Monophonics: Lockdown Soul

By Chris Wells

Kelly Finnigan, frontman of Californian vintage psychedelic-soul band Monophonics, is holed up at home, like most of the rest of us. He hasn’t seen his bandmates since lockdown and even visits to his nearby studio have to be taken solo.
Which is a bit of a bugger, really, because the group’s very fine new album, It’s Only Us, beat the ramping up of virus precautions by about a week, thus leaving it out there on shelves and streaming platforms just as the band’s tour dates were all postponed. It’s a tale reflected right across the music industry in this spring of 2020.
But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. In any case, Kelly reports, It’s Only Us is already showing up well across the latest Billboard charts and at least he can still do interviews. Like me, he was also cheered to note that certain important stores have been classed as ‘essential’ outlets:
“Hah! Yeah, it’s the same here – places to buy alcohol are still open… and the marijuana outlets. Some people need that as medicine, of course.”
Yes, of course they do. Exactly that.

Finnigan is these days the main songwriter and acknowledged leader of the band, but was not a founder member of Monophonics: they began back in 2005, when original members Ian McDonald [guitar], Yuri Whitman [bass], Colin Brown [keys], Alex Baky [sax] and Ryan Scott [trumpet] came together over a love for vintage soul, jazz and funk to form what initially was [mainly] a Bay Area, gigging, instrumental band. Five years down the line our man came on board as a keyboard sub and things took off.
“Yeah, I was brought in when their original keyboard player joined the great migration to Brooklyn,” recalls Kelly. “That was around 2010/11 and we really hit it off. They liked what I brought to the table – which, essentially, was a driven mind-set. I’d never been in a band until then – I was a studio guy; I’d been about producing, engineering, writing songs. And they had started off as a college band, finding their way, finding their style. They liked artists like James Brown, Grant Green… and it worked fine. Once I joined, though, I kinda turned up the heat a little and asked, ‘Hey, what’s the goal here?’ I had that attitude of making it reach its potential.”
And before that?
“Before that I had a little group, Destruments, which played jazzy, funky, hip-hop… mostly instrumental too. I hadn’t really done much singing at that point. But it awoke something inside of me as far as performing and singing when I met Monophonics. I guess, the timing was everything. They were ready to shake off that instrumental band thing and I was running into a great band with a horn section. It was very exciting. I wanted to write songs and they were ready for that. We were in our mid-to-late 20s and growing out of our influences – playing a lot of covers, learning how to structure songs, growing as artists. That’s a very important learning curve.”

Kelly’s own musical education had previously had a lot to do with his dad’s profession: Mike Finnigan played keyboards for such as Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker and Etta James. He’d been used to having musicians around the family home as a kid and since his father’s musical hero was Ray Charles, there was a lot of sixties and seventies soul music going into his ears.
“Personally, I think there are just certain genres of music that sound right when presented in a particular way,” says Kelly of his love for that old soul sound. “Making something sound clean and new and shiny doesn’t suit soul music – not to me, anyway. All of us in the band, we like the way old records sound, whether it be a high-end production like a Motown or something from a small indie label, like Steeltown. We are attracted to analogue recording too.

“We all grew up hearing soul and R&B from the sixties and seventies, mainly through our parents, so when we are writing our songs, we are guided by those old artists. We talk about these old records amongst ourselves when we get together to write. We talk about things we have been listening to – sharing records some of us have never heard before. And we figure out what it was they did that made it feel so honest and real. The puzzle pieces come together to make it what it is – starting with the arranger, who to me was probably the most important guy in the room, and then the musicians, the producer, and of course the singer. We break those things down and look at the individual pieces.
“Understand, we’re not about imitating or recreating stuff. Soul music from back in the sixties and seventies will always be the bar that has been set. People who do it well, like Sharon Jones and Gabe Roth before us, they were trying to remind you of what it was that tugged your heartstrings so much. Everybody has their own genre – the type of music that speaks to them – and for me soul music has that message, that feeling, that directness I’m looking for. We’re about trying to capture that feeling.”

And it all begins with the song, says Kelly.
“That’s exactly how we think about it, yeah. The song is the first and most important thing. It’s something I learned as a teenager – because of my dad, I was able to be around some pretty cool people, like Crosby, Stills and Nash. I remember David Crosby talking about that – he was all about the song. People like Tom Petty were of the opinion that if you couldn’t sit down at the piano and play the song, and have it make an impact right off, then you were in trouble. It wouldn’t matter how cool the record sounded: if you didn’t have the chords, the melody and the words, you had nothing. Curtis Mayfield, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, George Kerr, Bert Berns… all of those guys… the people in the Brill Building too… they knew how important what they were doing was.”

It also helps if you play it and record it on the right equipment, adds Kelly.
“I started buying vintage keyboards in my 20s. That inspired me to play keyboards, because I didn’t really learn the piano before that. The sound was a big part for me. Now our studio is full of vintage amps and drum kits and guitars. But a good musician can sit behind any drum kit and make it sound good, or play any bass. The magic is in the fingers. The old equipment. It adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, which is nice.”

It’s Only Us shows a measure of musical development from Monophonics’ last album, 2015’s Sound Of Sinning. Whereas that sounded more mid-sixties, this time it’s like they took a step forward in time to around 1970.
“There wasn’t so much a central theme to this album, but we did have a mood board,” explains Kelly, whose solo album The Tales People Tell was one of my own top selected albums from 2019. “I love writing love songs, but coming off my solo record, I wanted to try and not just write love songs this time. I wanted to talk about some other issues. I had friends and family going through certain things, and I looked at what was happening in America… so I wanted to touch on other stuff.
“Our last album had a lot of three-to-four-minute songs and we wanted to stretch out a little more on this one – with the arrangements and so on. It’s a whole other avenue in soul music, when you think of people like Norman Whitfield or Isaac Hayes, or Curtis Mayfield and what they did with their music. Those guys took their time before they gave you the prize. We wanted to feel freer to do that. We didn’t want it be so much, ‘Don’t bore us – get to the chorus’.
“And we wanted to use some new sounds too. We wanted to use different keyboard sounds. We wanted to, maybe, put the sitar through a fuzz pedal… just, y’know, try some new things, make the palate wider.
“The worst thing you can do is just repeat yourself. I know as a fan, sometimes, you hear a favourite band change their music around and you’re horrified – because you really wanted more of the same. But as artists you do get why you need to change it up – bring in new textures, new sounds, new subjects to the lyrics. So we pushed the boundaries but without scaring off anybody. I hope.”

It was a natural development too:
“Yeah, it was. We didn’t actually talk that way in the studio, but that’s pretty much just what happened. If you look back, it was the late sixties when Hot Buttered Soul came out and Johnny Allen, who arranged that record, woke up a sleeping beast. The way those songs were turned on their head and taken on a seven-minute journey. And Norman Whitfield, what he did with The Temptations.
“So, yeah, our album is one step forward. People grow, their lives change, and we are all different people. The 25-year-old Monophonics does not sound like the 35-year-old Monophonics. Nor should it.”

Our review in last month’s Soul Sides column picked out the seven-minutes-plus track Last One Standing as encapsulating the expansion in the band’s sound – it’s vocal first section followed by a long instrumental part that felt like a movie soundtrack.
“That’s a lot of people’s favourite,” says Kelly. “I have never had to work so hard on a song, putting together that kind of arrangement. I wanted to make sure each moment really counted. Some people who love Curtis and know records like Move On Up, they would get it right away. Once again, it happened very naturally. We had the song and it was cool, but we thought, ‘What would happen if we had an instrumental part, where we built it up?’ We never listened to Move On Up and tried to write one like that; we never did it that way around. We just realized that along the way. And we are always happy to be associated with someone like Curtis Mayfield, because, personally, he’s my biggest influence. I’m never upset by that comparison. I mean, if you were a filmmaker and somebody said, ‘Your movie felt like a Scorsese’, you wouldn’t be offended! You’d say, ‘Thank you!’”

The title track has a nostalgic vibe, not to mention a lyric that works on two levels – as a love song and as a message to a wider world.
“That’s definitely what I wanted,” nods Kelly. “That song felt like a song that might have been on my solo record, so I wanted to make it different somehow. We worked hard on making it different. There’s something comforting about it – like an old pair of shoes or an old t-shirt. The music and melody, the harp in there… it’s nostalgic, for sure. And, given what’s been happening in the world recently – not just right now, but with Brexit, with Trump… the divisions in society now – there was definitely a feeling the song had more meaning than a woman and a man. It was about the human side of connecting and accepting each other. Scary things sometimes make you all put divisions aside and try to fix the problem. Once we get through this, maybe we need to rethink stuff like that.”

It’s Only Us is available to stream now and will be released officially in the UK on April 24.