Monarch at the Quiet Storm


by Ian Clemente  






With Quiet Storm closing at 11:30, headliners Monarch had fifteen minutes to play.  This allowed them time for three songs.  I last saw Monarch at Club Laga over a year ago and expected them to sound the same.  Since then, they've grown into a band receiving unanimous acclaim from local critics, a band whose reputation precedes them, and a band with a record deal.  The reason for this, or perhaps the effect of it, Monarch grew in sound as well, presenting themselves as more than spacey indie rockers and outgrowing their influences that were at one time obvious. 


            A remarkably polite quartet, they spent the first two minutes of their set thanking and praising the other bands, urging the audience to buy everyone's discs.  The focal point of the heavily melodic, intense and passionate soundscape, much lauded by writers before me, is the voice of lead singer Brennan Strawn.  More dexterous than Jeff Buckley's, richer than Thom Yorke's and sexier than Chris Martin's, Strawn's vocals capture the kind of melodies where no intelligible words need be present.  An enthusiastic stage performer, Strawn moves his hands (when not playing the guitar) as emotively and erratically as any rapper.


            The band's overall sound reflected and supported Strawn with a calm, controlled sound characteristically brought to an ending crescendo.  Not so much subtle as explosive and yearning, Monarch brought the theme of personal Hell that I imposed to a point of salvation, thematically redeeming and original as well as musically surpassing the other bands on the bill.  The scant performance time added to Monarch's reputation as unique and inimitable, a reputation that's garnered them a local cult following as well as some notable national attention. As they develop beyond the belabored references to Radiohead and Sigur Ros, Monarch stands, as far as I've seen, as a truly worthwhile band to represent Pittsburgh. 






Heirs to the Throne
Monarch ready to rule with a dramatic national debut

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 says. "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 Violet 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 years.

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 song."
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 "Talk Is 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 night fresh."

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."










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