- Al Muzer
Coming as no surprise to those who've paid even the slightest attention to the pop charts over the last few years, the sudden appearance of acts such as the Spice Girls, Prodigy, Sugar Ray, Jimmy Ray, Fatboy Slim, Black Grape, Hanson, Aqua and Chumbawamba on your favorite radio station's Top 40 playlist is no accident.
Bored with grunge, tired of rap, not ready for metal (again), leery of power pop, not about to get behind country on anything approaching a major scale and not quite as enamored with techno or electronica as the media predicted they'd be most of America seems content letting mindless sports chants, peppy instrumentals, chirpy teen pop ditties and one-off novelty numbers fill the musical void until something comes along to unify the nation's radio dials again.
In what appears to be just about the right place at pretty close to the right time, Mono's 10-song Echo/Mercury Records debut, Formica Blues while not exactly the next big thing a slumping record industry was hoping for is, nonetheless, a lush, atmospheric, Phil Spectorian island of retro-futurist, Portishead-aware trip-hop-pop that sounds positively stunning when heard next to such mindless musical diversions as "Wannabe," "Firestarter," "Get Higher," "Fly," "Are You Jimmy Ray?" "Barbie Girl" or "MMMbop."
The perfect soundtrack for your day-to-day grind - especially if your life happens to be an obscure French art film shot in black and white or a low budget spy flick circa 1964 - Mono is the moody, cinematic, post-St. Etienne pop creation of London-based vocalist Siobhan De Mar (whose father, Tony Meehan, played drums for Cliff Richard's Shadows) and Brighton-born producer/keyboardist/guitarist/songwriter Martin Virgo.
Already semi-known for his work on tracks by Bjork, Femi Williams and Shara Nelson in addition to the minor notoriety he gained with his classic remix of Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy"; Virgo was introduced to De Mar (paying the bills as a session vocalist on a number of rap and dance tracks at the time) two years ago by the duo's current manager.
"I was playing around in the studio on my own searching for a new creative outlet when Siobhan and I were brought together as 'possible working partners'," chuckles Virgo during a recent phone call from London. "Who knew back then that it would lead to all this! You know, the fact that the two of us happened to work together so well from the beginning is quite odd, really, because we're both very different people. Extreme opposites, actually."
"I'd been doing a lot of straight-ahead dance records and working on music that," he pauses to consider his words carefully as he tries to describe the creative catalyst for Mono's full-length debut, "while it was all quite good and was personally very rewarding, it really was lacking in any form of subtlety or real depth."
Attracting major label interest almost from the moment their partnership was announced, Virgo and De Mar reached an agreement with Echo (a Chrysalis imprint) and the captivating singles "Life In Mono" and "Slimcea Girl" (named after a brand of bread available during London's not so swinging '70s) were released.
"Great songwriting has always fascinated me, so I really wanted to convey a bit more of the actual song than is normally allowed to come through on most dance tracks, " Virgo says of his lush, dreamy, romantic, oddly-compelling musical creations that sample or recall the likes of Isaac Hayes, Gil Evans, The Ipcress Files, David Sylvian, Petula Clark, Portishead, Edith Piaff, Artery, Dusty Springfield and the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
"My influences are the standard '60s nicks," he laughs. "You know, the Beatles, Stones, Dionne, Dusty, Burt the usual. And, while the songs on Formica Blues are, I hope, obviously influenced by the classics; I really tried to look at the vocals, samples and music more as colors, moods and shadings than as an actual foundation. My ultimate goal when we formed Mono," Virgo adds after a bit of thought. "was to create something with more drama, space and dynamics than I'd been permitted to create working for other people."
An immediate success, "Life In Mono" quickly caught the ear of actor Robert De Niro (in Europe working on an MTV-friendly version of Dickens' Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow) and the song soon became not only the music for the closing credits of the film but the lead cut on a soundtrack album that also includes Scott Weiland, Duncan Sheik, Pulp, Iggy Pop and Chris Cornell.
"We're really quite pleased to be a part of the film," Virgo comments on the movie. "It' s definitely something of a 'dream start' for Mono to be involved with a project of this size and magnitude this early on in our career."
"We're in the planning stages for our first major tour," he adds, "and the big hope here is that the movie will give us a bit more name recognition when we begin our trek across America."
"Actually," Virgo laughs before ringing off, "the interest America has shown in Mono so far has really surprised me. I sort of thought we might be a bit too parochial for the states, ya' know? I really didn't think we'd be able to get an American [record] deal," he chortles, "unless I shaved my head, wore devil horns and started dancing about madly on stage!"