New Monsoon: Five Is A Magic Number

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By: Dennis Cook

New Monsoon
Some bands evolve by cataclysmic leaps, each album and tour reinventing what's come before. Others gestate in subtler ways, refining their craft through the slow crucible of steady touring, returning to the studio only when they've honed new material to their critical standards. It's harder to see the progress in this second way. Without the bells and whistles of huge change it's easy to miss the incremental beauty and artistry of this careful, thoughtful methodology. But, the lifers, the ones who make music because the universe put it in them, tend to take the slower road. New Monsoon is this kind of band, and they've sculpted their most thoroughly satisfying, juicily representative album to date – an inviting snapshot of a working band in their fighting prime ready for the many miles that lay ahead.

With the help of veteran Grateful Dead engineer/producer John Cutler (In The Dark, Built To Last), the relatively new five-piece incarnation of SF's heady rock juggernaut took to San Rafael's Laughing Tiger Studios and laid down ten bedrock examples of what they're all about. From the sinuous, high head opener "Greenhouse" to the emotive, stirring finish of "White Sky Rain," the simply titled V (released 8/21/07 on New Monsoon Music) conjures the same warm, wonderful '70s spirit as The Dead's From The Mars Hotel and The Band's Cahoots. It is the sound of the gifted journeymen we first met on 2001's Hydrophonic becoming the master musicians many of us have long known lay inside them. Without fanfare, V moves with muscular dexterity, avoiding overplaying at every turn, always serving the songs and one another in a way only thousands of shows and countless hours of woodshedding can produce.

"There are people who are good and it takes longer for them to be known but once they are known they're known for all the years they've been good up to that point. That's something that Greg Ginn of the band Black Flag, a friend of ours, pointed out," says electric guitarist-singer Jeff Miller. "He is completely the antithesis of what you'd think the guy would be. He's a Deadhead and shy and quiet. [We met him] when we were at the Evergreen Lodge at a one-off gig. He's helped us do some things, and he's such a sweet guy. He loves us because he sees what we are - we're not a flash-in-the-pan, we're working really hard and touring. He calls us a 'legacy band,' where once we have our first breakthrough there's the whole catalog for people to get into. I'm waiting for that pebble to fall out of the wall any minute now [laughs]."

And Then There Were Five

Sean Hutchinson
All bands go through lineup shuffles but New Monsoon has seen more than their fair share, with departures often coming at the 11th hour. First, original lead singer and bassist Heath Carlisle jumped ship without warning in December 2003 days before a big tour, and then Carlisle's eventual replacement Ben Bernstein split suddenly in late 2006. Also moving on this past year are two-thirds of their vaunted percussion foundation, Latin percussionist Brian Carey and tabla player Rajiv Parikh, who left amiably to focus on their families and still sit-in from time to time.

The most recent exit is bedrock trap kit drummer Marty Ylitalo, who achieved a longtime dream of joining the Blue Man Group. New Monsoon's resilience in the face of these changes speaks to their commitment to their craft. Each upheaval, while challenging, has seen them grow from strength to strength, peeling away the superfluous elements to reveal a taut, flexible rock quintet comprised today of Miller, Bo Carper (acoustic guitar, banjo, vocals), Phil Ferlino (keyboards, vocals), Ron Johnson (bass) and new drummer Sean Hutchinson, who joined immediately after Ylitalo's final shows at SF's The Independent in August (read the review here).

"With the drummer chair, we had a lot of amazing auditions. Some of these guys put a lot of work into learning our tunes. Some had elaborate charts for songs we don't even have charts for. That said something to me about where our band is at, that we attracted these incredible drummers. One guy drove from Denver, another guy came from Portland. It's amazing," Miller observes. "The guy we ended up choosing was suggested to us by Michael Shrieve [original Santana percussionist and producer of New Monsoon's previous album, The Sound]. Shrieve called and said, 'I've got your guy. [Sean] is 22-years-old and just graduated from the New England Conservatory with honors. I can vouch for him personally because he befriended me at an Elvin Jones concert, and approached me in such a mature way for his age."

"Sean plays drums like a muthafucker but also plays tablas and all Latin and world percussion. So, we have a guy who's not only a killer, schooled kit drummer that plays all styles but also plays all these other percussion instruments. This sounds almost too good to be true but this kid really wanted the gig," continues Miller. "We only required him to learn five songs for the audition and he learned 21 songs! He flew on his own dime and we gave him the first audition slot and he set the bar. He played through song after song, six or seven tunes are all we had time for but we didn't do anything twice and we could have played for an audience right there. It would have been ready to go."

Miller & Carper by Susan J. Weiand
"You have to be prepared for anyone to jump out of the helicopter at any moment. You can't expect everybody to be down for this lifestyle infinitely because there's 'Life' outside of this lifestyle. And if you don't strike the right balance it can eat you alive," Miller comments. "As Scott Law put it so eloquently to me at Wakarusa, 'Rock & roll eats its young.' To get into your mature years, say 35 and beyond, doing this I think by that point it definitely weeds out anybody who's not down for what it really is. Once you realize what it really is then you have to decide if you love the good things about it enough to continue doing it on the level of sacrifice you need to in order to get to the next point."

"The whole progression of New Monsoon has gone from first establishing ourselves as a band, then as players integrating everybody's musical style and opinions, whatever certain things had to happen just to function. We've gone through different phases of that," says Miller. "Raj and Brian are entities unto themselves – musically, mentally and creatively. Balancing out seven guys results in a certain thing. Now, it's a little more focused because frankly it's focused on what me and Bo and Phil are bringing to the table. The three of us have been unlocking doors. We get to a certain point and then things unlock some more where suddenly we can now sing three-part harmonies. We've discovered we can do different grooves, create space and have a little more insight into the arrangements of the songs now as opposed to just making room for everybody."

Continue reading for more on New Monsoon...

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