Friday, July 13, 2012

A Conversation with Pink Monkey

Pink Monkey are three cheeky, expert musicians who love irreverence and the musical manifestations of said attitude toward reverence in the form of musicians like The Ramones or Frank Zappa. Fortunately, for music in general and me specifically, they also just happen to play jazz.  What follows, as perhaps the above lede suggested, is the Interview.* If you yourselves could interview one musician, who would it be, and why?

[All] Frank Zappa, he was one of the original musical smart asses.

Your music seems dangerous, like jazz seemingly hasn't been in decades (to most modern listeners, particularly kids)--  like Coltrane and Dolphy getting in shit with Downbeat magazine in 1961 over their alleged “anti jazz” ... do you ever consciously consider precedents like that? What do you think of more "extreme," compared to most jazz musicians anyway, musicians like John Zorn or Peter Brötzmann?

[TK-- Tim Koelling, Saxophone] A big reason why Pink Monkey is so simple and out is kind of a rebuttal to the modern jazz scene. I love going to jazz clubs, but eventually I get bored - there is no reason “jazz” has to be accessible to only other musicians who understand what’s going on, or as background music. We all want to be rock stars!
[MK- Mike Koelling, Bass] Like Tim said, a lot of modern jazz gets boring. It’s just so cerebral that the common guy at the bar doesn’t get it. We would much rather be playing to a crowd of smiles than a few heads nodding in appreciation. We listen to a lot of John Zorn - We’ve even covered a few of his tunes. The Bad Plus is also a huge influence. Most importantly though we try to have a good time and keep things accessible and interesting.

Why "Pink Monkey"?
[MK] We had been playing for a few months and as a band bonding exercise we headed to mayfest in Chicago. After a lot of German beer, I ended up buying Tim a Pink Monkey and told him he had to wear it around his neck for the rest of the festival. A few steins deep I proclaimed “Let’s name our band Pink Monkey until we think of something better.” Five years later, we still haven’t come up with a better name.

For sax:
What type mouthpiece/ sax/ reed?
[TK] I play a Selmer series II alto, Otto link 7 mouthpiece, usually vandoren java 3's with a vandoren optimum ligature

The sax work on Ink suggests a bit of Zorn with Jackie McLean (particularly the intro to "A little bit off") and Rosco Mitchell... influences?
[TK] John Zorn is a big influence in my approach to pink monkey songs. Ne'eman from Masada was one of the first pink monkey "covers" I brought to the group. It's funny you mention Jackie McLean, one of my jazz professors my freshman year of college noted the tone similarities, but I had never listened to him at that point.

Whom do you think you sound like, versus who you actually wanna sound like (besides yourself, I mean)?
[TK] My favorite player, who doesn't really come out in the pink monkey project is Cannonball Adderley. The guts that are present in everything he plays, and sheer fluidity of all of his ideas are something that I continually strive towards. Other influences are Eric Dolphy, Andrew D'Angelo and all of the AACM guys. I want to sound like me though. My approach towards playing focuses more on melodic and sonic interpretation and manipulation rather than technical perfection or speed. It's about more than the notes I play.

If just alto, why just that? Many current sax guys use many types....
[TK] I play alto because that's my voice... It's also the only horn I owned until buying my first tenor last year (I added a soprano to my lineup last month). I've tried playing tenor in the group, but I hear everything on alto, and tenor gets lost in the bass and drums. I don't feel like the other horns speak the same language.

How does that growling through the alto hurt your throat, or does it? (I admire you, by the way, for that. I personally hate to growl.)
[TK] Growling doesn't hurt... It comes from the back of my throat, and at first was the byproduct of playing really loud and overblowing. I started learning to growl when transcribing cannonball in college trying to get the same intensity of his inflections and aggressiveness of his playing.

For Bass:
What type of strings/bass? Influences?
[MK] I play an American P bass special with La Bella flatwounds that are about 5 years old. James Jamerson got a great tone out of it, so why can’t I? My biggest influence is hands down my first bass teacher, Sam Greene. Sadly, after a little over a year of taking lessons with him, he was in a motorcycle accident, and most likely will never play again. I noticed him as the stand out player in the Chicago blues scene at the time. I went up to him after a show and asked him who I could take lessons from to sound like him. He gave me his number and told me to come by on Tuesday afternoon with $20. Still to this day every few months or so, something I learned from him will sink in and I’ll have one of those ah ha moments where something he told me 4 years ago will finally make sense.

Whom do you think you sound like, versus who you actually wanna sound like (besides yourself, I mean)?
[MK] I’d love to play like Victor Wooten. Sure, technically the guy is amazing, but the thing I like the most is that with all of his skill, he always seems to be having a blast no matter what he is playing. I also absolutely love Mingus. Nobody can swing like Mingus! I suppose I’d like to be somewhere between the two of them, but there are so many great bass players that I discover every day. I’ve really been digging Nathan Navarro lately. That guy has been pushing the boundaries of what live bass is supposed to sound like. I end up playing a lot of rock in my other projects though, so I suppose I sound like Nate Mendel trying to sound like Nathan Watts.

For Drums:
What type of drums...?
[NK-- Nick Kokonas, Drums] I play a Gretsch new classic four piece with zildjin new beat hi hats, a 20" zildjin flat ride, my main ride is a Sabian 20" artisan series, and a Ludwig speed demon bass pedal from the early 80's at least.

[NK] All the jazz greats, I gravitate toward elvin, art blakey, tony williams (before he went into fusion), current Dave king, ?uestlove, Matt Wilson then billy cobham, Alphonse mouzon, and Peter Erskin.

Whom do you think you sound like, versus who you actually wanna sound like (besides yourself, I mean)?
[NK] I am really not sure who I sound like. I know I don't have the clarity of some of those guys, I play a little bit sloppy for what i want but fell in love with Dave king's playing and I'm constantly working on control and clarity in my playing. Rodney Holmes is always a strive with his tone. The thing that really inspired me was seeing Dave Brubeck at the Chicago symphony center. Hearing command of an instrument like that was an outstanding experience.

Best concert ever of yours? Worst? Describe in ridiculous detail.
[MK] The best show we had was definitely the release show for our live album. We knew it was going to be our last show for a while because Tim was leaving the country for a year, so we went all out. We had name tags for everyone that walked in the door ranging from “Batman” to “That kind of girl” to “looking to get laid”. It was an all out party. We had a piñata that was filled with candy and condoms and did a raffle for the leftover merch stock and shots of whisky. We gave away all of our CDs and I don’t remember much after that.

[TK] The worst concert ever never happened. In 2008 we were on the road heading to Des Moines, IA for our first “tour”. About halfway between Chicago and the middle of nowhere the oil line in our borrowed SUV blew and we were stranded on the side of I80 for 6 hours waiting for a flatbed tow truck. We ended up staying the night in Rock Falls, IL in the oldest, creepiest Holiday Inn ever. That wasn’t the worst part though, since we got there about 2AM we couldn’t buy any beer. We waited around most of the next day for friends with cars to come get us and drive back to Chicago. When we got back we had an impromptu BBQ at my sister’s place, got wasted, then proceeded to a bar to perform the most belligerent karaoke ever.

Who first inspired each of you (musician or not) to play your respective instruments?
[TK] Cannonball Adderley.
[NK] There was a bunch of kids growing up in my neighborhood that played drums. When I got to start playing music in school at age 12 I immediately said I want to play drums.
[MK] I can’t really say that there was one person that inspired me to take up the bass. I’ve always been a groove guy. I played trombone, rhythm guitar, and I even produced techno music for a while. I didn’t discover that my musical voice was best suited for bass until my mid twenties.

Each of your favorite albums lately?
[NK] I've been listen to a lot of now vs now which is amazing stuff. I just popped in Geoff Bradfield African Flowers (a former teacher of mine) again today and that will probably be in my cd player for a week or so
[TK] Lettuce - Fly
[MK] They don’t have an album out that I’ve been able to find, but I absolutely love the treatment that The Dirty Loops have been giving pop covers in their youtube videos.

How do you plan to arrange tracks? Is it pure improv? Do you agree on a key or a head arrangement ahead of time?
[MK] Arranging tracks is a crap shoot with this project. Sometimes Tim has a melody, sometimes, Nick has a beat, and sometimes I have a Groove. 10 Below was actually written by Tim and Nick while they were trying to play something energetic to keep warm in the practice space we were squatting in - in Chicago in February with the heat turned off- while I took a dump. Nick played a beat, Tim started playing sax and when I finished my business I played an active bass line. We usually have a head and some resemblance of form, but when we play we go mostly by feel. We all know how the tune will start. From there it’s like a tornado. The tunes tend to take on a life of their own and I just do my best to keep up with wherever they are going.

How do you record? Do you use the first takes of songs, or have these been played many time before live?
[MK] Just about all of the songs on INK have been performed live many times over the last 4 years. Most of the recordings were first takes. We’ve tried recording cleanly and doing overdubs, be every time we tried it, we lost the energy that comes from our live performances. When we recorded INK we knew we had 4 hours, and that was it. It’s not the cleanest recording, but it captures what we’re about better than anything else we’ve ever recorded. I also like that we each took one track to stretch out and do our thing. Each band member contributed one track independently of the rest of the band. For me that was Pike, Tim’s track was It was Yours, and Nick’s was Apple Skin.

Musically, how did the Ramones influence Pink Monkey? Did they?
[MK] I don’t know if they influenced us much musically, but they sure did influence our attitude. I love the attitude of punk rock. That punk rock attitude of “anyone can do this” is something we try to bring to jazz.

What kind of musical training do each of you have? How did you meet?
[TK] I grew up in a musical family, playing drums before I could walk while Mike sang.
I played Violin for 3 years starting when I was 9, all Suzuki method which is mostly ear training - probably what lead me to improvised music. I started playing sax at 10, in school. I started playing jazz around 12, learning scales, modes, and basic theory at summer band camps. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing public school music program with gigging musicians as teachers who encouraged us to practice a lot. They pushed the talented musicians a lot - if you were sitting around the band hall on a break they would force you to have an impromptu lesson, and would often write passes excusing you from other classes to spend more time playing. I got to play at Lincoln Center with our big band because of this, and my senior year of high school our music program was the first ever Grammy signature school, in 1999.
I studied music, jazz studies and saxophone performance at Webster University in st Louis my freshman year of college, then transferred to University of Iowa as a comm/sociology major. I think the 8 hours a day of practicing I did in High School burnt me out... and I wanted to learn some social skills that don’t come easily when you spend your time shut off in a practice room. I still played music at Iowa, continuing studies in jazz combos and big band.
I moved to Chicago to have access to a bigger music scene, but mostly played guitar for the first few years I was here (neighbors would complain when I played sax). Eventually we formed Pink Monkey. I’m also active in other bands, playing lead alto in a composers big band called The Heisenberg Uncertainty Players, playing and writing horn lines for Band Called Catch, alto in an awesome soul cover/tribute band The New Balance, and with whoever calls me on any given week. I even had a stint with a Billy Joel Cover Band.
[MK] I grew up in the same musical family that Tim did. We were encouraged to be musical from an early age. Looking back it was sort of weird. I actually got my start playing trombone. I may have worn wal-mart clothes to school every day, but I had a pro horn when I needed one. I went to the same amazing high school. I can’t say enough great things about it. You were expected to improvise over changes by 14 and play bebop at bebop tempos by 17. It’s actually the recordings of my band that won the Grammy, but Tim has the medal. We had amazing guest clinicians and got to play gigs with Clark Terry and Willie Thomas to name a few. I played in a section that could play Four Brothers to tempo on Trombone. It’s still probably the most talented band I’ve ever played in. Most of my band went on to Berklee or North Texas.
After high school I went to Missouri Western State College on a full ride musical scholarship, but I was disappointed. As a freshman, I was already one of the best members of the band. I dropped out of school, and started DJing Raves. I loved that the turntable was the first instrument that I didn’t fundamentally understand. Over 8 years, I forgot most of my music theory, but learned to groove. I moved to Chicago with the intention of continuing my DJ career. On a whim, I picked up the bass, and I rarely touch my turntables anymore. Shortly after I started fooling around on bass, I put out a craigslist ad, and Nick answered it. Originally we were going to play as a pop rock trio, but then Nick asked if we played jazz. It all took off from there.
After Pink Monkey started, I broadened my horizons and started playing in other acts. I learn a lot by playing in different genres. I learned how to up the stage show by playing in a kids music band called Super Stolie and the Rockstars, and I learned a lot about networking and hustling with my rock band, The Prime. I also do a fair amount of work on sub and cover gigs. I’m always learning something even if it isn’t advanced music theory.
[NK] I started in grade school band. I didn’t do much jazz in high school as I grew up in the alternative rock age. After high school I started playing hand percussion in a jam band and really got immersed in world music. From that I backed into the kit and immediately went into jazz.
How are you generally received live?
[MK] We are received very well live for the most part. Club owners who hate jazz love us. We do take some flack from some jazz artists, but we know how to have fun. I remember playing a gig with one group that played standards. During their set everyone was sitting in their seat, and even the musicians had a glazed over look in their eyes. We finished with Blue Monk and invited them all back up to jam, and they were having a blast and the entire audience had kicked their chairs to the side of the room to dance.

What kind of fans do you see? Mostly jazz? What kind of t-shirts do they wear, for God's sake??
[MK] Our typical fans are as diverse as our musical palate. My favorite fans are actually the people that happen to be in the bar when we take the stage. They are always surprised at how we sound. We can sure bring down the house in dive bars. Generally, we’ll play more rock clubs than jazz venues. I love the sight of a long haired dude in a slayer T-shirt digging some Monk inspired changes.

What standards did you start out playing? What "popular music covers?"
[MK] Like so many other jazz artists, we got our feet wet playing real book tunes. It didn’t take long for our stage antics start influencing our behavior though. I think Pink Monkey’s attitude was born when we were playing a martini bar and some buy walked out in the middle of our set. Tim followed him out of the bar and ½ way down the block while Nick and I kept things going in the bar. We do play popular music covers as well. The Bad Plus is one of our biggest influences in how to cover pop music. I can’t say we’re anywhere close to them technically, but we do our best to keep things interesting.

Have you actually been kicked out of a martini bar? if so, good for you.
[MK] Not officially, we have been locked into a Martini Bar though. Lefco, if you’re reading this, we love you, but my liver told me we can’t ever play the Blue Stem again.
I personally believe jazz should be energetic, outrageous, utterly, perfectly free to sound how it wants, whenever it wants (which, I would argue, is quite different than most modern jazz fans/players think); what non-jazz music do you listen to when not playing?
[TK] I listen to everything from Radiohead, The Low Anthem, Punch Brothers, Passion Pit, Rubblebucket, Son Lux... too many to list. If it’s got an interesting twist it goes on my playlist.
[NK] I love mos def and blackstar, the roots, d'angelo, lots of bluegrass and radiohead, i dig John butler trio, great players, Anit Cohen (sorry that's jazz but just killer), I am always checking out what's playing in the radio too, you need to know what is going in pop culture wise in this day in age in order to get music heard. Death cab for cutie, foo fighters, incubus (before there most recent album)
[MK] This is a tough one for me. My Ipod always has what I need to play for my next gig cued up. Lately I’ve been digging on some classic Stevie Wonder, The Dirty Loops, and Foo Fighters.

Closing: Yannow, it's nice when a band you're interviewing is more sarcastic than you; you don't have to worry about possible double entendres in interview questions that won't be comprehended and/or appreciated. Also, sorry if these questions were too jazz/instrument-specific. Although if you feel that way, you Philistine and/or Luddite whore, you can totally suck it.

*I always wanted to say that. It sounds better than I'd imagined, frankly.

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