An Interview with New Monsters

The New Monsters are a Bay Area combo lead by bassist Steve Horowitz (The Code International) and tenor sax “monster” Dan Plonsey (of Daniel Popsicle, and composer of Leave Me Alone, an opera with libretto by Harvey Pekar). Dan and Steve go back many years as both friends and collaborators; they toured together in 1999 in Steve’s Mousetrap Quartet. Steve moved back to the Bay Area a few years ago and, when he heard the music Dan had been working on, “dragged him kicking and screaming” into the studio. They brought in Steve Adams (of ROVA Saxophone Quartet fame), Scott Looney and Jim Bove and worked the hell out of Dan’s tunes. I’ve seen the Monsters play a number of times over the past few years, as they got their repertoire into shape; eventually, the pieces, once known only by numbers, were even given names. (Which always reminded me of that old joke: “86!” he shouted. “Hey, why didn’t anyone laugh?” “You didn’t tell it right.”) Be sure to check out their eponymous new album (New Monsters, Positone).

New Monsters, Positone

I sat down with Dan Plonsey and Steve Horowitz to chat about the new record (that is, I was sitting down when I emailed them these questions; I can’t really vouch for their bodily positions when they responded).

B. Kold

SENSITIVE SKIN So how did you guys meet?

STEVE: I think we first met at a Composers Cafeteria Meeting in the East Bay, in the early ’90s. I had just come back up to the Bay Area from studying at Cal Arts. For me it was most certainly love at first sound.

DAN: Steve came along during the Cafeteria’s final days, when an influx of composers who couldn’t play instruments (and who couldn’t compose either!) was forcing the founding members into a situation where we had to either abandon our egalitarian principles or disband the group. The Manufacturing of Humidifiers emerged from the Cafeteria, and when the horrible non-performing composers heard about it, they asked if they could write pieces for us. Almost demanded to. The answer was a resounding no. So Steve was sort of the guy I used to get out of a bad relationship.

SS: Steve says he heard your latest compositions and immediately thought they’d be best performed by a small combo, and that you had to be dragged “kicking and screaming into the studio to make a jazz record.” Is this accurate? Do you hate jazz, or just going to the studio?

DAN: I don’t hate studios, but I do hate jazz, and I suppose I sort of love kicking and screaming. The idea for the first bunch of pieces was to write something simpler that could be used by a smaller group than Daniel Popsicle (10–12 people), and to extend them through improvisation. So I’d just gotten finished with the idea of doing the pieces with 4–5 people, when along comes Steve. The thing is, when someone offers to help you present your music, and you see the possibility of it happening in a way that isn’t entirely horrible, and you can continue to do it your own way too at the same time, you agree to do it. Plus I’ve gotten to kick and scream on a number of occasions. It’s been pretty good in that regard.

SS: Originally these compositions were all referred to by numbers, instead of titles. Why’d you drop the numbers and go with traditional titles?

STEVE: We wanted to use the numbers, but Positone insisted on titles. They felt the numbers were too abstract. So Dan did a first run at the titles and then we sent them to the label to whittle them down. What we came up with was an interesting amalgam.

DAN: I was writing too many pieces to have time to think about titles, so I just numbered them. Like many composers, I’ve been seduced by the desire to be prolific, which is why the opus numbers seem attractive. But I actually have come up with many titles I like quite a bit. “My Socks Travel the Couch Line,” “They’re Sniffing Our Garbage,” “Gargantuan Livestock Tended by Fools,” “Twelve Different Boxes of Jello Have I,” “Moving about, Humming, Still Our Flowers Are Blooming, Under the Old Portcullis.” In 1980, I predicted that we were in for a “stupid decade” for music. Composers would write really clunky, misshapen, quotidian sorts of music and give them stupid, irreverent titles. I thought that the challenge would be to write the worst piece imaginable, and still have it sound good in an unexpected way. I was wildly wrong (except about the titles), but that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.

SS: When you went into the studio, were you and Steve (and the rest of the band) on the same page, as far as what you wanted to accomplish, or did it take a bunch of live gigs for it to gel? Was there a lot of give and take between you and Steve and the rest of the band?

STEVE: We worked on the arrangements for quite a while and then did a series of live and loft sessions where we recorded everything and made a demo. After that we went into the studio and banged this album out in three days, no overdubs, all live in the same room!

Coffee Monsters, photograph by Jeff Spirer

Coffee Monsters, photograph by Jeff Spirer

DAN: We’d reached an agreement about a lot of the nuts and bolts: the tempos, the structure, who’d solo when, approximately how long things would go on, etc. Steve pretty much decided most of those things, but he checked with us. On another level, like most jazz bands that I know of, it’s a collaboration. You let the other guys play the way they want to play, particularly in the improvisations. I can think of two occasions when I told someone that I wanted them to do something different (and they understood, and did). But as with all collaborations, sometimes you’re amazed at the great thing someone’s come up with, but other times you’re kind of upset. And then you have to decide whether to say something. Certain things are beyond a player’s control. And when the other players are as established as Steve, Steve, Scott and Jim are, it would be really insulting for me to ask them to be someone else. It’s why I think so much jazz is just so bad: nobody wants to say anything, and the result is that there’s no singular, strong vision.

SS: Did you have any moments of utter doubt, when you thought this would never work?

STEVE: I never felt that way about the music, never a moment of doubt, the music is so successful. As for Dan’s mental health, that was another story, I kept telling him that this was going to be the album he wins a Grammy for. (I still think it will.)

DAN: I’m not sure it does work. I’m having fun doing it, but it’s different from my own thing, where I have more control. I like music that’s clunky. This is more smooth.

SS: You guys are both leaders. How was it trying to share the lead? Or did you? How did you divide responsibilities?

STEVE: We have worked together a lot. This part seems to come easy, collaborating together I mean. I have the utmost respect for Dan and his music. I may push a little, but my goal is always to make sure he is happy with the music. Hands down, this is one of the best and most fun musical groups I have been in for a long time. I am having a blast playing with these guys

DAN: Well, the upside is that Steve does most of the work other than writing the tunes—coordinate schedules, get someone to record us, get a label to release it. And writing and playing are what I like to do. I get the best of both worlds in this band: a sideman’s lack of worries and yet we’re playing my music. Now all Steve has to do is find a major venue to present us and put together a world tour.

SS: Dan, I’m a huge Harvey Pekar fan. What was it like to work with him on the opera, Leave Me Alone? Did the experience inform your subsequent work? Or did you just want to get in bed and stay there for six months?

DAN: It was a very difficult process. I wish we could do it all over. We were planning to do it again, out here, in a full “composer’s cut” version that would restore all the music, plus Harvey’s original idea for the form. He basically wanted it to be a sort of My Dinner with Andre, just two guys talking about music, sitting in a cafe. I wanted Harvey to write a fictional story about a Cleveland musician (we’re both from Cleveland Heights) who is stuck there because of family, who struggles to get some compositions written and performed. But Harvey wouldn’t do fiction. He wanted it to be about me, with me telling him about my music. So I’d send him things I’d written about music, and he’d say, “Sounds good, put it in.” Harvey was very leery of opera. He didn’t really accept that there was a reason for all the singing. Meanwhile, the producer had his own ideas—he wanted it to be high tech—and the director had yet another agenda. It was a collaboration where no one got what they wanted, and no one was good at talking it through. In my conversations with Harvey, he really only wanted to talk about things that had happened: musicians he liked, things people had done. Politics, sometimes. He said that as an artist, he was a “realist,” and it wasn’t until after it was over that I realized that one, there’s no real possibility of “realism” in instrumental music, but two, my music comes very close to “realism.” I don’t edit much, I have no system, I just write down the music I’m humming. Harvey was a very important artist, and I wish I’d had more time with him. I wish we’d gotten to do the opera again. Because of lack of money and some other weirdness I can’t get into here, it’s unlikely that the recording or video will ever be released. It’s a closed chapter, most likely. However, I’m still learning from what we did get to do.

Steve Horowitz and Dan Plonsey, photograph by Jeff Spirer

Steve Horowitz and Dan Plonsey, photograph by Jeff Spirer

SS: What are the future plans for the New Monsters? Do you plan on continuing to record more of Dan’s compositions, or was this a one and done?

STEVE: Definitely not a one-off. Expect to see this group around a lot. More live playing, more recording.

Dan: I’m in it as long as I’m having fun, and as long as Steve is willing to do all the work!

SS: I think it’s great you guys are making music like this—what has the response been so far? Do you ever wish you’d taken up a different musical genre than jazz—perhaps rock, hip-hop, or polka?

STEVE: The reviews for this disc are the best I have seen in years. Critics are saying some very flattering things. The press clippings have been very, very favorable. We’ve also been getting great responses from audiences at live gigs. This is a very entertaining and muscular band, just weird enough for the adventurous souls in the crowd, and melodic and conventional enough to make the average jazz listener very happy.

DAN: A handful of people like it. I think most people who have heard us like us. That’s the way it is. At this point, after 33 years doing music that I’ve wanted to do, I’m expecting nothing more than the usual, which is: a few friends come to a show or two and say a couple of nice things, we play a few small gigs for 20 people, complain about it briefly, and then move on to the next project. But I never regret not having taken up idiomatic music. I’m glad I haven’t. I’ve done my own music all this time and, because of my lack of success, nothing’s interfered with my development. When you play idiomatic music, you are a servant to that music, and to the expectations of others. What I do wish, sometimes, is that life’s obligations didn’t keep me from practicing and studying more.

SS: I could probably take an educated guess at what some of your main musical influences are—Beefheart, Coltrane, Braxton, Sun Ra—but what are the some of your major non-musical influences?

STEVE: Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, William Burroughs, Robert Heinlein. I was a strange kid. I read A Happy Death over and over again in high school. It was right next to my copy of Without Feathers.

DAN: Science Fiction was big for me. In my formative years, I read only SF. Everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote. The idea that there are other worlds, other ways of being. It’s therefore natural for me to want to invent my own music, with its own rules. Nowadays I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I like books that aren’t about too much. I like Magnus Mills, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolano, David Foster Wallace, Tao Lin. Of the painters I like the most, I think my music is most like the art of Henri Rousseau, de Chirico, and Rauschenberg. I think about Diebenkorn when I make arrangements: the way his lines are always thickened by other painted-over lines beneath. I also owe a lot to the dadaists, and to the abstract expressionists. I like drawing, and I’m planning to start painting.

SS: It’s difficult making non-mainstream music in today’s world. Or making any kind of art that’s more difficult for the hoi polloi than, say, Thomas Kinkade (may he RIP). Who are some of your role models for swimming against the cultural tide, so to speak?

DAN: Charles Ives and Sun Ra both just did their thing in the face of indifference. They invented their own worlds, and brought us into them.

STEVE: Yes, you have to make your own rules, you have to be your own dog. Zappa was a huge influence on me in terms of taking control of your career and being your own boss. In this day and age, it helps to have some entrepreneurial spirit. The playing field has been more than leveled out, it has been completely dug up. You have to take advantage of the new to get your music and message out there.

SS: Do you change your diet when you’re in the recording process? Do you eat better or worse? Junk food or organic?

DAN: I have health issues which have forced me to eat fairly regularly, fairly healthily. I used to bring lots of pastries to a recording, but no more. However, if we’re in Oakland and it’s my project and I’m buying the food, it will be from Pho 84 most likely. Or from that Thai place near Myles Boisen’s studio. Or that Cambodian place at 8th and Alice. Gotta have Southeast Asian. I do think it’s important to have enjoyable, inspiring food.

STEVE: I also have some health issues around food, strangely in fact, Dan and I have very similar issues, so I also try to stay on the straight and narrow and keep consistent with healthy eating. After all, I did work on Super Size Me, so junk food is out of the question!

SS: We’ve reached agreement! Excellent!