Alex Monk is an experimental musician and producer from South London.
Monk, whose previous solo releases have included two limited edition EPs, has just released his debut album, ‘The Safety Machine’, which he recorded in his home studio over a two year period between 2008 and 2010. A double album, it has been released on the avant-garde label Smeraldina-Rima as a download and a limited vinyl edition of 300 copies.
Monk plays a wide range of instrumentation on ‘The Safety Machine’ including guitars, keyboards and a mandolin. It also finds him using analogue and digital effects and what he has termed as ‘found sounds’. There are occasional vocals from Monk and on two tracks, ‘Cabiria’ and ‘Crossing’, mournful voiced Italian singer, Elisa Gallo Rosso.
‘The Safety Machine’ opens with the nearly ten minute ‘Masks Survive’, its most song-based track and which, whispering in sound, has a pastoral haziness that recollects the early work of Robert Wyatt and the young Pink Floyd. Other tracks on ‘The Safety Machine’ stray into ambience and psychedelia, before it closes at the end of seventy minutes with the epic drones of ‘1000 Ships to the Next Life’, which takes its inspiration from a Viking funeral. An album of ghostly sound effects, cranky industrial soundscapes, spiralling echoes and occasional fragile beauty, it is a record that becomes increasingly dark and more foreboding as it progresses, yet at the same time is oddly compulsive, held together by Monk’s unusual instrumentation, which sometimes crescendos for minutes and at other points whittles out in a matter of seconds.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to Alex Monk, who will be playing our next Bands Night on the 26th March at the Half Moon in Herne Hill, London about ‘The Safety Machine'.
PB: Why did you decide to call your album 'The Safety Machine'?
AM: I thought about the title a lot and that in itself filled me with some anguish! I wanted to call it 'The Safety Machine' in the end as the making of the record provided me with some solace and focus at a quite difficult and rather turbulent time in my life and also really as a tribute to 'The Dream Machine' record shop in South East London where I spent much of my time whilst I was not making the album and where I met some great people who inspired me creatively. I believe lots of great friendships were formed in that place which is now sadly closed and it provided a safe haven to many.
PB: A lot of your live performances are improvised. In light of that, how much of 'The Safety Machine' initially came about through things discovered on stage through improvisation? When you are working on a track, what usually comes first with you? Is it a philosophical idea or a melody?
AM: I sometimes have a melody in my mind which I use as the basis to develop the song, as with tracks like 'Masks Survive' and "Spiders' on ‘The Safety Machine’. It is very much of an intuitive thing and quite simple in that I feel that I want to play something more organic like the guitar or the mandolin to invoke a mood, or I might feel that I wish to experiment with drones or filters or whatever and go on for three hours with them. It is very much about experimenting until I discover a sound or a particular mood that makes me feel good and then it develops from there.
PB: 'The Safety Machine' finds you experimenting with an extensive range of instrumentation. You usually appear, however, alone on stage. How do things work with you in a live setting? What can we expect from you for that at the Pennyblackmusic Band Night?.
AM: Yes, looking forward to it. Well I improvise now less than before as I like there to be a strong relationship between what I do live and on record. This is not to say I do not improvise at all, just a little vision does not hurt! Although I have been in bands and love playing with other musicians I do normally perform alone as you suggest. I tend to bring most of the instrumentation with me for the performance, although I do not really trigger samples now as I think I have the opportunity to create sounds with my own voice and the instruments I use.
I have worked with samples live in the past and manipulated them as part of the performance, but to be honest that was using a laptop and I feel much more comfortable without it. I will be bringing guitar, melodica, gong, recorder, keyboard, effects pedals and a mixer for the Bands Night. You can expect live versions of songs from 'The Safety Machine' and perhaps one or two older pieces from 'Exchanging Chairs' - my first record.
PB: What do you mean by ‘found sounds’ and where do these appear on the album?
AM: For all the talk of 'found sounds' there are actually not that many on the album; only some church bells from Southern Italy at the beginning of 'Spiders' and the sound of an East Dulwich Street on 'I Can Hear Your Heart Through the Breeze'.
PB: The album is appearing in both a digital and limited edition vinyl edition. The album starts off with 'Masks Survive' which has elements of Robert Wyatt and early Pink Floyd and then after becoming increasingly more psychedelic and then ambient finishes on '1000 Ships to the Next Life' in heavy drones. Why did you decide to release the album on vinyl rather than CD? It is an album that obviously makes a journey. Do you see it as an album of movements as well? Was that one of the reasons why you wanted to release it on vinyl with all its natural breaks?
AM: Ahh Wyatt and early Floyd! I recorded it on vinyl as I simply love the medium, the sound it creates and the romanticism of it. I also discussed this with the label and they were also very keen to do a vinyl release as they are also very focused on design; seeing that as equally important as the music.
Yes, I did very much intend it as a journey that hopefully the person listening to it can connect with and relate to the moods I created in their own personal ways.
PB: The cover art is by Levi Seeldrayers. Who is he?
AM: He runs Smeraldina Rima, along with Marijke Loozen and is a graphic artist too and I love his work as I do Marijke's. Levi designed the album's sleeve which I think is really beautiful and could not be more perfect for this album.
PB: It is an album that also becomes darker and increasingly melancholic as it progresses. Many of the songs take their inspiration from death. 'Crossing' takes its inspiration from Dante's treatise on hell, 'Inferno'. 'Sammy's Song' is a eulogy to a lost loved one, and '1000 Ships to the Next Life' has been self-described as a Viking funeral en-masse. Do you see 'The Safety Machine' as primarily a meditation on mortality?
AM: 'Sammy's Song' was written for the loss of someone very close to me and the starkness of it I think represents that, though I do hope that people can feel there is also a tenderness to the piece as, although there was great loss, there was still much love and respect for whom it was written for I felt as I was writing that.
I do not think it is a meditation on mortality per se, more an exploration in to the idea of rebirth, and going through pretty wracked and ravaged waters to get to somewhere much more serene and happier, so '1000 ships...' although may not sound it, was pretty damned joyful and euphoric, just a euphoric exorcism!
PB: Two of the songs feature Italian singer Elisa Gallo Rosso. She is extraordinary. Who is she and how did you discover her?
AM: I met her at the Dream Machine. She was promoting her physical theatre play as she is also an actor. We decided to have a jam one day and wrote those two tracks. There are other tracks too but they did not I feel fit with the feeling of the album.
PB: Some of the tracks on 'The Safety Machine' last for nine or ten minutes. Others last for a matter of seconds. When do you know when a song is finished?
AM: I think I just decide again instinctively that I want it to end at that moment, or it may be a sketch only, or I feel that I want to be like Charlemagne Palestine and go on forever! I think brevity can ignite memories and emotions just as much as longer pieces or mantra can, so it is great to have a mix of all of those if possible.
PB: Thank you.
Alex Monk will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night at the Half Moon, Herne Hill on the 26th March with Anthony Reynolds, Nick Garrie and the Hall of Mirrors .