Heirs to the
Monarch ready to rule with a dramatic
By H.K. Hilner
It's been a
little over a year since Eric Campuzano, an A&R rep for
the California-based Northern Records, received a CD
demo from the band Monarch, cleverly sent in a birthday
card envelope with a Pittsburgh postmark. Receiving
demos from aspiring bands is nothing new for Campuzano.
Last year, he saw, listened and passed on over 100 of
them. But when Campuzano began listening to Monarch's
ethereal, post-alternative songs, his heart dropped.
"The vocals are what caught me first," he says. "It
reminded me of Jeff Buckley."
While the Jeff Buckley comparisons are fairly frequent
these days, some fans have drawn a parallel between
Monarch and Jars of Clay, one of the first Christian
alternative rock bands to cross over into mainstream
radio. If there are common denominators that exist
between Monarch and the other two artists, it's the
signature sound of high, tenor vocals against the
backdrop of slow, moody tempos. Either way, Campuzano's
interest was piqued.
In mid March, he flew into Pittsburgh from Los Angeles
to catch the band perform before a full house at
Southminster Church in Mount Lebanon. It was the first
time he and the four members of Monarch -- Brennan
Strawn (vocals, guitar), his brother Aaron (drums),
Joe Salmond (bass) and Brett Zoric (keyboards, vocals) --
met face to face.
That night the band's energy was on full display,
winning over a diverse crowd. The over-21 audience
members stayed in their seats, while the younger
listeners tended to stand up and sway along with the
music. One 15-year-old skate punk spontaneously began
break-dancing during a rowdy version of "Speak Easy."
With most of the band shy of legal drinking age, Monarch
is already drawing diverse reactions wherever they go.
"When we play a show like Southminster, the young people
react in a certain way to us," Brennan Strawn
"Then we go and play Rosebud or Club Café and the older
audiences react in a certain way. I think the one thing
that the two have in common is perhaps intrigue. I'm not
sure if the older audiences get what we're doing. They
can't keep their eyes off of us because they're kind of weirded out by what we're doing. Still, it keeps their
attention. But we tend to have audiences that are very
wide range, which is good, because we want to expand."
By the time Campuzano boarded the plane back to Los
Angeles, he was convinced that Monarch belonged with
Northern Records. Fans of Northern acts like the
Burning, the band was more than happy to take the offer.
The Grandeur That Was Rome, Monarch's debut release,
comes out this month, followed by a tour in support. Not
bad for a band who have been together less than three
In the beginning, Zoric was better known in Pittsburgh
as the drummer for the Logan Wish. The emo-melodic-driven
band had a large following and often opened up for
national acts at Club Laga. Zoric was perfectly content
with his role in that band. "At the time, I was so into
the Logan Wish that if anyone else besides Brennan had
asked me to work on a music project, I would have said
no," Zoric says. "But Brennan and I were really close
friends when he came to me and talked about working
together on these songs that he had. There was something
so pure about the idea of sitting in a basement with
headphones doing obscure music."
The Logan Wish disbanded on friendly terms in early 2002
and Monarch quickly became Zoric's full-time interest.
Lyrically, Monarch's songs seem largely derived from
personal introspection, to the point that the message is
somewhat murky. "Create a Monster," a staple of their
live show, was written at a point in time when Strawn
clearly was at odds with himself. "This song was kind of
an argument between myself and God," he says. "I was
trying to say, 'Someone just tell me that this isn't who
I am.' It was a frustrating point in my life. To say,
'I'm not this way.' To say, 'Last night doesn't count.'
I wanted to hear something from God. So that was this
Still, the band points out that the lyrical connections
of their songs to aspects of spirituality are wide open
to interpretation. "What the song means to Brennan and
what the song means to me could be entirely different to
what the song means to someone else," Zoric says. "The
key is to be specific enough to convey an idea, but
ambiguous enough that you can fill in your own emotion."
In June, the label flew the band to the West Coast to
begin working on their debut disc. Upon their arrival in
Los Angeles, they spent the first few days holed up in a
rehearsal studio with veteran producer Andrew Prickett,
who co-produced the Violet Burning's recent high-gloss
CD, This is the Moment. Prickett's suggestions had a big
influence on how the band approached the recording.
"When we first went into the rehearsal space to organize
the album, Andy told us that we could either recreate
essentially our live performance or we could do
something different," says Strawn. "We wanted to be able
to separate the studio from our live show; we wanted
there to be a distinction from the two."
The Grandeur That Was Rome finds Brennan singing like a
razor-edged choirboy, with Zoric's pianistic flourishes
meshing with the whip-tight rhythm section. And while
the album keeps much of Monarch's live texture intact,
the recording gives a noticeable wink to 1990s pop with
"Wasteful," 1980s underground rock in
"Leap Years" and
even a nod to classical with "I Have Deihl" and
Cheap." Perhaps the biggest curveball on the 11-track
album is "Plug In, Listen," a minor-keyed, almost
messianic-flavored acoustic track that morphs into a
full-blown power ballad.
During the past six months, Monarch's live show seems to
have developed its own atmospheric variables, depending
on the venue where they're performing. They've
deliberately played in almost total darkness to a very
young crowd at Southminster before stepping into the
planetarium-like lighting of Club Café. If there is
symmetry between the two types of shows, it's the band's
marked physical enthusiasm for their music.
Zoric is the most theatrical, personifying musical
ecstasy with intense facial gestures that alternate with
un-choreographed, aerobic bouncing. "The reason for the
theatrics is for us to zone out and dive into the show,"
Zoric laughs. "So many times, I think bands get bored
with their own songs, and I completely understand that.
There's no conscious decision in a specific part of a
song where I have to jump or whatever. It's just
important to keep up the live energy and to keep every
Along with a current push to college radio, Northern is
planning a heavy marketing blitz to get The Grandeur
That Was Rome to commercial radio in February. Moreover,
the band also has a New York rep that hopes to land some
of their material on a film soundtrack. Still, band
members insist that they're taking whatever comes at
them, one step at a time.
"When you get signed, it's easy to get caught up in
everything," Zoric says. "The significance of our album
title is really for us, more than it is for anyone else.
We took our biggest fear that we have as a band and
stuck it as our title. Rome divided itself. It basically
brought itself down.
"The idea is not to get caught up in that, but instead
to be thankful. To be everything that we always promised
ourselves that we would be, rather than to get caught up
in something that's just going to collapse in the end.
Brennan and I started out trying to do something new.
Some of our fondest memories are sitting in his basement
mixing our recordings until three in the morning. We
weren't mixing for any record company. We were mixing
just so we could listen to it. In essence, those are the
kind of memories that we always want to keep with us."