Photo by Giovanni Duca
Imagine you’re in a truly lovely garden. The light is soft, maybe there’s a nice breeze and there are amazing things all around for you to admire, but honestly, you’re just having a really crappy time. How do you deal with being unhappy in a beautiful place?
That’s the feeling Matt Mondanile wrestled with while he was writing St. Catherine, his fifth solo album. The Real Estate guitarist has been recording under the moniker Ducktails since his college days, in Northhampton, MA and this installment marks his longest-developed and most autobiographical work. Tucked between the languid guitar melodies that characterize his style are lyrics about his move to Los Angeles and bucolic afternoons, all tied up in some religious imagery that recalls Mondanile’s Catholic upbringing. Despite the aforementioned themes, Mondanile says life on the west coast is sweet—there are fewer distractions and a way more palm trees. So things can't be that bad, can they? We asked him.
Noisey: What was on your mind while you were writing the album?
Matt Mondanile: I had just moved to Los Angeles so I was in a new place and that was exciting to me. I was also touring a lot with my band Real Estate and that was keeping me really busy, so I was kind of in a new place but I kept leaving and coming back. So it made me feel kind of alienated from every place, because I was just really scattered. As I was writing the record slowly over time, I decided that I was trying to make something that was kind of the soundtrack to your walkthrough of a botanical garden or a museum. The idea of it is that you’re in this beautiful, fantastical setting but you’re having a really bad time with the person you’re with—you’re just not meshing or getting along well. So it’s kind of the soundtrack to a failing relationship in a beautiful place. And that’s the setting that I would like people to appreciate it with, or experience it with.
Did that happen to you?
I had a really nice relationship with my last girlfriend, but it was also really stressful because we were musicians and we were traveling so we’d never have enough time for each other. And then we realized we weren’t the right people for each other and we were in difference places. I just think it’s interesting when you’re in this beautiful place and there’s palm trees everywhere, but you’re having a bad time. Whereas in New York, you could be in the shittiest possible weather but having the best time.
What do you want people to come away with after they listen?
I would really like it if they listen to it over and over again. What I want people to really get from this album is replay value—take a few of the songs that they like and listen to them over and over again.
With Real Estate, people always say that your sound is beachy or sunny, and you guys have adamantly stated that you’re not a beach band. But now that you live out in LA, what do you think about that? Do you feel like you were destined to move West because you were already producing music that sounded like that?
Whenever I’d go on tour, I was living in New York City and I’d go out to California and I’d be like, “Man, it’s pretty nice out here.” In New York, it’s expensive and it wasn’t a good place for me to live because I don’t have to take the train anywhere, I would just have to write music in my house. It’s actually a pretty distracting city. And I was dating a girl in California, that’s why I moved there. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I need to be in the sun,” or something. Even though I like the sun every day, now that I’ve lived in LA for almost two years, I realized it’s kinda monotonous, because the weather’s very similar all the time. So you can lose track of time; time can go by really fast.
A lot of reviews have connected St. Catherine to religious themes and said that it sounds vaguely baroque. Do you have a thesis statement for the album?
I was learning keyboard when I was writing the record, so a lot of the songs were written on keyboard and maybe that helps it sound more baroque, since I’m not playing guitar. But I also wanted to have strings on the record and I wanted it to have this fantastical, exotic, amazing feeling like you’re in a different place.
I was raised Catholic, so I kind of wanted the record to be a fake Christian record where people thought that I was religious. But no one actually thinks that I’m religious, which is great! Everybody realized, oh I was raised Catholic too, this makes sense. When you’re raised Catholic, you have all this beautiful imagery in the back of your mind when you’re a kid. I used to go to my friend’s houses and people would read us stories about the Bible, and it’s kind of a sci-fi fantasy book if you think about it. So taking that imagery, I was using the idea of an angel taking you to heaven as a metaphor for falling in love.
Why did you decide to do that?
I was interested in the history of music and the beginning of music started in religious contexts. The first Gregorian chants or anything like that—the first musical notes were used for spiritual healing purposes in the middle ages. So I guess I was reading about the history of music and I was like, “Oh wow, music has a lot to do with religion, maybe I should try to combine my Catholic upbringing with music.” It was also an aesthetic style choice.
Do you think that you could’ve written this album anywhere, or is it very much influenced by you being in Los Angeles?
I think that I could’ve written the album anywhere, but I think that where I was made the album what it was, because I was in Los Angeles and it was a good place for me to be in. Experiencing sun and meeting new people, having new musicians around to work on it.
And you started off your tour at the Getty Museum, which is a California institution, what was that like?
It was really awesome, a lot of people came out. I was surprised.
Do you feel like it was really fitting, since you’ve got these ideas about the baroque and religion?
I do, I have a friend that works there and that’s why it happened. But it was good to do it there.
For the rest of the tour, it looks like you’re going up and down the east coast a little bit, do you have anything special planned? I saw that you’re playing with Julian Lynch.
Oh yeah, that’s happening in Boston. As far as having anything special planned, touring in Europe November/December, that’s a long, long tour. That’ll be cool.
Are you going to pull in any of your Real Estate band members for some shows?
No, the great thing is we don’t have anything planned, so I have a lot of free time. I’m probably going to work on more music, when I can.
Your tour will take you through the end of the year, what are you going to do after that?
It’ll probably be Real Estate stuff. I actually have a lot of September and October open, so I’m trying to figure out what to do with that time.
One really weird thing, I was checking out your record label New Images and it still has your Ridgewood, New Jersey address for contact. Is that by design?
I just like it because whenever I come visit my mom I have demos waiting for me.
Since you’re back in Ridgewood, do you still go down to the basement? Do you still descend to your old lair and you’re like, “Man, this still has good vibes?”
I have to walk through my basement to get into my house, so the first thing that I do when I get home is walk through my basement. It’s the best. It’s got wood paneling. It’s a great basement, it’s my favorite basement ever. I still have music equipment down there but it’s all kind of tucked away.
Laura Bertocci is sad that no one has basements on the west coast. She’s on Twitter.
Matt Mondanile is on Twitter.