Monday, July 26, 2010

Q&A: The Loneliest Monk

Posted by Frank

It would be hard not to be enchanted by The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago-based art rock duo made up of real-life couple Michelle Morales and Miles Benjamin. Both musically and visually, the duo is marked by a compelling mystique that instantly sets them apart as something special. Listening to their recently-released self-titled LP is kind of like experiencing a series arty mini-movies, each one unfolding with suspense, emotion, and allure. Rounding out the sound's overall unique vibe is Morales's beautiful cello work, which paints the material with classical flair, and the ear-catching dissonance created by Benjamin's playful tiny piano and percussion. Check out this mp3 of one of the album's tracks, "You Don't Have to Try," for a taste, and pick up the full record here or stream it below.

Seeing the duo live, though, completes the picture. They are intent on delivering not just a concert, but an experience - complete with costumes, sets and drama. It's a wonderful break from the norm, and you can see it for yourself at their next local show on Friday, July 30 at the Empty Bottle with La Scala and Violetness (click here for more information and tickets). In advance of the show, the two took some time out to answer a few questions for Windy City Rock. Read on to find out what they had to say.

 WCR: You've just returned from an East Coast tour. How did it go? Any standout moments?

Michelle: It was wonderful playing for fresh ears. They didn’t know what to expect and we used that to our advantage. The standout moment was when our van stopped working in Providence. The alternator stopped working so Miles and our tour manager, Blake, somehow pushed it to a body shop during a horrid downpour. I guess all bands experience their first road troubles sometime. I’m just glad it didn’t happen while in the Holland Tunnel or in the middle of nowhere.

Miles: Playing Brooklyn was obviously a great time. The small town support we received from places like Terre Haute, IN was pretty amazing. I had the best breakfast ever at Louis’ diner in Providence, RI.

To get everyone who isn't familiar with The Loneliest Monk up to speed, give us a bit of background on how the two of you came together and how the project started. Did you both make music separately before creating art as a duo?

Michelle: I moved to Chicago during the cold Winter to attend grad school in Cello Performance at DePaul. Miles was one of the first people I met during the first week of moving into the city. He played his record collection for me and our personalities clicked. Grad school was an important time for me to grow musically and once I finished, Miles and I started to incorporate our musical ideas together. I never sang in front of anyone and he brought that out of me. Our debut show at The Hideout was the first time I sang in front of people other than Miles!

Miles: I first met up with Michelle at the Map Room almost five years ago. She had just moved from Arizona and expressed interest in playing cello with my other group, All Things Lucid. I remember telling my friend at the time, “Do not let me date this...beautiful girl. I can’t be distracted right now.” Well I did, fell head over heels, and have been distracted ever since.

How do you think being a couple impacts your music and performances? Do you think it makes ideas come easier, or can it make things more challenging?

Michelle: We have only started working in the musical realm together in the last two years. It was really important for us to establish our relationship from the beginning and to dive into music making later. There is a very different type of trust that has to be established in terms of being in a band together. It’s a very fine line between loving and being critical in the most endearing way. Coming from a classical background, I had to lay back a bit on the whole over achieving mentality. It’s still a struggle for me at times but Miles is great at keeping me sane.

Miles: Being in a relationship definitely changes the dynamics of a band, especially as a two-piece. When recording and rehearsing you have to remember to focus on the music, and to not take criticism personal; however, in our live show we really rely on our intimate connection to increase the mood and tension of the stage. At the end of the day we both have the same intentions: we just want to create the best recorded and live experience we possibly can.

Your bio describes The Loneliest Monk as a “performance, not just a rock show” and a “detraction from the current indie trend.” In what ways specifically will people get a unique experience by listening to your music or going to one of your live shows?

Miles: We love to add a bit of theatrics to our live performance. I feel that a live show should be more then just the sounds you are playing. I want to be visually stimulated. For us, this can be as simple as dressing up and wearing a mask, or as complicated as an entire stage and theater crew.

Michelle: The sound of the cello has the ability to transport you to another time or moment. To me, playing the cello is like breathing. It's the best way that I can express myself beyond words. I think about the evolution of the cello and incorporate it into our own sound everytime we perform. People come up to us after our shows and tell us what they envision in their minds while listening to us. I realized after hearing their stories our music can be cinematic at times.

When listening to your recently released debut album, there's definitely an air of mystery and a dramatic, haunting vibe throughout. What were some of the inspirations for the material?

Michelle: I wish I knew where our songs come from. The recipe inhabits elements of classical music that’s embedded in my brain to Miles’ dreams.

Miles: The inspiration has always been more visual. We love cinema and there is nothing quite like those epic moments when the music crescendos and the hero triumphantly slays the villain. We really wanted to create those same dramatic feelings as a personal soundtrack to the listener.

Where did you record the record, and what was the process like? Any favorite tracks?

Michelle: There was candy and a lot of frozen pizzas involved. We recorded at Kilo Studios in East Pilsen for a week straight, 12 hour days. I remember the week in January being very cold. Mitchell Cepaitis (our engineer and co-producer) is our musical support and all around angel. It was nice to have another ear pull different nuances out of us that we didn’t expect. Looking back, “Ghost & The Sillhouette” is my favorite song from the album. We composed it and tracked it in one day. It was brutal for me, but Miles and Mitchell somehow got it out of me through bribery.

Miles: Mitchell and myself spent a lot of time designing and building the studio we used to record the album. Mitch has some of the most creative mic techniques I’ve ever witnessed. He was definitely not afraid to experiment. Everything ended up in Pro Tools HD, but a lot of the drums were recorded to a 16 track Fostex Tape Machine, and for every song we broke down the mic setup and started from scratch. We spent a lot of time on pre-production. I guess we just wanted each song to have its own vibe. “I’m Not The Man For The Job” was recorded on an Akai 4 track, and Mitch actually spliced together a cello tape loop for the foundation of the song.

In June you shot your first music video. Tell us more about the experience, what we can expect to see in it and when it might be available.

Michelle: Rubbish Films and HYSTK are geniuses and warriors. They took the heart of “The Ghost & The Silhouette” and elaborated on it in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. So many gracious people worked behind the scenes. It was two days of intense but beautiful outcomes and imagery. I am really excited to see the end result. Expect the debut to happen in the Fall.

Of the home city shows you've played to date, does any one in particular stand out as particularly memorable?

Michelle: We love our EP Theater shows. EP is our unofficial home. Jason Ewers, who runs the theater, is one of our original fans and supporters. Along with, they helped create our image and theatrical elements that people have come to know about us. Even though we are only two, we have a family of creative artists that are responsible for our overall ambiance and vision.

Who are some fellow Chicago bands you most enjoy listening to or or playing live with?

Michelle: I love Hollows. We played with them at our album release and a show in Brooklyn. I love watching a band that you know is about to tip in the right direction. Stephen Paul Smoker, our label mate, also blows my mind. Its some of the best songwriting that I have heard in a long time.

Miles: I really dig what Shawn Rosenblatt from Netherfriends is doing. I’m always excited to see what he’ll come up with next. I also really enjoyed our show with Loyal Divide awhile back. Those guys are great.

What's in store after your summer shows?

Michelle: Write more songs and eat more candy! And tour more. And to keep on loving each other.

Miles: We’ve only begun to explore our sound. I’m very excited to work on new material, experiment with our live shows, and get back out on the road. We are currently working on another East Coast tour for the Fall.

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