Caught in a Black Monsoon
“We practise a DIY approach in which we’re finding our own way to explore our personal sense of freedom and liberation. We hate restrictions.”Black Monsoon
Reminiscent of a soundscape many long for: ’90s alt-rock, Black Monsoon are a band intent on carving out their own distinctive sound. Jacky Kwast (frontwoman/guitar), Teun Guichelaar (frontman/guitar) and Marjolijn Dokter (drums) are a trio making their mark on the underground music scene in Europe. Influences such as Nirvana and The Stooges have fast become comparative gauges for Black Monsoon – “The Dutch have their own Sonic Youth”, claims Belgian music blog Dansende Beren (Dancing Bears). I might add 20th-century bands like The Raconteurs and Band of Skulls to the list.
However, what is most exciting about this trio is their ability to bring the best of indie and noise-rock together to create tracks fit for rock-hungry listeners. The trio seize attention with ease whilst reaching out towards liberation from the norm. Dauntless numbers such as “Hide and Seek” and their debut LP’s eponymous track “Pantomime” blend hot-and-cold dynamics with powerful vocal harmonies and vivid drum fills. At the heart of their songwriting lies the ever-distorted, sometimes dissonant guitar riff, thick with fuzz, ready and waiting to rattle around your head for days. Songs don’t seem to suffer much without a bass player, instead using low, staccato guitar lines to replicate a bassline, one of many punk inflections.
In fact, a punk resolve permeates Black Monsoon from their music to their ethos – the band seeks to create an aesthetic space to call their own. With a grounded sense of identity, they refuse to be pigeonholed as your typical rockers. Determinedly independent, the trio conceptualise and produce their own artwork and music videos, working with all hands on deck to exercise the DIY approach that they’ve come to embody. Nothing illustrates this better than their decision to devise a video tour for the promotion of their first full-length studio album, Pantomime, which has spent the past year circulating the music scene. Released during the sombre, isolating month of November 2020, the debut invites listeners to confront self-doubt and find freedom in instability.
We were lucky enough to spend some time with the band to learn more about Pantomime’s creation, its first year, and what the trio have in store for fans as 2022 approaches. To those searching for a sparky awakening from the pandemic’s slumber, look no further. If there’s any band who might get you back on the gig floor, beverage of choice in hand, we think it might just be Black Monsoon.
Hi Jacky, Teun and Marjolijn! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Would you mind giving us a bit of background about yourselves, (for example, how you guys met, the origins of Black Monsoon, how long you’ve been together, and your own description of the band’s identity)?
Hi, thanks for having us today. Black Monsoon has been the three of us since the band started six years ago. It all started with long-time friends Jacky and Teun bringing their guitars to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon with a spontaneous jam session at home. Both of us being fully aware of our very different musical backgrounds and styles, we were surprised how well we connected musically that first time we played together. It took us no more than just a handful of riffs on our six-string electric guitars to realise that we wanted to find a drummer and make a new band. We were lucky that we both lived in musically vibrant and culturally blooming cities: Utrecht (Teun) and Deventer (Jacky), where we had connections to the underground scene harbouring plenty of talented musicians. That’s where we found (Deventer-born) musician Marjolijn to become the drummer who was the perfect fit. Despite being the drummer, she owns and plays a collection of guitars that outnumbers the collection of Jacky and Teun. We reckoned that we wouldn’t need a bass player or keyboard player which most starting bands would attract to complete the sound of the band or to fully enjoy producing and playing songs. That’s how we have been this quite unusual combination ever since.
Whatever further identifies us might be described best by others. They can look from a distance, which allows a more objective view. Of course, we’re expressing mystery, darkness and experimental chaos that may lead to sonically pleasant surprises and make the sound that characterises Black Monsoon. But what we experience as pleasant may be experienced as unpleasant or even unnoticed by most people. We often prefer to ignore common conceptions as we sometimes can get depressed from what the majority of human beings adore and follows. The number of people who are kind of prisoned by following the opinions of their peers too much – that notion can be depressing, but it is fuelling our inspiration and our own sense of freedom at the same time.
What we see, at least, is that we practise a DIY approach in which we’re finding our own way to explore our personal sense of freedom and liberation. We hate restrictions. We love to create not just our own music, but also to produce the artwork for our album covers and website, produce our music videos, and organise our live tours (like our 2019 UK tour). It takes a lot of time and effort to do it all ourselves, but we enjoy it very much as we are completely independent, which allows us to advance our full artistic freedom. In addition to our independent and DIY ethos, we might be typed as a non-stereotypical band that aims for an inclusive approach. Being two girls and a boy, we’re a pretty loud rock band, which often surprises people by not conforming to how they picture such a band. We purposely tend to break some of the stubborn stereotypes of rock music which have been dominating the music industry for decades and we still experience every now and then.
For me, ‘Black Monsoon’ conjures brilliant images of chaos, awe, and apocalyptic doom. I’m curious to know how you arrived at this name for the band, and if you’d considered other names before settling on this one?
Millions of names crossed our minds when we were looking for something that would identify us and hadn’t been taken by others already. But we found that it actually felt kind of weird to make up some new brand to name ourselves. It felt right to find an already existing name that would express our common musical inspiration as well as the mystery, melancholy and hints of masochism that we put in our music. That’s how we took the name Black Monsoon from the PJ Harvey song “Meet Ze Monsta”.
Your sound has been categorised as alternative rock, noise-grunge, and the band bio on your website reads: ‘If PJ Harvey, Kurt Cobain, and Sonic Youth had a love baby, it might have been named Black Monsoon.’ How did this range of influences come together for you as a band, and how conscious of these influences are you during your creative process?
During our creative process, we do not put influences in our music on purpose. We are actually trying to find ways to divert from these influences rather than just adapt to them. Of course, we’ve learnt a lot from artists we love. A range of their influences has shaped the way we play music or produce our artwork. For instance, after getting to know the guitar playing of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and A Place To Bury Strangers guitarist Oliver Ackermann, Teun found out how much more experimentation one can do with a guitar to explore new possibilities and overcome the limitations that a standard six-string approach poses to playing. We all learnt about the joy of experimentation from seeing and hearing such artists. It’s conceptual basically, and more about opening our eyes to new possibilities and inspiring the process of creating than trying to imitate a style.
There are so many artists who have influenced our styles, but we never intend to sound like a band or artist in particular. There are many more artists that may be of influence in our creative process than only PJ Harvey, The Stooges and Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana. In our website and Spotify bios, we refer to these artists because our listeners often tell us that they recognise bits and pieces from their music in ours, not because we want to sound like them. Actually, we love to listen to completely different genres as well, to broaden our creative process and avoid being trapped in a particular style. As such, Marjolijn loves listening to Destiny’s Child, whose beats inspire the way she creates music on the drum kit herself with Black Monsoon.
We spoke to a band recently where each member has totally different tastes in music, creating a very diverse sense of style. How is it for you? And can you tell us which genres/bands each of you have been listening to recently?
We share a love for raw and noisy guitar-driven rock bands like The Stooges, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and PJ Harvey, but we do actually have our personal favourites that may have influenced us personally in our own particular way. A combination of these influences may be reflected in the way we create songs together. Jacky is a great lover of Fela Kuti, The Horrors, David Bowie, Dead Moon, Cream, and Rory Gallagher. Teun is completely into Songs: Ohia, Scout Niblett, Warpaint, Medicine Boy, and The Wipers, whereas Marjolijn is a huge fan of St. Vincent, Ex:Re, Sylvan Esso, and James Blake. We could name dozens of other artists, but apparently, you may take from this what a typical Black Monsoon song will sound like in the end.
If you were to collaborate or perform with other musicians or bands in the future, who would be at the top of your list, and what is it that you admire about those mentioned?
We’re curious about what would happen if we had the opportunity to collaborate with two artists we find inspiring. Courtney Barnett/Milk Records for the independent DIY attitude and expressions of creativity. Another artist would be Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, creator of experimental animation videos. His weird stop motion video Jabberwocky, adapted from the Lewis Carroll poem, sparked our ideas for creating the lyrics and music video for our single Jabberwocky.
I’m interested in your creative process and how you approach collaboration in your music. Do your songs often develop out of motifs and riffs, or do the lyrics come first? How do you develop new ideas?
The first thing we always do is switch off the light and start jamming. Create melodies first. Vocal melodies do not have lyrics to them, but are more like jabbering. We have a recipe for songwriting that works well for us:
Step 1. Switch off the lights
Step 2. Jamming and experimenting to collect new ideas
Step 3. Pick the best parts we all love (we record everything we play)
Step 4. Make a song evolving from concepts that sound great
Step 5. Write lyrics to the vocal melodies
When it comes to writing, have you experienced any challenging periods? How do you produce material as a team and resolve conflicts when creative differences arise between band members?
We have experienced many conflicts during our creative processes, but we know that a bit of friction every now and then may actually be very helpful. It helps to shape and improve our ideas during the creative process. Jacky and Teun stand out in arguing with each other, whereas Marjolijn is the perfect mediator. Being a three-piece band is a perfect solution here. We always manage to find our way out and are happy with the results. We only continue ideas when we all agree unanimously, when no one is using the veto.
You have previously discussed the band’s willingness to experiment in the studio. For example, your use of vocal harmonies strikes me as a perfect example of something that pushes your sound to new places. How important was it for you to experiment with the thematic ideas behind ‘Pantomime’ as you recorded your first full-length album?
We’ll pick some songs from the album to give a snapshot of the way we play and create.
In The Shade – This is one of the loudest and noisiest songs on Pantomime, but may be best at reflecting what we like doing most on stage. Playing live shows is what we love the most actually, and playing this song always feels like the sonic freedom we embrace.
Sinner – This is one of the first songs we ever wrote as Black Monsoon, and we have played this song during all the shows we’ve played. The opening tune is a prime example of how melodies originate, as the tune just happened accidentally during one of our jam sessions. We were not searching for some kind of tune to sound exactly like this, It just kind of popped up whilst messing around in our rehearsal studio – as if it had already been waiting in the air for ages to be picked up, and crossed our path whilst jamming. It felt like the tune had picked us instead of us having invented a new tune.
Jabberwocky – This was the first single that was taken from Pantomime, and was partly inspired by the poem of Lewis Carroll we had just bumped into at the time we were creating this song. The drawings for the music video were doodled in the recording studio whilst we were recording the song. Teun took the drawings home and used them to create the music video by converting all the ideas we had together into an animation video. Colours were picked just by taking the three colours of the T-shirt Marjolijn was wearing at the time she was drawing the pictures. Teun edited the music video digitally frame by frame. We had never done this before. Yet, the song also exemplifies our weird guitar tunings, since the opening riff is played on a guitar with only two strings (E and D), both tuned down to F. This tuning evolved when we brought an old Gibson SG (we mostly play other guitars) that had four rusty strings, which we removed because they were unplayable. We did not put new strings back on, but just started messing around with the two strings that we had left and found that this down tuning sounded pleasantly awkward.
On Spotify, ‘Pantomime’ is described as ‘scratching open painful wounds from oppressive feelings of insecurity and self-reflection.’ Do you think that the pandemic has exacerbated these emotional drives, or have they always been present in your music?
These emotional drives have always been present in our music. Indeed, the pandemic has emphasised some of them, making them hit harder. Especially the social distancing and lockdowns to control the pandemic actually felt like we had lost our sense of freedom. They amplified a sense of loneliness that probably many people experienced during that period.
It’s clear that a DIY approach is very important to Black Monsoon which goes beyond musical experimentation, including your own artwork for the cover of ‘Pantomime’, and of course, the album’s ‘video tour’. Can you tell us how you chose the locations and coordinated those videos, the highs and lows of the experience, and whether you would consider creating video tours for future projects?
Marjolijn has her roots in the culturally vibrant city of Deventer. She knows many underground and cultural places that would create a vibe matching our style. From her network and experience as a producer, she contacted the crew (video, sound, light) and coordinated the production. In three days we recorded all the tracks from the Pantomime album as live videos, each track at a unique location. We all had a great time, since we were all very happy to finally have an opportunity to produce something special with the vibes of a live show during times when all concert halls were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The crew was such a lovely team to work with. We remember it was November and we suffered from the cold in some places. With fingers and vocal cords nearly frozen, it’s quite a challenge to play those songs. Three days of intensely playing the songs for different video takes and moving all our gear to so many places in such a short period of time was quite exhausting as well. And, of course, we really missed the presence of an audience responding and taking part in the event. We are looking forward to our audience. We have so many plans for the future, also to involve our listeners. It will probably not be a video tour again, since we usually tend to move on to completely new ideas and let go of previous concepts.
Much has been made of the ‘90s revival’ which has taken the art, fashion, and music world by storm in recent years, from DIY bedroom-pop to the re-emergence of post-punk and alt-rock stylings in contemporary pop. Do you consider yourselves to be a part of the cultural movement, or is it nostalgia?
We consider ourselves neither to be a part of the current cultural movement, nor to create from feelings of nostalgia. We’re trying to push our own movement forward. The emergence of musical styles comes in waves, and these waves often respond to each other in time. Indeed, we also noticed that some genres which are musically expressed in our songs have returned. But that’s a coincidence. The nineties revival, though we appreciate it, does not impact the way we create our works.
What are your thoughts on the future of the underground alternative scene in a post-pandemic world?
Our impression is that the underground scene has to be reconstructed and reinvent itself. Many bands quit, and several stages and professionals from the creative industry seem to have disappeared from the musical landscape. This leaves a gap which may allow for new opportunities and pioneering. It leaves new space for creativity to bloom after the pandemic. From this perspective, we’re looking forward to the future.
Given that ‘Pantomime’ was released in November 2020, and returning to the subject of future projects, can we expect to hear a new Black Monsoon release anytime soon? What are your plans for getting back out on the road in the coming months?
We’re working on new songs to record in the studio, and we are working on a new concept of touring with live shows for early 2022. The new songs might get pretty loud.
Listen to some of Black Monsoon’s exciting new tracks:
We’d like to thank Black Monsoon for their time with IAMUR and we’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from this incredible band! You can find them on Instagram, Facebook, and of course all the music streaming platforms.
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