Deeper Than The Average Band: Talking To Monsterworks

Monsterworks is the kind of band you want to root for, a group of underdogs bursting with creativity. Their music blends countless sounds and influences into music that is utterly unique. No one else sounds like Monsterworks, which is a statement fewer bands can make with each passing year. Their latest work, the EP "Man: Instincts", contains three masterful tracks culled from their upcoming "Album Of Man". Singer/Guitarist Jon took time recently to talk about the band, their music, and how it all comes together.
Can you start off by telling people who may not have heard of Monsterworks a bit about the band?
Monsterworks is a London based heavy metal band. It started off in New Zealand in the late 90s but relocated to the UK about 2002. So....as an entity it has been going quite some time now.

We play metal with a range of influences that we are not afraid to draw upon. It has been termed "supermetal" which is some kind of hybrid of thrash/death/stoner/prog and trad metal. The genre-switching is our greatest strength but also our downfall because it seems to turn a lot of people off that need to have a label to put on something.

"Man: Instincts" shows remarkable diversity for being only three tracks. How do you go about fitting so many ideas into a short amount of time?
It isn't premeditated, it is just what has always happened during the song writing process. These tracks come from a full album set and, in a way, they were chosen to showcase the diversity and highlight it a little more than usual. Over three tracks it is quite noticeable to have a lot of change....but perhaps it will not be so pronounced when people hear the whole album of 10 songs together.
When it comes to challenging, progressive songwriting, what's the creative process you employ? Does it change with each song?
In general I write any given song mostly from beginning to end before starting on a new one. That is to say I don't just play different riffs for hours and then try to stitch them together into a number of tracks. I like a song to just start with something intriguing and then evolve; it could go anywhere....and it often does. That has always been my process for better or worse. As I alluded to above, a wider audience sometimes finds it too challenging but that is just what has always come naturally to me.

For quite a long time I have written music before writing lyrics, i.e. they don't go hand in hand. This is good and bad; good because you don't have to force a mood based on particular lyrics, but bad because sometimes the lyrics are written just before recording with no vocal practice at all.

Technology has allowed great advances in home recording, which is where the demos are arranged. We are not much of a jamming band (in the early days it was more that way) which I kind of miss. Mind you, jamming in the classic sense is time consuming and sometimes fruitless. Writing music alone is still time consuming, but it is probably less frustrating (except for times when you just can't nail that elusive awesome outro riff - but that happens in any creative process).

Your last album was "The God Album", which you describe as "a considered critique of the most dangerous social force of our time: organized religion." What's the underlying philosophy the songs you write deal with?
On that album I guess I was just getting a lot of ideas that had been brewing for a while out of the system...although it is debatable whether they are ever really "out of the system". My philosophy is progressive (like the music is turning into more and more) so I was trying to write sensible lyrics where possible about a somewhat inflammatory subject. The album was about religion, not God; ironically. My personal stance is that people shouldn't be ridiculed for believing in one or more gods because, even the staunchest atheists seem to agree, it is quite a logical evolutionary trait to trust in a "higher power" (it is a safety mechanism to ensure you listen to / learn from your parents or elders and don't die from being too reckless before you can reproduce). Is there a God? Probably not, but if there is it isn't what any of the religions preach about. In human history there have been just too many cults and certified religions with conflicting views for any of them to genuinely be in possession of the truth. In short, on the balance of probabilities they are all wrong which also means my view could be wrong too.

However this is metal, so don't take it too seriously. I just thought "The God Album" sounded cool as a title. That was how it started.

The new EP is "Man: Instincts". Does the change in focus from God to man underscore an existentialist attitude? If not, what themes are being explored lyrically?
This is something I hadn't really considered before; i.e. what philosophical camp I belong to. I don't want to put a label on it like "existentialism" even if that might be the case. Whatever it is, I don't think people should be able to follow their own nature, unrestrained, because that can lead to bad results for society as a whole. Say what you want about religion but it provided a structured system that allowed humanity to progress in many ways. However, it is very far from perfect and now we have the tools to begin to find a better way forward.

It's probably better to talk about the music/lyrics in terms of what it means to me, but of course it's open to others to draw their own conclusions. This set of songs (of which the EP is only three and intended as a taster for "Album of Man") does focus more on the "individual" side of humanity, but The God Album was about religion which is also man-made so they are still fairly closely related.

Album of Man is more introspective for me as it starts off with thoughts about conception and what fetuses dream about through childhood, loss and development, to the freedom of death and the probability that it is the end of your existence....but it carries a message not to be too depressed about it. Its as deep as you want to make it. Obviously I think the music is interesting and weaves a tale without being a direct narrative.

The production blurs the line between the metal aspects of some of the riffs and a more vintage aesthetic. Was that a conscious choice, and do you think the warmer sounds bring life to the music a more clinical approach may not?
I am glad you bring up production. It was nothing we (the band) planned, but was the influence of the engineer, Lewis, where we have recorded everything since 2005 (incredibly that is six albums!), Earth Terminal Studios in Hampshire. Quite a while ago he suggested we use old technology (24 track, 2-inch tape) for the primary recordings simply because he had a tape machine in the back room and liked using it. However, due to time and budget constraints, a computer is used for lead overdubs/vocals and mixing. Tape makes a big difference for drums in my opinion; you get a natural compression and of course we use exclusively an acoustic kit - no samples or triggers. Amps are set up in the traditional way (except maybe the bass is a DI signal but I can't remember for this album). Also we record everything in 5 days, except for some leads that might need to be fleshed out after the initial session and some vocal reworks if needed, which really doesn't give the opportunity for perfection. It is gritty but it fits what we do. Mastering is done with software but takes a less-is-more approach.

So the short answer is, yes, now it is a conscious choice to aim for that kind of sound but it began as an experiment a few albums ago. Ironically the one where we started using the tape machine was "Singularity" which had the most complex and overblown song structures of our career to date (one song ended up with about 64 tracks which nearly killed the computer during mixdown). In other words, that album was anything but simple. Then Ian, our "guitar layer supremo", left the band which was a disappointment personally (because we started the band together in New Zealand years ago) but freed me up to turn back the clock and simplify things that I probably would not have done otherwise. As a guitarist Marcus, "the new guy", has an old school approach and is content to let the music breathe where it needs to.

I think the "vintage aesthetic" does fit our music, probably more so than a "polished" sound. That is not to say I don't like modern metal production values. I was listening to Nevermore's "This Godless Endeavor" (RIP?) the other day and marveling at its clarity/clinical preciseness. It is a great album of technical thrash. Andy Sneap is a popular guy nowadays for producing that sound and it is good to my ears...but sometimes I wonder how it will stand the test of time. What makes me skeptical is the terrible sound, in retrospect, that records had in the 80s - surely someone noticed at the time that the drums sounded shit? Also, remember the Death Magnetic debacle....Metallica finally produced a good album and ruined it in the mastering stage by compressing it to the point of distortion. I read an interview with Lars who tried to explain it away by saying "that is what they told us was the modern sound". That is no excuse; as an artist you must have some input or willingness to fight for the sound quality. Surely someone sitting round the boardroom table with the band listening to the finished product (perhaps this is a fictionalized situation) said "but doesn't that sound bad to you?" It's like the Emperor's new clothes.

Some great albums came out of the 80s which are good despite the production. Judas Priest's "Screaming For Vengeance" (having its 30th anniversary this year, so is topical) has some great songs but the production is not as good to my ears in 2012 as Priest's 70s albums (most notably "Sad Wings of Destiny" which is my favorite all time album).

Many metal bands are afraid of injecting melody into their music, and treat the word "pop" like it's a disease. "All Suns Die" has a chorus that I would call pop music, in the best way. Do you consciously think about how much melody you put in the music?
Ha. Whatever works. It was not intentional. I don't actively listen to pop music, but inevitably hear it around the place and some of it is undeniably catchy. However, referring to the question, I suppose the simple answer is "no". We never consciously target anything in the songwriting. It just happens, or not. And I certainly don't mind someone calling it pop. You are welcome to put it in a Coca-Cola commercial if it fits.
Is there such a thing as being too melodic?
Not sure. A whole genre got labelled "(Swedish) melodic death metal" which I was quite a fan of for awhile...but the catchy choruses can maybe become too much, if that is the formula for every song on an album.

That said, if it works then great. Is Opeth too melodic? I wouldn't change a thing on almost all of their albums. However, the great thing about metal (and maybe what Monsterworks strives to achieve) is that there can be a beautiful melody BUT there is the threat that something darker could be around the corner. A pop song is not going to have a blast beat or a demonic howl after the next chorus. To me, that is what sets metal apart (and above) from other styles of music.

Do the constraints of conventional thinking in the metal scene make it harder to write honest, authentic music? Is it hard to avoid writing what's expected of a metal band, instead of what you want to write?
Not for us, because it never occurred to us to listen to what anyone else thought. We never had a record label telling us what to do and, on the critical side, for every bad review there are two good ones so no case has ever been made out that we are on completely the wrong track and alienating all of the audience. If every review was terrible across the board it probably would cause me to take a long hard look at the value of the way we do things, but that hasn't ever happened.

Metal is so diverse overall that I don't think there is a single expectation for a metal band these days. Although some people do pick out that we are too diverse for one band. I always take it as a compliment especially by critics that conclude they hate it.

We had a manager once who tried to have some influence on image (i.e. having one at all) and even suggested changing the band name - which admittedly is no longer very representative of the music - but it didn't feel right. Needless to say we eventually parted ways, but that is no reflection on who was right or wrong....in fact he probably was correct on both counts. But no one was waving a million dollars in our face so there was nothing at stake to convince me it was worth selling out.

Writing songs that draw from so many styles of music, do you worry that the albums you make may be difficult for listeners to absorb?
Yes and no. I would prefer it if people do enjoy the music and I generally assume they will if they have come across us and liked something in the past. But if they don't there isn't much anyone can do about it at that point so I don't lose any sleep over it. Our ex-guitarist supremo that I mentioned earlier once said to me "I do wonder if I would be a fan of this band if I weren't in it". That is quite a profound comment, although he said it as a joke, and maybe a lot of bands should ask themselves the same question - it might give them a measure of whether they have any integrity left. For me, I think the answer is "yes" because I like a lot of different kinds of metal and if one band happens to throw all of them together then that is fine by me. I like music with a lot of different moods.
What does the future hold for Monsterworks? Is there more new music on its way?
There is always new music on the way. We are the most prolific band no one ever heard of.

The rest of Album of Man will be unveiled in the coming months, then there are a further two albums already completed. You read that right. Two albums. There should be a steady stream of new material for a few years even if I died tomorrow - and I do not plan on dying tomorrow (oh the irony if I do). A few demos are complete for the next set of songs already; almost before mixing of the latest album was finished.

I think the proliferation of our brand of metal is possible partly because we do not tour ourselves into the ground and are always hungry to make new music in the vein of our heroes. It is a shame we cannot contribute as much to the live scene, other than a few gigs here and there, as we would like (believe me we would if we could make a living out of it) but the grind of touring does take its toll. Also, bands fall out and break apart from living out of each others' pockets whereas we never get together often enough to hate each other!

Thanks very much for the interview and thanks for not asking "what are your influences", otherwise my answers would be twice as long and tedious as they already are. Cheers!

Around the Web

What's New?

So this one's quite the... head-scratcher...

Podcast

Let's talk about Ti West...

Podcast

Latest Reviews

Search

Around The Web