words: Jack Tractor
pics: Chris Saunders
Uncategorisable pop doctors, I MONSTER, are just about to relaunch their last album and have become a live act into the bargain.
Sandman catches up with Dean Honer and Jarrod Gosling.
It's funny how some things stick. On the down escalator in the Queen's Arcade in Hull recently, I realised they were pumping The Specials 'Ghost Town' over the tannoy. It went to number one in 1981 at a time when the charts on a Sunday afternoon were a prerequisite. Listening to it now, stripped of the tensions which birthed the record - Toxteth and Brixton had seen rioting that summer while Charles and Di were getting wed - you realise how odd it is. While there's a jaunty fairground organ on the chorus it is actually a brooding, disturbing record. 'This town' a deep voice intones, 'is coming like a ghost town' and a wailing Greek chorus la-la-la's freakily.
Pop, of course, is important. It can do anything, there is no rule that says it must be sung by blandly handsome / pretty teenagers and work on only one level. And while by its nature it tends towards the ephemeral great pop lingers, as much a part of the memory as the smell of gravy when you're a kid.
I Monster, I think, make great pop and more importantly, given the high chance factor of getting it right, they are consciously trying to make great pop music. They are two men, one with a curly beard (Jarrod Gosling), the other with a straight beard (Dean Honer) and far more affable than the pictures of the flyheads would have you think. You get the impression that the duo work in something of a vacuum. They have a small studio in Nether Edge and seem pretty unconcerned as to what's going on, in Sheffield at least.
"I haven't been clubbing in Sheffield for years," says Jarrod.
It would seem their influences are an odd mix stuff from their childhood - not just musically either, Hammer horror films and 70s children's shows play a major part in the visual side of their work - 'found' sources and the beating pulse of electronica.
"I think there are a lot of influences from 60s and 70s rock music, a lot of electronic music in there," says Dean while Jarrod claims not to keep up with what's going on.
"I don't hear a lot of stuff really because I don't work at Record Collector anymore. I used to hear a lot of stuff then. I suppose most recently I've heard the Trachtenberg Family Slide Show [oddball American family including twelve year old daughter on piano]. Jarrod "I buy a lot of records cos they look good and that's where we get our influences. I was listening to an old Paul Jones' [former Manfred Mann singer] solo album last night and found a sample on it. It's like the sample in Daydream. I wouldn't listen to that record normally it's only a 50p charity shop record."
The perception, probably stemming from the Daydream in Blue single, is that I Monster are fundamentally a sample driven band. Not so.
"There's only 3 or 4 samples on the whole album," says Dean, "Sometimes we'll construct a track around a sample and then take it off. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
There's also, when combined with Jarrod's distinctly macabre artwork (crows and skulls and the videos disembodies swirling heads, puppet masters and humans becoming crows) something slightly sinister washing around in the background of I Monster, something a little unsettling.
Jarrod explains. "If you've got a nice sweet tune you don't want to put a nice sweet lyric on top, you want that edge. Take Roxy Music, it wasn't like your normal Osmonds lyrics was it?"
"And with the cover of the first album (the seriously rare 'These are our children' featuring oddly blank faced children peeping out like Midwich Cuckoos) people thought I was trying to be ironic.. It wasn't. I just like that kind or artwork - it's horror."
It should be pointed out at this stage that the band take their name, minus a comma, from a 1971 horror movie.
At the same time the pair want to make something that appeals to everyone.
"It's a nice challenge to make a catchy song without being avant-garde and 'oh it's weird, man, it's art', it's the hardest bit to write a good tune.'
Perception is a funny old thing and, more than most bands I can think of, they are difficult to pigeonhole. This month sees the relaunch of last year's NeverodoreveN album (complete with sleeve art by Sandman snapper, Chris Saunders), a rich, bubbling melange of odd, dense pop which sounds a rather gentle collision of many musical themes, none of which manage to wholly dominate. Bits of glam, blues guitar, French pop, crooning, all sorts mesh together in a interesting kind of way. If there's anything in common with their best known track 'Daydream In Blue' it is a certain kind of buoyancy almost the sensation that there's air blowing over the music. It's very good.
In one of their (strangely disturbing) videos the pair are dressed as Victorian scientists, almost a pair of Mr. Hydes to the undertow of Jekyll in the music. It probably confuses people, not least music journalists who like everything to be simple and fit neatly into its own special hole.
A bit of Googling will reveal the difficulty in pinning down what I Monster are as a musical entity. One shopping cart you can put them in is the NME Alternative / Indie bracket. But they don't sound like Indie. Then you'll catch them being lauded to the skies as electropop wizards. But they don't sound like the scratchy 80s recidivists who refuse to pass 'Nag Nag Nag ' and collect £200 either.
"When the album first came out I saw in HMV in the dance section," offers Dean Honer, "the Beta Band are about as dancey as we are."
He then muddies the matter up further by suggesting that "we're a poppy, rocky, electronicky sort of thing," which, vague as it sounds, is probably a fairly decent summation of the band.
Briefly the band were seen as front-runners in the electropop scene, mainly due to their involvement in last year's Northern Electronic compilation album - a French release featuring Sheffield and Manchester bands. Despite some admiration for Add N To X's Ann Shenton's current project Large Number ("an insane, quite joyous, happy funny sound. Add N To X were a rock band really.") Dean's not particular keen to settle in that camp.
"It was just an idea to get that electronic sound down before it all died out. It's had its day really, you know what I mean. It's alright if you take it in a new direction but I'm a bit bored with it really. Just sounding early 80ish just becomes pastiche."
He also reckons Razorlight "sound like that crusty band. The Levellers."
One thing has changed in the past year. I Monster have moved from their previous studio bound existence to becoming a live band. They've toured fairly regularly in France where they go down well ("Yeah, I don't know why. Perhaps it's because they can't understand the lyrics and take it more seriously") and last month they played only their second ever gig in the UK at The Cobden Club to promote the launch of the album (their first attempt was a fairly unhappy effort at Manchester's Club Suicide: They couldn't hear themselves on stage.) While, by all accounts - and there is a very good one on page 20 of this magazine - it's a show well worth going to see, a riot of Tranvestite masks, visuals not to mention Fred and Marion of The Lovers the reasons for getting out of the studio are pragmatic.
"If we play clubs we've got a ready made crowd to see us. It's very difficult to get on radio now - it's a one in a hundred chance that you come up with a pop tune which appeals to everyone like Daydream. We nearly got on Radio 1 [with single Hey Mrs] but even with plays on Radio 2 and Radio 6 it didn't break the top 75. Not that the singles chart is the be all and end all, it's fucked up and we don't want to be marketed as a singles act."
"The reason we're relaunching the album is because it didn't do very well last year. They [Instant Karma, I Monster's record label] wanted to release it in time for it to get a Mercury prize nomination but it didn't give the press people enough time to put a campaign together."
They're doing another London show on the 18th October as part of Steve Mackey's Freeze festival and are planning to tour the UK later. Are we likely to see them play a bit closer to home?
"We'd like to. Maybe do something out at the haunted house (the mansion in the photographs where they shot their latest video) and bus people out there." Watch this space.
Pop music is good and I Monster are good at making pop music. It might not suckle babes in arms or bring the dead back from the living but it adds something to the world. I’m not absolutely certain what that something is but I like it.