Into the Desert With Derek Monypeny

Photos by Heidi Schwegler

In Derek Monypeny, I’ve found a kindred spirit. We talk a bit about this in the interview, but when I saw him dedicate his incredible opus, The Hand as Dealt, to Alice Coltrane, Terry Riley, and Don Cherry, I knew I’d love it. (I mean, I figured I’d be into it considering how much his second album, Don’t Bring Me Down, Bruce has been played in this house before my copy seemingly got sacrificed to the moving gods a few years back.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply the baked psychedelic drones would move me. There’s this huge, primordial energy laced in the crevices of his music that feels timeless and maybe transcendental. Either way, it’s music that never shies away from hard questions and never glosses over the questions that need asking. Monypeny’s music is borne of the desert and when the world is all a dried-out husk, there will still be some rich watering holes to get lost in.

Derek answered these questions in early August. He can be reached through his Bandcamp site.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Any particular song or record or even environmental sound that really left an impression or made you stop and feel something unexpected?

My first actual memory of anything is being about 4 years old and grabbing on, with both hands, to an electric fence at a horse farm in the town of Gadsden, AZ, near Yuma where I grew up, and being unable to let go as the voltage coursed through me. I think my older brother pulled my hands off the fence after several seconds. As physically painful and traumatic as that was, I did get fully electrified and I think it was a significant event. That fence hummed and droned. 

Earliest music/sound memories: Going to the drive-in theater and seeing Disney movies, and listening to the soundtrack LPs. The ones I remember are Robin Hood, featuring Roger Miller’s songs. Roger Miller, the genius who wrote what I consider to be the greatest, most perfect song lyrics in the English language (King Of The Road). I also loved the soundtrack LP to the movie Disney now wants to pretend doesn’t exist (Song Of The South).

A little later: sitting in the back of my parents’ Chevy Impala which later got totaled in a wreck (was I even wearing a seatbelt?) and hearing Paul McCartney/Wings, who absolutely dominated the AM airwaves in that time period. “My love does it good.” I wondered what that could possibly mean. 

This was also Barry Manilow’s heyday. I got into him and a couple songs, in particular, hit hard: “Weekend in New England,” and esp. “Could It Be Magic,” or is it “Could This Be Magic”? He begins and ends that song with a Chopin prelude on piano. These songs very strongly introduced me to the romantic in sound and emotionally it was over my head but that romantic aspect – I felt it and it buzzed me. I read E.B. White’s book The Trumpet Of The Swan around that same time, which also contained heavy allusions to grown-up romantic love.

When I was real fuckin’ little I thought the music on the radio was being played live by people who were all at the radio station wailing!

My guitar teacher had feathered hair parted in the middle and he made me play “Summer Breeze,” and it was not making me feel fine.

When did you pick up a guitar and start playing your own stuff?

I was about 12, playing outside one day, and my mom came up to me and said “your dad and I have decided that you’re the creative one in the family. You are going to take guitar lessons.” 

So for about a year, taking lessons and playing guitar was basically like homework to me: it was some shit I didn’t want to be doing. But I was pretty good at it. My guitar teacher had feathered hair parted in the middle and he made me play “Summer Breeze,” and it was not making me feel fine. 

The guitar thing only kicked in with the onset of early adolescence, going to my friend (and drummer) Brandon’s house which had cable (our house didn’t), and seeing MTV. In particular, those late-period Who videos for “You Better You Bet,” “Another Tricky Day,” etc. It was just the Who, sans Keith Moon, miming to their lame songs on a stage in black and white. But I loved the songs, and I was really, really drawn to Townshend. I saw him up there and thought, “he’s pretty ugly, like me, and he looks miserable, like me, but he’s doing these awesome windmills and he’s ROCKING OUT and I gotta do that.” Shortly thereafter, I got an electric guitar and an amp, started playing with Brandon and my younger brother who I forced into learning bass, and we had our band, Fast Break. God I love that band name. We did covers but I did write 2 or 3 songs. And I went toward Townshend, toward that intensity and that visceral/cerebral mix, toward D. Boon, toward Moore + Ranaldo, and onward. 

You were pretty quiet on the solo front for a solid seven years and came roaring back this year with two new releases. What’s been happening in the interim and what got you back into things this year?

I was in Portland for most of it and I had my band, ALTO, which was where I put most of my creative focus. We made 4 full-length records and several tapes during that time and did some touring. Trouble In Mind Records released our 3rd record. Our instrumentation (me on guitar and 2 drummers) was unique, and I was compelled by the challenges of that band.

I have always seen myself as a band guy; I thrive on collaborating and making shared art. The only reason I made my first solo record, La Tortuga Del Alma, in 2009 or so, was because Chad Stockdale, who founded and ran Weird Forest Records in Sacramento, basically commissioned me. He plays tenor sax, and we were doing improvised music together at that time. He told me, “I want to put out the first Weird Forest cassette, and it has to be a solo record by you, and it has to be a double-cassette. It’s gonna be epic.” I was really honored, but I also had no real idea or concept of what my solo music would be. I owe a huge debt to Chad. After doing that record for Chad, I continued to make solo recordings, but would only be inspired to work on them during times of severe depression and personal turmoil.

In 2018, I relocated to Joshua Tree from Portland along with my partner. I have a great home studio here in the desert, which is where my roots lie (I’m a native Arizonan). Moving here coincided with me feeling like my days of being in bands are done (or at least, my days of starting bands – if some awesome people wanted me to be in their band I’d definitely consider it). It felt like the time to really see what I could do as a solo artist. I did a solo tour of the U.S. in summer 2019, where some of the The Hand As Dealt material took shape and really got defined. I have these records coming out now, but it’s been a minute since they were actually recorded.

The Hand As Dealt is huge and is one hell of a way to release your first recordings in a while. How long have you been working on it and what was your mindset working on these pieces?

I made The Hand As Dealt over the course of a few months in 2019. I thought about it initially as two separate records, mainly because I couldn’t imagine a record label investing in a double-LP of my music, and I thought it was probably too much for me to bite off as a self-release.

What I remember most vividly while making The Hand As Dealt is having a big internal conflict about “why do this, in the face of the world’s vast indifference to it.” The same thing I know a lot of artists in every medium struggle with. The album’s title alludes to this basic, eternal conflict.

I eventually was able to resolve this conflict through the sounds themselves, and through the profound examples of the people to whom I dedicated the sounds. There is a higher reason to make these sounds. I fully realized that, I got lit up and inspired, and I made them. Once I put everything together, I eventually got introduced to 2182 Recording Co. through Joel Robinson of Sunn Trio (an Arizonan and a young guy – he’s someone who fully ‘gets it’ and whose best work is ahead of him), and a match was made in rock and roll heaven.  

I feel like there’s this thread that runs through the album that just feels like the desert. It might all be in my head, but I can’t imagine someone making this record anywhere other than in the desert. What kind of inspiration and influence do you draw from your environment?

“Desert music.” 

When I was in high school I would drive my 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo around the outskirts of Yuma, looking at the scrub and the cacti and listening to Meat Puppets II and Up On The Sun and thinking, “How did they make this music that sounds so much like what I am surrounded by? How can it be so evocative of where I am on earth?” And even their lyrics, which I mean they have some of the most incredible psychedelic acid-introspection lyrics ever, but something like “Swimming Ground,” that’s Arizona shit right there. It’s hot as fuck, get wasted and find a little creek or swimming hole, that’s one of the state pastimes. 

Then you have something like Steve Reich’s piece, “The Desert Music.” I love a lot of Steve Reich’s music, but that shit does not sound like any desert I’ve ever been to.  

I’m really happy that my music sounds like desert music to you. It means I was successful with it on some level. I think ultimately it’s pretty subjective, and I haven’t gotten to that Kirkwood level yet. 

My goal and mission with my solo music, as I see it, is to draw from what I think of as elements specific to the desert and desert musicians, which are characterized not by a particular sound, but by a singular, single-minded, eccentric vision, by a real sense of ecstatic abandon (which you hear in the music of the Sahara desert, not just the Sonora or Mojave), and also by a sense of solitary openness. To me, Charles Mingus, born in Nogales, AZ, right on the border with Mexico, near Tucson, is a desert musician; his music has all these qualities. 

And what’s the first line of the first song on the first record Captain Beefheart ever made?

Coming out here, I was pretty giddy to see roadrunners again, and wild jackrabbits everywhere, and snakes. 

Yes, she made beautiful, transcendent music with that harp, but a lot of her piano playing was fucking gnarly; she played NOISE. Throw on something like Live At The Village Vanguard Again at your next healing sound bath.

I knew I’d love the record as soon as I saw who it was dedicated to. Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Terry Riley are three of the most inspirational figures to me, in so many ways (I am not as familiar with Umm Kulthum but am trying to rectify that). Can you talk a little bit about what their work and practice have meant to you and your work?

There are a couple of points on the record that are meant specifically to evoke the music of these artists (i.e. the middle section of the title track, which points to both Umm Kulthum’s orchestra and also hopefully the uncanny, eerie string arrangements you hear on Alice Coltrane records like World Galaxy – and “Entranceway,” the last track, I thought some of that was maybe Riley-esque). But really, I dedicated the record to those 4 people because their work, and what they gave and continue to give to our world as humans and artists, helped me fully resolve that question of “why do it.” 

I’ll end with a little commentary about these 4:

I recommend the documentary “A Voice Like Egypt” as a way of learning about Umm Kulthum. I think it’s important to understand her immense cultural impact as you discover her music.

I hope that this incredible current flowering of interest in Alice Coltrane’s music, which is really wonderful of course, does not exclude her avant-jazz piano playing. Yes, she made beautiful, transcendent music with that harp, but a lot of her piano playing was fucking gnarly; she played NOISE. Throw on something like Live At The Village Vanguard Again at your next healing sound bath.

The 1970s era of Terry Riley’s music, where he stopped composing in favor of Indian music-influenced improvisations with his organ and “time-lag accumulator” – I listen to that more than any other music at this point in my life. I want to find every recording in existence of this period, which I guess culminates in Shri Camel. If it has “Dervishes” somewhere in the title, I need to hear it. 

Don Cherry, another guy enjoying a big renaissance now which is great to see – his big instructional example to me was his attitude toward the music, people, and instruments of different cultures around the globe. He fearlessly pursued and embraced his inspirations in this area, in a way that was pioneering. He didn’t have that stifling academic sense of reverence and awe that keeps things separate. I’m reading the great new Blank Forms book, Organic Music Societies, and he talked a lot in interviews about “infant happiness” – the joy he felt when his mother first gave him his first trumpet and he started wailing on it, which never abandoned him. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the process for the recent Unjust Intonation tape on Trouble in Mind and what inspired the whole thing? I really like that it feels related to the double LP, but very much its own thing.

A couple things first and foremost: Unjust Intonation is entirely a product of COVID lockdown plague times, and, even though it’s always total folly to say anything about one’s future in any way, Unjust Intonation is a one-off; I don’t foresee making another record like it again.

For about three months or so, I’d say from about March to roughly May 2020, I was doing studio work on a daily basis. Some of this work involved actual experiments with recordings I was making (since I’m an “experimental musician” and all…). I got into one of the onboard effects on one of the pieces of digital recording software that is out there. It’s basically a time-stretch effect: you put a sound file in, apply this effect, set parameters, and the digital audio gets slowed down and “stretched” into longer sections. 

I worked with this effect using short recordings of my guitar playing, seeing what types of recordings seemed to work and what didn’t and ended up with 4 pieces that I thought worked together, in the sense that there was, to my hearing, a ‘narrative arc’ that was discernible when they were played together in a certain order. 

I ended up listening to these four tracks just for my own pleasure a lot more than I typically do with other solo recordings. I especially liked the way very fleeting sounds (i.e. the sound of strings sliding as fingers go from one fret to another) became big and in some cases disturbing, like an alien creature respiring. You can hear what I’m talking about most on “Unjust Intonation, Part Three.” 

I’d been following Trouble In Mind’s Explorers cassette series more or less since it started, and I thought this record might be a good fit. It was very gratifying when Bill and Lisa at TIM were interested in working with me on it. Great label, great people.    

As a band guy, even though this is pretty different – do you ever do any collaborations, whether improvising or ‘tape trading’ – anything like that? 

I’ve done a bit of remote collaboration lately with a couple of great drummers: 

Kevin Corcoran. a San Francisco-based sound artist and friend from old times, whose primary instrument is drums/percussion; a little over a year ago I asked him to send me a recording of his drumming so that we could collaborate remotely. The resulting piece will be on my next record for 2182.

Ted Byrnes. I first met Ted when my band ALTO played a few shows in northern CA a few years back with his duo with Arrington de Dionyso. During the initial COVID lockdown, Ted posted some open-source drum recordings along with an open invitation to any/all collaborators. I played, recorded, and mixed myself playing with 2 of his open-source recordings.

I’d love to have a steady free-improv duo with a drummer that could include in-person sessions. 

What are you working on these days? What’s next?

I have a new LP in the works for 2182. It’s all recorded and we have just about wrapped up the mastering process. Tough to say when it will actually come out, but I will guess late spring 2022? To me, it’s the real follow-up to The Hand As Dealt, although it’s not going to be another double-LP. It’s called Cibola (pretty much all of our major cities on the West Coast are cities of gold now; just try to buy a house/rent an apt./actually live in one of them).

I’m also working on booking a short West Coast “2182 showcase” tour featuring myself and Sunn Trio for January 2022. This’ll be the typical kind of run up to Seattle and back. That’s coming together. 

And I’m in my studio a lot, collecting spiders. 

If you like what Foxy Digitalis does, please consider supporting us on Patreon.