Interview: Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf on the Music Industry, Gear and 'Last Patrol'

Rock and roll is a funny game to be a part of in 2013.

When we’re this connected and this exposed to feedback and criticism on an instant and almost constant cycle, rock and roll’s decided lack of any sort of hip, self-aware irony makes its earnestness an easy target for the smugness that has come to dominate internet culture at large.

To that culture, maybe there’s something now outdated about standing onstage with a guitar and a mic and belting your heart out without the slightest hint of cynical detachment in your voice. It’s atavistic. Worse: It’s not cool.

Rock and roll is undeniably no longer the cultural force it once was, but it still retains its power to inspire passion on a personal level, and within a large-but-disparate community. In a sense, this puts rock music firmly in the realm of sub-mainstream obsession, alongside comic books and sci-fi novels. Or, for a band like Monster Magnet, home.

This sort of technological alienation is just what frontman Dave Wyndorf has in mind when he sings, “I find myself staring at a screen/wondering how far we’ve come since the death of cool” on “Stay Tuned,” the closing track of Monster Magnet’s latest album, Last Patrol.

Written during a creatively fueled week in February of this year, Last Patrol is an analog record for a digital age, true to Monster Magnet’s retro-futurist aesthetic. Recorded mostly in the band’s hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey, Last Patrol was recorded on almost entirely pre-1970s guitars with a meticulous attention to tonal detail driven by Wyndorf and Caivano’s holy-grail pursuit of the right guitar sound.

“Phil will not fucking stop searching for the right tone,” Wyndorf says. “He will not stop. He's completely obsessed with it. He's exactly the guy that I would want to work it. Any other person around us is thinking, ‘Why are these guys chasing around this buzzy, shitty sound?’ Because the buzzy, shitty sound is going to sound fantastic when it's combined with this other sound later!”

For all the space-lord posturing, Wyndorf still retains the gleeful enthusiasm of a young kid, the same one that spent years locked away in his room listening to Hawkwind records and writing songs for a project called Love Monster, the very project that would one day become Monster Magnet.

More than two decades into the band’s existence, Monster Magnet have retained and refined their own unique brand of rock and roll escapism. The band has become a poster child for the catch-all term “stoner rock,” but that’s never gone quite far enough to describe the lust-in-space madness, the interstellar head trips, the revenge plots heavy on the idea of cosmically inflicted karma, that so permeate the Monster Magnet oeuvre.

But in the world of Monster Magnet, space isn't a destination, only a frame of mind. Wyndorf, like Bowie and Calvert before him, is more than willing to transmute himself into alien form to take on a cosmic perspective of everyday life. “There’s a lot of commentary on just life in general,” says Wyndorf of the underlying themes of his lyrics, “just as simple as, ‘Hey, I'm lonely’ or ‘I spend too much time in front of the computer’ or ‘I think the world is fucked’ or ‘I'm horny.’ But I try to attach sort of gravitas to it, because those are important emotions, they’re important for everyone.”

With all that in mind, we recently sat down with Dave Wyndorf to get his take on releasing records in the 21st century, the virtues of vintage gear and the evils of plugins.

GUITAR WORLD: It seems like this album came together pretty quickly, with a lot of songs being written in the process. Do you have any plans for the excess material?

Right now I'm working on a Last Patrol — for lack of a better word — remix. It's actually kind of a re-imagining. There's always so many tracks that I didn't use on a record, because I'm always wondering, "What would happen if I put a Deep Purple organ on this?" That kind of shit.

And of course I have to do it, just to find out. A lot of it gets wasted, so this time I said to my record company, "Make some room in your schedule next year for this kind of a re-imagining thing." I'm going to do it on this and the last record, Mastermind.

Any chance of doing the entire back catalog, but with a Mellotron added?

Fuck yeah! That's the kind of spirit I like. That's exactly what I’m talking about.

A few years ago I remember you discussing the idea of acoustic shows, and bringing in Mellotron, bongos, sitar …

It's gonna happen someday. Maybe if this record does well enough I'll get a little leverage on getting the stuff out on the road and actually having it be worth doing, for the band and everyone else. Doing one-offs is cool, but I'd really like to be able to get some mileage out of that combination you just mentioned. Because I think it'd be worthy.

Would you maybe break out the “Venus In Furs” cover for it? [A Velvet Underground cover that served as a bonus track for 2004’s Monolithic Baby!]

Fuck yeah, it's born for it!

So I have to imagine for someone who’s been in the music industry for a while now that releasing an album in 2013 is a whole different mindset.

In a lot of ways it's the same, in that there's still the miscommunication between you and whoever is representing your record that's not making it, you know? [laughs] I think some of the old stereotypes still hold true, that, "You guys have absolutely no idea what I'm doing! Please, don't market it based on anything you've marketed it on before.” So I still have arguments like that. But otherwise it's a lot more controllable for me these days. I can slow down the pace of things. It's my own money, you know? I don't take the pressure of people wanting to get the record out at a certain time to hear like I used to. It just doesn't seem to matter.

So there’s actually some pressure off at this point?

In the old days when radio was such an important part of making or breaking a band, radio was really important, and if you didn't fit into a release window, then you're dead. It was pretty intimidating, and you kind of push your schedule around that. That kind of pressure was always there, but now that radio doesn't really figure in as much. It's just one of a million ways to get your record heard. So I think it's better now.

There’s something to be said for how the DIY spirit that started with bands like the Ramones has really taken over in the digital age. On one hand, you don’t need a major label to make a great sounding record, but on the other, there’s such a massive influx of new music at various levels of completion.

With the artist in charge, I think that there can only be more positives, of course. Along with it, there will be a lot of fuck ups, as people try to forge their way in their art and being able to represent themselves and represent their art realistically and not get caught in the trap of just being merch monster. I think that's probably a big problem. The world, right now, doesn't give any gold stars to a pure, true artist. They seem to like their idiots. There are gold stars for people who make a lot of money, so it creates a lot of mobsters.

We also seem to be in this hyper-aware state of culture that is dominated by this ironic, cynical voice that makes it daunting for an artist to want to make any sort of real, person statement that doesn’t have a protective wink of self-awareness.

You said it, pal. I agree a hundred percent. It's true. Never has there been a time in history where everybody was so fucking aware of everybody else. There's no laboratory. Every lab has a camera in it. Is there any time where anything cool happens that someone doesn't go, "Let's film it?" Where's the gestation?

And it's affecting artists and affecting their sensibilities. It's very Warholian, where everyone's aware and "art as," "their process as the art,” but it's really easy for people to miss the point. Unless the person is super-, super-talented and super-aware of what their limitations are, a lot of this stuff that's going to come out is just going to be fumbles and fuck-ups and just unfinished art, misrepresentations of their own creativity. It's just too much, too soon. I guess that's just the way it is, but I'm used to people preparing their stuff to a certain extent and then unleashing it when it's done.

Which contributes to an unspoken problem in the music industry that there’s so much new music coming out that the consumer dollar is spread so thin.

That's the name of the game. That's commerce right there. There's your internet democracy.

If you could fill up the space with stuff, fill it up. Content? Quality of content? That can always be re-assessed. [laughs] It's a three-star world we live in; everybody gets three stars. People get praised, and a certain amount of people get bashed, but to make the world go and make everyone money, everybody gets let in. So how would people even begin to define what quality is?

How do you feel about how tight the feedback loop has gotten these days? You put up a song, and you’re immediately getting commentary and opinions back on it by way of blogs, comment sections, etc.

Artists are sensitive people. If I was the doctor, I'd prescribe them not to look. Don't look. I want you to make art and be in touch with yourself and try to communicate what you feel. Be in touch yourself for a while. I know it's a pop world and sooner or later someone's going to have to go out there and put one eye on the chart, or one eye on the internet, or whatever you want to call it. But for a while, just be yourself

That's fucking hard. Especially when people laugh at you when you do it. "You hermit. Where've you been? You don't exist." If you're an artist and you're not out there all the time, you don't seem to exist. You get props from people, "Oh you're great man, you don't do Twitter. That’s really, really cool." But your sales don't show that.

Everything is about branding now. It’s not enough to just produce art and let it out into the world.

Well, we live in western civilization, dude, and more importantly we live in America. Results are king, numbers are king. Over it all. Numbers and results.

“What did you get?”

Not, "What did you do?” “Get.”

That's where it's at. And it's always been like that, but it's never been at such a fever pitch as it is now. In the old days, in the classic, real renaissance time of say, like ’65 to ‘75, there was a time where the big guys didn't really know what was going to stick, so they signed everything. The glorious time where the lunatics came in and they signed 'em. But that stuff doesn't last forever.

So we went through that time and pretty quickly it snapped back to a more controlled thing, and now we have a time where people have been so conditioned by money that it's now equated with good. If you have money, you're good, and fuck content. Not fuck content maybe, but let's reassess what content is. Let's reassess quality. Let's lower the bar.

Guess what? If we lower the bar, then a lot more people are happy. Which is crazy, because the bar should be a lot higher than it is, than it ever has been before. But it seems to be lower. People are just drinking their own fucking Kool-Aid and thinking, "Ah, I'm fucking cutting edge. I'm badass." There's nothing badass about it.

And then we get a kind of dulling down of concepts to appease a bigger audience.

I was reading a thing with Oliver Stone the other day. I'm not a big Oliver Stone fan, but he said this great thing. He said, "I watch TV and I watch these movies and these filmmakers don't even have a respect for real violence anymore.” It's all this orchestrated violent bits in movies that are excellently shot, but there's no real feeling in any modern movies that violence is real.

And they’re missing this huge, dramatic tool that they could be using. But they don't want to spend their time in the gaps, in the gutters to portray a violent act and the repercussions of it. Everything has to feel full-on and I think that happens with almost everything.

The mass audience has lost its taste for any kind of time they would have to put in to understand anything. They just don't have the time for it. They don't want it, and they'd rather believe it's a different way. They'd really rather believe it's like this. Because they look at their own shrieking souls to realize that life is pretty fucking grey. You're always in this grey area and you have to look at things and interpret how they affect you – not how it represents you, but how it affects you.

Well, if every blockbuster showed violence on the level of [Sam] Peckinpah, no one would want to go.

No, not at all. I don't see any real violence in movies. I see splatter, but not the terror that goes along with it. If you want to be terrified, watch a documentary.

As I mentioned earlier, the new album seems to have come together pretty quickly. What was your songwriting process like this time around?

What I do for my songwriting process for Monster Magnet is that I'll take these sessions of two to three days in the middle of my year, in between tours or whatever, and write as fast as I can. I go in there with a drum machine and click track — sometimes no drum machine and only the click track — and just write: verse, chorus, middle section, sing over it, do a melody line. Get a vibe on the thing.

I put them down really quickly and then I forget about them instantly, just put them away. I usually try to go for a song a day for however many days I have.

When it's time to make a record, I'll go back and look through all those things and go, "Alright, that one. That one" I’ll write the numbers down and then start to write over them, and give it a title. Maybe I’ll change the key, but basically it's all there. I know what I want. I then I bring it to everybody and I play them my demos, and I say, "Here's the new stuff."

I'll bring it to Bob [Pantella, drums], I'll do a scratch track, and we'll get the drums together. Then I'll bring it to Phil [Caivano, guitars], we'll work on a bass part together. I'm kind of musical director on all this stuff, the vision of the songs. We put that together really, really quickly. With Bob it was like two songs a day, and for Phil it was maybe a song a day for bass. So it's all constructed, then I put a scratch vocal on, and we've got something we can all sink our teeth into. And that's the math that we all work off of.

You’ve got a couple of very talented guitarists around you in Phil and Garret [Sweeny]. When it comes to the final recording, how much of your original guitar ideas are we hearing there?

I play guitar on probably almost every rhythm track. I've got at least one guitar. And I've got quite a number of little leads. Any time you hear things go completely spaced out and shit, that's usually me. But I leave all the prime stuff to the refined players. I'm not a very good technical guitarist. I write parts and I organize and I designate parts for stuff I can't play. And I don't want to play everything. It would take too much time for me to dedicate myself. Playing guitar well is like a full time job, you know? And thankfully I've got these guys in my band that can do it.

What do you see as your biggest contribution as a guitarist, besides writing the parts?

Sometimes I'm there on a track, and I'll take my backing track away, and maybe it could be played by someone else, but the emphasis is all me – when to mute, how many open chords, how many slides up and down the neck. That's what I'm really interested in. All those zoomy sounds that go into parts. "Nyowww!" All the pick slides. I'm really anal about stuff like that. All that shit that Pro Tools engineers hate, because it makes their job harder. I want that stuff to be fluid

But there's some latitude for interpretation. I give them like two inches and tell them to go crazy. [laughs] No, I like to be a director, not a dictator.

You can have some very skilled musicians in a band, but if the emphasis is wrong on a part, some part of the listener’s brain is going to know that.

It's really important to me, especially, when I work with less and less volume. I'm having fun making records, but with less volume on the guitars. More musical, more placement of instruments. Clean and the dirty, rather than two dirty. You get more bang out of a clean guitar than you do off a heavy guitar. The sonics of it: “Claaang!” But “Clang!” doesn't work by itself, so it's “clang!” plus “Zhhhh!” “Clang!” and “Zhhh!” together go “Bwaahhhhh!”

Music, a band, a combo, is all about having their individual sound that compliments the totality of the piece.

And that’s really the downfall of every bad cover band you’ve ever seen. They get the notes right, but none of the little stuff.

Right! They think you can just follow the numbers and you're cool. But how can you not love sitting down and listening to a record and figuring that stuff out?

Guitar tabs are everywhere, and you just don’t see as many guitarists put in the hours as sitting down with a record and really working out every detail by ear.

You're very right. When they all say practice makes perfect, it’s really true. When I first got my four-track I would sit there and just have to play. I didn't even have a punch-in thing, so if I fucked up a part I'd have to start at the very beginning and play through it. That means I had to remember everything I did before – had to remember.

I was just by myself in my room and I was writing songs for this thing called Love Monster, which eventually turned into Monster Magnet. I was so ready to be in a band. I would say, "No, right at that part where the guitar goes [crackling sound]. And they would say, “How do you fucking remember that?”

I just brainwashed myself after four years of, "You better you remember or you going to have to track the whole thing over." There's a lot of that lost the way they do things with digital recording, where you can fix pieces and place them. Sometimes it's not even the artist doing it, it's the artist playing it and the producer or someone else in the band moves it around. But there definitely isn't that much attention paid to that kind of thing.

It’s getting easier and easier with tone as well. With some of these modeling plugins now, you can select the sound you want from a dropdown menu.

Plugins are scary, dude. They really, really terrify me. Plugins are great once, but they're not great twice. You don't want to get too many plugins going at the same time. There is a definite, horrible, commonality to the frequencies in those things. You start using more than a couple on the same thing and your mix is going to flat line. It's going to flat line.

There's a commonality of frequency that’s going to affect the mix very subtly, like you put a piece of wax paper over the mix. Just a little bit more distance. You've got to work with microphones!

And a lot of the guitar modeling plugins are just plain wrong when it comes to the sounds the claim to emulate.

Yeah, they're all wrong! They're bullshit, and I can't believe people. They must want to believe it. “Dude, it doesn't sound like that!” "Well it sounds close enough!"

Thanks to games like Rock Band, in the last few years you’ve started to see isolated guitar tracks popping up online from all of these classic tracks, and the surprising thing is how many of the guitar tones are not at all what you’d expect. The rule of thumb today is that hard rock equals distortion, but the gain was at maybe 2 or 3 on a lot of those classic records.

No! Because the more distortion you put on a guitar track the more it's going to just sit in the mix and the harder it's going to be to get it to bang out. The whole think is clean guitar, clean/dirty. Match it up with the right kick sound and that's what you're hearing. That's the heaviness you're hearing, is this combination of guitar and kick. It's not just the guitar.

And I found that out the hard way. Phil and I — Phil Caivano, who produced this record with me — we went down the line, and we never get it right. And I've gone down the line forever going "Why? Why do I love these records? What did they do? What's the fucking secret?" It's never fucking easy, and it shouldn't be.

What sort of gear did you gravitate toward for Last Patrol?

Well, we used almost exclusively all Phil's guitars, but we did use a lot of gear from Artie Smith, the famous Artie Smith from New York City, who's an absolutely awesome guy. I went up to his studio and got some stuff, rented some stuff. The record is mostly pre-Seventies Gibsons, three or four different SGs, depending on what the SG sounded like. I love that they all sound like a little different.

We used a couple different Les Pauls, a couple of Gretsches, a Tele every once in a while, for some of the skinnier, ropier single-string parts. I played most of those. We used old Fenders on all the single string stuff that you hear on the record; those minimal droners, those are all single-pickups.

So it was all pre-Seventies guitars, with a lot of attention to tone knobs. Bring it down to eight, bring it down to five, bring it down to two. The same guitar will work on a different track if you just fuck with the tone knob. I'm a big believer in tone knobs for... tone! What a concept!

What a novel idea!

Also the tuning on this record was a lot more standard, which really helps the guitars sing out more. Guitars really want to be in E. Guitars don't want to be drop tuned, they don't like it. I know there's a sludgier sound there, but I'm sick of it. I'm sick of guitars not behaving properly.

Last Patrol is getting a lot of early comparisons to one of the classic Monster Magnet records, Dopes to Infinity, but it’s a much better sounding record.

Phil will not fucking stop searching for the right tone. He will not stop. He's completely obsessed with it. He's exactly the guy that I would want to work it. I'm an obsessed person, myself. "No, this isn't it. We have to try this!" And any other person around us is thinking, "Why are these guys chasing around this buzzy, shitty sound?" Because the buzzy, shitty sound is going to sound fantastic when it's combined with this other sound later.

Lyrically speaking, what sources are you drawing from? There’s a lot of psychedelia and sci-fi going on, but I’ve always kind of put your writing in a class with people like Philip K. Dick or even William Burroughs who often used wild themes to mask personal or political writing.

You're right. That's exactly right. I'm affected by politics, I'm affected by the world , I’m affected by relationships. Just life in general, like anybody else. I've got no special insight to life, any more special than anybody else. And I’m not going to pretend that I do.

But what I do have on my side is this weird kind of bizarre poetry method that I've invented over the years that started kind of as a practical joke as a way to hide my true feelings from people I knew, especially girls. I speak in metaphors. I'm singing a song to a girl and I don't want the other girl to find out. [laughs]

It all started by trying to hide, and trying to dress up the music with fancy words, but it eventually turned into more and more of a way for me to dramatize my basic emotions, basic human emotions.

And yeah, there's a lot of politics in there, and I don't like to force-feed my politics to anyone. I'd rather have it conversational in tone, use metaphors, anything I can do to make it sound like it fits the music, but also makes sense in a couple of different texts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

It does get opaque at some points, but it never really veers into the nonsensical.

I always know what I’m talking about. It's not like I'm jut out there writing drivel; I actually pay really, really close attention. But in the end, I'm my own judge. And if I stick to that, I'm pretty happy with the way the lyrics come out.There's a lot of politics and there’s a lot of commentary on just life in general, just as simple as, "Hey, I'm lonely" or "I spend too much time in front of the computer" or "I think the world is fucked" or "I'm horny." But I try to attach sort of gravitas to it, because those are important emotions, they’re important for everyone. And if a Monster Magnet fan or aficionado can sense the vibe in that and apply it to themselves, then I've done my job. And if not, well, they've got some pretty music to listen to.The last track on the record, “Stay Tuned,” is definitely a more overt statement.Totally. That's just me. What I wanted to do was have... This guy, right? I'm always like, "This guy's singing about this." I know. It's never this guy, it's me. I'm trying to write a different character, but it's always me.So this guy just sang all this crazy shit, he's going through space and he's blowing people up and he's having cosmic revenge and he's fucking women and he's praising God because he can get laid, but then at the end, this guy that was singing all these songs is just sitting on a stool, in the rain, going, "Alright, thanks for coming everybody, thanks for coming to my psychedelic party. The world's a fucked up place, it's kind of scary out there , but don't forget to huge each other and love each other, and I hope we're all here the next time we make another record."That's all that is. It's me at the end of the TV show saying, "Goodbye. Don't forget to come back next time!"Monster Magnet’s new record, Last Patrol, is out now on Napalm Records.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.