The five guys in Red Monroe think of themselves primarily as a live act — they say that onstage is where their bombastic post-punk has room to breathe.But their studio work sure hasn’t suffered.
The Dallas band’s recently released eponymous full-length debut made the long list of potential nominees in the Grammy awards category of Best Alternative Music Album, along with new ones from Thom Yorke, TV on the Radio, and The Arctic Monkeys. Just so we’re clear: Red Monroe has not been nominated for a Grammy. Their record simply has made a list of about three dozen other potential nominees from all over the country. Only five albums will make the final list, and there’s an infinitesimal chance Red Monroe will be one of them.
Still, making the long list is pretty cool, especially for a local group that has yet to generate steady buzz here. “It’s hard to get attention,” said guitarist Andrew Snow. “Dallas is brand oriented. You need a lot of different avenues to get the masses to approve the consideration to go see a show.”
As the Grammy news spreads, singer Eric Steele is noticing an up-tick in interest. Now that he and his band have been validated on a national scale and have gigged with national acts such as The Black Angels, The Gourds, and Be Your Own Pet, Steele and company are more confident about recording. “It’s difficult for us to record ourselves,” Steele said. “We’re very emotional and very loud.”
Red Monroe was recorded in a 24-hour block, essentially to capture the band’s live feel, said bassist Neal Wadley. After recording, producer Chris Bell (Erykah Badu, The Polyphonic Spree) encouraged the group to join the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys. Three weeks later, Steele received an e-mail from the Academy that included the master list of Best Alternative Music Album nominees. He saw his band’s name. He said it was “a random surprise.”
When Snow, Steele, and Wadley first got together a couple of years ago, while students at the University of Oklahoma, a Grammy award was the furthest thing from their minds. Steele said the first few rehearsals were sort of weird. “I was doing this folk acoustic thing while they were doing this weird instrumental stuff.”
After six months, the trio came up with a pretty interesting sound and relocated to Dallas, Steele’s hometown. They recruited two local musos, keyboardist Matt Moffitt and drummer Jeff Gilroy. Both were equally interested in what could be termed “familiar originality.”
“In our songwriting, it’s the blind leading the blind,” Steele said. “No one comes to the band with songs, just parts. We experiment until the original idea is unrecognizable.”
If one of the guys offers a riff in a common time signature, Gilroy will instruct the band to perform random beats in certain measures, leading to a freight train of staccato notes that jump all over tracks every few phrases. Even with such a heavy emphasis on the primal, bottom end of their music, the group members are struggling to lose the “Radiohead” tag once given them by local scenesters. Long before the release of Red Monroe, the band recorded itself for the lo-fi effort Meeting on a Train. Though the disc was an “overzealous, premature effort,” Steele said, it captures Red Monroe on the verge of something new.
Nothing against Radiohead, but Red Monroe’s influences run the gamut, from The Talking Heads to Chuck Berry. Steele’s voice may be the one thing that truly distinguishes Red Monroe from one other potential nominee, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. The Briton occasionally reduces his voice to a mellow gurgle. But Steele always goes all-out, never screaming but often maintaining an intense, stentorian tone. Though admittedly inclined to drown out vocals with reverb, Red Monroe uses the vocals to control timbre and set the pace for the interplay between Snow’s and Steele’s angry guitars and Moffitt’s frantic keyb’s.
An obsessive Dylan fan, Steele wanted a single, epic story to be the lyrical and aesthetic focus of the disc. That story, “Governor’s Ball,” is about a lovestruck loner who observes the interactions among revelers at a timeless formal gathering. Although the song of the same name evolved into an unruly monster, a lot of the tracks on Red Monroe grew from the theme.
Early next year, the band plans to venture out of Texas, through the Midwest, and on to the West Coast. Afterward, they plan to go back into the studio. “The new material is a continuation of what we were writing,” Snow said. “We have new influences, and we forced ourselves not to be comfortable with the way we are going.”