Interview with Mateo Monk
Conducted by Katie Tortora
The emotional fluidity of Mateo Monk’s music has the ability to carry you away on a wistful cloud of pleasure, or even pick your brain and make you think. A musician skilled on many instruments, Mateo intrigued us and as we listened to his latest live album, we were eager to ask him some questions and get to know his kind soul.
Where do you usually gather songwriting inspiration?
I mainly just think about the kinds of things I do and don’t like to hear. I don’t like to hear things that are too wordy, topical, political… things that sound like journal entries set to music. What gives music superiority over the written word and simple poetry is its ability to break free of the conceptual, to express raw emotion in the urgency of the divine moment, beyond the division and categorizations of concepts and ideas. Music can convey that sacred “beyond” in a way that no other art form can. Only dance comes close, but dance can’t really be separated from music anyhow; they are two sides of a coin. So when I hear songs that have elaborate words set to cliche and rudimentary music, all that stuff seems a little too left-brained for me, too worldly. I like songs whose lyrical passages take more advantage of the power of music. A lyric should be timeless and universal, able to be sung in any age. I also like lyrics that leave plenty of room for interpretation, that operate like symbols in a dream, rather than literal ideas. But most of all, I like lyrics that have rich musicality to them… the right rhythms and cadences, tones and syllables that just fit right in the music. Robert Hunter is a master of all these aspects. Ultimately the heart of music to me is just that, the music… the instrumentation and emotiveness of the melodies, textures, and harmonies. So really, I write songs simply to be vehicles for beautiful harmonies, melodies, emotions, and improvisation. The words just help orient the mind to the right emotions and contemplations, but I don’t really want to put too many words in people’s heads. I want them to get out of their heads and be moved by the non-conceptual purity and immediacy of music.
What do you think sets you apart from other singer/songwriters?
This is actually a good question to sort of explain why I was a bit uncomfortable with the first set of questions, because I thought you seemed to be framing me as a singer/songwriter, but truth be told, I don’t really like being considered a singer/songwriter. I feel I’ve been more limited by that term and concept throughout my career. When people think “singer/songwriter” they usually picture in their head some dude with an acoustic guitar crooning personal, introspective songs in a coffee shop. They don’t really expect something more universal that’s gonna get their hips wiggling or melt their face off with dazzling instrumental virtuosity and improvisational daring. We live in an era of soundbytes, where people make snap judgements about things without hardly scratching the surface of what it’s really about. Throughout my career it’s been quite frustrating to make promoters realize that I do more than croon behind an acoustic guitar. They’ll just see that I’m a solo artist with a guitar and be like, “Yeah, we don’t really book acoustic singer/songwriters here” before they even take the time to realize what it is I do and the sound I can offer. I’ll be honest, I get kind of offended; it’s been very frustrating. My sound is so much more dynamic than that; I believe it’s a compelling, big stage sound, and I’ve proven time and time again to be able hold my own against the energy of bigger bands and truly make a crowd roar. I’m much closer to a jazz quartet than a singer/songwriter, or a one-man-jam-band isn’t a bad way to describe it, though a little corny. I’m not up there to make people think with my clever words; I’m up there to move them with my music, to rock their souls, to take them to new sonic territories, to explore and manifest the mystical vibrations in the air. Lyrics to me are like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The tree is the living truth. The words adorn it, but they are not the tree itself. I don’t like my tree to be smothered in too many strings of popcorn.
I know that you have been a part of various different musical groups and even went on tour in France. How has your music progressed over the years up until now?
Well, I’ll just describe my various phases over the years. For the first decade or so of my career I was mostly just trying to emulate my heros. I wanted to write like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and play like Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio. But as life goes on and musicianship matures, you start to discover your own sound… your influences and experiences become distilled into something new and unique. Also for roughly the first half of my career I played almost all original music and wasn’t interested in too many covers. But I think up until then I was still working within the singer/songwriter paradigm and had neither the refined abilities nor the spiritual sensitivity to really make the most out of improvised, instrumental music. About 12 years ago though, something shifted within me, and suddenly I didn’t care as much about whose song I was playing, it was the playing itself that matter, the melodies, textures, and musical exploration. I often justify the covers in my sets by citing the Jerry Garcia Band. I’ve seen whole Jerry Band shows where he didn’t play a single original tune. You could say that the JGB was the worlds greatest cover band. He showed me that the song is only half the magic, what you do with the song is perhaps what really counts. Jazz music is the same way. No one is really gonna fault a jazz quartet for playing standards all night; they’ll be judged on how they play them. So you could say the first 10 years of my career were dedicated to songwriting and emulating the sounds of my heros, the second 10 years kind of put songwriting on the backburner in favor of developing instrumental finesse and improvisational exploration. But now, in the third decade of my career, I’ve sort of come full circle, and I seek the marriage of both worlds. I feel comfortable with my instrumentalism now, and quite natural speaking the language of music; it’s become second nature to me. So now my interests are turning back to creating songs that serve my artistic purposes, being both springboards into groovy loops and instrumental improvisations, while also creating images and conveying emotions through meaningful lyrics and tasteful melody. But I’ll always hail the supremacy of the jazz musician over the folk singer. A folk singer is mostly a strumming pundit or poet. A jazz or jam musician is something more akin to a shaman.
What song are you most proud of off of the album and why?
Let me mention two, for different reasons. Dinosaurs is just one of those songs that nearly wrote itself. All I had to do was become quiet enough to hear the whispers of inspiration. The melody and lyrics of the hook just flowed out of me just as they are now with no premeditation or editing. It took a little more craft to get the verses in order, but I knew from the get-go exactly what I was trying to convey, it just took a little tweaking to get things to flow right. This is how I really prefer songs to be written. Some artists write a new song everyday to exercise the craft. I’m not like that, I wait for the inspiration. That way I can be sure that my ego isn’t writing the tunes; I know they are coming from somewhere deeper, from something bigger than me. I write pieces of songs as the inspiration hits. The mediocre ideas are forgotten. The good ideas won’t let you forget them until they are finished. I still have fragments of tunes bouncing around in my head from 10 years ago that are just waiting to be finished. And I know someday, when the time is right, I’ll finish them.
I also want to quickly mention the song Blessed Ganja Herb which I’m proud of for different reasons. I used to be (still am) a huge fan of the reggae band Culture. The main creator in Culture was the now-deceased Joseph Hill. In my mind he was a true prophet. He was my number one in reggae music, even above Bob Marley. His music just spoke to me in all the right ways. So when I wrote Blessed Ganja Herb, I really just set out, as sort of a creative challenge, to write a Culture tune, you know, something with all the same aesthetics and vibe as Joseph Hill’s music. The reason I’m proud of the song is because now, years after Joseph’s passing, his son Kenyatta, who still performs and records under the Culture banner, has recorded my song on his new EP. And it sounds just like a classic Culture tune! It’s really amazing to hear and so rewarding to think that I have contributed to the Culture legacy. It’s a dream realized.
I find your style of looping very intriguing and different from other artists. I know that you told me that you don’t loop in drum sounds because you don’t want your musicianship to be obscured by too much tech trickery. Can you give some specific examples or other forms of “tech trickery”?
I think a lot of musicians make the assumption that their audiences are just as musically educated and keen as they are. And most definitely, many audience members are. However the majority really are laymen that don’t have much of a working understanding of how music is created, and even have trouble picking out the individual instruments in a mix. A band will commonly beat itself up over a botched transition or missed cues, but the truth of the matter is, most of the audience has no idea that these mistakes weren’t intended. I think it’s important for looping musicians to think on this. I’ll play whole shows where I’m building all these interesting loops, improvising them out of nowhere, and then after the show someone will ask me where I’m triggering my rhythms from. They have absolutely no idea that I was building these rhythms from scratch right before their eyes! If you go to just about any beach town, there’s all these guys with acoustic guitars, triggering rhythm tracks off keyboards or laptops and playing along with them to sound like a fuller band. That’s not looping; it’s more like musical karaoke. That’s the last thing I ever want somebody thinking I’m doing, so I do purposely try to keep things relatively simple to avoid this confusion. I don’t want people to think I sound good because I can layer up a bunch of cool sounds. I want them mostly to appreciate me for being a good guitar player and a good flute player, who just utilizes a very basic technology to whip up some tasty grooves on the fly. It’s also important to me that my music be fairly organic and authentic to my musical journey. I didn’t grow up programming beats on computers and beating on drum pads. I grew up smoking weed on porches, picking acoustic guitars with friends, and playing the flute to the trees and birds. But I also grew up eating LSD and having my face melted off by masters such as the Grateful Dead and Phish. I want my show to reflect all these things, to be sort of an organic and natural extension of these experiences. And I think it is. 🙂