The Monsters of Folk claim not to remember who exactly came up with their name — some smart-aleck roadie or tour manager or booking agent. But they know that it’s tongue in cheek, sort of. The foursome — Conor Oberst, 29, better known as Bright Eyes; Matt Ward, 35, better known as M. Ward; Jim James, 31, the frontman of My Morning Jacket, who lately prefers to be known as Yim Yames; and the producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, 35 — are all outsize names and voices in indie rock. But they’re about as threatening as a knock-knock joke. Or maybe a noogie.
Hanging out together in a SoHo hotel room recently, they seemed one boyish wisecrack away from giving each other one. Their evident camaraderie is also audible on their self-titled debut album, out tomorrow from Shangri-La Music. Given their musical stature, the record was highly anticipated in indie circles as a collection of finely wrought songs with no overarching theme except that they are not all that folk. The collaboration — and the name — was spurred by a 2004 triple-bill tour, when they discovered how well they got along.
“The world needed a Monsters of Folk,” James said, sitting on an antique green couch, his arm around Oberst. “And we answered the call.”
What did that call sound like?
James howled and said, “It sounded like dying Virgin Megastores and dying newspapers, dying trees, collapse of an empire, rebirth of a nation.”
Ward, who had made coffee for everyone and was serving it in espresso cups, piped in. “We all have a lot of the same instincts about the music,” he said. “There’s just a lot of overlapping circles, I think it’s safe to say. I think we started developing trust, the way a family would.”
Bearded (James, resplendently; Mogis, modestly) and wearing scruffy outfits (Ward, flannel; Oberst, embroidered hippie shirt), they did look sort of familial — a family of lo-fi kingpins. (By consensus, Mogis, the producer, is the father figure.) But even in the cross-pollinating world of indie rock, Monsters of Folk is something of a rarity, with three singer-songwriter-guitarists, all essentially in their prime in terms of critical appreciation, robust fan bases and artistic sway, and a common audience.
Bloggers and reviewers have been quick to call them a supergroup, a thorny label. “The very problem with the word supergroup is that you do expect it to be times four, and I think this is going to be much more qualitative than quantitative,” said Bobby Haber, chief executive of CMJ Network, which tracks music trends among college-age listeners. “I think these guys want to go out there and do what they’ve always done, but just do it together.” Given their lengthy careers, he added, “I think it’s going to be embraced.”
But to hear the band members tell it, the project was a lark done mostly for their own pleasure.
“We were all really, really curious to see what would happen if we actually made the record and what it would sound like,” Ward said.
The three songwriters contributed five songs apiece, and each sang lead on his own material. Mogis collaborated on finishing each track, and all songs are credited to the group, with the members playing all the instruments. Their styles and voices — winsome and gravely for Ward; plaintive and twangy for Oberst; lyrical and roots rock-y for James — remain distinct, even on songs like Say Please, the first single, in which they harmonize.
The record opens with Dear God (Sincerely MOF), an electro-tinged track James wrote with the idea that each lead singer would take a verse. (Oberst added the “Sincerely” part to the title.) They shared ideas on the orchestration and debated the track listing.
The Monsters had caveats about which label they’d sign with: they wanted one with which no member had other ties, and they were interested in a younger company. Though they had other offers, the band members said, Shangri-La won the one-record deal. The label was founded two years ago by music industry veterans. Jeff Ayeroff, the co-chairman, was a top executive with Virgin and Warner Brothers and had helped produce Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty as the Traveling Wilburys. He brushed off blogger comparisons to that group, though he did volunteer that James was the Orbison of Monsters, the “secret sauce.” He instead likened them to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I call it an uber-group, not a supergroup,” he said archly.
Though musicians today are accustomed to broadcasting their every move, the Monsters of Folk kept their collaboration quiet, partly out of concern that it wouldn’t actually coalesce.
After months of group discussion and sending demos to one another via e-mail, they finally met in the studio that Oberst and Mogis built in their shared backyard in Omaha in February 2008; Ward, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and James, who is from Louisville, Kentucky, stayed in the guesthouse there. The tryout session went well enough that they reconvened in Malibu, California, a few months later, then eventually returned to Omaha to finish the album. But altogether their studio time amounted to only a few weeks.
“We started the record with no expectations of making a record, which was a part of the liberating enjoyment of making the music,” Mogis said.
They hung out together in their off time too, cooking and driving around. In California they rented a convertible — “a sweet silver Sebring,” Oberst said — and cruised, blasting Be Thankful for What You Got, the 1970s soul hit by William DeVaughn, the only music other than their own they listened to. “It’s like the best song ever,” Oberst said. “Jim played it on repeat for about six days straight.”
That shared affinity for retro sound comes through in their album, recorded largely on vintage equipment. For a group vocal, Mogis even tried having the threesome sing into one mic, “old-school style,” he said. It didn’t work — their volumes were too different — so they used separate mics but recorded simultaneously.
“You needed that camaraderie, that sort of, like, when he’s done, I pick it up here,” Mogis said, “because if you’re just overdubbing that and you come in cold, it doesn’t feel right.”
But experimentation was part of the process; though all are multi-instrumentalists, they are not typically drummers, except on this album. On Losin Yo Head, a rowdy track recorded in one take, Oberst was on drums, Mogis on bass, Ward on guitar and backup vocal and James on lead vocals and guitar, amplified through a big Marshall Stack. “I felt better about that one,” Oberst can be heard saying at the end.
“It’s just such a different energy, of smashing this song with four people who are all kind of halfway going, am I doing this right?” James said. “As opposed to when I make a record with My Morning Jacket: that’s comfort, like a pinpoint, precision drill.” With Monsters of Folk, “You’re afraid the house is going to fall apart, but that’s what makes it fun, that energy.”
It felt like “we were high schoolers jamming in our garage,” Mogis said.
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