Rock and Roll Reliability: Nick Brown (MONA)

Shortly after finishing sound check in prep for tonight’s show at the Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles, Nick Brown slid into my booth next to me. Immediately the moment caused me to shake my head and laugh because, after the ease of his greeting, the first thing that registered was the clean, warm scent of him: He smelled good. As usual. Something he’s notorious for.

On that note, I had to inform Brown that before our conversation even began he was already enroute to answering my first question: What kind of cologne does he wear?

What followed was the unexpected of Brown’s surprisingly genuine appreciation of the fact that I appreciated his current scent, admitting that he’d recently changed fragrances, was obsessed with his new find, him hopping out of the booth, making a dash to the green room and returning with not just his cologne but also proudly displaying his cedar wood scented deodorant. From the smell of things, said deodorant definitely served as a complement.

By the way, Brown’s new cologne of choice is Serge Lutens. You’re welcome.

With that Pulitzer-level investigative journalism behind us, it was time to speak of simpler things because with their third full-length album, Soldier On, due out on June 1st via Bright Antenna Records, MONA is refreshing their tour legs and road testing new music at a handful of US and UK shows. At 10 songs deep, 35 minutes in length, and with its need to bleed from the heart the album is signature MONA: from the garage rock love party “Kiss Like a Woman” to “Some Kind of Rage” sheering the august edges of U2, Soldier On pulls few emotional punches while experimenting in order to aim sonically higher. As a band and as humans, MONA has faced its fair share of obstacles and undergone changes, yet while the business that surrounds making music (and life, in general) may suffer from instability, MONA remains a rock and roll reliability.

High Voltage: What was the main reason for the length of time between the last album and this one?
Nick Brown: Honestly, to take all the mystery and magic out of it, we were just figuring it out. We had switched labels. We did two albums on Island Def Jam, the first label, we had a member leave because he was starting a family. You kind of just have to figure it all out again, not only as the band dynamic but as a band and a label who would find a team. We weren’t really happy with our management at the time as well, so we switched managers, switched band members, switched labels. We had done two albums that were very rock and roll band, and we were like, “We can’t really do this three times in a row.” All of our preferences are very widespread, so we wanted to get into stuff where we were using drum machines and pads and synthetic stuff. It’s still rock, obviously, an alternative sound but a little bit more sophisticated. So, it gave us a lot of freedom, but how far do you take that? Just figuring it all out again and falling in love with the process all over again.

HV: The title song, “Soldier On,” itself began some years ago…
Nick: Yeah, I wrote that to figure out what was going on. My main instrument’s actually piano, so you think, ‘I’ve been touring the world for years not even playing my main instrument, so do I go to piano, do I – what’s the sound?’ And I wrote that on piano, and then you add the band in, and it was like, “Well, I think MONA’s done as a band,” so that’s why it was titled that, as well. It’s just a matter of whether it falls apart or whether it keeps going. You personally have to soldier on. There’s tragedies, there’s ups and downs, there’s artistic battles, financial battles, health battles. We all deal, as humans, with a bunch of stuff. Whether it ends the way you want it to or not, you don’t really have a choice. You gotta still carry on. And what’s implied is: carry on with grace and strength. We don’t always do that, but that’s what this album is about. It’s very dualistic, kind of human. Trying to champion the human spirit of like, “You gotta keep going.”

HV: One thing I’ve noticed – when I got to “Soldier On” which is the album closer – all of your albums – and I went back and listened to make sure – sure enough, every album ends with a song that’s just a bit of a gut punch.
Nick: I’m pretty heart-on-the-sleeve, open, exposed vein, open, exposed nerve 24/7. So I have to tame it down just to coexist with other people or else nobody would be able to stand me. But I’m always thinking about the ultimate. It’s like, “Why are we here?” It’s never-ending in my brain. In the music industry, you still have to write accessible songs. If I was writing what I was feeling, it would all be gut punches and probably 10-minute jams of screaming at the moon.

I think people forget it’s art. Music has become such a commercial commodity in that system of capitalism that people forget that – and I’ve said this for years – at the beginning of time, we were sitting around fires and strumming horsehair and beating on animal skin. If there was a wedding, there was a song. If there was a death, there was a song. If there was a birth, there was a song. Our lives are controlled by music. To me, the cliché of “it’s the universal language” … I think it is God. I think it is the math that ties us all together. Now, you can get into a debate about genres, like, “Which is more powerful?” but I think it’s just rhythm and melody is … something about it that’s undeniable.

HV: So you probably subscribe to Nietzsche’s theory of, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Nick: I do, but he also didn’t believe in a lot of things that I think I do. And I go back and forth. I love a lot of Oscar Wilde stuff, but I don’t wanna be that guy. I don’t wanna be van Gogh. I don’t wanna be that sad or dark.

HV: Don’t wanna be that tortured?
Nick: Yeah, I don’t wanna be Andy Warhol. I don’t wanna be that fucked up to have to have those realizations. It’s very hard to be a good human being and a good artist because a great artist pushes. That doesn’t make you stable or easy to be around when you’re trying to do a song or a painting or a poem… question existence. That’s not Billboard Top 10 mentality. But, I think the Beatles did that. I think there’s huge bands that have done that, historically. Bob Marley lived there. He didn’t give a shit.

Obviously, it’s a different time, different era, but humans are cyclical. As a species, we’re cyclical. EDM was massive. Still is, but it’s slowing down. Hip-hop as a pop genre: slowing down. That’s why people need Kendrick [Lamar], that’s why people need someone to fucking say something. Because, as a genre, the cliché of rock and roll has been dead. As a genre, the cliché of hip-hop: it’s been dead. People are now tired of it. And now people are tired of the DJ. They want people that are saying something. They wanna feel something.

So it always seems like someone steps up… but really the movement is humans having the boldness to speak up about anything. Anything positive, too. It doesn’t even have to be grandiose. It can just be positive. That, in and of itself, can change people.


HV: Where a musician is concerned, you’re all into it for different reasons. What was it about the act or the art of writing a song or singing a song that actually made you say, “I need to do this.” And then, throughout what you’ve gone through, keeps you from walking away from it?
Nick: I’ve always said I’m one of the “can’t-nots.” I can’t not do it. Part of the reason why I got the leather jackets and the sunglasses was to hide from the artist part of me because I want it to mean something. Sometimes it’s easy to play the role, the character of it all. Sometimes I think it’s very self-abuse. It’s very, “Why do I keep putting myself through this?” But I’ve had crazy joyous highs, but I think I’ve also gone through super lows that I maybe didn’t have to, but through the pursuit of song or art or sticking with a bunch of dudes that like to travel the world to make noise, it’s very, very simple. But it also could be just an addiction; self-therapy, maybe.

Sometimes we think we’re doing something important and maybe we’re just doing it for ourselves.

HV: What makes this album sound different than the other two? Either sonically or…
Nick: Sonically, it’s more produced. I produced all of our stuff. This one, I spent more time … we wanted the first two just to feel like a band. And, trust me, I wanted it to sound shittier, those first two albums. I wanted it sound like a garage…

HV: Like just guys in a garage?
Nick: Yeah, I wanted it to sound like a garage band, really. But this one, we just embraced it. There’s a lot of layers, there’s a lot of time, too. There’s days of just picking sounds. The first two albums, it was like, “Yeah, that’s good enough. Let’s go.” I can hear it, it’s good. But this is like, “I don’t know about that.” Sometimes time’s a luxury, so we might have had a little too much time on our hands for this one but as a producer, I’m really proud of it. As a band and a singer and a songwriter, I am. As a producer, I think we took it to a different level.

HV: What were you like when you were a kid? Was there anything that you had to listen to?
Nick: I grew up in church. I wasn’t allowed listening to a lot of stuff. Assemblies of God: same denomination as Elvis, Johnny Cash, those guys. But I liked oldies. My mom listened to a lot of oldies which is weird because you were allowed listening to Marvin Gaye, but you weren’t allowed listening to Nirvana. Some of those soul singers were talking about fucking and drugs and all kinds of stuff, and some of these new wave punk singers, or even in grunge, were actually very positive and almost more spiritual, but because it was new, “You can’t listen to that.”

So, a lot of hymns and a lot of oldies. I was a huge Frankie Valli, Roy Orbison, Ben E. King, Marvin Gaye… a lot of just doo-wop and soul.

HV: Which, considering your vocal style, makes perfect sense.
Nick: It’s funny because I was lucky enough to grow up at a school that was a Christian school most of my life, but it was also interracial, interdenominational, and my church was, too. So I got a very cross-culture experience growing up. I had Indian friends, I had Mexican friends, I had black friends. So very young I realized – especially coming from Ohio – not everyone had that experience because there’s very ignorant parts… but I got exposed to so many different things very quickly.

One of my friends in my neighborhood growing up was Indian and he converted to Muslim in 8th grade and would sit and we would talk about – at that age I didn’t have a freaking clue what I was talking about, I just knew what I was raised in – but then we would get on these conversations about a great song and we’d usually agree. It was just interesting because I think there’s a certain part of your life when you’re young, you’re just doing what you see. You’re doing what you were born in or what your parents or your friends … and music pulled me out of that to experience things for myself, younger than I think most of the people around me.

HV: I’m not fond of the word ‘vocal,’ but it very much applies to you: A lot of musicians and artists that I listen to tend to have a voice; they’re not afraid to say something. Not everybody is. Why are you so comfortable saying you have a point of view about things? “Kiss Like A Woman”… another band, you couldn’t pay them enough money to make that “Kiss Like A Woman” video.
Nick: Like I said, I grew up … one of my best friends growing up was black and gay. At a young age, I was like, “People are different than me. I’m white and straight, but I love this person.” So I didn’t see differences as much as I saw likeness around me. Whether it’s sexual, religious, racial, age, whatever it comes in. When people wanna draw lines in the sand, I’ve always seen ways to build bridges. If I love the human, I don’t give a shit about who you pray to or who you fuck or what color you are.

I’m all about humans. I don’t give a shit about what brand. If you’re a shitty human, then I’m just against you. If you’re fighting the momentum of us as a species being a positive group, I have a very spiteful side. But I will never draw a line in the sand just for something being different. So I think if you feel like that and you really believe that, it’s very easy to be vocal about it. Because you’re not really a voice for yourself, and you’re not really a voice for someone. You’re this tiny thing that’s a giant organism. You’re just speaking up.

If you step on a dog’s foot, there’s not a whole lot of science that needs to be explained of why it yelped. I feel that for other people. I feel things. “Kiss Like A Woman” was very important to me because I feel like there’s a lot of people in my life, a lot of people in the world today, that have to defend their life choices, which I think is ridiculous. There shouldn’t even need to be a voice that has to say that kinda stuff. It’s so obvious.

HV: You would think that’s not a conversation that needs to be had.
Nick: Yeah, but ignorance is powerful and I know that we all live in different levels of it. Not to get preachy or like I think I have this huge role, it’s more about – in a selfish way – I want cool friends. I want people that are different than me. I like it. It turns me on in my brain. It turns me on as a human to be around people that are different than me in every way. I don’t really understand another approach to life.

I love touring Europe and other countries just for the simple thing of accents or phrases. I’ll never forget back in the day when we first went to the UK and how they use the word ‘sorted.’ Like, “Y’all sorted?” And it’s like, “What?” And now I’ve used it for most of my adult life now. I would’ve never learned that in Dayton, OH. You’re not gonna learn that in Nashville, TN.

Just from the smallest of things: personality tics to food to the ultimate questions about existence. I think we all have stuff to learn from other people that are different from us.

After that handful of US and UK shows, Nick Brown is looking forward to MONA getting their full-blown tour on and having his life planned out for months at a time in that place where the music that he’s so proud of, the message that it bears and the people who really yearn to hear it all meet.

“I’m ready to get back out there,” Brown said. “I think we all are.”

Soldier on, MONA.



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