It doesn’t take much to get sucked into the swarming, psychedelic world of Monster Magnet. For years after frontman Dave Wyndorf formed the band in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1989, Monster Magnet combined the riffage and noises of Black Sabbath, MC5, Chrome and Blue Cheer to create a sound that pounded like arena rock, and buzzed like a hallucinogenic swarm of bees emerging from spiraling galactic vortex. Then Monster Magnet got signed to A&M in 1993 and they became less bombastic and focused more acutely on melody, but left enough C4 in the mix to level most arenas they played and enough acid in the water to keep the locals tripping for days.
But by the end of the 90s the psychedelic go-go party started coming to an end for the longhaired Jersey boy in tight leather pants – at least in America. While Monster Magnet continued to release an album every few years, flirting with sleazy hard rock, surf rock and atmospheric classic rock, they seemed to downplay the swarming psychedelic tones and textures that made Monster Magnet so attractive to stoners in the first place. To some, it seemed like Wyndorf had kinda lost the plot. So Monster Magnet focused their efforts on Europe and other faraway lands that still appreciated space lords, comic books and good weed.
The band’s last three albums, 2004’s Monolithic Baby, 2007’s 4-Way Diablo and 2010’s Mastermind demonstrated a return to ass-kicking form following the half-baked oomph of 2001’s God Says No. But the discs still lacked the trippiness that Monster Magnet once thrived on. Enter the band’s new album Last Patrol, a return to the headfuck aesthetic that drove Wyndorf to first pick up an arsenal of guitar effects after his war-themed punk band Shrapnel broke up in 1985. For Wyndorf, bringing the band full-circle makes sense as a way to dismiss how vacuous the rock scene has been over the past decade. You can almost see the space lord looking down at the vast expanses of drones and lemmings and exclaiming, “We shall remove the stone from the rock until such time as the masses are worthy of its delivery.” Well, that time is now, as Wyndorf explains as he gives us a glimpse into the history of psychedelic sound and his own mind-altered past.
The psychedelic garage metal sound that you introduced during the alternative era with albums like 1991’s Spine of God and 1993’s Superjudge certainly wasn’t unprecedented, but it helped trigger a wave of other similar bands who were also bred from the seeds of Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Trouble and Saint Vitus. And now there’s a new wave of quality doom/stoner groups. What is it about this kind of epic, reverberating stoner rock that’s been so enduring?
First of all, it’s fun to play. When you put that many effects and so much vibe into the sound it’s like being a wizard. You got your gear, you’re making these crazy sounds that provide more than atmosphere. It comes from a different part of making music that’s about ambience rather than technical prowess. And it takes a different part of the brain to emphasize that over technique. It becomes its own technique. And it’s easy to get addicted to. But to figure out everyone’s influences, you have to dig into their record collections and find out. At what point did someone hear a sound on a record and go, “Oh man, I feel like I’m fuckin’ tripping, man. This is great!”
It’s all about taking that journey through sound.
Yeah, to me, psychedelic music has always been about transcending or trying to. Because to me, some of my favorite stuff is music that doesn’t transcend. They try and then the spaceship crashes down the earth. It’s funny because it’s really all based on a tie-in to music and sounds that were connected with a cultural change, which was the introduction of psychedelic drugs to white kids – kids who have the time just to kick back and trip. The whole psychedelic movement of the ‘60s wasn’t for your average black guy. He can’t afford to trip. So this was a real specific thing that applied to a certain type of person who knew their stories and had grown up watching TV and movies. That’s how it started out for me. I heard in psychedelic music elements of stuff I had seen in movies. I heard these echoes from tape machines that were probably the same machines that were used to make these effects in movies. Just the sound itself turned me on, and then the promise of being able to have some sort of secret, or fast track to illumination that I didn’t have. The idea of, “What do they know that I don’t know?” Was always really cool. “Oh, here, take this drug and find out.” It was an impossibly irresistible thing for me, and then I found out, of course, that it wasn’t about the drugs at all. It’s about your imagination. But I don’t know if that massive punch in the eye wouldn’t have come about the same way without a mass amount of people taking drugs, but it would have come. Surrealism happened without people taking LSD.
For musicians, there’s a demand there that comes with making drugged out music because they have to perform it and if they’re tripping they’re likely to think their instruments are melting while they play. Moderation is a tricky thing.
In the history of psychedelic music dating all the way back to the ‘60s, most of those guys, especially the Krautrock prog-rockers and stuff, they didn’t do drugs. Amon Duul II and Yes weren’t drug guys. For the most part, they were art-school guys who were classically trained and tried to pull off really, really complex parts that fused all this different kind of stuff together. There’s no time for tripping when you’re doing that shit. So, I think you could probably pick out the bands that get high on a regular basis from the actual quality of their music. How sophisticated is the melody, how complex is the rest of the music? Melody is actually something you have to think about. That’s why a lot of stoner rock came out in the ‘90s and it was all one note. Nobody tried to sing it because they were too busy smoking fucking pot.
Monster Magnet weren’t exactly teetotalers, yet even dating back to Spine of God your music has strong melodies. Do you just handle your high better than other stoners?
My standpoint was always to remember the drug experience and write about it. But if you’re doing it on drugs you’re impeding the creative process. Drugs aren’t the answer. They never have been. There’s a huge romantic myth that they’re a fast-track and you’re gonna see through the doors of perception and find the answers. And, yeah, you do see things but it’s because your perception is altered. And it’s not always the thing you want. So you experience the adventure, whether that be a trip on LSD, hanging upside-down on an airplane or getting hit by a fucking bus. It’s all life and you sing about it. That’s my motto. Sing about what you know. If what you know is psychedelic experience than you sing about it. But I know people who write crazy shit just because they’re crazy. And that’s the best.
What’s the closest psychedelics brought you to the edge?
A long time ago I did a lot of really, really powerful LSD – the kind they don’t make anymore. This is the kind of experimental stuff the Army drove people crazy with in 1968 in West Virginia. I had an out of body experience. I didn’t feel like I was in my body and I was watching myself. I felt all ID and very disconnected. There was no physical or corporeal. I didn’t think I was going to get back. It scared the living shit out of me. It was like a Dr. Strange comic where I’m looking at my inert body sitting on a dock by a lake in rural New Jersey. It might have had something to do with me doing whippets while I was on this powerful acid – not a good idea. It creates this audio echo and you shoot out of your body and float up. I looked down at myself and thought, “How do I get back there? I want to move my arms and stuff.” It was like some cheesy “Star Trek” episode with a cheesy science fiction effect where there’s this light in the sky that you could see through. From this birds-eye view looking down in this dark woods I could see every detail of every leaf and branch and I went into my friend’s house and went into the bathroom. I thought I was discorporate and then I sucked back into myself when I was in the bathroom and the next thing I knew I was staring at myself in the mirror like every other acid head and my face looked like the cover of the first King Crimson album. And that’s when I thought, “I gotta ease up on this stuff.” That was back in the early ’70s.
Monster Magnet were influenced by the psychedelic experience at least through the early ‘90s.
My first real band was a punk rock band and that was in 76 and 77. That whole psychedelic part of my life was pretty much over and I was into punk rock. That was my first band as a singer. But when I picked up guitar a few years later, it turned out that the sounds and attitude of psychedelic rock turned out to be some of what I call my blues. It really hit deep at me. The combination of those sounds and that experiences struck a real chord and I loved to play that stuff. I’m into listening to all kinds of music, but for some reason that was what was coming out first and foremost.
Did A&M Records try to rein you in and make you a more commercial band?
No they were really great. At that time it was one of the last great times for bands because something had taken over so quickly, grunge, and topped the charts and none of these big wigs really understood what was going on, but they were so eager to get in on whatever was going on that they signed a bunch of bands. I’ll never forget my A&R guy, who was an older guy that had signed Cat Stevens and a bunch of old-school bands said, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what it is you’re doing, but I think you should do it with A&M.” I thought that was totally cool because he wasn’t trying to direct us. He just knew there was a certain kind of energy behind it and he thought it would be good for the company.
Was there a point where the golden haze lost its luster?
There were different segments. Pretty early on I signed a real manager and we were at A&M surrounded by real businessmen and I knew, “Alright this is never going to be as much fun as when we were flying by the seats of our pants.” All of a sudden there were commercial concerns on my own head. I knew we could only dick around for so long before you have to do something or they’re gonna kick you off. So I knew I was in the pond. Right before Superjudge I knew I was going to have to take a new attitude, and my new attitude was, “I’m gonna do the kind of music the best I possibly can and try to push everybody else to somehow market it.” I was of the belief that you could sell anything if you marketed it correctly.
But then I discovered quickly that record companies weren’t marketers, they were creatures of a system. They weren’t innovators as much as the posed as tastemakers. In a lot of ways Monster Magnet would have gone over a lot better if we had come out 20 years later when you can organize your own marketing.
The band was heavily promoted and concerts were strongly attended through the mid ‘90s.
They were, but it was never enough for me. It wasn’t just about one record. I felt like if they wanted us to succeed they would have to stick with us. I think they lost the plot after a while. But it wasn’t their fault. They were sold right before Powertrip came out to a completely different company. And by the time Powertrip was two months old, all the people I worked with were fire. At that point, I was effectively on Interscope Records instead of A&M. So right at the point where Powertrip was starting to hit big, none of the original architects of that success were there. And Interscope was really more interested in pushing the next big thing, which was nu-metal.
Was that when the band started to decline?
Well, we did fine with God Says No, we just didn’t do fine with God Says No in the States. It sold better than Powertrip everywhere else, but in the States it didn’t do as well. And having the support structure of the major labels came with a price. Their support was applicable to the band only if the band sold over a certain amount of records and going gold wasn’t enough. They wanted platinum and they wanted platinum all the time. Otherwise, you might as well be on Dickhead records. So I got off of that label. It took me two years with lawyers to get off Interscope to not fulfill the last two albums on the contract. I was damned if I was going to give them two albums just for them to let them get lost.
Is it liberating to be in a position now where nobody expects you to go gold?
Yeah, and it’s also a lot better for your psyche to have realistic goals. And having artistic goals is never a bad thing, especially these days because there’s a really good chance you’re not gonna have nothing else, unless you’re really good at making t-shirts. I mean, we’re all trying to find a way to survive making music. We’re really trying to find pockets of people who listen to music for something other than being a soundtrack to their activity. And that’s a real personal thing. Do people really listen to what I have to say or is that over? Is what I do a worthy thing at all, is it interesting? I’m sure it will work itself out in the future, but right now we’re in a real state of flux. Since the Internet went really broad and the phones got so much better, it’s really been headlines over substance everywhere we go.
Did you ever suffer an identity crisis from all the changes that have taken place over the years?
The whole rock thing is one big, giant identity crisis. As a nerd and an introvert growing up as a kid, it was so weird to be recognized for something. I come from a big family and I was fine there, but outside of that I was quiet as a church mouse. My life was all about escapism and I was a huge consumer of TV, movies, comic books, books and lots and lots of music. I wanted to follow this love of rock, but I always looked at it as I’m writing this stuff and then I’ll kind of move into the stuff that I’m writing and try it out. So that removed the fear element and the insecurity for me. It worked. And all of a sudden I’m getting girls and rocking, making music. I was totally serious one minute, but totally like, “Hey, fuck it!” in the other. It’s a glorious thing because I felt like, “Well, all I have to do is tweak this and tweak that, and all of a sudden I’m this guy!” Obviously, I was just emphasizing a different side of my personality, but it always reaches a crisis point. When you get more people that know you from your image than know you from your real self, you got a problem. So I met all these people all over the world that went, “Oh, you’re the guy with the leather pants!” I went with it and it was fun, but eventually it gets weird. I was smart enough to go, “Y’know this might be a problem someday.” And it was. I had my little breakdown But we don’t need to talk about that.
You haven’t done a full tour of the U.S. for years.
I quit tour America 10 years ago because it wasn’t happening here. The States had just run out of gas, rock-wise. Live music was taking a dive. Everything was expensive, tickets cost too much. To try to connect the dots between one side of the States and the other and make any money was too much. They just weren’t buying what we had to sell. But Europe was buying. Psychedelic music was still well accepted, so I toured even more. The places were packed and it was 90 percent sell out everywhere. And all the countries were really close together. I played New York City every year, but I didn’t tour.
Your new album The Last Patrol feels like a throwback to the first two or three Monster Magnet albums. Was that intentional?
When I was overseas, I would psych up a lot of the songs so the shows were a real psychedelic experience. And we were playing the older albums in Europe, Spine of God and Dopes to Infinity in their entirety and that went over really well. So it all made sense to me. I went, “Oh, you dumb ass. Why don’t you go write a psychedelic record?” So I went all-out and made a weird, little record. I kept it home grown and paid very close attention to the vibe and made sure it wasn’t overproduced. It’s something I can be really happy singing a million times over.
All the same. There are no radio rockers on the album?
I wanted to avoid the fist-in-the-air anthems and just get back kind of to the stuff I used to listen to as a kid. It was great. And I figured, “Ah, I can bring this back to the States now.” It’s been long enough so I don’t think there are any expectations for Magnet to follow up one thing or another.
Monster Magnet on tour
11/14: Grand Rapids, MI @ Intersection
11/15: Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews
11/16: Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
11/17: Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
11/19: Denver, CO @ Marquis Theater
11/20: Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
11/22: Seattle, WA @ Neumos
11/23: Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theater
11/24: Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
11/26: San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
11/27: Los Angeles, CA @ House of Blues
11/29: Tempe, AZ @ Club Red
11/30: Albuquerque, NM @ Launch Pad
12/2: Austin, TX @ Red 7
12/3: Houston, TX @ Fitzgeralds
12/4: Dallas, TX @ Trees
12/6: Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
12/7: Charlotte, NC @ Amos Southend
12/8: Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Sound Stage
12/10: Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
12/12: Boston, MA @ Sinclair
12/13: West Chester, PA @ The Note
12/14: New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom