Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg
Interview by Cassie Marketos
From the undertow chords of Real Estate to the solo beachcomber cuts of Ducktails, Matt Mondanile makes pop music that’s as breezy and blurry as the sepia-toned scenes in his postcard collection. In the following extensive interview–captured over â€œnon-veggieâ€ sliders at a Brooklyn dive bar and excerpted in our new issue–we discuss the latest Ducktails LP (Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics), what it’s like being a child of the â€˜80s, and how Mondanile plans on keeping things weird in the months ahead:
So you grew up in New Jersey. When did you start playing music?
I guess when I was in elementary school. I started playing percussion in the school band. Then in middle school, I took guitar lessons because my friend Julian [Lynch]–who grew up down the street from me–started taking guitar lessons.
Did your parents make you join band?
I think I wanted to do it. I wanted to do percussion. At the elementary school I went to, you could do band in fifth grade, but if you really wanted to do it, you could do it in fourth grade. And I remember I really wanted to do it.
How did you discover music from there?
When I was in high school, I played in a lot of punk bands that covered Operation Ivy, the Descendants, and things like that. Then I got into classic rock, and alternative–Nirvana was on the radio when I was growing up.
I was a fanboy, so when I learned how to drive, I’d drive into New York to see Todd P shows when they were first going on in weird apartments and stuff. That’s been my only real thing.
After that, I went to Hampshire College, and the first week I was there, I saw this weird noise show. It was something have to do with Thurston Moore and Chris Corsano. There was a weird scene of music in Western Mass that was really small and noisy–lots of weird, experimental art music.
When did you first play as Ducktails?
Well, it’s a good story. When I was in college, I did a study abroad trip to Berlin. And the first week that I was there, I met these three guys: James Ferraro and Spencer Clark from the Skaters, and this other guy Steve Earle, whose British but lived in Berlin. And they played really beautiful, drone-y music that was really weird and New Age. We became really good friends because we all spoke English and we didn’t know anybody else who lived in Berlin. I listened to all of their music, and they were putting a lot of stuff on cassettes themselves to these small distributors. That’s how they were living day-to-day. And I was like, â€œThis is the coolest thing in the world.â€
I was there for like seven months, and when I came back, I was living in this Mass house that had a tool shed in the backyard with electricity. I recorded a cassette in the house with a little amp and nothing but guitars, wrote â€œDucktailsâ€ on it, and played a show with Emeralds in a basement in Western Mass. This was in 2006, I think? And then I made like 15 copies of the tape and gave it to my friends.
I kept making cassettes in college and sending them out to record stores and musicians I liked. I was trading a lot of cassettes, too. As soon as I graduated, I flew to California and did a tour there, and we played LA. The guy that runs the label Not Not Fun came to the show, and he bought all my cassettes and then like a week later, he emailed me and said, â€œDo you want to do a record?â€ and so I did my first record with him.
Did you have an agenda for what you wanted to sound like?
I was really interested in noise, but I was also really interested in pop music: oldies and a lot of stuff that you see in the music of Ariel Pink. And I was like â€œOh, I’m just going to put this out to my friends and see what they think.â€ And they all really liked it and were really nice to me about it.
I always made four-track recordings, so it was kind of natural to do that. But I wanted it to sound kind of like it was coming from the past–like an imaginary cartoon band from the past that plays memory rock music that makes you nostalgic, and that’s kind of like my whole thing. It hasn’t really evolved that much from there.
Are you improvisational in your compositions?
It’s raw. I make a song up on the spot. Only very recently have I been planning stuff out. It’s all about not planning things out–train-of-thought music. Rock music. Each track is improvised, and how it sounds together is the thing; that’s the picture, the postcard.
You’re in a lot of bands. How do you differentiate between them creatively?
It’s kind of hard. With the first Real Estate record, two of the songs I had recorded onto tape and released as Ducktails. But then we recorded them in our friend’s studio as a band and they became Real Estate songs. Now I’m trying to write songs with [Real Estate frontman] Martin [Courtney] before we present them to the band together.
It goes back and forth, like there’s a song that’s on my next record, “Art Vandelay,” and Real Estate plays that live. There’s overlap like that. But as far as Ducktails goes, that’s my solo project. All the recordings are pretty much just me. Real Estate is a band. That’s the main difference.
How do you decide what to keep and what to give?
That’s pretty hard. I don’t know. Some of the Ducktails stuff doesn’t fit with the rest of the material, and I kind of feel like Real Estate can’t really play–they wouldn’t sound like how I want Ducktails to sound live. When I do Ducktails live:wait, are you asking about recordings or live shows?
Yeah, I want to ask about that, too. Recording for Ducktails must be an intensely private experience–you’re going into a shed or your Mom’s basement and recording alone.
That’s what I like about it. It’s super private. You hear it and you think, ‘This is just some dude somewhere doing this.’ With Real Estate, it’s songs. Ducktails is more improvised; more experimental. It’s different.
How do you take a private recording experience like that and translate it for a live audience? It seems like you enjoy your live shows as Ducktails a lot.
Yeah, it’s hard to sound like a cassette, but when I play live solo–which I do most of the time–I improvise…play keyboard or samples and guitar, and each thing is its own thing. I have structures of songs I take from the releases, because I like to play those songs live, but it’s also all about improvisation. If I didn’t have that, Ducktails wouldn’t be as fun for me. I usually start out a set doing something completely weird to get people’s attention, and then build off that. Then do like, electronics or something, and then do kind of a pop song.
Does it ever cycle back? Do you ever record a song, play it live, and then it becomes something else later on?
Nah, I work on a record–a collection of recordings, like a bunch of little postcards. And I try to have them be a photo album for a record, or something like that. And then live, I want it to be the same thing–this hodgepodge weird presentation. I was playing with a band a little bit, and that was fun, too, but I’m trying to make it so I can just be solo. It’s really nice to tour solo. I don’t have to deal with anything; it’s kind of just like traveling, and I really like to do that. So…
Your newest record sounds a lot more like actual songs.
Yeah, it’s my poppiest record.
Do you find yourself consciously reacting to current criticisms and popular opinion of new music with each record you make? Or do your songs evolve more independently?
What people say definitely effects me, but mostly it’s just what my friends say is more important to me than some comment on a website. I think that [the new album’s] a steady progression of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been playing a lot more shows with Real Estate, and playing with a lot more indie-pop bands. I toured with Deerhunter, Woods, Kurt Vile and Girls during the last year and a half. All those dudes have great songs, but they also improvise a lot. It definitely influenced me in a way for this record, because I wanted to make more songs. But it’s not going to get more and more poppy after this. I want each record to be its own unique thing that attaches to the other records, but I’m just learning how to do what I’m doing. So everything is going to sound different.
The three records are like a trilogy. My first record was like when you go on vacation and you’re just like [dipping your toes] in the water. Then the second record was like, â€œAlright I’m gonna do this,â€ and it was this moody kind of basement thing. This record is kind of rockin’. I named it Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics because it’s all about the effect of putting on a record and listening to it over and over again, and driving around and going to an arcade like when you were little.
I’m really into making pop music that sounds like it could be in the background all the time, like ambient music or weird drones. That will always be there. That’s why the song thing doesn’t really matter for me. Some guy could be playing a song in a bar, and you could be like â€œThat’s sick!â€, but you’re not really paying that much attention to it. It’s just always there.
People assign a lot of genre names to the music you make.
I think it’s really funny.
How would you want your music to be identified?
Um, I dunno. How would I want my music to be identified? I want it to be identified as coming from me. Genre names are just whack, all of them. â€œRock?” That’s a weird genre name. â€œChillwaveâ€ is a weird genre name. I like hypnagogic pop.
There are a lot of artists that I came out of that scene with. It was kids that I knew that grew up with in the noise scene, combining pop and psych with music that’s kind of like:when you’re between waking and dreaming. There’s been songs like that since the dawn of pop music. Hearing an ’80s song in your car growing up, watching movies–that affects your musical upbringing. A lot of people had the same interests at the same time. So I don’t mind the genre name hypnagogic pop. It seemed the right thing to call it, if you were going to call it something. I really don’t like the term chillwave. It’s kind of ironic in a hipster way, which it shouldn’t be, whereas hypanogic pop is a little too academic. But who cares about that?
I think it’s great when you see an entire generation draw from the same pool of influences and produce completely different kinds of art with it. [Martin Newell] once said that “All great pop is made by while fumbling around in the dark.”
Yeah. Exactly. If you think about “Louie Louie”–it’s a bunch of retards in a garage making a song, and it still sounds really cool.
What are your plans for the future?
The next single I’m releasing is a track I did for the next record, with Noah Lennox from Panda Bear. He sings on it. I’m going to start putting out records on my own label. The first record is going to be a Ducktails 12” with that Panda Bear song and live songs I did with this band called Spectrals from the UK. A couple music videos probably. I wanna make t-shirts.
What are you going to call it?
You’re super into doing everything yourself, obviously. Did you always know you wanted to make music like that?
I was always into record labels and finding stuff out like that. Even cassette labels. I totally nerded out about all that stuff, and how people just do that on their own. It’s their own little world. Right now Real Estate is getting these bigger shows, and these bigger indie labels are getting interested in them, but I kind of always want to put out records. I’ve toured a lot over the past three years, and I’ve met so many people making great music. I want to put it out. And I really like print objects. I always want to release physical objects in the world.
Physical objects like what? Cassettes?
I’m kind of done with cassettes for now. I was just cleaning out my parents basement because I’m moving, and I have like 700 cassettes; 300 of which I didn’t listen to. It’s so freaky. Like, am I going to keep these? Is this going to be a yard sale? Should I put these on eBay? I have no idea! I want to do vinyl and I want to do print books. I have tons of photos. Art books.
What kind of art do you do?
I’m a photographer. I’m interested in design. I think I’m going to do a book of photos that I did on tour over the past four years of just traveling. It’s going to be called call â€œBackyardsâ€ and it’s just photos of people’s backyards that I’ve stayed at. But I have so many of them! It’s crazy. I hope I can pull it off.
Why is it so important to make physical objects? How would you want somebody to discover your music?
I grew up going to thrift stores and looking around. I want to make enough cassettes that at least a couple end up in a thrift store in Kentucky and some weird kid finds them. I think the reason I really like Ducktails, and the reason I keep doing it, is because I started it so small. I sent five cassettes to this distribution company in North Carolina in an empty pizza box, and he kept asking me to send him more. That’s how it started. Kids still write me and send me random cassettes. Random people! It comes to my parent’s house, and I’m like, “Who are these people?!” The mail is so cool. You need to keep sending stuff out like that. Websites are cool, but you look at the screen too long and it fries your brain.
You have a very distinct aesthetic for your music. Do you have that imagery in mind when you’re recording?
It’s really hard to connect that imagery. The cover image on my new record is this postcard I found when I was in Portugal. I was walking around in Lisbon, and there was a flea market, and I pulled it out and was like, â€œThis is the coolest Frank Lloyd Wright/Dario Argento-style house.” I’m really all about the house and the home; that it’s not about the recording, but about the home or the place that the recording is made in. This may be one of the last records I make at my parents’ house, because I’m getting a little old for that, and the picture is supposed to represent this very comforting image of home, and connecting that to music in a way. Whereas the last record, it was kind of this purple palm tree imagery, kind of two images, it’s kind of just like: each of my record covers I want to be pop art that goes along with the record. Cartoon to pop. That’s kind of my style. Taking that and seeing what you can do with it to make it weird.
The first record–all those stripes–that’s this artist in Finland named Jan Anderzen. He makes this insane-o music, but I was super into his art for a long time. He just makes these crazy paintings. I always want artists to do things. For the first 7”, I got this girl from LA, Petra Cortright–kind of this prominent new media artist. She makes these beautiful Web art. The cover is this landscape she took from tons of different pictures of a landscape and kind of collaged it.
I always kind of want to draw the line between art and music, because that makes it interesting. I like records for the cover. I’d hang them on the wall.
And grabbing a record because the cover is cool, even if you have no idea what it is…
Judge a record by its cover! That’s what I’ve always said.
Do you write songs with specific narratives in mind?
â€œHamilton Roadâ€ is about being at my house. It’s the name of the street I grew up on. There’s another song on it called â€œLittle Windowâ€–it’s literally about looking out a little window, playing the guitar. That’s the vibe. â€œKilling the Vibeâ€ is about how everywhere you go, there’s always somebody who kills the vibe, and that doesn’t need to happen. â€œDon’t Make Plans” is about how you shouldn’t make plans for anything; you should just hang out. Do what you will.
Some of my favorite records that are pop are easy-listening pop, even if it sounds fucked-up or dark and moody. There’s this really amazing band called Woo that make these electronic pop albums from the ’80s in the UK. It’s this New Age, beautiful, healing music. The Beach Boys, on their record Friends, they have a song called “Anna Lee, The Healer,” and it’s all about this healing woman they go to. It’s super pretty and nice. But the whole record–there’s just this sound of waves and the ocean crashing. It’s like a New Age record, but with pop songs.
That explains your beach-y vibe.
It’s more like an imaginary place you go in your head. I’m from the suburbs, like an hour and a half from the beach. I never go there. Whenever I’m on the beach, I’m like, â€œThis is sick, I love it,â€ but it’s not my zone or anything. My new record really has nothing to do with the beach, but you could still use imagery to describe it like â€œa sunny dayâ€ or â€œsomebody sitting in a hammockâ€…I dunno, I’ve read so many short, blog paragraphs about my music that it’s kind of fried my brain.
Does it weird you out that people prescribe so many sentimental memories/personal nostalgia to your music?
No! I’ve done that to so many records. If anybody has a good time with my music, I’m glad. There’s YouTube videos of a dude listening to my song in the car, and he’s driving, and he puts the camera in the car so you can see where he’s going. And I’m like, â€Why is this guy doing this?â€ But I know he gets it because every time I finish a record, before I master it, I put it on my car and I drive around aimlessly and smoke cigarettes. And if I can listen to it enough times in my car, then I know I like it. I know I won’t need to add anything else.
One of the last pop cassettes I did was called Ducktails II, and that was two years ago. I finished it in the summertime in my basement, and I remember walking outside with headphones on and a tape player, and I was barefoot. And I walked around my block so many times that I got back to my house and my feet were all fucked and cut up, because I was just walking suburban streets in the middle of the night. It was just super quiet and I just kept listening to it over and over again. And I was like, â€œAlright, it’s done.â€