In the two-plus years it took for songwriter-vocalist-monarch of Monarques Josh Spacek and his ever-changing corps of master musicians to appropriately set down these seven songs according to their composer’s unsparing standards, scores of local groups have sprung forth, released a few discs, ebbed momentum and faded from memory. Meanwhile, judging by the relatively extensive press coverage (this paper included) granted the prospect of fully formed recordings, Monarques needed only to sit out a few seasons for tastemaker attentions to be honed toward fever pitch, and the band still effortlessly surpassed all expectations.
“We’re following a path,” says Spacek, 29, of his band. “I don’t know where it’s going to head, but we’re not where we started doing Buddy Holly songs. There’s still an influence of early R&B and early rock ’n’ roll—there’s still the barroom piano—but it’s evolved into a totally different thing.”
Since its inception as a raucous party band—then hosting seven or eight members, including a pair of female singers—Monarques has been prone to basement after-hours gigs and performances at clubs-of-the-moment. But Spacek’s group has always musically keyed in to decidedly older pop influences. Tiring of the fairly successful indie-folk group Oh Captain, My Captain that he co-founded with boyhood friend Jesse Bettis, Spacek accepted a challenge from Bladen County Records chief Matt Brown in 2009 to form a group from scratch in time for the label’s MusicfestNW showcase. Putting an ad on Craigslist for musicians to flesh out the early rock ’n’ soul-inspired sound he’d wanted to incorporate, the newly christened Monarques cut a rough demo to hand out as a festival favor before it had ever played a show. The band has been among the most talked-about in Portland ever since, despite its sporadic concert schedule.
Though primitive compared to the eventual levels of sophistication the members would attain, the five-song EP nevertheless propelled the band through a SXSW slot and, bizarrely, an April 2010 appearance on Prairie Home Companion’s “battle of the bands,” alongside four other acts chosen seemingly at random from across the country and musical spectrum by Garrison Keillor. Around this time, Monarques underwent a radical transformation, adding guitarist Michael Slavin and bassist Richard Bennett, followed shortly thereafter by drummer Scott Magee (Y La Bamba) and multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper (Fruit Bats, Loch Lomond). After a disastrous attempt at recording locally, the band traveled to the Family Farm studio of Beau Raymond—whose diverse credits include Xzibit, Joss Stone and Devendra Banhart—and began what turned out to be an even more arduous process.
“When we went into the studio and worked out what was underneath all of that, like the actual songs, that was a turning point,” Spacek says. “The original idea of Monarques was to be a fun party band, and that’s exactly what we were. Eight people getting drunk and playing rock and roll with the girls dancing around, us dudes doing our thing, and it was awesome. When Dave and Scott joined the band, we were able to experiment with the way that we played and develop into something more.”
At Family Farm, “we just put our amps in a circle and played the songs live,” Spacek says. “No click track, no headphones—nothing but feeling.”
Impeccably tailored in vintage tones but neither fashion forward nor backward leaning, the band draws heavily from a retro palette to create a sound uniquely its own. On the opening title track of Let’s Make Love Come True, just-so spurts of adenoidal energy chug upward through a daisy chain of hooks seamlessly interwoven. Spacek’s vocals limn the nervousness of adolescence, dawning recognition of their own powers and borne upon the sheer ebullience of unfiltered passions. Throughout, Slavin’s guitar darts and parries, eddying shimmering waves of finely tuned frustration or licking a tasteful tumescence against rhythms to make toes bleed from the tapping.
While so much of the music keyed to the touchstones of classicist pop either betrays an archival bloodlessness or exploits a thoroughly imagined virgin ur-teen cultural wilderness, Monarques are awash in swaggering restraint. This music is elegantly ecstatic, the aural equivalent of a Life magazine photo essay capturing Buddy Holly’s first threesome. “We’re not purists,” Spacek says. “We live now. There are elements of everything that’s happened in the last hundred years in the music.”
“I love honest music,” Slavin says. “There’s no laptop, there’s no synthesizers, just a group of guys playing music and singing harmonies. Recording the instrumental takes in a room as a band and not doing a million overdubs. You don’t see that a lot these days, and that’s pretty cool to me. There’s a nostalgia, there’s an emotion that comes from that, and you can hear it relayed in the music. Every Sunday, my mom cleaned the house and listened to the Beatles, and then she’d play Beatles songs on the piano. That’s something ingrained. Even though I kind of rebelled against that music as a youth, I later came to love it and think it was the best music in the world. I think it’s in my DNA.”
This is music utterly absent the faux naivete and orchestrated innocence of That Thing You Do!-styled post-nostalgic whitewashing of unremembered pasts. Even the band’s clearly dated aspects seem as respectful and casually worn as Spacek’s father’s ’50s watch (and, perhaps, haircut), niftily counterpointing thrift-store flannel and jeans. Some of that coolness came naturally, and some had to be learned through careful observation.
“When I first started writing these songs,” Spacek says, “I was listening to a lot of Etta James, a lot of Motown, and was really infatuated with the whole concept. The band playing behind her is a major part of what makes it so good. The jazz players have that subtlety, they know that they’re in the moment, they’re feeling every note, every bit of dynamic swell. That’s where the impact is, the emotion is—the swell of the band, the dying back down, pulling it back and pushing it forward. The give-and-take where they’re all fighting within the same space, that’s good music. What we’re making—without restraint, it’d be boring. Without pulling it almost down into nothing, that little tiny step isn’t so meaningful, and that’s something we had to discover along the way.”
SEE IT: Monarques play Doug Fir Lounge on Thursday, July 12, with Beisbol and Houndstooth. 9 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 21+.