Once frontman Dave Wyndorf gets wound up, he doesn’t stop, so hop on board and enjoy the ride—from Monster Magnet’s lead guitar musical chairs and Wyndorf’s notion of what an album should be, to likeminded bands he admires and the origin story of their mascot/muse/monster the Bullgod.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND / PHOTOS BY JEREMY SAFFER
Monster Magnet seemed poised to take over the world in the 1990s. Armed with a refreshingly psychedelic hard rock sound and an aesthetic drawn from science fiction movies and Silver Age Marvel Comics, the New Jersey-based troop, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Wyndorf, boasted critically acclaimed LPs like Dopes to Infinity and Superjudge and genuine radio rock hits like “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” and “Space Lord,” the latter of which pushed its Powertrip album to gold status. Despite minor success and a huge influence on the ‘90s wave of stoner rock, the group could never quite crack the sky into the big time. Following the release of 2001’s brilliantly eclectic but commercially moribund God Says No, however, the Magnet lost its major label contract and seemed to disappear from the scene.
Except that it didn’t. Signing to Europe-based hard rock/metal labels SPV and Napalm, Monster Magnet continued to release solid records, leading up to this year’s Last Patrol, an album with sharper songwriting, production and playing than anything since God Says No. The band also concentrated its touring energies in the Olde Worlde, where audiences proved more receptive to its vision. Mounting its first U.S. tour in a decade behind the amazing new Last Patrol, Monster Magnet has proven itself not only still capable of greatness, but that, if anything, it’s stronger than ever.
Not that there haven’t been a few changes along the way, of course. Diehard fans will immediately note the absence of six-string gunslinger Ed Mundell. “I had to ask him to quit,” admits Wyndorf. “He’s one of the guys who’d just hang around, [in moaning voice] ‘I don’t like this, I don’t wanna tour, I don’t like playin’ the same songs, I wanna do something else.’ Well, do it! ‘Well, muh…’ That kind of thing. And that happens to really talented people.”
Long-serving second guitarist Phil Caivano stepped into the void. (Riotgod guitarist Garrett Sweeney has joined the band on tour to revive the two-guitar sound.) “The guitar star on this one is Phil. And Phil’s been a guitarist for Monster Magnet for over twelve years now. I had talked to him about this. Ed’s starting to flake out – he’s around, but who wants a poopy pants? ‘Hey, we’re goin’ to the studio!’ [in moaning voice] ‘When’s my time to play? What do you want me to play?’ And I’m like, ‘Phil, you and I gotta work on these leads. You’re gonna have to play this stuff. Because I need it from somewhere and I’m not getting it out of Ed.’ He played the bass on the record as well. He’s MVP here.
“In a lot of ways I think it’s more suitable to what I figure Monster Magnet is, where there’s a lot more attention paid to a garage rock, nasty, less slick element to the playing. You know – excitement first technique. But excitement is a technique to me. I mean, dumbass lead parts that wear out their welcome because it’s just the same note but it sounds great because it’s buzzy and clangy? To me that’s an honest technique. You make a decision to not shred here. You make a decision just to make a statement with your sound or note, and Phil’s into that. We had a great time doing the leads.”
The resulting record stands head-and-shoulders not only over most of the band’s recent catalog, but also over much of current pop and rock music. That’s because it’s an actual album, a collection of songs meant to stand together as a single listening experience, not just a couple of singles and a bunch of filler tunes thrown together on one disk – the trend in our download-dominated culture. “The pressure is on everyone to do that, too,” notes Wyndorf. “There are no gold stars coming from anyone for putting out great albums. There’s a lot of lip service paid to it, but the definitions have been changed for good and complete. All the jargon remains – ‘Here’s their album, blah, blah, blah’ – but what we’re really talking about is pressuring artists to have that song that’s gonna be downloaded. And then to have something that is a collection of songs to be sold as an album, in quotation marks, but not as a full event – not as a journey, the way that albums were once made. From around ‘65 to at least 1980 albums were that – they sold because they were more or less a journey, some of ‘em really experimental, but always looked at as literary in a sense. What’s chapter one, chapter two? That kinda thing – that’s gone right now.
“I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to do it, but times are rough for musicians,” he continues. “There’s no money in music. The writing’s on the wall. ‘You wanna make money? Sell t-shirts. And that’s a terrible thing to put on an artist – make them a merchandiser? And I know it’s popular to think that way – Gene Simmons made it popular – but everybody knows that’s not cool. You want your musicians to be poets and think about music and the greater good of all of music and what it can do – not to count t-shirts. That’s just crazy.”
The deluge of releases made possible by cheap digital recording technology hasn’t helped, of course – it’s an old complaint but still, even in 2013, a valid one. “[It’s] not so bad that it can’t be done, but what’s bad is that it’s like putting a snowstorm of interference in front of anything that’s good,” says Wyndorf. “It’s like the old pickin’ fly shit out of pepper, like ‘Whoa, where’s the good stuff?’ And the opinions are equally prevalent that the internet democracy has created a mass confusion, y’know?
“But it’s not impossible to sort out. I would imagine that future generations will be able to get over the novelty of the internet and start to focus on what they want, what they expect, and make themselves known and be not as knee-jerk reactionaries to stuff like just headlines rather than content. Right now I just get the feeling, especially in the States, that people don’t react to actual facts – they react to someone’s opinion about a fact. ‘How dare they say that?’ ‘Well, you didn’t read the story, dude’” And that’s in politics and just in everything.
“That filtered down to the music and what people want from their music. Do they want some sort of poetic illumination? Do they want artist interpretation of how they feel, or do they really want something that’s gonna make them dance and maybe lyrically kind of jive up to what they’re thinking? It’s kind of like an old ‘50s kinda jukebox thing. ‘I wanna shake, rattle and roll; therefore, I’ll put on “Shake Rattle and Roll”.’ It was quite different 20, 30 years ago – people were actually listening to records going, ‘Man, is this gonna make me think? Am I gonna get something outta this?’ Even if it was bullshit, if it was thought-provoking it was well worth it.
“I miss that in music. I miss bands that wrote ambiguous lyrics, but with a slant – made you think. Like trying to go see a cool movie, one that didn’t have a telegraphed ending – ‘What do you think that was?’ – and people would leave the movie theater and talk about it. And regardless of whether the thing was good or not it would provoke thought. I used to get that from music all the time. Now I don’t get it as much.”
Then there’s the annoyance of the need by both industry and fans to fit any style of music into a rigidly defined box. “I play loud music so I get strapped with heavy metal all the time,” Wyndorf notes. “And I have to live in that godforsaken ghetto. We’re not a heavy metal band – never was. We’re a rock band – something that probably just doesn’t exist anymore. We’re not afraid to rock, so that lets us out of the indie crowd – you know, they’re very particular. All these little subgenres, their press and their people – they’re all very, very regimented of what they think is cool or not. Rendering them completely uncool, by the way (laughs). They’re like little fascists. ‘No! This is metal!’ So they put us over in metal, and that world…it’s not a bunch of free thinkers. They like things the way they are – they like it, they wanna grow old with that music. It’s like country & western – that’s their attitude. It’s closer to country & western than any other genre I’ve seen. Lorded over by these metal dudes who write magazines and now blogs, and those rules are adhered to by all these people. They really don’t want it to change that much. They talk about change – they talk about cutting edge and bad-ass and stuff – but it’s their version of it.
“That’s the world that I live in, which is why I travel the rest of the world and don’t pay as much attention to America. Because the rest of the world still is younger at looking at rock & roll, if you can believe it. They still have a younger attitude of ‘What’s this? I wonder what this could be.’ They go into clubs in Europe all the time and basically their attitude is, ‘Well, sell me. Sell me with your live show. I’ll listen to your music.’ And the States is like, ‘Ugh, here I am. I wanna see a show. I wanna see what I wanna see. If they don’t do the hits, I’m gonna be really pissed off. But it’s not that bad because I’ll just check my messages and fuck around while they play.’ And then write it off as a good night or a bad night, not depending on whether the show is good – maybe a little bit – but whether they got laid. It’s just not as much about the music as it used to be.
“That spooks the hell out of me. That’s why I’m like, ‘I don’t wanna go here.’ I want to have good memories about my country. I don’t wanna beat myself into the ground going ‘Oh, man, we played in Cincinnati and it was a couple of hair farmers and their…whoof.’”
All that said, the rock underground has seen a resurgence of the music Wyndorf loves – in part due to inspiration from Monster Magnet itself, who, along with Kyuss, championed mindbending album-oriented rock when few others would. “It always struck me funny back then that more people weren’t doing it,” he notes bemusedly. “Because it’s such an appealing type of music to play. What I was thinking of back then, I was just in love with the bands I listened to when I was a kid, plus in love with a punk rock aesthetic which meant that it was OK to really like one hit wonder 60s bands, like the Seeds and the Music Machine and all that stuff. And it seemed to all be able to fit in with me.
“It struck me funny that a lot of the bands didn’t get that after a certain point. In the beginning they did – in the ‘80s there was Loop, Spacemen 3… the Butthole Surfers were around. They all got it. And then I guess grunge took over. I always thought that stuff would get bigger. And it didn’t – it disappeared. It came out again after Magnet and Kyuss were doing records, and they called it stoner rock. OK, that’s cool. But it didn’t really go anywhere.
“And now it’s back again. And I think that’s probably a YouTube/internet reference phenomena. Because all this resurgence in hard rock revisionist music, psychedelic revisionist, stoner rock – I really think it’s a musician’s revolution. It’s not a fan’s revolution. Musicians who are doing this – bands like Kadavar and Graveyard – they’re not doing that because the fans demanded it, you know? They weren’t aping Monster Magnet’s quote-unquote success with psychedelic music. They did it, I believe, because they’re finding all these old records. Very much the way I used to do when I was a kid, except it took years to amass that kind of collection. Now, a hungry musician who all of a sudden discovers the halcyon days of the early ‘70s and goes, “I wanna find out about this,” well, boom – in three days, they’ve got it all. And they apply it. Pretty cool in that respect.”
Berlin-based power trio Kadavar in particular fires Wyndorf’s enthusiasm. “Well, they sound great! They sound authentic, you know? It doesn’t sound like some cheeseball reinvention of it. It sounds like they’re honestly having a good time. It’s personalized. It’s not like, ‘Uh, that’s a stoner rock sound’ – no, that sounds like that band Kadavar. And that’s what I love about them. Graveyard too has the same kind of thing. They sound like somebody.
“What I like about ‘em is they’re picking spots from a very short amount of time. People will say, ‘Oh, that’s the way music used to be,’ but it was only really like that from around ‘69 to around ‘73. That was it. Music got less psychedelically hard rock and more hard rock and then metal right after that. I was there, I saw it, so nobody can tell me, ‘Well, that’s the way it used to be.’ That’s a short amount of time. But they’re picking a very specific angle on that, like jazz guys would pick a specific angle on, say, swing, and turn that into bebop. It’s muso shit – this is real musician stuff. I’d love to see how far it goes and how far regular fans want it or do they just want like modern bands like Alter Bridge or Avenged Sevenfold, which basically pump out rehashed Metallica stuff. I mean, I’m not gonna begrudge a guy’s career, but it’s not that exciting, y’know? It’s not exactly brain food.
“But Kadavar is! Kadavar are honestly dreamy sounding – they really put you in a place. Very cool.”
Change is inevitable, of course, as the evolution of both the band and the musical universe easily prove. But one thing in Monster Magnet’s corner of the galaxy has remained the same: the growling, snorting, space-rocking bull that’s made an appearance on nearly every Magnet cover since the beginning. “The Bullgod!” enthuses Wyndorf. “He showed up really early on, ‘cuz I thought it was funny. When I did the first Monster Magnet single, the first ever release by Monster Magnet that wasn’t a cassette, I had been reading a couple of Barry Windsor-Smith Conans. One of the titles was “Wrath of the Bullgod.” There’s this fantastic cover by Barry Smith and there’s this bullgod coming out, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d fuckin’ rock! Wrath of the Bullgod!’
“We actually named the band Wrath of the Bullgod for a while. Well, we had about a dozen names – every gig we’d have we’d change the name. And then I had this action figure of this bull – it was from the Masters of the Universe game or something. I took a picture of it on a psychedelic poster and it became the cover of the first Monster Magnet single, “Lizard Johnny” and “Freakshop USA.” It looked ridiculous, but it looked really, really homegrown. And I was like, ‘Well, there he is, that’s the Bullgod. He represents the pagan rock for Monster Magnet.’ And he just grew from there. Every time we had a record, it was ‘Oh, we got to put the Bullgod on there, huh?’
“And he just grew and grew and he’s been around forever. He’s our mascot.”