Monuments (The Phronesis Interview)
On October 5, tech-metal fans can look forward to the long-awaited unveiling of Phronesis, the latest collection of groove-heavy tracks from the band who unleashed The Amanuensis about four years ago. For now, let’s just say that you need to pre-order Phronesis immediately via this link, and read on to dig into an epic-length chat with Monuments guitarist and mastermind John Browne about his band’s post-Amanuensis issues, the story behind standout Phronesis track Stygian Blue, onstage flashers, a ton of advice for up-and-coming musicians, and much more…
So Monuments 3, Phronesis, is finished and coming out soon! How’s it feel to finally get here?
It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders! We started writing the songs in 2015, maybe a bit earlier. Most of the record was finished by January 2016, but we had some problems to fix, in ourselves and some other things as well.
So I’m just glad it’s finally happened, ha ha!
It’s obviously a very cathartic record, and it sounds like there have been a lot of issues getting in the way of making it. What’s been happening over the last few years? The internet really wants to know what you guys have been through and what you’ve been dealing with, and fans seem very concerned…
I think it was mainly that we toured so much on that last record, we just needed some time to ourselves. When we did that stretch in 2014, we played Tech-Fest and then America for two tours, then Europe and Russia, and back to the States, and a month later we did Australia, and went on tour with Karnivool. But by the end of that, we were almost completely burnt out!
In that time period, from July 2014 to the end of March 2015, I was at home for maybe five weeks? Six weeks? I think we just needed some time to ground ourselves.
You know when you go on holiday for three weeks, and when you get home you feel it’s so good to be back at home, in your own bed, and so on? We never really had the opportunity to do that. So in a way it was good for us to not go on tour, not have to think about writing any music, and just chill out.
In that time, I managed to write two solo albums, so that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, ha ha!
It’s definitely productive!
Touring can be quite efficient at breaking bands up a lot of the time. It can be a very stressful environment…
You have to think about it like this: You’re in a confined space with four other dudes, twenty-four hours a day, for however long you’re on tour for. It’s like you’re married to these people. So you have to get on very, very well with them.
That’s something I think breaks bands up, because you don’t really know someone until you live with them. Then if you consider being in a band, in a van, sleeping and living with them…that’s probably why some bands break up, when they tour too much. It’s the little things.
Even the ability to have a shower, you know? That can really change how you feel on a day-to-day basis! I think that’s why some bands break up after being on tour for so long. They literally hate the little things about each other, ha ha!
And that builds up over time…
What was your creative process while you were working on Phronesis? Was it different to the way you approached The Amanuensis? That was a concept album, whereas this one doesn’t seem to be put together like that…
It is a little bit, but I guess it all relates to that point. But that was also by accident. When we started writing this record, Chris [Barretto, vocals] wanted a blank slate, no feeling of what I wrote about towards it, which is completely fair and I understand it, whereas I tend to write to different scenarios.
I write because something’s pissed me off, or something’s bothering me and I need to get it off my chest. I’m not very good at talking to people; I don’t like confrontation. A lot of the things I write about are what I see as problems. So writing this record was quite difficult without having something to write to, whereas with The Amanuensis, Chris put his own version of what I was trying to say in certain songs.
For example, Quasimodo [from The Amanuensis] was about the fact that I suffer from psoriasis. I’ve had injections and gotten rid of that now, so I’m not angry about it anymore [laughs] but I wrote a song about having psoriasis and dealing with that. So Chris put his own twist on that, and in his story it was still the same thing, but different. So it was really easy to work with The Amanuensis, but writing from a blank slate [for Phronesis] was quite difficult. So that was probably the hardest part of the process.
In terms of the actual writing of Phronesis, we tend to write by ourselves. So Olly would write some songs or riffs and bring them to the table, I’d do the same thing, and towards the end, for about six months before going in to record, Olly would come up once a month and we’d refine the songs. Change the drums, maybe add some links, maybe even change the notes, just so it flowed better as a song. Then Chris would write vocals to it.
The most annoying thing about it is, on the last record we said we wanted to delve even further and work on the music after Chris had written his vocals. But we didn’t have the opportunity to do that again, unfortunately. So the process is basically write the music, vocals get put on top, and we record it.
There were some structural changes, but overall it was pretty much the same as when we gave it to Chris.
How have the band evolved, as musicians and as people, over the past few years and working on Phronesis? It’s been about four years, and a lot’s happened in that time, as you were saying…
Olly is a lot more mature, ha ha! So that’s a good thing. If anyone knows Olly from the old days, they’ll know he was an ADHD nightmare, but he stepped up to the table [on Phronesis]; on the last record he only wrote two or three riffs, and on this one he has three or four songs, plus a couple of songs that we also wrote together.
Swanny [bassist Adam Swan] also helped in the creation of the songs, did some bass parts, some structural changes, which were good to have. Obviously there’s the new addition of Lango [Daniel Lang, drums], who we toured with in 2016 for our summer festival tour. He’s a really good drummer and a really good dude; we talked earlier about how you have to get on with everyone in the band, and he’s a really good person to be around, so I’m happy that he’s part of the family.
I don’t think anything necessarily changed in the mindset of us wanting to do the music. We just needed some time to let things heal, and miss it again, you know what I mean?
Yeah – and like you were saying, the catharsis side of it as well, a track like Stygian Blue for instance, it’s very direct, a real “…fuck you!” kind of track…
Would you say that that side has helped the healing process as well as the time?
I think it was both. I was about to bring that track up, actually. I named it Stygian Blue when it was just a demo, and you can actually see a demo on the Mesa Boogie YouTube channel of me playing it two or three years ago now.
The name Stygian Blue comes from when you’re depressed, everyone says that you’re “blue,” and “stygian blue” is a colour that’s impossible to see with the human eye. And depressed people often have a really good way of hiding that they’re depressed. So that’s where that name came from.
I wrote that song after Justin [Lowe, After The Burial guitarist] committed suicide. He was a really good friend of all of ours; I toured with him for over a hundred days over four years, and you get to know people really well in that amount of time. But even at that point, I didn’t actually know that Justin was that depressed.
On that song, Chris wrote about “reflections of internal conversations inside my head, almost like you’re speaking to a therapist, speaking to yourself about what the fuck is going on”. So in that respect it’s similar to what I was writing about. You’re sort of questioning everything. Stygian Blue is very direct!
And there are two different interpretations – yours, and Chris’s as well. Two different perspectives.
Chris wanted a completely blank slate, so a lot of the demo titles were completely changed. But that one, when I told him what I’d written about, we found it was very similar to what he’d written about, and we kept the name. The same with Ivory as well; it’s about encounters with death, and ivory is what elephants are hunted for. They’re killed for their ivory.
From Chris’s perspective, it seems very cathartic as well.
You’re going to be touring the UK and Europe in October and November; what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen during one of your live shows?
Ha ha! It was probably at the Intersection in Grand Rapids in Michigan, in 2014. We were on tour with Glass Cloud, Scale The Summit, Reflections, and Erra. We were one of the two opening bands, we rotated, and during Glass Cloud’s set, I saw a girl get up onstage dancing in a dress, and she didn’t have any underwear on.
You could see that she didn’t have any underwear on, because she was lifting up her skirt. In a way, I could give her a pat on the back that she had the guts to do that, but that was quite strange to see in front of a room of three hundred people. She was lifting up her skirt, so you could literally see everything. After the show, she wouldn’t stop playing with my hair, so I got to speak to her and she was nice enough; it was just quite strange to witness.
So that was one of the weirder things I’ve seen on tour. There’s a lot of weird things you see out there, ha ha!
Speaking of touring again, I had a look at your tour schedule for the initial Phronesis run, and it looks pretty intense! There aren’t many days off – so how do you take care of yourself on the road and do your best to make sure you don’t get burnt out? Like you said, there were issues in that kind of situation before…
We’ll be doing this tour in a bus, so that means everybody gets their own bed. As I said, as long as you can sleep and shower, most people are okay. That’s all they want, a comfortable place to sleep for eight to ten hours a night, a warm shower, and some food.
That’s it – and most people would be happy to be on tour when that’s the result. So because we’ll be in a bus, it won’t be too bad. We don’t have to endure the nine-hour drives; you get really bored, although if you’re sleeping during that then it’s fine!
So that’s going to be positive for everyone; you wake up, you’re at the venue, you can go for a walk and see the town, which is something we don’t get to do very much. And I think that’ll make a huge difference to everyone’s mindset on the tour.
As far as days off, we’ll just have to watch out for that. I know Chris likes to have days off to rest his voice; after that long tour in 2014 he ended up having some vocal issues, just because of how many shows we’d done. The problem with days off is that you still have to pay expenses, but you’re not getting any money in the bank.
So it’s about working out what can work on your budget. It’s intense, plus there’s a load of places on that tour that we’ve never played before. We’re going all the way to Bulgaria; we’re playing in Romania, where we played a festival show a couple of years ago, and there was a really good response, so I’m looking forward to those shows; we’ve never played in Croatia, so that’s going to be really fun; quite a lot of the cities in Italy we’ve not played before, and there’s a lot of new venues we haven’t been to either. One of those shows has sold out, and another has almost sold out already, so there are people who want to see us play, which is good!
How’s it feel to be away for quite a while, and then come back to a really positive response?
It feels great, because the genre we’re associated with…I’m not going to say the word, because I don’t like the word, but a lot of people think it’s dead.
Then again, in any genre, I think the people who were most noticed will always remain. Even if you go back to nu-metal, a lot of people still love Limp Bizkit. They were great – and whatever you think of nu-metal, Limp Bizkit is a fantastic band. You think of System Of A Down, and they were a fantastic band. And they had songs.
Those songs are still played on the radio, in clubs, people still dance to them – and I think, well, maybe if we exclude the dancing bit, in ten years’ time people will still be listening to some of the bands out of this genre as well. I’m happy that people still want to hear our music; that’s always a positive, isn’t it?! Ha ha!
Besides the touring and incompatibility stuff that we covered earlier, what’s the toughest thing about being in a band?
It’s actually the behind the scenes stuff that no one ever sees. Making wise decisions, and things like that. All the admin stuff, organising everything to get to play the show onstage. It’s like any industry; you don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes.
For instance, say you buy a guitar from a guitar shop. You don’t know what has happened for that guitar to happen. You have the people who built it, the people who sell it, the distributors, the shops. Then the people who cut the wood, where it’s sourced from, where it’s shipped from, all this stuff you don’t really think about.
It’s the same thing with anything. With a band, you have the tour dates, but that took a lot of organising to get the dates sorted. You need booking agents, venue people, then all the promotion of it, and I think the behind the scenes stuff can actually be quite exhausting. I’ve been at my computer now since 9AM, and I still have a long list of things that need to be done this week!
I actually spend most of my time on a computer, rather than actually playing guitar. So that’s one of the hard bits about being in a band. Understanding that there are lots of other things to do, and you can’t get away with just playing your instrument. You need to be good at everything – or at least know about everything.
Back to the fun stuff: If money, space, and good taste weren’t issues, what would your ideal stage show look like?
Oh man – I would have so many guitar cabs onstage! I’d have lights all over the stage, kind of like the Meshuggah live show, something that really captivates you. The backdrop would look amazing; I’d probably have screens all over the stage that would move as well, kind of like Muse on their last tour.
The front-of-house guy, I’d pay him a lot of money every single day – and when I think of stage setups that are iconic, I think of Metallica, Muse, and another that really springs to mind is Tool. Quite a few years ago, Maynard James Keenan was covered in fluorescent paint, so under certain lights he’d also become part of the background. So something outside of the box, something that would be crazy to do but look so good.
When you watch a live band, you can be captivated by the music but also by the visuals; it’s kind of equal. So having a stage show that’s as epic as your music would be amazing. I’d definitely spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on the whole thing, easily!
If you had all the money in the world, there would literally be no limits on what you could do. Some bands do have that freedom; even Gojira on Les Enfants Sauvages had that head that was also a projector, so you could have a screen on it as well as an LED light wall. Even something that simple looks great, especially with a wall of guitar and bass cabs.
What advice would you give to people who’re just starting out in music?
Don’t! Ha ha!
I’m joking – I’d say obviously practice as much as you can, and get as tight as possible. Record your practices, so you understand where the errors are and where you need to get better. Don’t use a dumb band name; there’s too many bands where you read out their name and you think “Wow – that band will never get big with a name like that!”
Are there any bands that spring to mind? I can think of a few…
There’s one that I’m really surprised about, and I’m not dissing the band, I actually like every album of theirs since Sempiternal. But Bring Me The Horizon, when you think of that name, you don’t think “…that band is going to be massive!”
But their last few albums have been incredible. Hats off to them. So good band names…and when you play your first show, make sure it’s one to remember. Make sure you’re actually prepared for it; don’t play because you’re excited to play a show.
For our first show, we’d been practicing for about a year before we even did a show – and on our first tour, While She Sleeps opened, then it was us, then a band called Carcer City. That lineup’s completely flipped around now, ha ha!
While She Sleeps opened for those shows?
Yeah! Great, great dudes too. I’m really happy they’re doing so well. Great band as well.
Other things to consider when starting up…don’t play venues where you’re expected to sell X amount of tickets, where they give you 30 tickets and if you can’t sell them you can’t play. That’s really stupid.
Pay to play, basically. That’s a big no-no.
Especially at such a small level…also, choose your members wisely. Choose people you get on with who’re good at their instruments, but also good at other things. Don’t just try and throw a band together with people who play the instruments, just because it’s the easiest option.
It’s a fair point, definitely – a lot of people choose bandmates just because they have the same taste in music, the same style, but they don’t take the other aspects into account, like the dedication or personal connection and things like that. Then, later on, it becomes an issue.
Exactly – you might as well get it all right at the beginning. A lot of bands that do work out generally do so because they were friends beforehand. While She Sleeps come to mind, actually. They’re all just good mates, you know?
You’re going to be busy up until the end of November, with the initial Phronesis tour, but what do you have planned beyond that?
There are some more tour dates being thrown around, but I can’t say where they are yet. Talking of the tour, there’s actually a couple more bands to be announced for it, a couple more shows that haven’t been announced but have been confirmed, because people are upset that we’re not playing their town.
Going into 2019, there’ll more than likely be a United States tour; I know there isn’t one yet, but we have been offered some things. We’re trying to get to Australia again, because we had such a good reception after Soundwave, but really I don’t think we’ve thought that far ahead yet, ha ha!
Everything seems to have been such a massive whirlwind; the album was only recorded earlier this year, right?
Yeah – we actually handed the album in exactly one month ago, and we were very very late in handing it in. I want to praise Century Media for not moving our release date, and thank them for that. But yeah, as far as plans go, there will be touring and we’re talking about summer festivals next year. It’s a case of seeing what we’re offered, seeing what comes up, and seeing what happens after this first tour.
If you had to pick one moment as a highlight of your career so far, which would you choose?
There’s definitely more than one…for me, probably playing Soundwave in Australia.
The other side of the world, yeah.
Three of those shows were incredible, and I really enjoyed the time between the shows because we had a week off. We had a really good time in Australia, definitely one of the highlights for me. Playing the main stage at Summer Breeze in 2016 as well; just after the penultimate song the whole crowd was chanting “Monuments,” and it was on the main stage! Quite a few thousand people were watching us, people knew who we were, and wanted to watch us, you know?
For a third one, actually completing albums. A lot of work goes into them; it’s a long, long process, and when people think two years between albums is a long time to wait, it actually isn’t! The amount of time it takes to actually write an album and make sure it’s good…in order to make something good, you have to do it over a certain period of time.
Obviously there are anomalies who can write entire albums in three weeks, like Joshua Travis, who’s now in Emmure, but I know he wrote the third Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza album, Danza III: The Series Of Unfortunate Events in three weeks! Every time I finish an album, because it’s such a huge undertaking, it feels like I’ve unlocked Super Saiyan, you know what I mean? So finishing Phronesis and getting it all finished is another highlight, the same with The Amanuensis.
There are thousands of great moments. Playing in India or South Africa…but every single show has something special about it. There’s always something to remember.
Phronesis drops October 5; that all-important pre-order link can be found right here.
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