Monks of Doom
Monks of Doom
The Monks of Doom were one of the smartest, hippest, heaviest bands of the 1980s and 1990s. As their name suggests, the band was a hermetic group which dedicated itself to producing rock and roll music of high quality while outside the Dark Ages of arena rock, grunge and mega-labels raged. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, the band labored in obscurity. Although they were enjoyed by a small group of enthusiasts, the Monks’ records went largely unnoticed by the larger music public. When the band broke up in 1993, it left behind five rocking albums that wait to be discovered by some future rock renaissance.
The Monks of Doom were formed in 1986 by four members of the band Camper Van Beethoven: bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarists Greg Lisher and Chris Molla, and drummer Chris Pedersen. The Monks represented an opportunity to go beyond Camper’s brand of folk-rock and sixties pop and into the type of music played by Henry Cow, Snakefinger, King Crimson, Richard Thompson and Fred Frith, artists who commanded as fierce and loyal a cult following as the Monks later would. “We were interested in doing slightly more outside music,” Krummenacher said in a phone interview with Contemporary Musicians. “Music that that had, for lack of a better word, ‘progressive’ tendencies. It was an outside expansion, a chance to go wherever our imagination took us.,”
During their first couple years, the Monks existed primarily as a side project to Camper Van Beethoven, and Krummenacher discounted claims that the Monks caused Camper’s break-up. “I think it actually prolonged Camper in the long run,” he said. “There was not a lot of Monks work done while Camper was active, although I think we were always hoping that there would be more. But Camper was so busy at the time and that was really the focus of our lives for the most part, doing the Camper stuff.,” Still the new band exacerbated existing tensions in Camper. David Lowery, Camper’s leader, dissed the Monks regularly in print after Camper’s break up.
Most of the Monks’ distinctive characteristics are revealed on their first album, the 1987 release Soundtrack to the Film “Breakfast on the Beach of Deception.” These characteristics included ironic, distanced lyrics combined with impassioned playing that sometimes threatened to spin out of control; pseudo-ethnic electric folk tunes; enigmatic titles; and Krummenacher’s virile yet measured vocals. Instrumentals comprised most of the record, which may account for why it is called a “soundtrack.,” “The first record was a free-form freak out,” Krummenacher recounted. “We had a few extra dollars sitting around and decided to go into the studio. I don’t think we really had a clue about what we wanted to do—we just went for it and did it. We didn’t really have any idea we were making a record until we actually made the record.,”
The Monks’ next record, The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, was made in early 1989, at the same time Camper was making its last record. Though they never gave up writing instrumentals—indeed every Monk record included one or more, and about fifty percent of their live sets were always instrumental—the second album saw the band opting to do more non-instrumental songs. They also extended their two-guitar attack, greatly abetted by the addition of David Immergluck of the Ophelias, who replaced Molla at the end of 1986. Together Immergluck and Lisher created an intricate, composed sound that managed to be tough and elemental at the same time. The sonic assault of instruments combined with Krummenacher’s intelligent lyrics, which were more like literature than rock, produced a chemistry unlike most other rock bands.
The band worked creatively as a cooperative. The music on every album, with the exception of a few cover songs, was credited to the band as a unit. Krummenacher wrote most of the lyrics, but everything after that was worked out in the crucible of the rehearsal room. Krummenacher described the creative process: “The typical pattern was: Set up in the rehearsal studio. Turn on the tape deck. Play. Listen back. Think that’s cool and work it out.
Members include David Immergluck, guitar, vocals; Victor Krummenacher, bass, vocals; Greg Lisher, guitar; Chris Molla (with the group during its first six months), guitar; Chris Pedersen, drums.
Camper Van Beethoven rhythm section formed Monks of Doom, Chris Molla left band, David Immergluck replaced Molla, 1986; first album, Soundtrack to the Film “Breakfast on the Beach of Deception,” released, 1987; Camper Van Beethoven breaks up, Monks begin grueling three years of touring, 1990; Meridian released, 1991; signed by IRS, 1992; David Immergluck leaves Monks to join Counting Crows, remaining members disband, 1993.
We did hours and hours and hours and hours of jamming. When we were writing, we were basically improving twenty hours a week or more.,”
For Krummenacher, Cosmodemonic represented an “experimental time between the first idea of the Monks and the second idea of the Monks.” That second idea is represented by Meridian, the band’s third album and their undisputed masterpiece. “On the third record we figured out that we were this really unique blend of post-punk and prog rock. That’s where we blend the folkier and the weirder stuff, bring together the Neil Young and Captain Beefheart and King Crimson and the Fall and Richard Thompson and all these odd influences, and get away with it.” Meridian is a mood piece, in which the vocals, lyrics and instruments contribute unerringly to an atmosphere pervaded by mystery, dread, and loss. It culminates in the freak show horror of “Circassian Beauty,” one of the heaviest rock songs ever committed to tape, and surely one of the most fearful, especially at the end as the singer devolves into pre-vocal babble. Meridian was also the beginning of a year of intense music making by the Monks. Between July 1991 and June 1992, the group cut three CDs—Meridian, the EP The Insect God, and Forgery —for three different labels. Insect God is basically a holding action on which the Monks played a short but powerful set of music. Two of the five pieces were covers—Frank Zappa’s “Who Are The Brain Police?,” and Syd Barrett’s “Let’s Split;,”one is an instrumental. The highpoint of the CD is its title track, a deliciously sardonic, decidedly politically incorrect adaptation of an Edward Gorey story of alien abduction.
Three months after completing Insect God, the Monks were back in the studio again to make Forgery, which turned out to be their final record. Forgery bears the distinct sound of the Monks. But the group seemed to have given up their hard edge on the album in favor of a dreamier sound, one strangely appropriate to songs like “Virtual Lover,” or “Cigarette Man (Cast of Characters).” The record was a disappointment to some fans. Krummenacher agrees, explaining the Monks tried to do too much in too little time. “We made three records in a year, and it was just too much work,” he said. “I think that’s why Forgery is as hit and miss as it was. I think Forgery had some good moments, and I think we were going in some good directions. We were touching on a lot of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac stuff, which is great as a guitar influence. But it really wasn’t going where it could have gone had we held onto some of the stuff that we did on Insect God and written some more and taken our time. Then we would have and a better record and a better response.”
Forgery was the Monks’ major label debut. The president of IRS wanted to sign Camper in 1986 but the band refused, Krummenacher explained. “He signed the Monks because it was the closest he could get.,” Unfortunately the band’s sales had been in a downward spiral since their first record. Beach of Deception, on the band’s own Pitch-A-Tent label, sold a respectable 20,000 copies and was the Monks’ best-selling record. Forgery, even with IRS’ national distribution, only sold about 7,000 CDs.
In 1993, after Forgery’s release, the Counting Crows approached Immergluck about working with them. The prospect of giving up the endless Monks tours—they had been going on virtually unabated for three years—and earning decent money from music persuaded him to accept. At first, Krummenacher, the nominal leader of the group, intended to bring a new guitarist in and carry on. IRS, however, was unhappy with Forger as poor sales and unwilling to produce the second CD it had contracted for. Immergluck’s departure gave the label a way out of its contract, and it dropped the Monks without exercising its option for the second record. Without a record contract, the Monks decided to cut their losses and disband.
After the Monks, David Immergluck established himself as a sought-after studio guitarist, who continues to play with the Counting Crows, John Hiatt, and Papa’s Culture. Victor Krummenacher pursued a variety of solo projects that included the bands Fifth Business and A Great Laugh.
His two solo albums, Out in the Heat and St. John’s Mercy are available from Magnetic Records. As 2000 began, Krummenacher was preparing for tours with Cracker and Eugene Chadbourne, and had a third album, tentatively titled Bittersweet, in the works. Greg Lisher has played guitar with A Great Laugh. His first solo project was expected to be released on Magnetic in early 2000.
Five years after the Monks broke up, drummer Chris Pedersen announced plans to move to Australia and the band decided to perform one last time together before he left. Twenty hours of rehearsals got them back in form and they took the stage in San Francisco. “I felt really good about the show, it capped the band off well,” Krummenacher said. “We went out and did all our hotshot licks, showed off a little bit, sold the club out, and had a really good time. And I mean it, it was a really good time. Butwe’ve all moved on.,” That may not have been the final Monks project, however. Krummenacher hopes to have the time and money at some point in the future to put out a live record by the Monks.
Soundtrack to the Film “Breakfast on the Beach of Deception,” Pitch-A-Tent Records, 1987; reissue IRS Records, 1992.
The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, Pitch-A-Tent Records, 1989; reissue IRS Records, 1992.
Meridian, Moist/Baited Breath, 1991.
The Insect God, (EP), C/Z Records, 1992.
Forgery, IRS Records, 1992.
Magnetic Records website, http://www.sirius.com/~magnetic (January 31, 2000).
Additional information was obtained through a telephone interview with Victor H. Krummenacher on January 28, 2000.
—Gerald E. Brennan