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Stronger Than Death: Monarch Is Finally Back

In spite of ill-fated fires and catastrophic tours, the group from Bayonne, France is holding steady and proving it with their eighth album, 'Never Forever.' Read on for a full interview and a stream of the album.

by Théo Chapuis; translated by Nicola Rose
Sep 15 2017, 5:30pm

Photo by Benjamin Redcatcity

This article originally appeared on Noisey France.

It's August 15, and, wouldn't you know? It's raining. The members of Monarch have taken shelter in the heart of Bordeaux, in southwestern France, inside the tattoo parlor of their bassist, Michell Bidegain. Tomorrow they'll hit the road for Paris, where they'll open for Cough and give the audience a sneak peek of their long-awaited eighth (!) album, Never Forever. Previously, the group took a self-imposed sabbatical in order to work on playing at their best and slowest—and they've succeeded.

"I've never listened to Cough," Shiran Kaidine, the group's guitarist, confides casually before our interview. Blasé much? That's not really it, actually. It's more like—why care about your metal street cred when you've been to hell and back? Witchcraft, a van fire, an erased sound card, an unreleased album, catastrophic UK tours, the ousting of 23 group members… On paper, Monarch's career is like a shipwreck: A procession of worries, panic, and adrenaline ending in spectacular death.

Except for one thing—this ship is still sailing.

And since what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, the result is that Monarch has become a sort of Super Saiyan of doom. And incidentally, if this interview is too slow for you, it's probably just that you're too old.

Noisey: You're releasing Never Forever at the end of September, on Profound Lore Records, and it's your eighth album.
Michell Bidegain: Not counting the phantom album, which never came out. Album number zero. That was our first recording, in 2002. But we never released it because we felt it wasn't slow enough.
Emilie Bresson: It's a shame because it's really good. But we were after something more overwhelming.
Shiran Kaidine: I'm actually not even sure who has the tracks to that disc anymore. But in the end, I'm not even sure it has much to do with what we do today.
Bresson: There was good stuff there, though. For example, you hear bells in the distance, which are actually from cows in the fields nearby!
Kaidine: We recorded it at Bidache, [a town in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region in southwestern France], at Michell's parents' in the Basque plains. We were in high school back then. We did a lot of takes of Emilie singing outdoors at night, and the cows would come to us because they heard the noise. So in the background of the mix you can hear the cowbells as the cows approach! The morning after, Michell went into town to buy smokes, and he heard people talking about the weird noises they heard during the night.
Bresson: Older people in town were talking witchcraft and sacrifices. The house was near a forest, which had the reputation of being an enchanted place where witches used to hold black masses in the olden days. The Basque region is super into its witch legends, so naturally people got worked up.

Let's talk about your new album. I thought Never Forever was really lovely, more melancholy than the rest of your work—which isn't known for being too jolly itself.
Bresson: It seemed to be the next logical step after Sabbra Cadaver—which people tell us a lot! The germ of the idea was already there, and we resurrected certain melodies [from its predecessor]. For me, Never Forever is the musical expression of summer's end.
Bidegain: As to the writing, I remember noticing there were more heavy influences this time around. We weren't aiming to do a melancholy album, but when there are melodies we like, ones that sound Maiden-ish, then we harmonize, we harmonize some more… and all that ended up giving the disc a certain heaviness. We weren't trying for that; it's just how the sound ended up.

In any case, that ought to silence the critics who say Monarch always sounds the same, right?
Bresson: Well, they have a point. But the differences are there!
Bidegain: The group's evolution has happened in dribs and drabs, album by album. We've never drastically changed our style and we never will.
Stéphane Miollan: Also, Monarch was formed in the early 2000s. The more general explosion of heavy music—drone, doom, and so on—that came later. Today people are capable of taking in the nuances.
Kaidine: Honestly, I'd be curious to know how people would receive Die Tonight if it came out today.
Bidegain: We were aiming for an extreme. After we achieved that we had to try and vary it, to deepen what we were doing. In other words, we had to do more than just play real loud and slow.
Bresson: Maybe it's just that today you hear our melodies more, since they're played faster. But they were always there! It's just that they were stretched out, delayed.
Bidegain: For years we've been playing melodies we thought were super classy, only no one heard them. [Laughs]

Photo courtesy of Monarch

Emilie, your singing sounds even more possessed than before on Never Forever.
Bresson: Recording the singing was really long and really difficult. My method is to improvise a lot, so sometimes that works out great and other times it's shitty. For the previous recordings, sometimes I'd knock out the singing in four hours. This time, it took us over a week.

You recite what sounds like a black mass at the beginning of "Of Night, With Knives."
Bresson: Exactly, it's a black mass. We recorded that with four girls at Michell's place—in fact, you hear his four-month-old daughter squealing a bit during the song. That was originally supposed to be the intro, but it ended up working itself into the song itself. Rhythmically, it's almost perfect—and that happened by accident. It's almost a little eerie. Also, this black mass blew out the sound card it was recorded on, not long after.

Monarch is turning 15 soon; looking back, how do you see your journey?
Kaidine: We've been playing so slowly, I haven't noticed the time passing.
Bresson: The group has changed, it's evolved naturally. It's sounds stupid, but it's kind of like life in that respect. We started out as teenagers, 18 tops, and we haven't quit since. We've never lost that frame of mind.
Bidegain: On the other hand, we've lost 23 members.

Seriously?
Kaidine: Yeah, we did the math the other day.
Bresson: In total, 23 people have joined Monarch and quit. Drummers, mostly.
Bidegain: Drummers suck. I remember a conversation Shiran and I had 13 years ago: "If one of us takes up drumming, at least we'll always have a drummer." We never did it, though.
Kaidine: Yeah, and besides, whoever took up drums would've become an asshole and we'd have had to disband.

Currently you're the only French group on the Profound Lore Records label. What does that mean for you?
Kaidine: It'll definitely help our exposure to American and Canadian audiences. Plus, it's the kind of label where you have carte blanche, even though the boss, Chris Bruni, could always tell us one day that our work doesn't interest him anymore. But there's definitely a lot of pride for us, being on this label. It's an awesome thing—look what Pallbearer's done recently! On paper, you wouldn't say, oh, that's the kind of group that's going to be huge. But it is! Chris is great at his job.

How did he discover Monarch?
Bidegain: Actually, it was Relapse Records who contacted us first. And right around that same time we had sent a demo of Sabbra Cadaver to Profound Lore. Relapse clearly really wanted to release the album. Our old drummer, Rob Shaffer, who plays for Dark Castle now, was working in a pizzeria owned by the founder of Relapse—fun fact, Relapse Records owns a pizzeria!—and we'd have liked to be with them, at least in theory. But we honestly would have been such an afterthought for them. And their communications with us were always so slow, because it's such a huge label, with circles within circles of decision-makers.
Kaidine: Meanwhile Chris was showing a lot of interest too, and Profound Lore seemed like a better choice for us than Relapse. Plus, the people with Relapse seem to look at their groups as a kind of "professional project." That's not our thing at all. They're the kind of groups that want to put out tons of clips online and have a strict [PR and] communication plan. We're more freestyle.

Photo by Benjamin Redcatcity

Michell, you said earlier that back in the day you were aiming for an extreme. What do you aim for nowadays?
Bidegain: Maybe just…another kind of extreme. When we started the group we were simply trying to play as loudly as possible. We were so isolated, geographically, and our playing was in response to our surroundings. We didn't have the Internet—or almost not at all.
Bresson: We ordered our discs at the CD store. You had to go to some trouble to find good stuff.
Kaidine: At our first concerts, people looked at us like we were aliens, especially in Bayonne. In those days the scene in the Basque country was neo-metal and all that, so people couldn't believe what we were playing. That pushed us to get more radical in our approach to sound. We were fascinated by extreme groups like Corrupted, the Melvins, and Khanate. It pushed us to an extreme.
Bresson: You know, when you're 20 you need to prove yourself to yourself, and to the whole world. You're like, "I'm not going to be like the rest. I'm gonna show those assholes!" The result? We had two fans.

Gojira are are also from Bayonne, aren't they? Did they ever come to see you?
Bresson: No. But they went to high school with us and took the bus with Shiran.
Kaidine: It's true, we were pals. We'd exchange CDs, and I sold a Napalm Death T-shirt to Mario Duplantier.

Do you have a lot of problems because of sound limiters?
All: Ohhhhhh yeah.
Kaidine: At this one concert in Toulouse, the sound was so loud that the venue manager had to unplug us. The sound drove him crazy and he threw himself on Michell's amp to yank out the cord.
Bidegain: …and then people made a human barrier so we could finish the piece—well, for 20 minutes. [Laughs]

Let's talk a bit about your tours. First, what do you listen to on the Monarch tour bus?
Kaidine: Painkiller by Judas Priest is a frequent one.
Bresson: Harvest by Neil Young, too. That disc is amazing!
Bidegain: Well, it was amazing. Less so the sixtieth time around.
Miollan: You play Weezer's Blue Album pretty often.
Bidegain: NOFX, Rancid, Midnight, Discharge… a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Bresson: Primordial, and Casiopea, a Japanese jazz fusion group.
Bidegain: Our tour in Japan with Birushanah was awesome. They put on the original score of Akira in the van. It was amazing! In two seconds it loosened us all up.

Obviously, Japan is super far. How does a group like yours end up touring in such a faraway place?
Bidegain: It's more like, we never go on vacation. And when we do, it's to play concerts in Japan.
Miollan: We were invited over there by the group Birushanah, whom we toured with. They treated us really well—they're so welcoming.
Bresson: They took care of the van, the gas… We paid for almost nothing out of our own pockets over there, except for odds and ends at bars. They took us to sanctuaries, told us about Shinto, and so on.
Kaidine: Basically all we paid for was our tickets. Also, in Japan, the groups are the best! The first one I saw, and probably one of the most impressive, was a ska punk group. We were floored.
Bresson: Scared, even.
Miollan: And the venues are so different. The sound equipment takes up half the stage; the volume is 100 times louder than in France, and the soundproofing is awesome. The sound engineers are great and they do everything for you. In the time it takes you to get your guitar, you come back to find your stack is already there, your pedals are in their place, the drum set is ready…
Bidegain: Tuning took eight minutes, and we never sounded so good.

Bresson: It's so different from Russia, where you warm up for 5 hours, you eat potato ravioli and after the concert you wake up surrounded by 15 strippers.
Bidegain: That actually happened. Emilie even smacked some Finnish guy who was feeling up a stripper.
Bresson: It was a St. Patrick's party with a BDSM theme—but two weeks after St. Patrick's. This all happened in a club owned by the Mafia, after a Monarch concert. Not your everyday program.

Pretty exciting, those Monarch tours.
Bresson: Oh, we've had worse. The first time we went to Leeds, our van straight up caught fire on the highway.
Miollan: We saved the majority of our gear before the flames touched our trunk.
Bidegain: But there were pedals, discs, and cords that melted; we weren't able to play that way, plus the van died. We ended up renting another van from the same company so we could arrive safe and sound. Once we finally got to Leeds, super late, none of the other groups wanted to lend us any equipment. That trip ended up costing us 400 pounds.
Miollan: For the rest of the trip, everything we touched smelled burnt: Our clothes, our bags, the merch.
Bresson: The next time we traveled to Leeds, we ran into airport delays, bags too big and extra fees, then gear lost 24 hours before the concert… Later we confused the drummer from Cannibal Corpse with the festival organizer—which explained why he wasn't much help to us... We're always dealing with shit.

In the end, isn't it kind of because of these "adventures" that Monarch has held strong for so many years?
All: Oh yeah.
Miollan: Normally I'd have said this was too much, let's disband the group. [But this is who we are and we're good together.] I've lost count of how many times people have cried, or gotten mad, or we've had to comfort each other, or find clever solutions to things… and it's just how things are, [and we go on, and we get stronger].
Kaidine: I haven't talked about the intensity of playing onstage, how good it is when you've managed to ride out a difficulty and come out swinging at the other end.

Thanks, Monarch! This was so cool. Anything to add?
Bidegain: Yeah, a joke. Knock-knock!

Who's there?
Bidegain: A Def Leppard drum solo.

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