Words by David C. Obenour
There are a lot of reasons other than “artistic differences” that can cause real strain on a band. Distance, time, shifting priorities, having the label that releases your album and is run by your guitarist have to deal with the bankruptcy and liquidation of their main distributor.
The last of those was the largest hurdle set before Monotrope and New Atlantis Records, as guitarist and label founder Edward Ricart dealt with the bankruptcy, liquidation and delay after delay that came with Allegro Media’s folding.
But two years after their first album that was released amidst such upheaval, Monotrope is back with their second album on New Atlantis, Immutable Future. While their first album featured a band still exploring and discovering one another, this latest release is a more confident sound from four players who have not let circumstance dictate outcome.
Off Shelf: The players in Monotrope are scattered across the country, how did you all initially get together and what keeps you together?
Edward Ricart: Before Monotrope, I played in a band called Hyrrokkin. We started winding things down after a few years, but I had been working on a new batch of music that I really wanted to pull together. So that music set things in motion for Monotrope, and I tried to pull together a group of people to make it all real. Hyrrokkin was basically extended family, so it was really important me for this band to be people that I really love and admire, but as it was, the other guys in Monotrope had never met before. It was a great opportunity to make a long-distance rock dream team, and just use my place here in Ohio as a central hub, playing in a small studio that I build here.
I can’t speak for the other guys, but I think we keep making music together because we’re each working towards a common ideal. We’re all trying to distill and refine our individual processes, and I think our music gets better because of it, so we are excited to keep going. It’s also an excuse to get together in the same place and hang out.
OS: In addition to playing in Monotrope you also run New Atlantis, where you are putting out Immutable Future. Can you talk about the problems you went through when your distributor went bankrupt?
ER: I started the label in 2010, and at its peak, we were putting out about 20 releases a year for four years. Our distributor was one of the biggest independent distributors in the country, and one day, a friend forwarded me an article from an online newspaper – local news in Portland, where the distributor was locate – and the article explained that everyone at the distro had been laid off without notice, that the doors to the facility were locked with a note on the door saying the company was bankrupt. It was a total shock. I had to call in the next day, it took weeks to find a human to speak with. They owed me a few thousand dollars, but they were also sitting on a major chunk of the label’s inventory. It took almost a full year for their legal team to prepare for liquidation. The courts appointed someone to sell off everything that was left in the building, so the proceeds could all go to pay off secured creditors. Everything about it sucked.
OS: What did you find most discouraging about that setback?
ER: I think the worst part was the timing. Within a month or so of Hyrrokkin coming to an end, things were suddenly changing radically at the label. I hadn’t gotten things started with Monotrope, so there was a big question mark about how to move forward playing in a band, and the label had releases on deck that I was really excited about, but had to go on hold indefinitely while we figured out what to do. It was a bummer. A big part of the appeal of running a label is the consistency that it affords to your creative life. It wasn’t a big budget affair, but we were able to dig in and release a lot of music that I really loved, and in a sense, it was comforting that the label would be there as an extension of me, regardless of whatever was happening with my own music. Always nice to be engaged in things that are about community, instead of just my own stuff.
OS: There are such thin margins without having to deal with such large setbacks. Was there a point when you didn’t think you’d try to restart the label? What things brought you back?
ER: Absolutely. I had made commitments to other bands, but the bankruptcy and the lack of distribution complicated everything to a point where I realized the label as I knew it was essentially over. I did an LP for a band from Chicago called The Eternals, and it came out right in the midst of dealing with the bankruptcy. Their records arrived here the week that I learned the distributor laid everyone off. I actually had a box en route to their warehouse, and had to redirect it. I’d also committed to putting out a record for Kid Millions (Oneida), David First, Rhys Chatham, and Bernard Gann, and thankfully, they were really patient and supportive of letting me deal with the whole process. I just had the wind knocked out of my sails. I did a record for the guitarist Brandon Seabrook too, and I guess all three of those records didn’t quite get the attention I would’ve liked. I ran the label myself, but right away I started with working with Ian Anderson and The Designer’s Republic as my art director. Dylan Pecora was involved, making videos for a song or two from each record. The bands were a huge part of the process too. The infrastructure I’d pieced together made it really easy for everybody. Eventually, I found a new distributor, and they’re fantastic. A husband and wife in Anacortes, WA, handle mail-order fulfillment to ensure people get their records promptly, and then they shop the titles around to other stores.
Another great part of running a label is being blown away by demo submissions. I remember opening an e-mail from a band called Stern, for example. I ended up releasing their second LP, called Bone Turquoise, and I was just floored that they’d found me and asked me to be a part of their record out of the blue. For any of these records, Elliott Sharp and U Sco, all of them – it all means a lot to me, and hopefully they stand up and mean something to people that check them out.
OS: Did the stresses from what the label was going through spill over into how you looked at recording and performing as a musician?
ER: There was a period where I felt pretty miserable, and then this crazy rebuilding process, and I am really grateful that I had my family and my musical family to keep things moving. I had to basically start all over, and everything was feeling uncertain and overwhelming. I took the opportunity to start learning how to record, putting together recording gear, and setting the foundation for Monotrope.
OS: In the midst of all of this, can you talk about the process of writing and recording Immutable Future?
ER: The first record felt like an explosion of excitement and kinda naive enthusiasm, and now Immutable Future was the process of trying to push boundaries and write better songs that are a little more challenging to play. The songs stretch out, we have arrangements that are significantly more layered and structured, and Dan [Wilson, guitar] wrote two songs to begin and close out the record. His songs are logical, brief and very dynamic. Usually, his music is a little more tonal than mine, whereas I tend to try and work with dissonance for the bulk of the songs that I write. But starting to understand Dan’s guitar playing has really changed my approach to writing music. Looking at it now, the songs on this record have a lot more contrast than some of the other stuff I’ve written. This record has a lot of big dissonant, shifting musical ideas, but I think they have a lot more impact because we work in some big, cathartic resolving passages too. For me, the Monotrope experience has become this crazy dichotomy between dissonant, angular sections, and then the progression shift towards resolution. Joe [Barker]’s drumming is always so keyed in with whatever the guitars are doing, and he sublimates whatever off-kilter guitar rhythms are going on so nothing feels contrived or forced. Things evolve from some dissonant core, and then end up in a very different tonal space by the end of the song. It’s a really fun needle to thread.
As far as the recording goes, we did a bunch of the guitar recording ourselves. We recorded the basic tracks with Jason LaFarge at Seizures Palace. Jason’s space is in the basement of a big building that used to be a canning factory, right along the Gowanus in Brooklyn. Swans, Sonic Youth, Herbie Hancock, Live Skull, and tons of other amazing records were made there. I have a ton of respect and admiration for Jason. I brought a bunch of my own microphones to the session, so we could try and experiment with some of the gear I’ve been accumulating over the past few years. We recorded for three days, and then took the recordings from Seizures Palace, listened back, and then added things on our own as necessary. I have a studio here in Ohio, and Dan has a studio in his house in Maryland, so it was really easy to experiment. As far as the additions are concerned, I’ve done a lot of improvising in the past, but Monotrope is all about arranging and structure. I used the studio here to layer guitar ideas, usually by improvising new ideas try and add some extra textural or tonal contrast. In some other cases, we wanted to get a different bass guitar tone or whatever, so Matt [Taylor, bass] would use a DI to record his new ideas, and then I’d reamp them using the gear here, until we were happy with the results.
OS: Tim Green mixed the first album and John McEntire mixed this one. They’re both titans in their field, so can you talk about working with them and the differences you experienced – both during the process and the album afterward?
ER: In all honesty, the experience was really similar. With Tim, Joe and I had worked with him before, and sorta knew what to expect. He’s just an awesome human being. Three of us flew out to Grass Valley. Louder Studios is beautiful, we just sat there and he basically dialed in the whole record in a day.
We did the whole mix with John remotely, and it also went really quickly. He’s just a fantastic engineer, he was really patient and happy to work until everyone was satisfied. Now he actually has Soma Studios just twenty minutes or something from Tim’s studio. It would’ve been awesome to be there for the mix.
OS: What is the future for New Atlantis and you putting out releases?
With regard to label stuff, I realize now that I need to pare things way, way back in order to move forward. I was releasing 20 records a year, and the catalog was split between free jazz and then stuff that could be considered rock music. Now I have a new imprint called Ambition Sound that I’ll use when I do a rock record, and I’ll use New Atlantis for improvised music. I have one or two archival projects on the way, including one for my favorite Dischord Records band. A year or so ago, I did a tape for Ryan Miller, a guitarist from Portland who plays in U Sco, but the last record I did on New Atlantis was our first Monotrope album. I’m really looking forward to making a record for someone else again.