Friday, 6 June 2008

Monks Of Doom

Victor Krummenacher besides being a Camper Van Beethoven stalward and purveyor of brilliant solo albums was at one time the leader and bass player in the Monks Of Doom, in my books the finest and most important band of their time. The Monks could play anything they put their minds to, and did it with a dark majesty and power none could match. They came on like a twisted progressive Americana version of the legendary Bruford/ Wetton line up of King Crimson, but driven by melodies and songs, not just Frippian riffs. The Monks could be brutal both musically and lyrically, a band so vicious that they could take anything down. No other band of their time did what the Monks were doing so effortlessly. Pushing at the very boundaries of how music can be played and how songs could be presented. Camper Van Beethoven were one of the finest bands around, but by their third album, the breathtaking "Meridian", the Monks were even better. Besides Victor the band contained fellow Campers Greg Lisher and Chris Pedersen and the mighty David Immergluck who was also the guitarist in the legendary SF band The Ophelias. They recorded two albums for Pitch A Tent, Breakfast On The Beach Of Deception and The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company alongside whatever CVB where producing before Immergluck was brought into the touring Campers line up for the Key Lime Pie tour. After the CVB meltdown of 1990, with David Lowery going off to form Cracker, the Monks became the main band going on to produced two more stunning albums Meridian and Forgery before calling it a day. I talked to Victor about all this just as his second solo album St. John's Mercy was coming out. That album had all four of the Monks involvement. Besides talking about the Monks victor fills us in on the last period of the original Campers run that hasn't been touched upon in detail in the CVB interviews already posted here. Okay over to Victor.

VK. The Monks started in the spring of 1986 as a means for me to break away from the Camper Van Beethoven mould of music. Despite our diversity the personality problems within the band at that time were already well established. My way of dealing with them was to avoid them. Originally the Monks were just envisioned as a recording project to keep the rest of the band from going crazy while Jonathan and David had ego wars about the direction of Camper Van Beethoven. It was based on the simplest of principles... that we enjoyed playing together. The Monks became this unusual little haven where we could freak out.
We initially recorded five or six songs at Fox Recording in Santa Cruz in the summer of 1986... just to see what would happen. It turned out to be very fun, and that's what kept us at it, we didn't know where we were going with it, but we were willing to try anything.

The original line up

For the first six months it was Greg Lisher, Chris Pedersen, Chris Molla and myself but by the end of that year it became increasingly difficult for Molla to make a commitment to either CVB or the Monks. He was still in college and seeing a woman who really hated it when he was out on the road. I think he had a thousand dollar phone bill when we went out on the REM tour in the fall. He missed a Monks show in Santa Cruz that December and we fired him. He was fired from CVB shortly after. The Monks had another show in San Francisco that month and Pedersen knew David Immergluck from UC Santa Cruz. David was in this band The Ophelias

The Ophelias

To be honest I don’t know much about what happened to them. Ultimately they just burnt out. Leslie Medford was a brilliant but strange cat who seemed to be one of those who really believed in his imminent stardom but the band never really caught on that much. I don’t know if David was there at the end or not, I can’t remember, but I think whatever livlihood they had was smashed when Rough Trade went down. So Chris called David and asked if he was interested. He said he was so we arrange a day to rehearse. I was sick and couldn’t make the rehearsal.

He went to Chris’s house and learned the songs from a tape. He showed up at Club 9 in SF having never rehearsed with the band proper. Remember Monk’s stuff was so complicated and we played most of the stuff note for note live anf he got up and played everything pretty much perfect. David is still that man, one of the finest musicians I know. Our primary strength was us being an instrumental powerhouse. We could and did play anything we put our minds to and I think that's why the first record worked. I was just starting to write songs. Because of Camper Van Beethoven commitment and general laziness I think it took me the next few years to figure out how to write a song and that I think was the band weakest point... but it made it a pretty interesting combination ultimately.

Playing live was a gas. We played mostly small shows in San Francisco clubs at the time. Greg and David were insane players, and it gave us a chance to really unwind. Camper Van Beethoven was always very measured by comparison - the Monks were psychotic, but we rocked.

Camper Van Beethoven started working on "Key Lime Pie" almost immediately after Jonathan was booted. Dennis Herring, our producer, showed up almost immediately after Jonathan left, and we started in on preproduction. I was a little pissed off at this point, as I'd asked for time to do the next Monks record, but David Lowery just wanted to plow on ahead. This made for a lot of tension. Jonathan's record Storyteller had just come out, and he wanted to tour the east coast, so in the middle of doing "Key Lime Pie", we assembled a line-up to play Jonathan's record on a small tour that Jackson Haring, our manager, had booked. Partly to appease Jonathan, partly to appease our guilt. It was a hell of a time. I would go back and forth between playing gigs with Jonathan or the Monks or Eugene Chadbourne, and then go back to Camper Van Beethoven. Simply put, I was over committed to doing too damn much.

Campers post Segel

I was gone for a lot of the recording of "Key Lime Pie", working on the second Monks album "Cosmodemonic" or rehearsing to tour. Lowery was miffed and I think rightfully so. It was a brilliant album though, my favourite. Not really as much of a group record, but as far as David's songwriting goes it was an extremely interesting and complex piece of work. A lot of the time he was just holed up in the studio with the producer making decisions about arrangements, especially when it came to such things as the violin, which was played primarily by Don Lax. A great player, a difficult person. We hired Morgan Fichter out of Harm Farm who I knew because they had played with the Monks. In fact Melanie Clarin, their drummer, sings on two of the Monks albums. Morgan was very young and she was thrown into out insanity with very little preperation. She was a pretty face, a good player, a good addition to the live line-up. It was awkward at first, it took a while for her to fit in, if in fact she ever really did, but she was a hell of a player when she was on, and with the addition of Immergluck, into the live line up we could really pull off some interesting shows. Almost as soon as we were done with "Key Lime Pie", we began touring. We rehearsed for shows with Morgan while mixing the record, and began with a California tour that July. The shows were good, but different, as we were trying to readjust the band chemistry without Jonathan.

We toured with the 10,000 Maniacs then... we had a tour bus by this point, were kind of living the rockstar life, playing big shows in front of a lot of people. I don't remember much other than partying a lot and general discomfort, we were not getting along very well. There was a lot of tension towards the fall about Morgan getting her act together on stage. We were headlining shows now for "Key Lime Pie", after the Maniacs stint, and it took a long time for us to really get back together. We had done alright at first, but for some reason things were not congealing. The set was disjointed for a while and it took time to get our footing. Gradually we got it back, but by this time we were on auto pilot. Lots of booze, lots of drugs (for me at least), lots of fights, lots of rock and roll.

In January of 1990 we left for what would be our last tour of North America, finishing in late February in Memphis. We then headed for Europe, starting in London, then on to the Continent. This was where things really began to get out of hand emotionally. None of us were doing very well, money was tight to a degree, and we had been touring constantly. David Lowery was going through a very difficult time as far as his personal life, and so was I. Greg kept talking to me about how miserable he was and how he planned on quitting. I didn't know what to do, but I was still planning on sticking with the band. We were fighting on a more and more regular basis, and some of the fights were getting quite violent. Morgan was in the middle of much of the controversy, as far as the arguing went. Ultimately, the arguments were all petty. None really addressed the underlying problems with the band, which were primarily our personal disputes with David. Our shows were great, our personal demons greater.

We all had too many ideas and not enough of a clue how to handle things between ourselves. Camper Van Beethoven could be very stifling for me artistically, because I wanted to be a songwriter, but was in fact a bass player. I didn't have a platform to work with except for the Monks, which was really still at that time more of an improv kind of thing. Everybody thought they knew what was best for the band, and our handlers did not know how to help us with our problems very well. We were offered group therapy, which my have-helped, but I balked at it because I didn't know what good it would do. I remember having a talk with our producer, Delmis Herring, saying he didn't think Camper Van Beethoven should become the next Big Star, but I thought that at that point there was no way to avoid that. I could hold a grudge pretty well, and by that time the damage was done. I think the rest of the band were really tired of how the band was operating and we thought we knew how to run a band better. In some ways we did, in many other ways we did not. I still remember Lowery getting out of the band in Dover after we broke up and drove back to the Uk from Sweden. It was a depressing day. It was April 12th 1990. I has just turned 25.

In the summer of 1990, after a couple of months of sitting around the house and taking a lot of drugs and being depressed and exchanging my girlfriend of three years for a boyfriend who treated me badly, the Monks got back together. I had a lot of ideas sitting around, and we basically just got together in my living room and bashed them out. We wound up producing. things like The Traveler, inspired by an odd amalgam of Nick Cave and Pere Ubu as well as The Argentine Dilemma based on my idea of escaping to South America and 'Going South"...: which was based on the Bad Seeds and Neil Young….I was just learning to write a decent song! The Better Angels Of Our Nature being one, and we had a bunch of ideas hanging around.
Pedersen, Krummenacher, Immergluck and ?
The Monks were never extremely clear on what we wanted to do as far as being a band. I would write a bunch of stuff and four track it but a lot of it wasn’t really fitting for the band. I didn’t really understand then that being a songwriter and being in a band are different things. Bands are marketing tools for songwriters in most situations unless they stay alive through the process that they are forced to endure because of the music industry. The Monks Of Doom stayed alive for the next couple of years by jamming a lot. That was where much of Meridian came from.

We had made a demo for Virgin but it was declined. We found new management in the form of Marcy Straw who was a friend of Oliver DiCieco owner of Mobius Studios, our primary recording haunt. Marcy put us on the road quickly and by December of 1990 we were playing all the time. This required us to reinforce the live show as much as we could. New songs and covers came in all the time. It was an active point in our lives. We weren’t what really what one would call a cool band at that point. We were intellectual and awkward and were not able to garner the attention of Sub Pop. Rough Trade was going bankrupt so we did the best we could. After shopping around we signed with a start up indie based label Bated Breath in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

We toured the east coast that spring making enough money to keep going. At that point it was time to record. We rehearsed for a month to fill out the material for Meridian and then recorded it that summer. While it wasn’t a conflict free period of time, it was still the best group record I’d recorded in years. Everyone was really involved and everyone had an opportunity to contribute. It was a chance for us to really embrace our influences, to merge things such as Fugarzi, King Crimson, The Fall, Can, Neil Young, Nick Cave, No Means No, Booker T and the MGs, XTC, Pere Ubu, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention and all the other things I forgot about. It’s a great record in many ways but if it had been done in a nicer tape form it would have been even better. It was recorded on 1” 16-track which was just stupid of me. We should have recorded it at Mobius but I wanted to spend more time on it. If I could have sung better at the time then that would have helped. I still would like to remaster and re-release it, when I’m rich I will…We then began a heavy touring schedule which I can remember all that well, other than we used to tour a lot with Southern Culture On The Skids (who were great) and an obscure but great band called Metal Flake Mother who were label mates with us on Bated Breath.

Daniel House from SubPop loved the Monks. He couldn’t get Poneman or Pavitt to go for-us though, because we just didn't fit the grunge thing. He was operating CZ Records and decided to put out an e.p. I had written "The Insect God" in the fall of. 1990, for a friend who loved Edward Gorey, so I decided to go for it. (I had no idea that there was-.a Robert Wyatt associated version). We recorded that in the, spring of 92 as we were, negotiating with IRS. The plan was to record an album for IRS for a fall release. The problem was that we had been so busy touring that we hadn’t written enough songs.

We threw together Forgery and the remains of "The Insect God" from jams and half-baked ideas that we didn't either agree on or didn't take the time to work out, We weren’t getting budgets like we’d gotten with Camper Van Beethoven and we had to stay on the road to earn money, it was a diffictift time. I would write a lot, but the direction of much of my, stuff was heading in a personal direction, and much of the band wasn't interested in playing those songs. As a result our output began to falter.

"Forgery" has some fine moments, but I think it's a very weak and rushed record, .not helped by the producer (although it is engineered very well).
We got signed to I RS primarily because we were ex-members, of Camper Van Beethoven and Jay Bibberg at IRS had tried very hard to sign Camper Van Beethoven. CVB had turned him down and he hated that. I think he just wanted to get his hands on the CVB, back catalogue to fuck with us, we had gotten the rights to the catalogue when Rough Trade went broke.
Miles Copeland hated the band too, which didn't help. I hated Miles, and really hated Sting and the Police, who he managed so the hatred was mutual. Miles just wanted to bail on the Monks from day one. Jay fought hard for us, we really just need to sit down and write good material at that point as we did not have what we needed to push ourselves. We were scared of taking time off from touring because at that point that would have meant DAY JOBS, which nobody wanted to do.

Immergluck was really good friends with these guys in the Counting Crows who had suddenly become Hot Shit, with a major bidding war, one of those "New Dylan" buzzes that Hollywood invents every once in a while. He played with them on their debut record "August And Evertything After" and played at the rock and roll hall of fame with them. He worked with T.Bone Burnett, he worked with Bentmont Tench. He met Clapton. He was becoming a rockstar. The Monks were a working indie band. He wanted to leave, but had a difficult time confronting us on it. Eventually we asked him to leave. As soon as we did we were dropped from IRS for breaking the contract. Immergluck initially only stayed with the Counting Crows briefly before moving onto other full time session work. He loves the whole studio process more than most people I know. He’s not a songwriter, what he does best is lend himself to other peoples music. An enviable gift.

We were offered money by Jay to demo if we went and found a new female vocalist, but Greg, Chris. and I were burnt out. We didn't feel like it. We felt like we could have made a good record with much of the stuff that I had sitting around , much of what became Out In The Heat but none of us wanted to leap through the label hoops to do it. We'd' been working constantly for three years, and had just gotten home from a tour with King Missile. Chris was a new father. It wasn’t going to work for us anymore and we knew it, so we stopped though it was a hard thing to do. We were one of & better live hands I've ever seen. I'm not just bragging. . I still contend that much of what we did was ahead of our time, and that we were never a forced retro band. We were too fucking weird for that. It was good, honest music. I think we did write some shit, but the best stuff still holds up nicely.

Some More Gig Posters

The Albums

Soundtrack to the Film “Breakfast on the Beach of Deception”, Pitch-A-Tent Records, 1987, reissue IRS Records, 1992.

The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, Pitch-A-Tent Records 1989, reissue IRS Records, 1992.
Meridian, Moist/Baited Breath, 1991. (Their Masterpiece)

The Insect God, C/Z Records, 1992.
Forgery, IRS Records, 1992.
(Despite Victor's various misgivings I think this is a fucking amazing album)
What's Left For Kicks? magnetic, 2006

What came after.......

In 1998 Chris Perdersen moved to Australia and the Monks reformed for one brilliant show at the Bottom Of The Hill in SF. This show along with a few others is available to download over at the internet archive.

In 2006 the Monks came together once more to record their long promised album of covers
What's Left For Kicks and to play some storming concerts in California. They also played again at the first Campout festival, two tracks of their set appear on the DVD release of that event. There has been talk of the band coming together again to re-record their classic Meridian album for future release.
David Immergluck continues in the Counting Crows along with session work and being the sixth Camper whenever his schedule allows.
Victor Krummencher has two new albums coming very soon.
Greg Lisher has just released his second album Trains Change on his own imprint. His first album the superb Handed Down The Wire was released on Magnetic

theres also some great solo shows here.

Chris Pedersen lives in Australia and plays the drums.
other links

The Monks Of Doom at the Campout Festival a couple of years back.


bellamusica said...

no one has ever made music like monks of doom.

jbow said...

I don't know how such a great band can be so unknown... They are my favorite band ever and i've been around for a while. I played in my first band in 1965 and i've heard a lot of music in my time but none as good as MOD. Just got word that they are halfway through a new album to be released in 2011... hopefully early on... I am excited about it.

Anonymous said...

This is insightful. Thank you for posting it. The Monks were indeed ahead (and out) of their time and went away too quickly back then. I still listen to 'Meridian' on a regular basis and it never ceases to amaze, it never sounds dated. It is absolutely brilliant from beginning to end. I hope that it really will be remastered someday and that we will finally see the vinyl version. Now... on to the new album! Great!