk album. Each brought in demos of largely skeletal ideas, and everyone had input on everyone else's material.

"The idea was to let go of the reins of what you normally do in your bands, respectively," says Mogis. "Conor is the head honcho in Bright Eyes and the Mystic Valley Band, and Jim is the authoritative figure in My Morning Jacket, and Matt's a solo artist and in control of his own mind. So, we came in with the idea that it was going to be more of a collective in the writing."

"We brought in fairly fleshed out seeds of ideas, but some of them were just chord progressions and a verse, then we changed the chord progression, added a chorus and wrote new lyrics as a group."

"But when we started the record, nobody had heard a speck of music. We didn't know what we were going to do at all. We were just hoping to make demos of songs and come back and record them, but two days later, we had four songs recorded. We were so comfortable with what we were doing that we started making a record. Out of that first session, which was nine days of tracking, we ended up with nine almost completed songs, which blew my mind. We hoping to get a couple demos recorded. It surpassed all of our expectations."

"The point was to have the others finish them, and that's what made this project really extraordinary for me," says Ward. "It's a group instead of a solo artist with accompaniment. Every song has four producers. Hopefully when people hear the record, they can hear that collaboration."

The foursome was equally committed to dividing labor in the studio; as a result, there are no outside musicians on the MOF album, even on instruments that are beyond the group's primary skill set. And while a song's writer would often steer the track, the collaborative process was the true guiding factor in determining where the song ultimately wound up.

"That happened at the beginning of each song," says Ward. "That was the time when we chimed in with lyrical ideas and production ideas. The biggest inspiration for the production were the demos and the lyrics. You want to take the song wherever it wants to go. You try as best as you can as the producer to enter the frame of mind of the composer and use your imagination as to where you think this person might have been and, based on your imagination, filling in the blanks. It was a fairly quick record to make, but it was measured. In my opinion, a perfect combination of improvisation and composition structure."

Given the exploratory nature of the recording, MOF's studio experience generated a number of interesting scenarios. For Ward, one high point stands out among the rest.

"Watching Jim, Conor and Mike behind the drum kit," he says. "You love to see your friends challenging themselves. We knew we weren't going to hire session musicians to play instruments we don't normally play. Everyone had a hand in the production, but Mike Mogis is an extremely gifted engineer so he was behind the board at all times, setting up microphones and picking outboard gear and things like that. Other than that, Conor and Jim and I were playing musical chairs. We didn't bring in anyone extra, so that's something I'll probably never forget."

After the initial tracking in Omaha, the quartet dispersed, taking copies of the recordings with them. They reassembled at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu a few months later with fresh ideas for the tracks they'd started as well as ideas for new songs, and then returned to Omaha earlier this year to complete the recordings.

"I personally loved the freedom to be able to live with the demos for awhile so I could add things that I had been hearing for the last year or so," says Ward.

Monsters of Folk is clearly comprised of four very unique creative identities, and as such, it seems natural that they would be somewhat vigilant to assure all four identities are represented in equal measure. Luckily, that issue didn't need to be addressed.

"There was never anything like that to work out," says Ward. "If you have lunch with three of your friends, it doesn't become, "Is this person taking over the conversation?' I think that's the best metaphor for this."

They may be the Monsters of Folk, but the quartet has clearly colored well outside of genre lines on their debut album. There is a Marvin Gaye-meets-Moby ambient soul texture to Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.), which is followed by the Jeff Lynne-flavored Say Please, the Wilbury/Beatlesque pop of Whole Lotta Losin' and the MMJ reverb shimmer of Temazcal. The Monsters don't ignore the folk, though, from the George Harrison country romp The Right Place to the Wilco-at-a-bluegrass-festival protest song Man Named Truth to the ambient gospel of Goodway. Considering the band's nebulous approach to writing, the album is understandably diverse and unexpectedly cohesive.

At this juncture, weighing everyone's busy schedules - although they are making time for a tour to support the album's release - it seems natural to wonder if there will be a second chapter to the Monsters of Folk story.

"Absolutely," says Ward. "We all had such a great time and, scheduling notwithstanding, it was such an easy process. And we're going to be touring it in the fall."

"All of us, across the board, are pleased with the record," says Mogis. "And that's made us talk about what we should do next. If we make another record, it's just going to have to fall together just like this one. And more of the same would be fine with me because it's all so different."

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