Everyone who claims to be a fan of classic rock ‘n’ roll has likely experienced a formative moment in which the doors to their musical upbringing were blasted clean off the hinges.
I remember being 16-years-old, living in the quiet suburban ramble of upstate New York. At the time I was a well-mannered and soft-spoken teenager who tended to avoid trouble. I mostly kept to myself.
That summer, I caught wind that a new kid had moved into our neighborhood. He settled down into the house directly across the street from my own, an old red and white haunt with cracked siding that had been sitting idle for months.
Naturally, I walked over to introduce myself.
His parents weren’t home; instead a monstrous and spindly kid with spaghetti hair opened the door. At least a few years older (and what seemed like a few feet taller), he towered above me.
“Sean’s upstairs,” was all he mumbled before turning back inside.
It wasn’t until I reached the top of the stairwell that I could hear the rumbling. Something like slow rolling thunder was churning behind the door. After three knocks and no response from within, I turned the handle and stepped inside.
A thick haze immediately enveloped me. Black lights and lava lamps cast an eerie incandescence that felt like stepping into another dimension. Or perhaps just a rerun of That ’70s Show.
It took a few seconds to even find him. Splayed out on his bed, shoulder-length hair curling in knots around a cut-off AC/DC shirt, Sean didn’t bother to extend his hand. Instead, he passed me a smoking joint.
“What’s this?” I remember asking, my voice already sounding far away.
“You serious?” he said–or something to that effect–while he cranked the volume knob on his stereo all the way up.
A few minutes (and a few puffs) later and I was floored. My fragile, egg-shell mind had been cracked.
The needle dropped to wax and the opening sirens of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” swept through the purple-lit room like otherworldly searchlights. I’d never heard such noise in all of my infinitesimal existence. Ozzy Osbourne’s banshee wails foretold the horrors of warfare over bass lines that slithered and exploded. Tony Iommi’s multi-tracked guitar solos howled with the forked-tongues of a tetrahedron monster tearing my world apart.
Needless to say, I was never quite the same again.
Thanks to that formative experience, I discovered the wonders of music. It’s the reason why I’m here today, writing reviews of bands.
Okay, okay, so why the hell is all of this necessary? I’ll tell you: it’s because this week’s Discovery Artist, the Oakland-based outfit Mondo Drag, are keeping the doors to yesteryear’s rock and roll wide open. In a time where the advent of home recording and ceaseless digital meandering has spawned a never-ending ocean of new music (often of debatable quality), these guys pay homage to their roots in a manner that will renew continual discovery of classic gems from decades passed.
“You have to study the masters, whether it’s music, literature, or anything,” says John Gomino, organ player and vocalist of Mondo Drag. “That being said, you don’t want to replicate the same thing that people have done before.”
For some, the nostalgia pill is hard to swallow, but critics need not be wary of Mondo Drag’s nod to bygone eras. Take one listen to their recently-released self-titled record for proof. Languid vocals reminiscent of Jim Morrison drift across desert-kissed soundscapes, yet the effect is entirely different than anything the Los Angeles legends would have intended.
There are elements of old-school metal and heavy-handed blues sledgehammers cast about, yet the same song might take a turn towards decidedly trance-ier waters.
Then there’s the smoky rippling of Hammond organs, and the fact that many of the compositions move closer towards the complexities of prog than straight-up rock.
But the bottom line is that while Mondo Drag drifts close to home for lovers of late ’60s and early ’70s psychedelic rock, there are plenty of nuanced surprises and enough kick-ass chemistry at work to satiate even the most skeptic contemporaries.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about the release of Mondo Drag, however, is the distinct chapter it marks in the band’s history. The core three members–Nolan Girard (guitars and synth), Jake Sheley (also guitar), and Gomino–grew up together in Iowa and have been playing together in various incarnations for the better part of 15 years. But searching for a rhythm section proved somewhat daunting.
“We definitely have our own niche interests and sound, so when you’re pulling from a small pool, trying to find the right people can be a bit difficult,” reflects Gomino.
In a crash-and-burn-turned-blossom moment of serendipity, Mondo Drag’s Alivesound labelmates Radio Moscow imploded. Their former rhythm players–bassist Zack Anderson and drummer Cory Berry–moved home to Iowa and directly into the hands of Mondo Drag.
Realizing a palpable chemistry, the five musicians hit the studio to record a handful of tracks the band was near-polishing. Together with producer/engineer Patrick Stolley, and armed with reel-to-reel tape machines, 1940s and ’50s RCA Ribbon Mics, and old tube preamps, Mondo Drag created a record that provides a needed return to the warm and well-rounded analog catalog of rock and roll.
They say lightning only strikes the same place once. Shortly after the completion of Mondo Drag, Anderson and Berry moved to Sweden to join the ranks of the wildly successful band Blues Pills. Left in the lurch once more without a rhythm section, Gomino and his bandmates decided to throw caution to the wind and make a move out to the west coast.
What they found there, they’ve been riding ever since.
“We’ve got a new lineup, new songs ready, and a tour underway,” remarks Gomino. “In August we’ll be entering the studio to try our hand once more.”
To hear the rest of our interview with Mondo Drag, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the music for yourself by clicking here.