Mono’s Siobhan and Martin explain how a blind studio date turned into a brilliant debut album.
The music embedded on Mono’s debut offering, Formica Blues, is a sonic pastiche of late ’60s American soul, orchestrally derived soundtrack collage, and eerie, electronic atmospherics. The result is a sound at once familiar and remote: a brilliant collision of a forgotten musical past and the uncharted terrain of the sonic future. And although the duo of Martin Virgo and Siobhan De Mare have only been together under the moniker Mono for less than a year now, they have already made significant polysonic waves on both sides of the Atlantic.
grid: Some of your songs definitely have a earthy, soulful undertone, but they’re more twisted and ambient. I understand that you’re something of a Phil Spector fan.
Martin: Yeah, definitely. I was trying to incorporate some of the previous production styles of various producers like Phil Spector [into our music]. I’d always loved the way he did things with his “wall of sound” and we were trying to update that a little bit.
What about the name Mono, is their any significance to it. I mean you aren’t recording in mono…
Martin: There’s not really any significance other than we were trying to find a name that had some sort of association with previous styles of music, which mono certainly does. Also time was sort of ticking away and we were desperate for a name and we kind of had to think of one quickly. It just so happened that this Phil Spector record was sitting there at the time. It said “Back to Mono” on the cover, so we kind of grabbed it. It seemed quite appropriate [at the time].
In the last five years artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, Mulu, Tricky, Chemical Brothers, and the Propellerheads, just to name a few, have created almost a new signature British sound, much the same way there was the whole British invasion back in the ’60s. I hate the term trip-hop, it’s actually more symphonically inclined ambient music, very heavy on mood and atmosphere. What do you feel the two of you are bringing to the table?
Martin: I suppose there’s this new kind of English sound, what the Americans are terming “electronica.” I mean it’s great that we’re thought of as being part of that because a lot of those bands you’ve just mentioned are pretty much my favorite type of bands at the moment. We’re a bit more song-based. We’re interested in writing songs in the conventional sense and then arranging them with the new electronic production techniques. I’m not sure whether the others are so interested in that area. So maybe that’s where we’re adding something.
You seem to have a lighter, wispier sound with an undercurrent of eerie, out-of-timelessness. Y’know, it sounds familiar, but you can’t really put your fingers on it.
Martin: That’s right. I think Siobhan’s vocals as well are slightly more rooted in the past. She’s very interested in soul singing and things like that.
Siobhan: He’s right. I don’t know if we’re consciously trying to contribute a new thing. Really, we’re just doing what we want to do. And it seems to fit into a certain genre and people have compared it certain types of music like the Bristol sound or the post-Bristol sound. We love all that, so it’s always very flattering and very complementary to be compared to people we listen to and really appreciate.
Siobhan, how do you meld your words to Martin’s music?
Siobhan: There’s no real format to the way Mono operates. Sometimes I’ll come to the studio with something, sometimes there’ll be a drum loop laid down, sometimes there’ll be a harp sound. It could be anything. Perhaps a conversation we have and we get a lyric from that and start writing around that. There’s no real format and I think that’s the beauty, not to turn into a group that has to work within a certain format. You just have to go where the inspiration is naturally and then you’ll get a good sound. I mean we change emotionally from day-to-day so that also affects the way we operate.
“Silicone” sounds completely different from “High Life.” “High Life” sounds like a girl group from the ’60s, say the Ronettes, while “Silicone” has a renaissance feel, kind of an Elizabethan-meets-Mozart vibe.
Martin: That’s probably because in “Silicone” there’s harpsichord and although they are quite classical [sounding], they actually come from the English film music of the ’60s, the John Barry-type stuff.
Didn’t you lift some John Barry music for “Life In Mono"?
Martin: We took one song from the Ipcress File. A lot of the sounds we’re dealing with were kind of influenced by those film soundtracks of the ’60s. That’s where all the harpsichord and things come from.
When you’re digging for samples, say when you go to the record stores, do you look for obscure soundtracks?
Martin: I don’t actually have to go looking for them because I have quite a lot of them anyway. I started collecting that sort of thing when I was a kid really. I’ve always been interested in soundtracks. I always used to go out and buy them, hunt them down. They are a great source of inspiration and samples. There’s that whole sort of area of music that you can sample and make something new from.
While we’re on the subject of sampling, would you consider yourselves more of a studio band as versus a live band? I mean your live shows aren’t just you and Martin on stage rolling out taped loops, are they?
Siobhan: Oh no, that would be so boring. None of that. We’ve got a drummer, a bass player, guitarist, Martin on keys and me. Basically we both come from a very live background, so although the music sounds quite studio-based, we manage to take it live and it sounds great because everyone’s playing the stuff. We work with an ADAT as well, so we capture the feel of the album and it works.
I understand that you both come from interesting musical backgrounds…
Siobhan: Oh yeah, Martin’s mother was an opera singer.
Martin: She wasn’t an opera singer, she was a piano teacher. She was an amateur opera singer and a singing teacher, so I kind of grew up in a musical family.
Siobhan: Martin’s was a retentive household, whereas mine was a bit more bohemian. My dad was in The Shadows and my grandmother was a Cuban dancer with Shirley Bassey.
So you’re sort of like yin and yang?
Siobhan: Yes, now I’m trying to be bit more retentive and he’s trying to be a bit more bohemian.
Your song titles are kind of out there. I mean what the hell is a Slimcea Girl?
Martin: You’re the first American to be able to pronounce that right. It’s a peculiarly English thing that’s why people have a problem with it. Strangely enough it’s a type of bread. It’s to be used as part of a calorie-controlled diet. It’s from the ’60s.
Siobhan: There was a woman from the advert that he fancied. He never got over it, so as an adult he said alright, let me write a song about it.
What about “Hello Cleveland"?
Siobhan: I think that’s a bit of a Spinal Tap reference.
Martin: There’s a point in the film, a really funny moment, where [the band Spinal Tap] get stuck backstage and they take about an hour to get from the back of the stage to the front. They’re playing this big place and it’s in Cleveland and when they eventually make it to the front of the stage everyone’s gone. And they come to the front of the mic and yell, “Hello Cleveland,” which is quite the rock and roll thing to do. The track wasn’t very rock and roll, so it was a bit of a joke.
What about the album artwork? It also has a late ’60s feel, almost Richard Diebenkorn or maybe Rauschenberg?
Martin: Well, basically it’s a young artist who had never actually done any album artwork before. Her name is Kate Gibbs and as we felt that the record was quite purely English we thought we’d incorporate some little things from the surrounding areas of London. So that’s where the artwork comes from. It’s just sort of abstractive. She’s still in college, actually, and she hadn’t ever done an album cover before so she was pretty excited about it. It was done specifically for the record. I think covers are really important. I think they’re supposed to reflect the music inside, really. She listened to the record and that was the mood she came up with.
What do the two of you use as inspiration for your music? Like when you go to write lyrics is it just a day-to-day basis on your moods?
Siobhan: Often I sit home and I write a lot of poetry if I’ve got a problem or if something has happened or if I’m feeling a certain way. So I’ll use a lot of my poetry and also I’m obviously really influenced by whatever Martin’s doing in the studio. He’ll come out with something and I will just automatically start singing something over the top of it and that’s often where it begins.
You also build upon literature, film, everyday life, just sort of an accumulation of all that’s around you?
Siobhan: Yeah! [For instance,] I could see a picture with a caption. I mean there’s that millionaire woman at the moment in America with the most bizarre surgery. Something like that can start a song going. Just anything like that, something so outrageous, so bizarre, could trigger something. It could be anything, it could be an emotion that hasn’t been spoken between us that could come out in a song.
Not to tread on your personal lives, but are the two of you an item, as in emotionally involved?
Siobhan: Martin’s married and I’m not. We’re really close but we’re not sleeping together.
So how long did you know each other before you formed Mono?
Siobhan: About a week.
So how did you actually meet? Did you answer a classified in the paper or what?
Siobhan: Basically a mutual friend introduced us and said why don’t you two try some stuff together. And we met and Martin had some ideas that he wanted to play for me and see what I thought of them. Initially I wasn’t really into what he was doing, so I recommended my sister come and do some vocals. I was going to go out and live in Paris and do some stuff for a small French label. And he said “No, no, let’s carry on with this.” And within weeks we were being hounded by all the major record companies and being asked to sign a big deal and become a band. Which was strange, because we were just two people we weren’t a band at all. But it worked really well.
What were the two of you doing prior to your meeting?
Siobhan: I was just kind of doing bits and pieces. I’d been offered a situation where I could have gone out to Paris for six months and gotten 1,000 pounds a week, which is about 2000 dollars a week to become a bit of a disco queen for a bit of a laugh. It was all a bit of situation that was being discussed and people were offering me different things. And I wanted to go out there for six months, bring the money back, and build my own little studio with the money. That was the plan and then I met Martin and that all went out the window because we had a situation that was unstoppable.
Martin: I was largely based in the studio scene in London. I was working for quite a few different producers, Nellee Hooper and some others, in quite a few different types of music.
Being that “Life In Mono” got heavy exposure from the recent Great Expectations soundtrack and the fact that Martin is so fond of ’60s era film scores, do the two of you have aspirations to actually do soundtrack scores?
Martin: We didn’t, oddly enough. As I said before it was more of a songwriting exercise. We were interested in writing sort of classically styled pop songs. But since the album’s come out people have suggested that we do that, so it might happen in the future. It’s very hard to write a good film soundtrack, but it would be good to have a go at it.#