BluesWax Sittin’ In With
The Monophonics’ Psychedelic Soul
By Stacy Jeffress
The Monophonics is a dynamic young group (age range 26 – 31) out of the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are a child of the Sixties, this band’s music will feel as cosmically comfortable as your favorite pair of worn jeans, and if you are a child of a more recent vintage, this music will inspire you to raid your parents’ collection of tie-dyed shirts. BluesWax had an insightful chat with Kelly Finnigan, keyboardist and lead vocalist, following Monophonics’ recent tour with his father Mike Finnigan’s band, the Phantom Blues Band. You may also be familiar with Kelly’s mom, Addiction Specialist Candy Finnigan, who appears on the A&E show Intervention.
Stacy Jeffress for BluesWax: I’m intrigued to know how you describe your sound.
Kelly Finnigan: The sound we go for is called “psychedelic soul.” It goes back to the soul acts of the late ‘60s, with the rock ‘n’ roll movement, the Haight and Woodstock movements were taking over popular culture. A lot of black groups and soul groups such as Sly and the Family Stone really lead the way, the Temptations, Funkadelic, groups like that, started leaning more toward rock ‘n’ roll sounds with distorted guitars and echo vocals, heavier drums, and fuzz bass. That’s the sound that we like, some people call it “black rock.” We call it psychedelic soul. We still like to play a lot of straight-ahead heavy soul and funk stuff.
BW: How did you learn about that kind of music?
KF: I’ve been a record collector my whole life so when you get into music, you run into a lot of subgenres, and there are things that were part of a certain scene in music at that time. You get more exposed to more groups and people were doing sounds. The Temptations are great – a lot of people think of then as “My Girl,” but they had a heavy sound in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on some of the most successful records that Motown ever had Ball of Confusion, Cloud Nine, and Psychedelic Shack. A lot of the guys in our band are super smart and did a lot of homework in terms of what music they like and what they grew up around. Guitarist Ian McDonald is also a big record collector, so he has a great knowledge about music. It’s a sound that we knew and liked.
BW: Obviously your dad is a well-respected musician. What was it like to grow up in a family where your father is a well-known musician – were you raised in a culture of music in the home?
KF: I grew up hearing a lot of music. I have blurry memories of going to concerts and being around that. You kind of get it – you mean he’s leaving to go play music? You get a better understanding of it, and it’s really a cool thing. As you educate yourself you start learning about all these different musicians. My dad played on that – he was a part of this – you realize how cool the guy is. Playing music was never anything that was pressured or put on me or my sister. I just loved music, the records, and deejaying, so here we are today.
BW: Was there a particular point when it dawned on you how far up in the food chain your dad was?
KF: Like 13, 14, when you get a grasp of who people were and how important they were and being in groups like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Dave Mason, and all these other people.
BW: I was interested to see on The Monophonics website that you’re not an original member of the group. To me you’re such a focal point being the chief vocalist. What were you doing before The Monophonics?
KF: I was producing records and writing for a group called Destruments; it’s a little different. It’s a more like an electronic jazz, funky, hip-hop kind of thing. I was doing that and working with artists mostly recording, producing, and helping write. I met those [Monophonics] guys just from playing up in the Bay Area. The band evolved a lot in the two years I’ve been in it, but they had a really good thing going on as a mostly instrumental band for a full five or six years before I stepped in. I just jumped in to find my own place on the bus.
BW: There’s no doubt that each one of them carries his own weight. It’s fabulous to watch all of you as a unit, then you each shine during your solos.
KF: It’s a good combination individually. Everybody is amazing at his own instrument, but it’s cool to see us all come together. There’s a certain kind of chemistry together.
BW: Before The Monophonics you were already producing, so how did you get to the point of producing folks’ records?
KF: Just having that instinct. Ever since I was a teenager I have had ideas and wanted to get them out into recording or engineering and putting records together. When I hear other records I deconstruct them to think about what’s put together to make it sound like that, what are the sounds, what is that combination of tonality and engineering. It’s just a science to it that’s always interested me. I’ve been fortunate to make some advances in the last few years.
BW: When did you discover your own ability as a musician? Had you always played something? What did you start with?
KF: I didn’t really play anything until I was about 21. I was into music and deejaying and making songs. Never really was a musician. I filled in and was self taught. I asked my dad a lot of questions. Playing live and being in a band like Monophonics sharpens your skills and polishes you. I guess maybe in the last two or three years I felt like I was a pretty confident musician to step up and get the job done.
BW: When did you learn you have this magnificent singing voice?
KF: I sang a little bit as a kid just messing around. My parents – when I was about ten I think – there was a local choir every Saturday, and they kind of encouraged me. I sang a couple songs in my previous group Destruments’ record. Once I joined Monophonics I dove right in and became a singer. It’s been really fast over the last two or three years.
BW: Tell me about the new record, In Your Brain. It just came out in May?
KF: It came out on May 15th on Ubiquity Records, which has been around for 20 years. We put it out on vinyl and CDs; it should be basically worldwide. It’s a starting point for the band’s new sound, a new approach, a new beginning. We focused a lot on songwriting, producing, and recording the overall vibe of the songs.
BW: You and Ian produced this.
KF: Yeah, we produced and recorded it mostly in my basement, and there’s a small studio apartment in L.A. where we also fixed it. That was part of the new approach of being self sufficient. We talked about psychedelic soul being part of our sound and talked with the band in terms of the direction we were going in and what was appropriate, and everybody dug it. We’d get together and write and record it that day and then I’d write lyrics and we’d put it down and it’d be a song. It’s old-school style. We didn’t sit around, rehearse it, and demo it. It was a very trust-your-instinct soulful and thoughtful about how you played and write it on that day. It’s an approach which I don’t know if a lot of bands do nowadays. People put a blueprint down then go back and erase that and put that there and move that. We think songwriting can be a lot more thoughtful. I think that was a really spectacular part of the record, that what you hear is what we got together and recorded on a day. Overall it’s a spontaneous approach which harks back to Motown, Stax, Chess, and all those old records.
BW: The majority of the songs are originals. How did you pick what covers would be on here, like “Bang Bang”?
KF: The covers were a couple songs that I had found and the band collectively was a big fan of like the Ike Turner song “Thinking Black.” We always dug that groove. For “Bang Bang” I was inspired by a certain version that I heard by a Chinese pop singer in the ‘60s, and I did more investigating about other versions and found a Stevie Wonder version, the Nancy Sinatra version, and the Cher version. We did a collaborative version that we felt was a good song. It was one of the first songs we recorded once I got into the group, and we discussed which direction we were going to go. It’s cool that “Bang Bang” represents that, because it’s one of our most popular songs. Our take on it is a little more aggressive than other versions out there.
BW: I’m impressed with the video that you had done of “There’s a Riot Going On.” Tell me about pulling that video together.
KF: That was produced and directed by our drummer Austin Bohlman’s brother, Tyler Bohlman, who did a lot of video stuff around the Bay and actually travelled a lot of the world doing it. He wanted to take on doing a music video; that’s a new avenue for him. So we got together a couple days and put that footage together, and he did some cool post-production effects, some psychedelic things, and we were really happy with it. Music videos can be challenging in terms of how you feel at the end, so we were quite pleased, he did a great job.
BW: It captures the spirit of your band perfectly and that song.
KF: I agree.
BW: Will he do some more videos from this album?
KF: I don’t know. Now that we’re home from all this touring we have some time so I know that would be something the whole band would be interested in.
BW: Is it harder or easier when you don’t fit neatly into one category?
KF: It’s good because you can please a lot of people. We can play funk as well as anybody but we like to have a more collective sound than just playing funk and playing Meters and James Brown covers. Like I said, we’re more a psychedelic soul sound playing covers by The Bar Kays and Funkadelic, Sly and The Family Stone.
BW: Do you know the demographics of who your audience is?
KF: Typically 25 to 34, but we do well as old as 70. I’d say 12 to 70.
BW: That’s a fine wide demographic to have. What feedback are you getting on In Your Brain?
KF: Getting some really good feedback. It’s played a lot in Seattle and the Northwest. Overseas, too. It’s been doing really well in Belgium, France, Germany, and Greece.
BW: Where can people buy your record?
KF: At one of our shows, or through Ubiquityrecords.com, iTunes.com, Amazon.com, DustyGroove.com.
BW: “There’s a Riot Going On” feels like a message song – what is the message you want to impart?
KF: The title comes from a Sly and the Family Stone record from the early ‘70s which was Sly’s reply to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” I was writing to the music and the rhythm track that we had written. The line felt appropriate, so when I tied it to Sly and the Family Stone, it felt perfect. It talks about a lot of things going on in a lot of countries, a lot of groups of people standing up to government and certain movements speaking their minds. That’s what freedom’s all about. I’ve been around enough music to know of those kinds of songs, like “Ohio” and “For What It’s Worth.” It seems appropriate for the time. It’s also a part of soul music which we like to represent. “What’s Going On” and “Hang On In There” by Mike James Kirkland. These are all songs which are personal to them, so we just want to talk about everything from power to politics to love.
BW: A lot of folks stay away from anything the least bit controversial.
KF: I’m not speaking for one side or the other; I’m speaking as someone who’s observing society and how it’s passing me by – well not passing me by but passing me – what’s going on around me. There’s a big fascination with how government’s taking a toll for the worse all around the world and how politicians want to be involved in people’s lives.
BW: I wanted to ask about this extensive tour that you just finished with Phantom Blues Band. Do you ever get intimidated being on stage with your father?
KF: Yeah, like the first time. We didn’t ever tour, but he sat in with Monophonics in San Francisco a couple times and it was nerve wracking at first, but I’ve been playing enough to have my own confidence. Of course I think they’ll always be some butterflies in that situation; it’s never uncomfortable, it’s probably more encouraging and makes you want to try even harder. Each band has its own unique way of approaching their sound, so it worked well. Even with the age and experience difference, it was a great lineup. Everyone got along great.
BW: Your mother is famous in her own right. What was it like when she got the TV show?
KF: It’s like anything else when people start – it kinda sounds cool, but you never know where it’s going to go. She was pretty subtle about it. Nobody knew the show was going to be as successful as it has been with the impact that it’s had. It’s all very exciting and very cool what she does. She helps a lot of people and encourages them. It kind of proves that you never know what’s around the next corner.
BW: Your mom shows a lot of empathy for the kids whose parents have substance-abuse issues. Is it hard to watch when your mom tears up?
KF: No, she’s always been a crier. I admire her for being so open. It’s very honest for sure.
BW: She has described herself bluntly as “I’m a recovering drunk.” Do you remember anything from before the time that she discovered sobriety?
KF: I remember being a kid, but it was all very normal. There was nothing out of control. It’s pretty easy to hide drinking from a 4-year-old. She always woke me up and got me to school on time.
BW: It seems to me like your mom’s BS radar would be pretty fine tuned. Did you find that you can’t get away with much?
KF: Yeah, I was pretty close to her as a teenager. She most definitely is smart and knows what’s up. She’s also very cool. Our parents are very hip to the fact that young people do dumb things and try dumb stuff. They were realists.
BW: How do you define success for yourself and your career? What goals do you have and how will you know when you’ve achieved them?
KF: My ultimate goal is to make records and produce them. What I really enjoy is being in the studio and being an idea person, helping bands and others achieve the record that they want to make. I love performing now and helping this band be as successful as possible, because I think the sky is the limit. We can do great things. I’m just focusing on Monophonics and doing a lot of side projects, writing with other bands and producing; fun things with friends. We’re going to be going to Europe in October, and that’s a big goal that was set for the band last year. Hope to put some plaques on the wall and make some memorable music.
Stacy Jeffress is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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