"Can you pass me those Swedish Fish?" asks Graeme Stewart, looking at the bright package of gummy treats. "Wait, why is the Swedish fish wearing a snorkel on the bag? He's already a fish!" Josh Salter groans: "I feel sick, I ate too many of those cheap Sour Keys. I think that's what our album is like."
A room full of candy is the sweetest context for a band like Monomyth. Sinister and troublesome confections by Salter, Stewart, Seamus Dalton and Matthew Peters are coated and disguised by sugary pop melodies on the debut LP Saturnalia Regalia. Released on Tuesday by Vancouver's Mint Records, eight tracks are dressed in Salter's classic-psychedelic album design, reminiscent of Partridge Family fan art.
Monomyth sounds like a mix between American Bandstand, lava lamps and unbuttoned button-ups. They cherry pick from '60s pop, '70s rock and '80s shoegaze. In the last three years, Monomyth has become a kid in a candy shop, signed to a prominent label after two EPs and two cross-country tours.
"The way the record came about, it happened really fast," explains drummer Peters. "The support behind it was much more grandiose than we expected. This time last year, an LP seemed really far away."
After the Halifax Pop Explosion in October, not one but two labels started charming Monomyth for an album. But Mint Records, home to artists like Nardwuar, Andrew W.K. and The Sadies, won the band over.
"Well, before that happened, we met the Mint people in Vancouver when we played Jay Arner's record release on the second tour," Salter says. "That's when they saw us for the first time and thought, we get them."
So, in January, Monomyth took six of Saturnalia's eight tracks to Echo Chamber Audio.
"We had been playing most of the songs regularly, and for a long time. Like, 'Theme From Monomyth' is old as hell," Salter says. Dalton agrees: "Yeah, it's not like we wrote an album for them, but we still had to put one together. For how lazy I am in general, when Mint asked us to have a record ready in six months, we were like, 'Yeah, alright,' and we did it." With Charles Austin and Dave Ewenson on the boards, the band laid down the bed tracks in two days. "But the vocals took forever," Stewart says.
"The songs don't really make sense together," Dalton says, eschewing any notions of a concept album. "There's no overall approach or underlying theme or anything."
But the sound is consistent.
"That's the thing, we were consistent with how we mixed the record," says Salter. "It's the tones." And those tones take Monomyth's surface innocence to disturbing and freaky places. Jangly pop is perverted by Dalton's whammy bar, Stewart's technical manipulations and complex song structures. "It is way simpler than you'd expect and probably way simpler than it sounds. It's just tone and reverb," says Stewart. "Seamus and Josh both have complementary but distinct tones. Like, Josh's guitar is rock city: solos, distortion, usually pretty thick and loud. Seamus is all whammy, chorus, pedals and flange. I just play bass, but I brought the chorus pedal into the mix." Salter interrupts: "No question!"
Saturnalia has been streaming for a week, receiving glowing reviews around the web that praise the album for its lighthearted lyrics and catchy riffs, which is great but somewhat misses the mark.
"It sounds lighthearted but the form and the content don't really match, do they?" Salter asks.
"No, honestly, it's all dark," agrees Dalton. "I mean, making pop music is fun and it makes you feel nice, but like, you have to get real grimy. That's what makes me feel sweet. That deep, dark, grimy shit."
Take the album's opener, 'Theme From Monomyth.' It has all the ornaments of a '60s pop-era radio-friendly love song, but the intention is much different: "It sounds straightforward but it's kind of a creepy song," Stewart says. "I wrote it to be sinister, and Josh took it to a weird level with his lyrics, like, 'I'm so glad I came' has the obvious double-entendre." Salter interrupts again: "What double-entendre?"
Stewart continues: "Someone said 'Patsy' sounds like a '50s sock-hop song, which I didn't think of until the video."
Directed by Seth Smith, "Patsy" visually grasps the band's ulterior motives.
"It was the song I was most attracted to and it seemed to lend itself well to dreamy imagery," says Smith. "The song is a bit of a waltz and to me, it's a love song about loss."
It's also about Dalton's kitty, a shade of which appears in Smith's surrealist nightmare that also features an unsettling speech by Matt Grimson, a futuristic but disastrous matrimony and Monomyth as the wedding band in an Ed Sullivan-esque performance piece. The video flirts with Monomyth's twist on traditional pop music settings.
"A wedding gone wrong felt like a good fit," Smith adds. "It's refreshing to hear a pop band that isn't afraid of making pop music. These guys are good songwriters. They appreciate a good melody, but at the same time, they know it's all a bunch of bull."
Monomyth is aloof but not pretentious.
"When we started out, we were just all into the same music," Stewart says, who met Dalton while working at American Apparel, already in talks with Salter about starting a new band. "Seamus said to check out The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I was deeply getting into '60s stuff, as well."
With original drummer Andrew Patterson Monomyth put out a self-titled EP that was passed around pretty quickly.
"Our timeline is surprisingly similar to Jonestown's, which is like, we started out straight shoegaze and slowly went towards more Stones-y stoner shit," Dalton says, explaining the two psych-rock and gaze-styled EPs. Stewart elaborates: "It felt like that transition made sense, especially with '80s shoe gaze being influenced by jangly '60s music, like The Byrds. I mean, from a sound production standpoint, the dreamy side of the '60s, like The Mamas and the Papas, was influential later on so that's how it works."
Salter chimes in: "For me, it was like a step backwards, actually. Like, been there, done that." As a member of bands The Gideons and Quivers, Salter's taste has always leaned towards '70s paisley prints. Plus, the influence of Halifax's 2000-era throwback label, Just Friends Records, is evident. On top of Monomyth's well-rehearsed live sound, word got around about their animated and tight performances.
"I like goofing around," says Salter. "I like the theatre aspect of playing a show, but I think I've really toned it down." His Mono-antics have included smashing mirrors and running into crowds. Still, between Halifax, two tours, festivals like Sled Island, NXNE and Sappyfest, they've played 150 shows.
"You have to think about playing live. I mean, you want to write a song that's good, but you have to think about how it will go over live, too," says Dalton, citing rapper Danny Brown as an example of catering to an audience with a record's content. Stewart adds: "Yeah and I have an awful tendency to slow things down---all my Monomyth songs are like mid-tempo to slow."
Monomyth's strong presence and reputation is the result of an artistic synergy and shared goals that brought them together. But times are a-changing. Patterson bowed out before the band's first tour, which made space for Peters. But he'll be returning to school in September when Monomyth tours Canada and some of the US. Likewise, Stewart is leaving the band to move to Toronto in late August.
"All the touring is definitely paying off, no doubt about it," Stewart says. "But I don't like the idea of touring long-term, so that's the major reason for me." Peters, however, considers himself on hold. They say it's an awkward time to transition but Salter and Dalton are totally committed and have found replacements for now, putting Scott Grundy (Heaven for Real) on drums and Andrew Mazzerole on bass.
"You have to be fully invested to make it happen every night," says Dalton. "And that's really hard because you expect to jump to the part when it's all amazing and fun, but you have to put in the work first, and we are putting in the work so we'll see." Salter adds: "Yeah, just keep on smiling, man."
Monomyth w/ Cold Warps, Old & Weird, Mega Bog
Friday, July 25 at 6pm, ALL AGES
The Khyber, 5521 Cornwallis Street
Monomyth w/Heaven For Real, DJ Gwen West
Friday, July 25 at 10:30pm
The Oasis, 5661 Spring Garden Road