While Boomers may remember things differently, we Gen X- and Y-ers tend to scoff at the term “supergroup.” Forget CSNY and Cream; nowadays, the category is filled with struggling-to-be-cool names like Zwan and Velvet Revolver, vehicles for aging artists in need of a radio-ready boost. Of course, for every trend, there’s an exception, which is where Monsters of Folk fit in. Taking a cue from the Traveling Wilburys, Monsters (comprised of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, She & Him’s M. Ward, and Saddle Creek Records’ Mike Mogis) are a no-holds-barred collaboration from four musicmakers at the top of their respective games.
After first uniting for the An Evening with Bright Eyes, Jim James, and M. Ward tour in 2004, the quartet pledged they’d release an album together. Yet it wasn’t until September of this year, following a series of stellar individual releases, that their promise was fulfilled with the self-titled Monsters of Folk. The result is a 15-track gem that showcases Ward’s signature bluesy croon, James’s affinity for the bombastic, and Oberst’s drama-filled poetry all in one neat, groovable package. And as for Mogis? The seasoned member of Bright Eyes and all-around instrumental whiz kid was there to tie it all together with a neat, meticulously produced bow.
“It’s hard for any of us to take credit for anything on this record because it was such a group affair,” Mogis explained recently from outside the band’s rehearsal space in Portland. In fact, every instrument on the album was played by one the band’s four members, further showcasing the group’s versatility.
As a record, Monsters succeeds primarily in its ability to let each player shine as an individual. Some tracks (like “Temazcal” and “Map of the World”) sound like Oberst, some (“His Master’s Voice,” “Losin’ Yo Head”) sound like James, and others still (“Magic Marker,” “The Sandman, The Breakman, and Me”) call to mind Ward’s multipronged catalogue.
“I think, from just a natural songwriting perspective, all of the three main songwriters in the group come from a very similar place in life,” said Mogis. “[They’re all] about the same age, have kind of been doing the same sort of things for the last decade. There are themes that intertwine with one another on this record that weren’t intentional. : No one said, ‘Well, we want to write a record that delves into spirituality.’ It just happens that Conor writes shit like that, and so does Matt and so does Jim. Longing and searching and things like that are just naturally prevalent in their respective works, and it helps it flow together. : There’s some curveballs on the record, for sure, but that’s what I think is honest about it. It takes you places.”
Among those curveballs, it’s the album-opening “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” that rises above the rest. A groovy, computerized backbeat gets layered with each player’s vocals and a whole lotta harpsichord to create something far from your typical folk fare. “That’s Jim’s little nugget, right there,” laughed Mogis. “He opened up his computer and said, ‘I have this sample I really like, and I want to use it for a song.’ Then he played us that, and we weren’t quite sure if he was being serious. But within a few minutes, Conor had some ideas for lyrics, and it sort of snowballed. That sets the tone for the record. It’s an anything-goes kind of deal.”
For Mogis, at least, the idea of challenging listeners’ expectations seems to be an important one. Throughout our chat, he referenced the many musical sides of his fellow Monsters-including James’s undying love for R&B-and how pivotal they were in crafting an album that wasn’t one-note.
“I think people expected a very folky record, attuned to the tour,” he posited. “We played in a very intimate, folky setting for that tour. And that sort of presentation is nice, and we’ll do that on this trip, as well, but as people, I feel that we’re just more multidimensional.”
Watching Mogis, James, Oberst, and Ward interact-onstage or in conversation-only further proves this point. “Personality-wise, we’re very silly, and we have big senses of humor,” continued Mogis. “But at the same time, we’re very stoic and very thoughtful and philosophical. A lot of character comes out in this record. There’s a lot of curveballs in it, but that’s because there’s a lot of curveballs in our brains.”
With so many sonic twists and turns, it’s a wonder, then, why the foursome decided to go with such a predictable, supergroup-ready band name. “I think it was our tour manager in ’04 who started calling it the Monsters of Folk Tour, and the name kind of stuck,” recalled Mogis. “Although I will say that I never imagined us really being called that. But once we tried to actually name the band, everything else just seemed so disingenuous. Even though it’s silly and tongue-in-cheek, it meant something to us. We couldn’t call it anything but that.”
An Evening with Monsters of Folk comes to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) this Thursday, October 22, at 8 p.m. Call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.