Long-running Red Bank outfit Monster Magnet have left footprints on a trail for the last two decades across a wide breadth of psychedelia and driving heavy rock, resulting in several classic pop singles and landmark, genre-defining albums. Their eighth and latest full-length (first for new label Napalm Records) is Mastermind, which follows 2007’s 4-Way Diablo in further developing the band’s riff-led approach. Frontman Dave Wyndorf—joined in Monster Magnet by guitarists Ed Mundell and Phil Caivano, bassist Jim Baglino and drummer Bob Pantella—recently took time out for a phone interview to discuss the crafting and recording of Mastermind, longevity in rock and much, much more. On the eve of the band embarking on their latest European tour and to celebrate the release of Mastermind, please enjoy the following conversation:
What keeps you going back to Matt Hyde to record?
He’s a friend of mine. Matt’s a friend. He’s got a really good sense of humor, and the working relationship that we created together, I think the first record was Powertrip, [which] was really good. I tend to have all these ideas, and I know what I want to do production-wise, and I know what amps I want to use, what board I want to use, all the stuff I want to use, but I’m really lazy at actually sitting down and doing it. I’m the P.T. Barnum kind of guy that runs around and smokes and yells, “Make it louder! Turn it purple!” And Matt is an excellent engineer. That’s our relationship. He’ll stop me and go, “You’re asking for too much. Physically I can’t do that. We can’t do that.” He tends to clean up a lot of my obsessive mistakes.
In terms of the arrangements of the songs, does he have an input, or is that all figured out beforehand?
Nah, that’s my job.
One of the things I notice in listening to Mastermind is it’s got a thicker tone, a livelier feel than 4-Way Diablo. Was there something specific you wanted to do to bring that out after the last album?
Yeah. I was sitting on a tour bus in England, around this time last year, a little bit closer to Christmas, and when I found out we were going to put this album out on a schedule, I had to write it and all this stuff, and I was like, “I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna write it about, but I’ll tell you one thing, it’s gonna be all Gibsons!” because I know what I’m gonna get, and I think there’s probably only two Strats on the whole record. Poor Ed. He plays a Strat, but not on this one. I’m like, “It’s gonna be thick, ropey guitar leads”—I’m writing it down and I send it to Matt. He’s like, “What the fuck is ropey?” I’m like, “Ropey! Real fucking guitar tones. None of this wang-dang-doodle shit. I want fucking Gibsons, and blah blah blah.” We had a huge amp audition, it was great. We recorded at Shorefire, in Long Branch, the music anyway. And Shorefire looks like it hasn’t changed since 1972. It’s really cool. We had a big amp audition. Old vintage Marshalls, Ampegs, stuff like that. It was fun. Really, really fun. And I was like, “Not ropey enough! Thicker! Thicker!” It was just a lot of fun. I knew even before I wrote the songs that was the sound I wanted. And I wanted a lot of bass. Fuzz bass and stuff like that. So we made preparations in the sound picture to accommodate that too.
Did that play into the songwriting too? When you were coming up with parts?
Yeah, sure, because you get a vision in your head of what it’s gonna sound like and there’s certain stuff that matches that sound. There’s bands that match that sound. Black Sabbath. Or, the even more fun thing is, “What would Hawkwind sound like if they played through Black Sabbath’s gear?” “What would The Stooges sound like?” It’s all just wish-fulfillment as far as that’s concerned. It really hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. “What if this great guy played through this guy’s gear?” and that kind of sets it off. It finds its own way too, because it’s impossible to replicate that stuff, but you can use it as a guide.
At what point do you bring the band into the songwriting process?
Pretty early on. What we did on this one was what we do most of the time. I’ll go home, “Okay, it’s time to write a record.” I’ll stay in my house and write on my four track or eight track, whatever it is I’ve got here, little piece of crap. I use a drum machine, or just a click track, or bongos, which are really good for fills. Set up a beat or a riff, whichever comes first, write a verse and a chorus over it, a couple hooks, guitar hooks, all mockup things. I play pretty much like an eighth grader, like a garage rock guitarist. I try to do these leads, but I really can’t do it. I can make the noise. I know what sounds I want, so I make all the sounds I want, the noise, and sing over it, melody lines. And then, if it’s got a chorus and a verse and an intro, I can bring it to the band. That’s what I did this time. I didn’t spend a lot of time finishing all the demos. I just did a chorus, intro and a verse, bring it to the band, and we worked it out. Then I’ll sit there and just give direction as we put it together. If anybody’s got ideas on the fly about their parts and stuff, I’m just like, “Sure.” If anybody’s got an idea, it’s fine. We’ll work out the parts and then I’ll just arrange it on the spot when we record it. This one was relatively easy. Those guys learned 12 or 13 songs in about six days, which is amazing. But they’re good. They’re really good. You can’t do that with everybody (laughs). And Phil actually played all the bass on this record.
At what point did you start thinking of Monster Magnet in terms of longevity?
Pretty early on. When people started biting. We went to Europe. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to Europe, because it’s just too much fun,” and we started getting bites from majors. We had seven or eight majors coming after us and I was like, “I guess we’re gonna be around for a while.” It didn’t have an effect on the music, but it did have an effect on how hard I worked, because I worked it really, really hard. I wanted to see how far I could push it, because it really cracked me up that there were major labels running after a band that based their whole thing on Hawkwind, Stooges, that whole vibe—‘60s biker movies. That’s all my favorite stuff, and I didn’t think anyone else was into that. I was like, “This is really funny, let’s see how long it can go.” Pretty much playing by the rules that I set out for Monster Magnet. Then, when it lasted longer than that, I thought the whole thing was going to be over by Dopes To Infinity, and it just got more. I did a record, “Alright, I’m tired of this. We did psych stuff for three years. It’s time to turn up the rock.” And they loved that too. Insane. Somewhere around right before Superjudge, that’s when I was like, “Okay, it’s gonna be around for a while.”
Has it ever occurred to you that you’ve gone eight albums and there isn’t a Monster Magnet live record?
Yeah, I know. Everybody reminds me of that all the time. Because I was such a prick in the old days. I was like, “That sounds like shit, I’m not releasing it.” Finally, because I’ve stopped and had some reflection time, I realized, yes, that’s ridiculous, how could this band that plays live all the time not have a live record? So we’re going to remedy that tout de suite. Sometime in the next year. We’re going to be recording this European tour, and then we’re going to Australia and we’ll probably be recording that too. And then we’ll probably be recording for the length of this tour, which I imagine’ll be a year and a half or two years long. That’s what we usually do for a Monster Magnet record. Just go. Travel all around the world and have all these adventures and stuff. It’s a whacky life. It’s cool. It’s like being in a circus (laughs).
Monster Magnet’s Mastermind is available now on Napalm Records. For more info, check out zodiaclung.com.
JJ Koczan has the unabridged Q&A on his blog at TheObelisk.net. You can email him about it at email@example.com.