STOCKHOLM WAS WHERE IT ALL WENT DOWN. The Northern sun splashed generously across Drottninggatan, a major pedestrian thoroughfare cutting through the middle of the historic Swedish capital, and on this glorious summer afternoon, the street was teeming with thousands of tourists, locals and travelers. I needed to cross this multicultural river of chattering bodies to meet friends across town, yet I found myself stopped in the middle of the street, my attentions squarely commandeered by a titanic poster in the window of a record store.
As my eyes drank deeply of this glorious visage, my soul leapt, spun and banged its head. I had never heard of Monster Magnet and yet without listening to a note of their music, I felt that I knew what they were all about and I was all in. The flames, the guy in the middle throwing the horns from behind mirrored shades, the long hair and leather…they spoke a great promise: perhaps we were finally done with the ponderous, shoegazing pretense of grunge and the contrived polish of the “alt-rock” revolution. Might this swaggering quartet of hirsute rockers signal the return of decadent, hard-hitting arena-sized rock?
In the early-90s, at the height of the Cobain ascendency, stoner rock progenitors Monster Magnet swaggered in from the fringes with an unapologetically over-the-top blend of Sabbath-inspired riffage, 70s-era psychedelia and outlandish lyrics about space lords, monsters and nasty, filthy sex. While Eddie Vedder’s flanneled legions took up arms against the windmills of Ticketmaster, Monster Manget’s audiences were drinking beer in the parking lot and getting it on in the back seats of their cars. Grunge would pass, singer-songwriters would emerge and then disappear and pop would again reign supreme, but through it all, Monster Magnet endured.
For over two decades, New Jersey-based Monster Magnet has released ten studio albums, toured the planet several times over and cultivated an effusive fan base that has long since transcended the dimensions of “cult,”extending broadly throughout the rock and metal legions of the known Universe. Guided by frontman Dave Wyndorf, Monster Magnet have survived the slings and arrows of musical trends, several lineup changes and some of the more seditious trappings of rock and roll decadence, and with the release of their tenth album, The Last Patrol, the band has renewed its commitment to fuzzed out psychedelia and punishing, planetary riffage.
We spoke with Dave about the new album, the lost version of “Space Lord” and how some horn-throwing metal fans are missing the point.
Well when we first started out, the vision was that I was going to take these songs that I had been writing for a project called Love Monster, which was just me, a four track and a drum machine. (laughing) My whole vision was that I just wanted to do psychedelic rock, and whatever that meant. My love for rock is huge and my love for playing it was definitely more on the psychedelic side and more in the vein of that 60s garage-psych, and 70s hard rock. Not prog, and not because I couldn’t play it but because I didn’t like it that much, but somewhere in that dunderheaded realm, from fuzz punk to Grand Funk, you know? That kind of thing. And of course Sabbath, but I was more interested in the obscure bands from when I was a little kid.
Did you want to get huge and sell millions of records?
No, the immediate vision was to really annoy the shit out of the punks in the local punk bars, because that was the only place we could play. So that was number one. In 1988, to go into a punk bar with long hair and a beard and go, “Yeeeah! Grand Funk!” It just fucking pissed them off! They hated it. And it was really fun. My first musical experience was in punk bands, so I knew what made those guys go.
One thing that distinguishes you from other bands—not just all rock bands, but even within the genre of stoner rock—is the distinctive imagery that you layer on top of the sound. How intentional is that?
Oh yeah, that’s totally on purpose. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way; it would be boring. Nothing against stoner rock, but a Sabbath riff is a Sabbath riff. If you’re going to play it that way, whoever gets the Sabbath riff first, wins. It’s like picking fly shit out of pepper, you know? That’s why Kyuss lasted in complete, uncontested rule for so many years. Nobody else was doing anything different (hums big, doomy stoner riff) Cool. Alright, now what’ve you got? Nothing else. That’s it. There’s only one Sleep first album. There’s only one Blues for the Red Sun. You’ve got to add something else to it. You’ve got to own that shit, or who the fuck cares? Monster Magnet is song-oriented. A lot of people say, “Well, I like the long psych stuff,” but yeah but even with the long psych stuff, there’s always a song. So that’s where the imagery lays on top and it’s probably the reason why our perception has often been cloudy with people. People ask, “Well what are you?” Well, I’m all this shit. If you can’t pick out all my obscure references, fuck you! (laughing) And of course, commercially, that’s a terrible thing, but it is what it is.
From what sources do you draw this imagery?
Musically, it’s pretty obvious—anywhere from 60s and 70s, but I’ll even swipe shit from Tori Amos songs. Any chord progression that sounds cool or stuff that makes me happy. But the imagery mostly comes from comic books and the drug culture from my childhood, which is where it started—a lot of dope references, just because I thought the early-70s dope culture was so funny. To think of a whole generation of people saying, “Thumbs up to drugs!” is hysterical. And I always loved the whole misconception of so many rock fans back in the day, myself included, that Satan is cool. They’re like, “Satan is cool!” No, not really. What are you, an idiot? He’s coming to take your soul! There’s nothing cool about that! And that’s really fucking funny. So B-movies, monster movies, science fiction movies, science fiction books, biker movies…all that stuff that’s considered kitsch was like my diet when I was a kid watching TV. And it was sex, you know? It’s always sex. It’s in everything. It’s always tits and fucking and all that shit, and I started to combine all that stuff together. If you’re a kid and you’re in your room, you’ve got all of your favorite stuff, and you put it together. Here’s my favorite album—I’ll put it next to my favorite action figure, and here’s a cool poster. You look at it and you think man, They look really cool together. Do I sound like a maniac here? I probably do, but that’s the way it always sounded to me. I always thought, I want a big Russ Meyers set of fucking tits, right next to a spaceship, right next to a Black Sabbath record, on a motorcycle! That’s what I wanna see. If I can’t draw it, I want hear it; that’s what I want to hear. A lot of times I wanted to hear these images, and that’s the way I put the music together. And the more ambiguous, the better.
So you basically were writing a soundtrack in your head to the Creature Double Feature.
Exactly! You grow up and you’re like, I don’t know what that shit is, but it’s great! Then you grow up and you realize that it’s all fucking crap, but you know something? The feeling you had from it, that’s not crap; that’s probably the purest and greatest feeling you’re ever going to have in your fucking life. I’m always after that. And it gets more nuanced as I get older, but I can’t step away. It’s hard for me to step away and get really, really real. Every song I write is about real things, it’s about me, so I’m not doing an Iron Maiden trip and going, I’m going to write the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner!” (laughing) I’m not going to do that. I’m not a screenplay guy. I know that you have to write this music from the heart, but I can’t seem to write it without elevating the lyrics to some sort of overdone, grandiosity, because it just sounds better. So over the years, I developed this weird style where I’ll explain my emotions using the vernacular of science fiction, religion, cataclysm. It’s total diva stuff, it’s like opera—my heart doesn’t break, the world splits open! I’m not horny, a volcano is going to be humped! It’s never just horny.
Since you broke out in the late-80s, you’ve survived grunge, the destruction of the old music industry, a shitload of lineup changes, and you yourself have survived some close calls. How have you survived?
Just duck. Know when to duck. The perception of time gets kind of skewed when you’re in a band because you’re always working and traveling all the time. I never stopped touring, so my perception of time is really weird. I could easily go ten years and then look back and go, Man, that was a tough six months! Look at yourself in the mirror, man! It’s been ten years, what have you been doing? Getting laid and traveling takes up a lot of time, and that’s what I did for ten or twelve years. As soon as you get home, you realize that the whole thing is not real. You’re not happy with the music that’s on the radio, but there’s no place for Monster Magnet. In my head, we’d be on the charts with ten other bands that were like David Bowie, or that were as cool as Hawkwind, or as cool as the Stooges. That was the world I wanted to live in, but I realized that was my childhood. It ain’t gonna happen. Now I’m up there with Pearl Jam. That’s what I get. The bands that I like, they got to play with the Stooges and Hawkwind, I get to play with fucking Pearl Jam! That’s not cool. Nothing against Pearl Jam, but you know what I mean?
In 2006, you hit the wall.
Yeah, it happens to a lot of people, and I certainly learned a lot from it. You know, some people get wise and they learn before they hit bottom, and other people have to go all the way to the bottom before they learn anything. I’m one of those people. I never learned a good lesson or grew smarter from anything good that’s happened to me, so if every once in awhile, I have to smack myself upside the head, then so be it. Not to judge anybody else, but in my experience, sometimes you’ve really got to go all the way to know yourself. And then you get wise, you learn from it, and if you can share it with people on the way back, that’s really what it’s all about. There’s really nothing else left to life except for sharing stuff and it’s some people’s burden to find out what it’s really like to look into the eye of the Gorgon and come back and warn people, “Jesus! You don’t want to go there! Don’t go there!”
What was your goal for the new album?
I really didn’t want to fuck around. I made a big mistake on the last one by not taking enough time to do it. I discovered the hard way that just because I can write an album in a short amount of time doesn’t mean that I should produce it in a short amount of time. Anybody who listens to the last one and then this one will notice that on the new one, there’s a lot more attention paid to the parts. One of the dangers of modern technology is that you can have ProTools and you can clean stuff up. Nothing against computers or ProTools, but they can be abused, and it was abused on that album, so I was like, Fuck that, I’m going to do a whole psychedelic record with just the stuff that I got started on with Mastermind and that’s all it’s going to be. Also, I didn’t feel like writing a record with the fist-in-the-air rock anthem on it. I’m too old for that shit. “Come on, everybody, let’s rock!” Now, it’s “How about you rock, because I’m too tired to rock!” (laughing) I’m not going to say, “All you people, jump up and down, while I sit on a chair and have a cigarette.” The new album is one of things with a psychedelic rock vibe, atmosphere, weirdness, ambiguity…that’s what’s important to me now.
You cover Donovan’s “Three Kingfishers” on the new album. Where did that come from?
Yeah, that Donovan song is a winner. That Donovan song came up after I had a bunch of songs written for the record that I needed to either develop or not develop, because it was going to take time. So I was looking at something like sixteen or nineteen songs that I had written and I started kicking songs out. Eventually I looked at what I had left to bring to the band and develop, and it wasn’t enough for a record. I could either bring some of those old songs back, which I thought was a mistake, or write what I thought to be two new ones. I thought to myself, What this record needs is an authentic, really crystal clear, delicate psych song—mellow, nice, melodic… and also needs a totally moronical, caveman-style, beyond-Sabbath song. More like Sir Lord Baltimore, like that amateur British rock. So I was all prepared to write those two different songs and then that Donovan thing came to mind and I thought, Wait a second…that’s the psych thing I need. Maybe I should just cover that. So I started to sing it, just sitting in the kitchen with a guitar and singing it, and I thought, I could just turn this into the moronical beater as well. I killed two birds with one stone, and I’m glad I did it, because it’s a great song. It sounds cool.
What’s your favorite space movie of all time?
Ugh… there’s so many good ones, so I hate to pick one, but I think the one that always gets me is Forbidden Planet, which I think was 1956. It’s with Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis, who’s got the best legs I’ve ever seen. It’s really weird. I know that it’s old, but it’s a really strange one. It’s about this group of space explorers from the World Federation and they have to stop by this way, way distant planet to find out what happened to these explorers who went out there and never called back. It turns out the whole group of explorers discovered the remnants of an ancient race that had learned how to cap their mental energy—they learned how to make their mental energy physical through these generators and these brain amplifiers, and they were called the Krell. What had happened is that while they could manifest their thoughts and wishes into physical form—telekinesis, move stuff around—what they couldn’t count on was their own insecurities, their Id, so they murdered each other because they were so amped up in their brains that when they slept, they had dreams about jealousy and insecurities, and these monsters would come out of their minds and murder each other. It’s really fucking cool! It’s spooky and it’s great. It’s corny in a sense, but it’s way better than anything you’d think they’d put out then.
That’s a really good question. Why not? I think I’d have to go back into the studio. I think I tried to do that once and nobody could find the “motherfucker” on the tape. I know I sang it…
Really? I always assumed it was a radio edit.
Well, I sang it with “motherfucker” but then when we figured out that it was going to be radio-worthy, a mixer friend of mine said, “Well let’s try this hip hop trick where you cut off the ‘motherfucker’ and put a repeat delay on ‘mother.’” So we did that and I forgot about it, and then one day I remember asking, “Where’s the ‘motherfucker?’ We need to release that!’” And we couldn’t find it.
So what’s the plan for the album and beyond?
Well, the plan is the same as usual, to beat the living shit out of it on the road, except this time we’re actually going to go in the States. Album comes out the 15th and then we hit the States and do the first full tour we’ve done there in ten years, and then we go to Europe and do the usual, which is play the living fuck out of it. We got to Europe like two or three times a year, for four and five weeks at a time, and then Australia. Anywhere else in the world that’s buying. It’s quite a busy world out there. I made the decision to ignore the States about ten years ago. Knocking on the door in the States is tough. If they’re not buying what you have to sell, you could easily go broke. Or, you could be a smart human and go to Europe and drink tiny cups of coffee and stay in nice hotels and rock the way God intended.