Mona Puts the Pop in Populist
Published July 19, 2011
MONA. PHOTOS BY BENJAMIN STELLY
MONA begins and ends with lead singer Nick Brown’s grandmother, whom the band is named after and who, according to Brown’s Twitter, “could kick your ass.” Before getting much attention in the states, the band was already named one of BBC’s “Top 10 Sound of 2011” bands; before even one show in the States, their career took off in the UK. As a result, they are often mistaken for being from the UK, but they’re American boys through and through.
The band’s sound is influenced by each of the individual members: guitarist Jordan Young’s punk influences from Black Flag to the Ramones; Zach Lindsey’s soft spot for the Beatles; and Brown and drummer Vince Gard’s love for soul, doo-wop, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash. Other influences include The Pixies, Nirvana, and early U2, and it comes through in their music: powerful, passionate songs that sound like classic rock.
MONA has already hit the stages at Glastonbury, Jools Holland, and Slane Castle Festival, but the band is soon to conquer the US with their timeless music; their self-titled debut is out in early fall. While the band was in New York last week, we chatted with Brown about his Pentecostal upbringing, his grandma, and “the cool tent.”
ILANA KAPLAN: How’d you first get into music?
NICK BROWN: Church.
KAPLAN: Church, of all things?
BROWN: My father was a pastor. My grandfather was a pastor. My grandmother, Mona, was a worship-leader. My uncles were a trio. My aunts were in the choir. My sisters were in the choir. Church was 24/7. The thing about charismatic Pentecostals is it’s very emotional. It’s all about feeling it: feeling the spirit. It was a full band. It was everything. This was very expressive. Even seeing how to be a frontman, I learned a lot of things from my dad. When he preached, he broke pulpits. People have signature moves. KAPLAN: Were you very close to your grandmother?
BROWN: Yeah. She’s dead now. I like timeless. I don’t like trendy… like I’ve said “Indie is for cowards” a million times, because I think good music is for everyone, not just the cool kids. I don’t like elitism. Well, I think there are two kinds of elitism. I think there’s, “I’m up in my tower, you’re down there, fuck you.” And then there’s, “I’m up in my tower, you’re down there, come up here, because the air is better up here. Everyone deserves this air.” That kind of elitism, we hold ourselves at a certain level, but you’re welcome to it.
I like substance, timelessness and classics. There’s nobody cooler than James Dean. There’s nobody cooler than Marilyn Monroe. There are just things that are classics. They have weight and they matter. I can’t even keep up with the hip-hop stars right now. I mean, I like it. I’m into all genres. That stuff is all temporary. There’s nothing more classic than Grandma. When I first came into the world, she was some of the first music that I heard. When she had Alzheimer’s and was dying, people would come and play old church music. She would yell at them and tell them to turn it off. Keep in mind, my grandma was a good, moral church lady, not one that would be screaming at people. That was right around the time that I started doing demos, and my dad and I would go into play for her. It would be the only thing that would calm her down. When I came into the world, she was some of the stuff I heard. When she left the world, I was some of the last stuff she heard. It was kind of like The Lion King: “the circle of life.” We’re all mama’s boys in our band. We’re all very family-oriented. We can drink and chase women and do what people in bands. At the end of the day, you want to be a great artist and you also want to be a good human. We’re pretty balanced, I think.
FROM LEFT: VINCE GARD, NICK BROWN, JORDAN YOUNG, AND ZACH LINDSEY
KAPLAN: You guys exude the 1950s when you perform. You can hear it. It’s a little rougher, your look.
BROWN: It’s simple. When we first did it, I don’t think we even thought it was ’50s. We thought, let’s just go simple. I had long hair. Zach had long hair. We kept stripping it down. It wasn’t this conscious, “let’s reference the fifties” thing. We kept simplifying things. We wanted to get away from things that we knew weren’t going to last. We just knew we didn’t want to be a part of something that faded out. We didn’t want that emo-swoop haircut. We just stayed away from everything. It once again goes to stuff that’s timeless. Our sound isn’t super-’50s, but our look definitely is. We’re not necessarily experimental. We’re not re-inventing the wheel. We’re just trying to write good singalong rock songs.
KAPLAN: What has been your most exciting moment so far?
BROWN: There’s a lot of them, because we signed a deal with a record label and a publisher within the same two months, which is hard for anybody to get a record deal, let alone an international deal. That’s just getting your foot in the game, so obviously we’re grateful. Then we did Jools Holland immediately with Adele, Arcade Fire, Robert Plant and Mavis Staples, which was the first thing we ever did. Jools Holland for some people is like a crowning achievement, like okay, I can die now.
Our first outdoor show ever in our career was Slane Castle in Ireland, where we played in front of 80,000 people. We played with Kings of Leon. Our first festival ever was the John Peel stage at Glastonbury, which is one of the best festivals, if not the biggest. There were 177,000 people there this year. John Peel tent is like the cool tent. It’s just a cool vibe. There’s a lot. For me, I always say, a gig’s just a gig. I don’t care if it’s nine or 90,000. It’s about the music and about winning that crowd over. Each crowd is a female, as a man. If you’re a female artist, each crowd is a male. You don’t flirt with them the same. The foreplay is not the same. You don’t fuck your girlfriend and say, “This is the way I used to fuck my ex-girlfriend,” and her go, “Oh that means a lot.” It’s the same thing with the crowd. You want to really interact and get to know their personality and song to song really feel like you’re having a moment.
KAPLAN: Does your debut album have a particular theme, or is it all over the place for you?
BROWN: It definitely does. When we were picking the songs for it, I think songs have personalities, but I think albums have personalities. You don’t want a schizophrenic. You want there to be cohesiveness. I think all humans have rage. I think all humans are capable of murder. I think all humans have super compassion. I think all humans are greedy. I think all humans are capable of love. I think all humans are capable of heartache. I want it to be a human album. I want to be the most human band on the planet. I don’t want to just touch the cool emotions. I don’t want to just touch the sunglasses and leather-jacket emotions. I want to reference those dreams where you’re in the supermarket naked and you’re awkward and insecure. Or the feelings not about getting the girl, but about losing the girl and feeling like you’re nothing. The fight songs. I always talk about the Fs: Faith, fighting, fucking, friends, fear. It’s all of them. There’s a longing. If you can sum the whole thing up in one word, it’s just a longing for whatever. It’s not our place to be preachy to tell you what to feel, but it is my place to provoke you and at least challenge you to feel. What that is, is your choice. Just wake the fuck up. We’re definitely the white buffalo: the rare breed. Hip-hop stars are the new rock stars and most rock stars are a bunch of pussies. We’re trying to inject, some whatever, back into our roles.