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A Q&A With Ducktails

Matt Mondanile discusses upcoming LP St. Catherine, life in L.A., and being true to the form of music

Ducktails: A Q&A With Ducktails

Photo by Rob Kulisek

On my way to Café de Leche, the Los Angeles coffee shop where I was going to meet up with Ducktails’ Matt Mondanile, I prepared myself for a vague, whimsical chat with a perpetually stoned, blissed-out jester. At least that’s how the Real Estate guitarist and Ducktails main man has been portrayed in most interviews, album reviews and assorted mentions relating to both his first-tier-indie day job and diligently maintained solo project. Mondanile has been called easygoing with every synonym of the word out there, a slacker, and a Cosmo Kramer incarnate. The person I got a glimpse of on that Wednesday afternoon, however, displayed the zest and presence of someone who is dead serious about both his art and life in general. Seeing Mondanile thoughtfully consider my questions and earnestly light up when discussing his experiences and intentions made me realize how big of a disfavor he might have been done by audiences and journalists too prone to dismiss his carefully crafted albums as “chill music by a chill guy”.

That reputation might soon change, though: Ducktails’ fifth solo LP, entitled St. Catherine, drops later this year on Domino, and the album calls attention to the sides of Mondanile which didn't show quite as clearly in the past. A more honest, quasi-conceptual album, the record finds Mondanile in a state of melancholy and introspection, opening up and channeling his woes not unlike a 1970s singer-songwriter. Musically a dreamier, more reticent cousin to the maximalist indie-jazz-rock of Flower Lane, the album still confidently strives for instrumental depth and pastoral, baroque-pop opulence. St. Catherine makes the impression of an earnest, post-postmodern kind of work, where arrangements are constructed to broaden the scope of expression and not to fit into a specific, preestablished sound mold. 

Before I had a chance to listen to St. Catherine though, I briefly discussed the album’s origins and other Ducktails-related projects with Mondanile and Regal Degal’s Josh Da Costa, who will be joining the band on stage for upcoming Duck shows.

Matt, the last time I spoke with you was at the International Mystery festival here in L.A., where you helped curate a showcase of a pretty diverse crowd of left-field pop artists from (mostly) Western Europe. How did all that come about? 

MATT MONDANILE: Basically, Spencer Clark, who’s on Underwater Peoples and plays in Monopoly Child Star Searchers, was coming to the States and was getting married. He had been living in Antwerp, Belgium, and all these musicians that we both knew lived there, like Dolphins into the Future and Dennis Tyfus. We were trying to figure out a way to get all those people to his wedding in San Diego, so we decided to just have a festival. We had it at Jewel’s Catch One and had that guy Grant [Capes] promote it, and he helped pay for the flights and get them out here. But they’re all people that I’ve known for a long time, and the idea to add on people from my label came just because they live here in California. Madalyn Merkey lives in Oakland and Itasca lives here in Los Angeles.

Have you seen all of them live before?

MM: I hadn’t seen Madalyn, but she’s American and I’ve been friends with her for a while. But the European artists I’ve seen most of them live, yeah.

Would you organize a festival like that again in the future?

MM: I’d like to do one again! I think it would be cool to try to do one annually.

[Listen to a Dublab special including the International Mystery festival's artists here]

You’ve been in Los Angeles for quite a while now; how does living and making music here compare to the East Coast for you so far?

MM: That’s a good question! L.A. is cheaper and there is less things to worry about. It’s more mellow and you can get into your own world easily here, when in New York you can do the same thing but it’s more constricted; there’s less space. There’s more outside distractions in New York, too, and other things to do, like going to shows. Here there’s less stuff like that. But it’s not super different.

The city has become a particularly strong breeding ground for forward-thinking, yet somewhat idiosyncratic pop, which is how a lot of your music has been described. Did your move have anything to do with the scene that has developed here around such figures as Ariel Pink? 

MM: I’ve always been a fan of Ariel Pink’s music. He’s a big influence, but I didn’t move here because of that. I moved here because there was a room in this house in Highland Park and my friends were living there, and I had been coming to L.A. a lot, really liked it and wanted to check it out. It was the right time to move because I wasn’t doing much with Real Estate. We just finished a record, so I could just try it out. I had been living in New York for a long time. I liked the weather in Los Angeles, the friends I had here, and it was cheaper than New York. The rent going up in New York kind of drove me out also.

Now that you’re here, do you feel like you’re part of a music community? If so, who would it include?

MM: I feel like I’m part of a community, but it’s mostly my friends and the housemates I live with. There are already all these music communities here, but the thing about L.A. is that even if all these people are interacting, they’re all in groups. Like, I know Cameron Stallones of Sun Araw; he has a bunch of friends and they all play music, too. With me, I used to live with Mark McGuire from Emeralds and Kayla Cohen who plays as Itasca. It was a musician’s house. Now it’s becoming a musician’s house again: Josh [Da Costa] lives there and he’s in a band that’s called Regal Degal. They’re based in New York, but Josh is playing in Ducktails and that’s why he’s here now. So the music community is more spread out, like the city is; it’s more representative of Los Angeles.

JOSH DA COSTA: In L.A., enemies become friends [laughs]

What are the implications of the move for Ducktails? Are you going to assemble a full live band here or keep working with your friends from New York?

MM: I just performed solo [opening for Panda Bear] and it was cool, but I’ve been wanting to make a band to play the songs off the new record for a while; Josh played on the record, and he was down to play bass in the band. We’re trying to get it up to shape ‘cause we’re playing a European tour in June [check out the dates here]. It’s two other guys, too. This guy Ross who plays in L.A. and Alex [Craig], who’s played in the band before. He played in Big Troubles and Limited is his solo project. He’s in L.A. a lot but still lives in New York, so the band is kind of split between New York and L.A. They’re all here right now, luckily.

Can you give me some details about your upcoming album?

MM: It’s all completely done and it’s gonna come out in July [24th], on Domino Records. I think it’s the record that I spent the most time recording and writing. I started writing it when I moved here, in my room in Highland Park, demoing it for a long time. A lot of the members of Julia Holter’s band play on it, like her string sections, and she sings on it. Josh plays drums on it. James Ferraro has a small vocal part. It’s pretty collaborative but I’ve mostly recorded everything, really, and made the structure of the songs. Other musicians came  in and kind of added to it.

Was the process as collaborative as in the case of the Flower Lane?
 
MM: That was made in the studio for a month straight, with the same people. The new record was more like a long project. Most of the songs are more “songwriterly” than I’ve ever written before; most of them can be played on an acoustic guitar, just with one person, but also… there’s more elaborate instrumentation than before.
Lyrics are really hard for me. I don’t write them that much, but for the new record, the lyrics are really autobiographical and personal, true to myself. And then more straightforward, too. I even have them printed in the record.

Did you go into the studio at all?

MM: I recorded it at home and then went into a studio in Glendale for a while to track it, with a recording engineer. In New York I did some vocals in the studio, and in Berlin I recorded in the studio for a week, but I was writing in it, too: recording and writing at the same time. I ended up meeting this guy Rob Schnapf. He did Elliott Smith records and Beck’s “Loser” 7 inch, and he mixed the first Foo Fighters record, too. He’s done a bunch of records; he’s an older guy. He is a producer and I asked him if he would help me out, and at the end I was in the studio mixing it and producing it with him, in January. I did some vocals there, too. [Schnapf] is a really cool guy; he helped me finish the new record.

What were some things you listened to while recording it that might have influenced you?

MM: I don’t know… I listened to Broadcast a lot. I worked on this for so long that I mostly listened to the stuff I had made. I listened to music all the time. I listened to this one Robert Wyatt record… a compilation called ‘68. Pre-Soft Machine or right after Soft Machine… [both!]




Did you use any new gear or recording methods you didn’t experiment with in the past?

MM: I used Ableton Live to write the record, a Casio [keyboard], a Juno 106, some guitars, a bass and just like some simple shit in my room. But the way I wrote the record was… I used the clip mode in Ableton to make a part of a song, like a loop of a verse, and then I’d make a bunch of verses and and choruses and some bridges, midi-map and number them and play them at random, like 1, 3, 7…

Kind of like producing electronic music with Ableton…

MM: It’s sort of like switching between different parts and seeing if they work together to make a song. Like, this could be the verse, that could be the chorus, or this part should be the whole song if I change it a little bit.
That’s how I wrote it, and there was a vocoder feature that I used a lot. On Paul McCartney II there’s a lot of vocoder mixed with real instruments. Not necessarily on the voice, but vocoder that’s like an extra pulse that syncs up with the drums and the keyboards. So there’s a lot of that on the record, but also a lot of acoustic instruments, like strings.

Judging by the mixes you've created for various websites, you seem to be into a pretty eclectic mix of stuff, including fairly experimental music and a lot of dance music. Why is it then that your releases as Ducktails have only been becoming more conservative musically, lately harking back to the ‘70s and the ‘60s?

MM: I don’t know why it ends up like that. I always say I’m going to make something that’s weirder, and it ends up me wanting to make stuff that’s more conventional. It’s kind of tongue in cheek in a way, because I know myself and I know that I can’t make music that’s very conventional; it’ll always sound weird. The ability to make something that is really sonically engaging and fits in the pop world is exciting to me; I want people to be able to listen to the songs over and over again. Repeat some of them and say “I really like this song, I want to listen to it again”! I think that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do with Ducktails: make little pop nuggets. But I’m not trying to make it, like, super mainstream at the same time. Sometimes the production ends up sounding pretty sleek and I’m like “how did that happen?” But then I’m pushing for it a little bit.

Your songs have become more harmonically complex, too. Do you know music theory at all?

MM: I don’t know theory; I just learned to play the piano since I moved to L.A. I don’t even know how to play it that well! I can play guitar chords on the piano, I figured that out. So this record [St. Catherine] has a lot of piano. It started out from me playing keyboard a lot, and that’s kind of cool, cause I did things differently than if I was gonna write on a guitar. I feel like this record sounds more harmonically complex than any other record I’ve done.

You once said that you don't like pretension in music. It really stood out to me, so could you elaborate on that a little bit? 

MM: I’ll tell you this much. The whole reason I named my band Ducktails is because I thought it was a really cheesy, stupid name.  At the time, to me it sounded like the least pretentious thing you can name a band. Something that references a Disney cartoon.

JDC: I was at a record store yesterday, Mono records in Echo Park, and my friend behind the counter asked me what band I was playing in. I said Ducktails, and he laughed. I think it’s cool to have a band name that can make people laugh.

MM: I do love laughter! But I think my last name is hard to pronounce, so I wouldn’t want to play under my own name… maybe at some point, but I didn’t want it at the time. Also, I was in this community where I went to college in Western Massachusetts, where there was a lot of noise and experimental music  and, like, avant-garde music , and it was a really exclusive kind of group of people who, I always thought, kind of had their noses in the air. And I really like weird, messed-up music, but a lot of those people weren’t open-minded about music in general and appreciative of all different types and genres of music. Which I think is the most true you can be to the form of music: appreciating everything for what it is, and not differentiating or grouping. I think that was a problem in experimental music communities a few year ago, where they wouldn’t be accepting of other things. I think now experimental things seep into really mainstream things. A lot of smaller groups want to sound more mainstream, too, and they cross over; things are starting to get more post-modern, more messed up and jumbled up. But at the time, I wanted to make pop music for people who would only listen to experimental music, and somehow see above those things. I wanted it to be simple and almost ironic. Coming across as genuine and also jokingly [sic] is important to me. 

Yeah, people used to be more elitist about those things in the late zeros. Even in the way they would consume music: getting excited about the most obscure records they could find, even if they weren’t really that good.

JDC: There’s a reason why some things are obscure.  

Now, you seem to have really diversified recently; your label has grown, you DJ occasionally and put together shows, as well as collaborate with other musicians. What future projects are you the most excited about besides releasing the new album?

MM: Not much; it’s all I’m really excited about right now. There’s not really that many things that are coming out on my label, but stuff will pop up.  I have time off from Real Estate, and although I’m really always doing stuff with them I’m trying to get tour dates with Ducktails and promote the record. I’m also trying to work on a TV show with this guy Ben Jones, called Stone Quackers. It’s on Fox, and it’s a cartoon about ducks. I’m trying to have him help me score the show.

Speaking of your label, where do you ideally see it going?

MM: It’s such a personal thing. Whenever someone sends me something  that I like and kind of know, say, a friend of mine, I will release it, but I don’t know where it’s gonna go. I’d like to keep putting out stuff but I haven’t really been working on it a lot. The last records I put a lot of effort into were the last three releases, by Tsembla, Itasca, and Madelyn Merkey. So I’m still kind of working on those, a little bit, getting them out there into the world. Making people aware of those. And that’s been really fun!

***
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