In this frank interview with Billboard, Monks talks about the forced group hangout, why their music is like tearaway pants, how it's scary to express yourself, and the in-studio fart machine.
You convinced the rest of the guys to not quit on you. Did they have the "I'm 30 syndrome," where maybe there's wives, kids or you want to make more money to make your rent or buy a house, those types of things? Or was it just stressful on the road?
It wasn't that. It wasn't like 'Time to straighten up and fly right.' I just don't think anybody's got that kind of personality, except maybe me, accidentally [laughs]. It just started to feel like a creative dead-end. It was like we'd gotten into this corner; I just felt like there was no option. 'What can we do with this thing?' It's like it's broken.
In a rut or bigger than that? You have a fun job.
We love our job. Love my job. We always have fun playing. We have never gone through the motions playing a show and I've never put a song out I didn't feel like wasn't a true thing, a thing that I enjoyed making and a thing I wanted people to hear. What got exhausting was this idea that the band was going to change our lives and as this kind of untempered ambition — you start off young and all you think of is we're going to be Radiohead playing the Molson Amphitheater. That's it. And then you add some managers and some labels and some buzz, whatever, and that all fuels that. And it was a moment of reconciling, feeling like, "Fuck, why are we failing at being that thing?" I always felt like being in the band — even though it was a fun day to day — the overall feeling was a failure. Every record. Like Elephant Shell felt like no one liked it, but then it turned out to be our highest selling record and then Champ, the label was like, 'Ah, you really fucked it up on this one,' and now it's the fan favorite.
In no other industry do you have to be the best. You don't open a restaurant and it has to be Michelin Star, or create a fashion line that has to be on the runways of Paris or a music journalist and write every cover story on the world's biggest artists — but for some reason in music you're a failure if you're not on the top of the charts. You've been in this band over 10 years and that is an accomplishment, to still tour and make music.
Exactly. At a certain point, you go, "You know what, I had dreams when I was a teenager and those got me pretty far, but now it's time to reconcile those with what's actually here in front of me and what's super-positive and look at how amazing this is." Look at what we're doing. We all get along. We make money. We play our songs for people. And, and on top of all of that, we're all able to turn around and kick down another creative door and do something new artistically. That's the deepest part of where the band was coming from, really, when they told me "We're leaving." It just seemed like because of the goals we had chosen — I'm just talking about like generic rock stardom goals — we cut off all these creative outlets for ourselves, and I don't think anyone felt like they were able to be true to who they were. Everybody wants to feel like they're connected with what they're expressing in their work. So I don't know how consciously it happened, but the end result was, "Let's change the goal from making something that we like to being part of something that feels good day to day." Now that the album's out, I feel like the goal is achieved, as opposed to the goal is achieved when we sell out Madison Square Garden. Changing that goal was like, "If that's our goal, we can do whatever we want." Man, I just feel so lucky.
Tokyo Police Club haven't been chasing trends. You could put out this album, any decade, any year.
I really appreciate that because I think that's what has gotten our band through, but we feel a little unwieldy, a little embarrassed, a little awkward to be us when trends change, like if you were wearing tearaways in grade eight and then you got to high school and no one is wearing tearaways but you're like, "Shit. I'm the tearaways guy. I have to wear tearaways."
But that is Tokyo Police Club.
It's true. I used to get kind of heartbroken over album reviews. "Man, critics don't like our band. I have to somehow be over that." I'm not over that. This time is the first time I really have internalized "This is the album we all really had to make and whatever people want to say about it is great." I'm trying to have this attitude.
You all got together in a church in rural Ontario to work on the songs.
The church, I'm worried it's not going to be a secret anymore. Luke [Lalonde] from Born Ruffians had been working there with his band and he was telling me about it and we were looking for a place because I was living in Brooklyn and Greg was in California, yada-yada, so we didn't have an ongoing work space. We knew it was going to be more like a summer camp vibe. The church belongs to a guy who sculpts for the CFL [Canadian Football League]. He makes trophies and Hall of Fame statues and stuff. I don't even want to say where it is. It was the place we could go and get to work and just play music all night, and then, at the same time, cook together. It's not like a sweet cottage by the beach where you can go off and do your own thing. We lived there. It was a forced group hangout, which I think was positive for us all getting on the same page.
Let's talk about some of the songs. "Pigs," for instance, normally that's used in reference to cops, but you've got it referring to agents or bookers or people in the music industry?
Yeah, it's inspired by my experiences in the music industry. I was obviously nervous about the title. Glad that it's clear that it's not about policemen or women. We tried calling it so many other things. But this is the line we kept going with. That's a song about me in the music industry. It seemed to be a relatable feeling for people, if you don't work in the music industry anyway. I think that was a thirties song. I was in a serious relationship and I just felt inadequate as a breadwinner. I'm just like, "Baby, I want to make it all good for you but I'm getting screwed."
"Unseen," is that about disillusionment?
"Unseen" is just the dreams. I feel like such a tool, but for me, the greatest tragedy and the greatest sense of regret that I ever get is something I had dreamed of doing, wanted to do and never had the courage to do. It can be small and daily, like speaking plainly to somebody; there's so many [examples]. Starting a band is living a dream, but there's so many micro moments in that process where I have to recommit and rediscover that dream, otherwise I feel like I'm this unknown person. It's tied to my sense of connection with people and my sense of being — these songs. Not to be pious or anything, but it's scary to express yourself and I get the feeling that if I don't express myself, I wind up feeling kind of hidden.
"Can't Stay Here" is that "Am I still young or entering into adulthood?" "Should I act like an adult?"
That song was about a bit of a tragedy that just got me thinking. Sometimes a really sudden tragic moment can get you re-evaluating everything. That song is me singing to someone.
"New Blues" kicks off the album.
I like the songs you're picking out. You're picking the cool ones.
Because your lyrics are interesting. "New Blues" could be someone out of depression or sadness or just about the band being in a new phase?
I'm really proud of "New Blues" because when I was writing this record, I settled into a pretty deep and consistent process. I was writing every day and I felt like I was in this rhythm. I wrote so much stuff that didn't make it on the record but "New Blues" was kind of the textbook of how I always thought my process works. I bought a blue jacket and then I had this idea for a new blues and then I wrote a song about it. All the words came out as they are. I definitely think it's about depression. I don't think at the time I realized that I was feeling so low. I don't think you don't recognize those things when you're going through them sometimes.
"Simple Dude" is an interesting love song.
That one is pretty direct.
But it's also kind of beautiful as well. Could be creepy.
We collectively passed on it and then I kept playing it for people and getting good reactions about it.
My favorite lyric on this album is "Ready To Win," a not so subtle folk song admitting all the things you effed up on.
I wrote it on my phone in the van and then I got to soundcheck and I'm like "Just going to do this." I listen to a lot of Chuck Berry too.
Did you laugh at some of the lines as you were writing them?
Hell yeah. I'm like, "That's hilarious."
Have you played it live?
After we did the record, I bought a car and I went to St. John's Newfoundland and I did open mics every night for a couple of weeks and I played it at all these open mics and it started to become really obvious that people always got that song. They didn't know who I was, not that I'm anybody but just they didn't know me, and it almost made me nervous. "Whoa, I need to get the record to come out, if our Instagram comments are worth a damn." I think people are gravitating towards that song, among others.
You're working with Rob Schnapf again who did those Elliott Smith albums. He's just taking the soul of your songs and doing a limited amount to get them presentable.
The thing with Rob is he's one of those people that's super present. There is no agenda. I remember calling him when we were looking for someone to do Champ and everyone else I talked to had an angle — "We should do a dance record" or "We should do horns on this song" or "We can make it X or Y" and I remember talking to Rob, "It sounds like you've already got a thing going; let's just finish that." He believed that wherever the artist is trying to go is enough. Wherever that record is trying to go, he brought it as close as he could to whatever that person was thinking. I was just so proud to go back to him on this one and be like, "Look, Rob, we can play together live now."
He hadn't seen you since you were in your early twenties?
We'd been in touch. He's mixed some stuff for us. His main comments were: "Sounds good. Let's move on." On Champ, it was more like showing us the ropes: this is the process, this is what matters, and helping us learn that. This time he was just more like "Yup, that's good. Take it easy." He has a fart machine in the studio — I think it's broken — but it makes these farts sounds every so often. We'll be right in the middle of talking about "We should use this type of distortion here and then switch back because the chord change is major," and then a big [makes fart sound] goes off.
Is that on any of the songs?
Uh, no. There's some other weird shit on songs.
On the live take of "Daisy Chain," we were figuring out what key it was going to go in and so I sang a take of it, all in the room, and at the end, before the cymbals had even faded out, I said, "Felt good to sing." Then as we were tracking the song, every time we'd get to the end of the song, we'd all be feeling the emotion, and it comes to this quiet moment and you hear me come back in and go, "Felt good to sing" over and over again. And when Graham was doing a last guitar part, he screams into the pickups of the guitar, "Felt good to sing." You can hear it at the last sound on the record. I like that.
11/16 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
11/17 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
03/08 – Boston, MA @ The Sinclair
03/09 – Hamden, CT @ Space
03/12 – Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw
03/13 – Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
03/15 – Washington, DC @ DC9
03/18 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
03/19 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
03/20 – Nashville, TN @ High Watt
03/22 – Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
03/23 – Buffalo, NY @ Town Ballroom