Lifelong friendships, a longing to inspire a kind of oneness among all creatures and some good ‘ol basement jamming is some of what makes up Magna Zero. Three friends who, after some time apart, got back together to once again make music.
This time their jamming together has resulted in a debut album as Magna Zero. It means The Great Nothing, and it is also the title of the album. The band explained to me, that what they experience when they play together is ” a melting away of the ego into a state of oneness with all things in the universe”, hence the Latin derived name and album title.
Through groovy bass lines, some epic guitar solos and lyrics that convey the strange experience of living in today’s turbulent world, Magna Zero tries to unite the people of the world through themes of mortality, grief, purpose, selflessness, connection, and compassion.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the band briefly about their music and specifically about the single, Endure, which Shouts is thrilled to premiere for you all.
Exclusive Premiere: Endure by Magna Zero
Halldór: First of all, for those not familiar with Magna Zero, who are you and what’s the story behind its creation?
Chris: Magna Zero is simply 3 long-time friends getting together to jam. For me it’s a reprieve. No egos. Just getting to play my guitar freely and exploring new sounds.
Jason: We decided to form this band shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown first started, and then the studio where we rehearse in Los Angeles basically became a ghost town. We were able to continue playing there, so we found ourselves in this incredibly unique situation where we had this amazing, creative space pretty much to ourselves for about a year. And that particular year happened to be one of the most monumental spaces of time in recent human history, a time of collective introspection through the quarantine we all found ourselves in, and also a time that served as a catalyst for social change. Both of these aspects fueled our band’s creative process, and we just exploded with new music every time we got together, which was quite often. Playing music together was really the only in-person interaction we had with other people besides our time with our families, so the studio was a gift not only for our artistic expression, but also for our psyches.
Dave: We’re a true collaborative based on the bonds of brotherhood and the bonds of the known and unknown universe. The music is inspired by that core. From this the music shapes itself into what it has become—songs that speak to the soul of our Moral Universe.
Halldór: You are about to release your debut album. Can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind this album, and specifically the song Endure?
Chris: Most of the tracks came out of free jams. We were smart enough to record most of the jams on Dave’s cell phone. I think we got close to 100 of these live jams before we then took turns picking out a favorite track to turn into a song. I believe Endure started with a baseline from Jason. I just tried to play around with it and add some color. I wanted to be as spare as possible to let the bass and drums groove. There’s this tension with trying to hold on to the sparseness until it kind of explodes in the guitar solo.
Dave: The album spans from death giving birth to life. Giving up oneself to find the ‘self’. Death is the center of life. Black holes give life to all galaxies known. It’s an entire journey of ultimate, unashamed, bare- bones nothingness equivocating to everything living in the entire Universe. The ultimate album of self-preservation and self-love.
Jason: What Dave’s describing reminds me of the age-old saying, “Die before you die, so that you can truly live”. Our album is titled, The Great Nothing. The phrase is literally our band name translated from Latin into English. It’s the closest expression in words for what we experience when we play music together, a melting away of the ego into a state of oneness with all things in the universe. The path to this for the band is to become nothing, and paradoxically, experience a sense of unity with everything. The song Endure is a message of love prevailing over strife. Even when we experience the darkest moments imaginable, it is love that ultimately lifts us back to our natural state of harmony with each other and with the earth. Since the pandemic, we’ve been seeing a shift in consciousness that is heart-based and that is bringing people together on a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Now more than ever before, strangers from the other side of the world are supporting each other and standing together for compassion, kindness, and justice. Throughout the massive challenges we’re seeing and experiencing in modern times, it’s love that brings us together for positive change forward into a future of hope.
Halldór: Do you all have a background in writing political music? Do you consider your music political or rather more spiritual?
Chris: I’m not a fan of politics, as I feel it creates unnecessary division. I don’t want to be a ‘political’ band. As cheesy or cliché as it is, I feel like we need to focus more on peace and love. And I hope our music conveys that.
Jason: I’d describe playing music together as a spiritual experience shared between us and with our audience. For me, this transcends politics. It’s like a glimpse into something much bigger than any single one of us, while connecting us all. Music is a peak experience. Like painting, mountain climbing, meditating, or a thousand other things, it brings us closer to something deeper yet familiar, as the material world falls away and we feel at one with each other and the universe. When we are playing music together, the space between all things and the time that separates them collapses, and we are completely present to the ever flowing moment of the now. Echoing what Dave said earlier, it’s as if we are tapping into something void of form, a Great Nothing that connects us back to everything, much like a singularity links the nothingness of a black hole to the creation of something words simply cannot express.
Dave: Our music is the continuous evolution of earth and all that inhabits it, to lose themselves in order to find themselves, to become the NOTHING that shapes this planet into something positive.
Halldór: What do you hope to achieve with your music?
Dave: I hope to inspire all things, for people to hear the sound we make to be inspired, to be moved, to be changed, to be humbled, as this is what the music does to me and my rough edges.
Jason: As word spreads about our songs and visuals, we feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment because we believe that the work we do adds to the momentum of positivity, peace, and love in the world today.
Halldór: Do you feel resistance or lack of interest from people when they understand your lyrics or that you make critical music? Do you feel like a lot of artists specifically use their music for change or to send out positive, constructive messages?
Jason: Our music resonates with people who share in the values of kindness, compassion, and unity. There are so many great bands and artists out there doing similar work. While some of them are household names, many are independent, lesser-known folks who are incredibly talented. It’s inspiring to hear music that not only moves you, but also is a catalyst for positive change in the world. As a musical artist, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
Halldór: Life in your country, the US, does seem turbulent, as in most places. What are some of the things that affect you or drive you to pen down some lyrics or come up with a tune?
Jason: When we look at what’s happening in the world today, all the cruelty and suffering we’re inflicting on each other and all of the damage we’re doing to our planet, it’s easy to get down and feel like the problems we face are insurmountable, like nothing we do in our individual lives really makes a difference. But it does. What we’re seeing in our local community is an overwhelming response to call out and end bigotry and hatred. There’s a rallying cry against the destruction of our planet, and a willingness on the part of the individual to take personal responsibility for the actions made in daily life. It’s a choice to live with optimism, hope, and positivity towards ourselves and others. Creating this music with Dave and Chris helps anchor me in staying true to that choice.
Chris: If anything, I hope The Great Nothing shows that life is good.
Halldór: Can you recommend other likeminded bands or musicians from your scene or any artists that inspire you?
Jason: My short list these days includes Bob Marley, Rage Against The Machine, Pink Floyd, Pearl Jam, and Black Sabbath…these artists move me with their groove and especially with their lyrics.
Chris: Influences are tricky. There’s just too many. Bands that just make me feel good when I listen to them and especially see them live. Guitarists that play with soul and express themselves through their playing.
Dave: I’m inspired by so many, where to start? The pages continue to be written on my inspiration…from my childhood: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Zeppelin, The Eagles. My teenage years: Metallica, Sabbath, Rush!!, Iron Maiden, The Police, Boston, Dr. Know, Subhumans, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Excel, D.R.I. My 20’s: Alice In Chains, NIN, Soundgarden, Fugazi, Radiohead, Ani DiFranco, Elliot Smith, Gang Starr, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, WuTang, Beck. Now: Jungle, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Tame Impala, St. Vincent, My Morning Jacket, Father John Misty, Angel Obel.
Halldór: Outside of the music, do you partake in any projects or activism of any kind? Anything you’d like to share with the Shouts audience?
Jason: I’d like to share that as a public schoolteacher, I’m inspired by the thousands of kids I’ve worked with over the years, who despite differences in color, creed, gender identity, or politics, choose to accept each other for who they are and be friends. From my experience, I have a strong sense that our young brothers and sisters growing up today have a sense of moral responsibility to ensure there is a planet for their grandchildren to live in. Every day I see reminders from our youth of the goodness that is within the human spirit. Based on what I’m seeing in kids today, I believe we have strong reason to be hopeful that together, people from all over the world can continue to partner for a better future.
In my attempts to connect with Ukrainian bands since the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24th, several things have become clear. Many of these bands are well-connected to one another, and are largely one gigantic network of friends and companions, despite a sometimes cavernous distance between their tastes and styles of music. Given the current circumstances, this also means that safe havens in western and southern Ukraine have seen among the shifting tenancy of millions of internal refugees, many displaced musicians from all around the country, from Kyiv to Kharkiv to Odesa.
Another thing, too, has become clear: each and every one of them I have contacted has made reference to a little-known album that is quickly becoming a profound soundtrack to the ongoing horror and dread of Russia’s all-out assault on Ukrainian existence that has now spread into its fifth month.
This album of which I’m speaking explores themes of impending societal collapse, psychic destitution, viewing power struggles in a contested region from a birds’ eye view over years of conflict, watching your familiar life dissolve into destruction, taking inspiration from the tragic existences of poets whose lives were cut short, and feeling both the survival-insistence on your own identity as well as the unrelenting forces of dehumanization that can make living in a war such an unbearable paradox. On a conceptual level alone, these are strong themes that could elevate a well-executed albums to zeitgeist-status, but Kharkiv-based post-hardcore band, KAT, has reached another level with a razor-sharp 2022 offering that is poised to become one of the most essential albums of the year, in Ukraine and further afield.
KAT is Kyrylo Brener (guitar), Max Dukarev (bass, vocals), and Andriy Kasyanenko (drums). The band’s brand of post-hardcore finds that elusive balance so sought after in the subgenre: catchy and angular riffage executed with precision and a sustained tense atmosphere of exploration. A tight yet expansive sound, a haze of feedback and fuzz behind the driving basslines, guitar riffs reminiscent of the likes of Fugazi and Nirvana, and plangent vocals screamed or sung entirely in Ukrainian.
Not to judge a book by its cover, but the album art alone is enough of an invitation to know you are in the throes of a well-wrought and intentional work. The album cover shows what was once an opulent and lavish feast of exotic foods and indulgent ceremony that has decayed, over the span of several weeks, into a deeply atmospheric reckoning with the omniscience of decay—of beauty and richness dissolving into death and the kind of life that consumes death, while remaining equally mesmerizing in the process of degradation. In a sense, the first visual gesture of the album puts you in the right frame of mind to apprehend the music: that in dissolution you find beauty and strength; in rot, you locate the soul’s boundlessness; that in putrefaction, you insist on imagination and, yes, even joy.
But you will be hard-pressed to find joy in this album, and for good reason. KAT’s Bandcamp page dedicates the album as follows:
“These songs are dedicated to those who defend Ukraine from the Russian occupiers. These songs are dedicated to those killed in the war. These songs are dedicated to our ruined city. These songs are dedicated to everyone in Ukraine, because there is no person who wasn’t affected by the war. You can destroy our cities and kill our people. But it is impossible to break the will and the spirit.“
The band released the album during the peak intensity of Russia’s brutal, senseless invasion. And they recorded the album in a studio in a forest three hours outside of Kharkiv (Spivaki Records) that, since March, has been occupied by Russian soldiers.
To release an album during a war is no small achievement, and to have written an album several months prior that, across the board, is being described as prophetic in light of the past months of horror in Ukraine is nothing short of allegorical. Self-described as a small act not even very well known in Ukraine, Kharkiv-based post-hardcore trio, KAT, is making waves with their newest album, “Поклик,” which is the band’s first album whose lyrics were written entirely in Ukrainian.
Guitarist and primary lyricist behind this harbinger album, Kyrylo Brener, joined me via Zoom in Lviv—where he was watching NBA playoff games in a Green Bay Packer’s sweater and relocating to a room without windows as an air raid siren shrieked out in the streets—to discuss the band’s prescient and blistering new album, its context, and the reality on the ground in Ukraine.
NY: Where are you based now and what is the current situation like?
KB: Right now I am in Lviv, where I’ve been living since about mid-March or something like that. It’s the closest thing to normal life in Ukraine right now. Shops are open, you can go get a coffee, have a beer, take a walk, play soccer, for example. Usual activities are present here, and people are trying to live normal lives and get back to work. My bandmates left Kharkiv several weeks ago for southern Ukraine. They stayed in Kharkiv much longer than me, volunteering and helping out.
NY: Can you describe the experience of recording an album shortly before a full-scale invasion, and then releasing the album in the midst of it?
KB: To be honest, everyone in Ukraine had talked about the possibility of an invasion since about October, at least. Even then, it was really stressful to live in the kind of environment where you read the news every day and it says a full-scale war is probably going to happen in your country. Although, no one actually believed it would happen, to be honest. Everyone thought it was crazy, even for Russians, that they will not get anything from this.
We didn’t write lyrics about this specifically, but something, this feeling of global dread, was in the air. We started writing lyrics for this album in the summer of 2021. Usually it’s me who comes up with the idea and basic structure for the lyrics. Then Max, the vocalist, adjusts the lyrics to the rhythm of the song and his voice, so we work in a pair on the lyrics. This process took maybe 7 or 8 months. For the last couple songs, the lyrics were finished after we had already finished the instrumental parts. Those songs were more involved/affected by this feeling of dread. As 2021 went on, this feeling of dread became bigger and bigger. So when this war started, I listened back to these lyrics and thought of them on very much a different and deeper level. Some things I listen to and they seem prophetic, which is very strange to me since I wrote them and I don’t consider myself a poet. This is the first time that has happened to me, and I’ve been playing music for about 15 years. With KAT, in our previous albums we have tied to the themes of war and injustice, speaking of Russia-Ukraine relationships. Even the old albums, as I listen to them now, sound very actual right now to the state of things.
NY: Tell me about the recording process for the album.
KB: We went to a very beautiful record studio in the Kharkiv region. This studio is lost in the woods, about three hours by car from Kharkiv. It’s a very small village where you have basically five houses, no grocery stores, and among the woods you have this record studio and a second house where the owner lived. I don’t know how to describe it other than maybe the most beautiful experience of my life. You live in the studio in nature, and all of your time is spent talking about music, writing music, etc.
Why I wanted to bring this up is that this region is one of the most affected regions by war. Particularly this village and the nearby city of Izyum, which is a very strategic and important point for Russians. The area has become a heavy battlefield. We talked to the owner of the studio, and he basically didn’t respond for something like a month, and I was very glad to hear that he was alive. Currently, he is in Kyiv, but he said the studio is occupied by Russians and they are living in it. Taking into account that the battlefield tensions run high there, I don’t know if the studio will survive. I hope so, because I would say this studio is the best in Ukraine. Beyond the nature, they have very cool amps and gear in the studio. I just hope it will be fine, but with Russian soldiers there, who knows.
NY: You mentioned that this album came into existence well before the war. Can you describe some of your inspirations behind this album, and where your art brain was at the time of its inception?
KB: In this album in particular, I went to a bookstore to buy two or three books from different poets, take them home and read them, and find inspiration. The initial idea behind this album, by the way, was to dedicate it to dead poets. Not just Ukrainian poets, but dead poets around the world. Because usually poets are people who have, let’s say, interesting or tragic lives. Often they die young, many of them have mental health issues. It’s interesting to see the context behind the lyrics, behind the poem. It’s not just the words, it’s the person behind them. You can always understand their word choice better when you know that.
The first song, “The Letter, was inspired by Vasl Stus. He was a very famous poet here. As I said, he had a very tragic life. In the 80s, in the USSR, he was a Ukrainian-speaking poet, a nationalist in the good sense. He was very much oppressed by the government, and eventually he was sentenced to 20 years or something in the gulag, where he died. For our people, he became this symbol of struggle against the Russian government. Once in the bookstore, I bought a book of Stus’s letters to his son. It was just a collection of letters he sent to his son from the gulag. I imagined a copy of a letter he might send to his son, and these are the lyrics of that song, “The Letter” (Лист).
A couple songs were also inspired by the Polish poet Rafał Wojaczek. Again, it was a coincidence that I bought a collection of his poems in the bookstore. He also died very young, 24 or something. He had some issues with mental health and alcohol addiction. The themes of the album are about Ukraine, fighting for our identity, this war with Russia that’s been going on, but in some lyrical way, many of the words and sentences I wrote were inspired by his poetry. The song about the Donbas, “Атлантида” (Atlantis) was inspired by movies. Throughout our whole career as a band, almost all the lyrics I’ve written were either inspired by poetry or other books. For example, our album “Guernica,” was inspired by the famous Picasso painting after the bombing in Guernica during the war in Spain. My idea was to take some parts of this enormous and complex picture, and try to represent them in the song. At the same time, we tried to talk about Ukraine in this song. War is probably very similar everywhere; anyone who has lived through a war can understand the experiences of people in war.
We have a close friend in the city of Chernihiv, which was hugely bombed by Russians in the first month. He was in the city the whole time. He hid, he didn’t have enough food, didn’t have hot water. He’s fine now and the city is not occupied. He said that once he got internet, he listened to our album, Guernica, and he said he felt each and every song deeply because the lyrics are about bombing and surviving bombing. Of course, when we wrote this album five years ago we had no idea that this would be the case with the album in real life.
To be honest, I never really want to write about stuff like that again. I would concentrate on something different on our next albums. I think we’ve said enough. Maybe we need to focus a little bit on something else other than war and dehumanization.
NY: Can you talk about some of your personal experiences relating to the war?
KB: In my work, I had a coworker from Mariupol. I remember we discussed with him the state of things before February 24th. We were all kind of scared, living in Kharkiv and Mariupol, thinking we probably need to move somewhere. Then when the whole thing started, he was unable to move in the first days, and then it became very dangerous. No one could guarantee that you won’t die, that’s just the truth. I was in Lviv, it was middle of March I think. He called me from Mariupol with a very bad connection. He got my number and said “I’m fine. Tell the guys at work I’m still alive.” But he said that it’s hell, a total nightmare: people are drinking from puddles because there is no water and starting fires in the streets because they have to cook some food, all during the bombing and missiles. There are so many corpses in the street, and no people to bury them. He said, “I don’t know how to escape, maybe I’ll escape through Russia.” There is a chance to escape through Russia for people in eastern Ukraine who have a lot of relatives in Russia. For example, I have a lot of relatives in this country. That was the last time I heard from him. To this day, I don’t know what’s happened to him. Maybe he escaped to Russia, maybe he died, we don’t know.
I have relatives in St. Petersburg, and through the last 8 years, they were really pro-Ukrainian. They mentioned to us that things are very bad in Russia, especially, for example, you can see it by how they treat kids. The daughter of my uncle, she’s 9 or 10. The last thing my uncle told me is that in the school her teachers had her write an essay or a letter of support to Russian soldiers. Absolute propaganda. They are afraid to post this stuff and say anything online, too, so they are thinking of moving to another country.
A second example, a very different example, is my aunt, my mother’s sister. They live very close to Kharkiv, like two hours away by car in Russia. And even before the war, she called my mother and said she’s seeing a lot of military stuff going on in her city, building a hospital for soldiers, etc. She was very afraid and terrified. At the same time, she is under the Russian propaganda, trying to tell us we have Nazis here. My mother told her, “What are you talking about? You think we’re Nazis?!”
Kharkiv is a Russian speaking city. There are some historical reasons—it wasn’t always like that—but anyway, at this point in time, about 90% of people in Kharkiv are Russian speaking, and no one had been oppressing them. I’ve switched to Ukrainian sort of as a protest to what’s going on. I consider Ukrainian my native language, but either way, I identify with both languages, and no one here was in any way oppressing Russians. Not at all. You could speak Ukrainian or Russian, whatever you want. My aunt told us we have some Nazis and that Russian speaking people in Ukraine are being oppressed, and we just said, “Who do you believe, your relatives or the television?”
It’s very surreal when your relatives don’t believe you. I don’t know how to explain that. In the first days of the full-scale war, we tried to convince people we know in Russia about what’s going on. And already, a lot of shit was put in their heads, and I don’t even know how to turn them away from it. They can call you and say, “We are so worried about you and terrified, and we just want peace,” but at the same time, they can say things like, “But you have Nazis in Ukraine and NATO will only oppress Russia.” They can say all kinds of shit, but it is so exhausting that I don’t even want to argue about this right now. To be honest, I don’t speak to them anymore.
At the same time, I discuss all these things with many of my friends… For example, Russians who are consuming this propaganda, just like Trump-supporting people believing everything Fox News says—they don’t have a right to not have information. We don’t live in North Korea. You can choose the source of your information. So if you’re watching, say, Fox News and a bunch of pro-Trump shit, that’s the choice you made. If you’re Russian, if you listen to your state-sponsored TV station, you chose to do that. And you can choose the opposite. You can read different sources. Even in Russia, there are different sources. There is a choice. The problem is that these people don’t want to, and now we have this situation.
None of this will go away for many generations. Definitely not in my generation, probably not even in the next. This hate toward Russia will grow, and will be—I don’t even know how to explain it. And, again, for what reason? Russians now occupy, like, three regions in Ukraine, and not even the whole region. There is so much loss and devastation on both sides. For what reason? There is none.
NY: How do you see Ukrainian art and music and culture evolving after this war?
KB: Every great tragedy brings great explosions in culture. You can see it in Germany after World War II. We can see it in history after all wars, really. This huge trauma for all generations needs to be relieved in some way. You need to express yourself and your feelings. If we can understand we can live in a peaceful country, we will see a great growth in the music scenes in Ukraine. The difference now is how connected is our global society.
I agree that lots of musicians will switch to singing in Ukrainian. No one, NO ONE, will keep singing in Russian, that’s for sure. A lot of bands will also switch from English to Ukrainian. Starting from this point in time, our bands will switch to Ukrainian, I am pretty sure. We will see a lot of great bands and great albums. Especially if the west will put some money not just into the economy of Ukraine, but also in cultural stuff—some grants, some clubs, stuff like that. This will also help bring young people into music. Bands like us, guys in our 30s, will continue expressing ourselves and what we went through during this time, too. So, I expect growth all around.
NY: What kind of toll has this situation taken on you and your family?
KB: Psychologically, I am always asking myself, “Why me, why am I here and not there?” At the same time, everyone said that if you can work, work, because the economy is struggling right now and it helps when people can pay some taxes, because so many people lost their jobs when the war started, like my parents. They both lost their jobs and moved away from Kharkiv. I’m very far from them. They don’t have any money, so I’m supporting them and a couple other relatives from Kharkiv. Still, you can’t help but think, “Why are there some people hiding in shelters and I’m sitting here with my laptop drinking coffee?” It’s always a battle inside your head.
Everyone in Ukraine, everyone in the safer areas, knows what I’m talking about. What everyone is saying, including the therapists, is, if you can, live your life, because if you’re living your life, you can help. You can help the army; you can help refugees. I am a lucky person because I have an IT job that I can keep working at. A lot of people, whole families, have moved and don’t have any money or any things and are living in huge shelters for refugees. They don’t have food, and can’t go to the store to buy any. They go to places where volunteers give food out. If you can help, then that’s very good. Everyone here in the western part of Ukraine, the safer parts, are trying to help as much as we can on different levels.
I would not say that what is happening right now is fueling my creativity process, but I am feeling the need to express this experience and these tensions somehow. Right now I’m trying to put myself into some sports activities that relieves the stress. I am jogging, and listening to music, and as for now, I’m okay. Obviously I want to play music again, I want to write new songs. I don’t expect to return to Kharkiv in the near future. Maybe the guys will move to some other city closer to me and we can at least play together again. It’s hard to predict right now.
NY: What, if anything, would you like to broadcast to the rest of the world about the current crisis in Ukraine?
KB: We are all used to the idea that you can die right now. There is a chance. In some cities the chance is low, and in some it’s high. So we have to think about it in a pragmatic way, and just need to know that that can happen. That’s why I really hope and pray, not that I am a religious person, that every one of my friends and relatives will be safe and we will see the end of the war. That’s the main thing for us right now.
Sometimes I look at our planet and our societies and I don’t have any faith that we actually have the humanity. But to the world outside of Ukraine watching or reading about what is happening, just try to think about what’s important in life, and what it means to be human and a part of a global society. That’s it, really.
It’s horrifying, seeing what is going on in this war, and walking on the street thinking that people, any person around me, could do this harm to another person. I don’t know why there is so much evil and hate and cruelty inside of people. I can see it; it tears me apart, and I don’t know how you can cure those people. I can’t call them people, and I can’t call them animals because animals wouldn’t do this.
When you imagine this victim could be your girlfriend, your mother, your friends, your brothers… We need to think again about our planet and our society and why in 2022 we have this stuff happening. Of course, there are other wars and lots of people suffering. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have any power to influence, and have to focus on small things that can influence the life close to you. That’s all we can do as small persons, so let’s do at least that.
Kyrylo, it’s been an honor and a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thanks for being part of Shouts!
Thanks so much for this talk. It was really great to meet you and discuss these things, Nathaniel!
The Independence of Central America Remains an Unfinished Experiment is not exactly an easy listen. It requires you to pay attention and it rewards you for the effort. It’s a very calm chaos. Something of an anti-pop album.
If an album ever made you feel like you were in the creator’s mind, then this is it. ‘Welcome to Monty’s brain’ it could be called. There is a circus-y type of sound that runs through the album, something that helps bring you into Monty’s universe and experience their storytelling.
Monty creates music that they say is partially “inspired by 60s and 70s mod and beat music” while other parts are more psychedelic:
“Some of the album is characterized by a strong cumbia/salsa rhythmic backbone, other parts are maximalist, noisy, and chaotic–and, yet others, still, are soft, intimate acoustic tracks–dedications to the people whom I owe the most.”
On ‘By The Bunches (Banana Dictatorships)’ Monty starts off by singing about market prices and genocide and ends with their personal doubts about the reach of their art: I keep writing these songs/because i know I could never work an office job/I think i’m running out of time/I don’t even know if there’s an audience/Like, does anyone even care to hear me whine?. From historical to deeply personal in a few seconds. That is how this album flows and it makes for a fascinating ride.
Being a writer first, and a musician second, Monty has created somewhat of a history lesson about Central America, with special focus on Honduras. The music is a call to action, a message of hope for their motherland and an incredibly personal tale of identity and spiritual struggles. Monty told me that this debut solo album of theirs was incredibly scary to put out into the world but also a dream come true. For me, the one who gets to experience the music, it is such a treat to listen to an album like this knowing its personal backstory.
I hope that the interview and Monty’s answers can give you, the Shouts audience, a similar experience while listening.
The Independence of Central America Remains an Unfinished Experiment releases on the 1st of July 2022 and will be available on all streaming platforms, with CD and cassette tape editions releasing on Widecast Records. The album is produced by DJ Rozwell.
Monty will tour the US coinciding with the release of their album. Find out more about the tour and everything Monty-world-related via their webpage.
– EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE-
Compay by Monty Cyme
For those not familiar with your work, who is Monty Cime?
Hello, I am Monty Cime, and I am a Honduran-American musician (currently) based out of Southern California, specifically Orange County (sorry). I used to be in a local post-punk band called Costco Boyfriend, and I am releasing an album titled The Independence of Central America Remains an Unfinished Experiment which is set to come out on July 1, 2022.
Your upcoming debut album as a solo artist seems incredibly theme specific. Can you tell us a bit about what motivated you to cover this subject?
Yes, The Independence of Central America Remains an Unfinished Experiment is my debut album! I’ve had more than just a few EPs and singles released over the years, but this is my first full-length, bonafide album so to speak. Ok! So, inspiration-wise, my four biggest influences going into the project—holistically—were Quilapayun’s Santa Maria de Iquique, an album which is heavily based off of the structure and instrumentation of 20th century South American operas, alternating between instrumental numbers and spoken word interludes, and it tells the story of a miners’ strike in Chile which resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 people, Ruben Blades’ Maestra Vida, a double album which is also based on 20th century South American operas, albeit much more abstractly, with spoken word interludes that are more akin to pieces of sound collage, set in a bar where you can hear beer glasses clinking and people in the background talking, and it tells an insular story about the life and death of two lovers as well as some of the political upheaval which takes place as the story progresses. Third is the Foxygen album Hang, a satirical baroque pop album, largely influenced by 40s Hollywood soundtracks, which warns of the dangers of American cultural imperialism and the self-destructive nature of those who seek fame and fortune by moving to Hollywood, with messages largely shrouded in extended metaphors and allusions to the Bible. It is structured as a musical, with side A and side B representing two acts, respectively. Lastly is Guillermo Anderson, who, as a person—especially as a compatriot—just as much as an artist was a big inspiration, but for this album in particular, his posthumous album Ese Mortal Llamado Morazán, a musical score for a theatre play of the same name which was inspired by the life of Francisco Morazán, an international hero and fellow Honduran who is celebrated as the liberator of Central America, was probably the single largest influence on the album, particularly regarding the use of leitmotifs & the metaphorical approach to writing about historical events. Maybe you can see a theme throughout all of them! I should clarify at this point, I’m not a theatre kid. Plays have never really been my thing like music has. Nevertheless, these albums played a huge role in developing the structure and the writing style of my album.
First and foremost, I wanted to work on a project that uses the history of Central America as a pretext for two reasons. I love Central American history, and I think music is a great excuse to talk about what you are already into. Second, I know at least a couple of other albums do something similar—use the history of a region as a pretext for social commentary or to talk about their own problems—but I think Honduras & Central America deserve to have something like that of their own! So it was both my own interests as well as my belief that I should morally do this that dictated the decision to have the historical angle. But of course, it’s not just about the history of the region, right? It’s about me, and it’s about my people. I had this image of a three-branch system which guided me throughout the entire writing process, which is that every single theme, every single symbol, every single motif, every single metaphor, and so on, connects in some way to at least one of these three core concepts for the album as a whole—the past: presenting the history of Central America, which I qualify as “reflection,” the present: my own personal experiences as a young adult: coming to grips with who I am as a person, whether that be my gender identity, my religious identity, or my ethnic identity, as well as the turmoil I have had to face over the past year or so, including a car wreck I was in, which preceded the lowest point in my life and the closest to suicide I’ve ever been, which led to me having to quit my job of two-and-a-half years, as well as having to face intolerance, possessiveness, and, quite honestly, torment, which continues to this day, from my former bandmates, people who I thought were my friends, due to my choices in romantic partners and gender identification, which I qualify as “introspection,” and the future: a “guide” of sorts, if not a set of hopes and desires, for Central America to build a better tomorrow for ourselves—to “finish” the “experiment,” if you will. I qualify this as the “call to action.” Most of these aforementioned symbols and themes connect to more than just one of these concepts, in fact, many of them connect to all three! This is something I have wanted to do for years—a high-concept piece where I play around extensively with genres and have these super elaborate themes that compound upon themselves throughout the project, but, to be quite blunt, I wasn’t good enough as a musician and as a writer before I started this project to do that.
This album represents something of a dream come true for me, where, after hundreds if not thousands of hours of being stuck in the trenches of writing and recording and mixing this whole thing, it came out not as an approximation of what I thought it could be, but practically just as I envisioned it, if not better.
Has your music always been political?
No, actually! I’ve been working on projects under different names fairly consistently for about five years now, and, for the most part, I would say that up until maybe 2020, I wrote mainly about myself and my life experiences, whether it be directly or through metaphor, which I did for a good while as kind of a crutch! For maybe three or four years, I couldn’t really express myself directly without feeling embarrassed. Then, in late 2019, I started that band I mentioned before, which a couple of high school friends then joined, and I started playing with politics more. We had a guiding principle, which was to “find humor in tragedy,” like the vapidity of post-9/11 American neoliberalism and the suburbs as ideological and cultural graveyards, as a means of pointing them out for what they are to make fun of them—usually in subversive ways! We had this song that was a pastiche of 80s hardcore punk which protested conservative political and social figures and their regressive views, but we wrote it about the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and 2020 presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, who, at the time, had a fair shot at becoming the Democratic candidate for the general election. We had a line in this song that went, “So you hate the rich / But you hate the poor / A talking head, you’re nothing more.” It is biting social criticism, sure, but it’s about one of the most sterile political figures to emerge from US politics in the past two decades. So, it has this subtextual weight behind it, which is that politics have become so superficially buttoned-up in some aspects that, you know, this is who we have to protest, and, really, he’s just a stand-in for the dozens of moderates that are just like him. Or, we had another song, which took after heartbreak-centric pop ballads, which had lyrics told from the perspective of a strawberry which felt dejected after falling under a couch and being “forgotten” for three weeks, only to rot, be found, and promptly thrown out. It’s an inscrutable pretext that invites a kind of overly-analytical approach… one in which the strawberry is actually a person who had experienced a breakup or something to that effect. It’s a satire of the melodrama endemic to that style of music, with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics and the effect they have on the audience outlining a pervasive sentiment in music, which is that anything worth getting emotional over—music that makes you feel anything—is sad, that sadness is directly tied to profundity, and that, therefore, this song that makes you feel sad must have some deeper meaning to it. This is a sentiment, in my opinion, that is rooted in ethnocentric conceptions and values regarding artistic expression. I noticed how people tend to applaud white artists for having “super deep” music, when what they mean is sad and slow. These same audiences oftentimes will deride upbeat, danceable Latin music, which I think they view as “simple” in comparison.
Some people argue that music and activism or music and politics should be separated. What is your take on the subject?
So, I don’t think music and activism necessarily have to coincide with one another. I think a lot of important ideas can be expressed in music that has very little do with social movements and activism, and I don’t think people have to sing about the working class’ struggles or raise awareness of a social issue or anything of that nature. However, in my opinion, there are two very important things to consider! First of all, music is an incredibly potent and succinct way of promulgating a political message; for example, not everyone is able or willing to engage with expansive texts like Marx’s Capital, especially if they are hostile or generally unfavorable to Communism as an ideology. They might, however, be more receptive to an artist like Woody Guthrie or Phil Ochs, who can, in three minutes—that’s 180 seconds—serve as proponents and publicize palatable political principles for a population which has been propagandized to form a predisposition in which they protest any proposition of Communism as pure evil; what music does, and I think this especially goes for Latin America, is that it makes the promotion of a political agenda much more accessible. The 26 de Julio Movement (and Cuba post-Revolution), Allende’s Chile, and, most prominently, the Sandinistas, all knew and adopted this mindset. In comparison to acts like Bob Dylan, who had little interest in the social movements he spearheaded, folk music in Latin America was not only a facet of these movements, the music, and the artists themselves, were the reason for the widespread promulgation of the movement, the reason it gained a following, and the reason it would ultimately succeed. Oral tradition is a core aspect of Latin America—one of the few things I would go so far as to say is an aspect of a mythological, unified “Latin” culture. As a few examples, from Pre-Columbian legends as well as historical accounts being passed down for generations by the Mayans and Mexica tribes (including the Aztecs) in Meso/Aridoamerica as a means of tying their civilizations to that of the Olmecs and the Toltecs and/or outlining creation myths (a la Popol Vuh) to the introduction of corridos in the early 1800s during the Mexican War of Independence as a means of transmitting important news, Latin America has always been a land which responds much more attentively to the voice than text. The second consideration, which is a sort of extension of the first, is that music is always rooted in the conditions under which it is produced. While artists have a superficial agency in the kinds of themes we write about, we may not underestimate the complexity of our relationship with, and our role in, society. Musicians, as cultural producers, have the ability to influence swathes of the population to feel a certain way or believe a certain thing, but we are in a far more tenuous position than we may want to believe—we may not understand the full implication of our work, or how its meaning and function can end up changing considerably by institutions with influence that far exceeds our own as individuals. This isn’t to say that every song about being in love or having your heart broken is going to be misapplied as propaganda for some evil political organization that uses it as a way to promote their platform, but, as a short anecdote, the Jazz Ambassadors, a group of Black American jazz musicians in the 50s, were sent abroad to promote the freedoms supposedly offered by the United States in the wake of the spread of the USSR’s political influence. The name “Jazz Ambassadors” says it all, yes, but more telling is how, despite their warm welcome in other countries, they would come back to the US after spreading the good word of American democracy & liberty and so on to segregation.
No, I don’t think they should be separated, because, on a fundamental level (that is, the basis of music as an art form and musicians’ roles as cultural producers) they can’t be, and anyone who argues otherwise is unaware of this. At the same, however, while musicians tend to be used as tools for institutional machinations, they shouldn’t feel pressured to write about political themes in their music—just educated about the role they play (willing or otherwise!) in society.
What do you hope to achieve with your music and especially your new album?
To be as direct as possible and go out from there, I want to be able to support my mother and I. She’s a single mom, and I’m the only child. We are both California transplants—I was born in Texas, and she, of course, is from Honduras—and this place is expensive, especially if you don’t have generations of financial stability behind you; I would go so far as to say that having that or not is a pretty strong indicator of class in some parts of the state. Plus, regardless of where we live, I feel responsible for taking care of her, and I would never be able to live with the shame of failing her. That being said, I don’t see myself doing anything but music. So, this is me putting my best work out there, working my butt off (for a good amount of time during and after recording and mastering the album, I was sleeping every other day to keep up with school while still being able to put as much time and energy into this as possible), throwing practically every resource I have behind this (which, let me tell you, really isn’t much), and praying that it all works out, that it reaches the right people, and that I can later iterate on top of this with something approaching a fan base and something approaching economic stability. I don’t think this is some sort of bombshell, I talk about this quite a few times in the album, and I hope this isn’t some kind of taboo thing to say, but it’s just the truth.
That being said, of course there’s more to it. I love music as a medium to tell stories, it’s probably my favorite part of it all. I’m a writer first and a musician second; I want to tell stories that stick with people, politically-oriented or otherwise. I want to challenge people’s beliefs in implicit and evergreen ways that encourage critical thought; maybe I want to have people ask themselves about what they value in music and why they value it, or trying to alter the negative perception of the Christian faith, if not religion as a whole, off the back of American, Anglo-Saxon Evangelism! I think protest music as it was written in the 50s and 60s is no longer viable. By that I mean I literally do not think Vietnam War protest songs apply very much to the current-day anymore, and I think trying to write a direct protest of a specific event, as many protest songs of the era did, is a lost cause. Not to sound defeatist, but, to use my old band’s song about Pete Buttigieg as an example, by the time we released a single of it, he had already lost the candidacy; it was, at least superficially, no longer relevant. Now, we released it because it was satirical and he was just representative of a larger issue of politics in the United States, and also because releasing it after it was no longer relevant was a really funny concept to us, furthering the satirical nature of its conceptual basis in 80s punk as a seminal counter cultural force, but the point is that without nuance, even if your music is still relevant when it comes out, who’s to say it will resonate ideologically in a couple of months, let alone a couple of years? I love Vietnam War protest music, but a lot of it, especially if it’s just about the War, and not trying to connect it in some way to anything else, is just pretty music with a political pretext that I know has little to do with me. That being said, for those that do connect it to other concepts, like Victor Jara in his song “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” where he compares the Vietnam War to the ongoing fights for liberation in Latin America, going so far as to call the two struggles a “chain that will overcome” and the Vietnam War as “an olive in an olive grove” and “a dove in a dovecote,” there is an added historical importance and function to its messaging, I believe, that can be extrapolated not only as an understanding of the implications and interpretation of the War for those outside of the United States (where songs mainly stuck to condemning the United States’ egregious conduct) and Vietnam, but also as a bearer of essence—a nugget of ideology. As a musician, I want to take these metaphorical nuggets and give them new life while paying respect to those who nurtured them before. Maybe, along the way, I can create a few of my own.
For this album in particular, the most direct thing I want to accomplish, or have people take away from it, is that we, as Central America, need to finish the experiment and create a better future for ourselves, completely independent of foreign influence. In line with that is to have people understand the effects of foreign influence, particularly the United States and its opportunistic and exploitative history in the region, as well as how regional unity being broken due to politicians putting greed and individual interests over cooperation and communal growth on a centralized level was a huge factor in allowing for an opening for the United States to first attempt a military takeover (even though it was not direct, it still had popular support from the American people and politicians), and, later, an economic “partnership” which would then be exploited to allow for complete political control of the region, and that both Francisco Morazán and Simon Bolivar believed that preserving the unity of the Central American and South American regions, respectively, was paramount to ensuring the liberation of Latin America would not be undone, and, finally, that the Sandinistas offered a vision of how to rekindle this dream. Lastly, while a huge part of the narrative is clearly about me, and I do not try to make it vague as a means of facilitating relatability, I do want people to take away what I believe to be the two most important qualities any person can have, which are conviction—have a baseline moral code that cannot be broken—and earnestness—which is the act of living out that conviction; be yourself. I, again, use this for myself in regards to my identity, right? My gender identity, my religious identity, and my ethnic identity. I have a conviction in who I am as a person, and while that idea might change, I don’t let people who disagree or try to make these core aspects of me seem irrational be the ones to make that change, as was the case with my former bandmates. I want other people to take this away, whether it be regarding identity or otherwise. There’s a lot more to it, and these three core concepts, which are just extensions of the three-branch concept I outlined earlier, all kind of intersect with each other in some way, but those are how I think I would like them to be understood as a kind of summarization of their position in the album as a whole.
Can you describe the music scene where you live? Are many artists using their artistic voice to fight for justice?
A really unfortunate part about where I live is that there is not much of a unified music scene, if any! It’s situated right between San Diego, which has a lot of important history in the development of post-hardcore and punk—they had some really great scenes—and Los Angeles, which always has something going on. You would think that would translate well, right? Except, it doesn’t! There are a few punk acts, sure, but only a handful of good venues, and even those have high barriers to entry. More than just a few of the acts here, the most prominent I can think of being The Garden, tend to just ship off to LA instead of starting with local shows because of that. Alongside that, a lot of the local acts I know of are bedroom pop-inspired “indie,” sounding very much like Cage the Elephant or Tame Impala, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not really distinctive, and I think, above all, it does a poor representing the diversity of voices and experiences in the area. I can’t say that many of the acts I know of are using their voice to fight for justice beyond performative acts of “posting ethically” to social media or something to that effect; it makes me pretty sad.
What bands or musicians are inspiring you these days? What should we check out?
Regarding contemporary acts: Glass Beach! I love their production style, it’s very raw! A big problem I have with so much music that calls itself “indie” coming out nowadays is how sterile it all sounds; it’s good to have good mixing, don’t get me wrong, but it gets to a point where they seem like they have the budget of a multi-million dollar label for their headshots and their mastering, but they have maybe 20 listeners on Spotify, and it just feels weird! Glass Beach really subvert that. Their writing style, shrouded in metaphor and allegory, yet direct when needed, with intrapersonal themes of self-acceptance regarding gender identity, and their stylistic basis in which they take the more abrasive aspects of punk regarding performance and soften that with a sonic palette from Brazilian & Japanese syncretic jazz stylings as well as video game soundtracks appealed to me a lot going into the project. Alongside that, Foxygen has probably been my biggest inspiration compositionally for years now! They do this thing where they completely switch the style of the song midway through the runtime, they’ll go from sounding like The Who to The Unicorns to David Bowie to The Rolling Stones in a single three-minute track! It’s insane! They only have two good albums, funnily enough, but they are really good albums, those being the aforementioned Hang and Take the Kids Off Broadway. Beyond that, a lot of my inspiration comes from older stuff, particularly Latin American in origin. Guillermo Anderson, who I also mentioned, and the brothers Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, are all really big inspirations to my music and this album is dedicated to them. Currently, I’m listening to a lot of Arco Iris, you should definitely check out their album Sudamerica o El Regreso a la Aurora, it’s kind of like this album in that it uses South American history as a pretext, but it’s a lot more… magical? I mean that, like, literally. It’s superstitious (In a really cool way!) and I think it does a really good job capturing the essence of, like, reading a Latin American novel? It’s 100 minutes long, no more, no less, 100:00, and it has this very, very strong Argentinian instrumentation to it all that is mixed with Canterbury. I could probably gush about it all day. I know a lot of people also like Agitor Lucens V, and that project is also really good, but I personally like the former more! They’re both worth your time, though, and I imagine their stuff is going to pour a lot into whatever comes next from me.
Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
I want to thank all of my collaborators, because it simply would not have been possible without them—Aron Farkas of Composition Booklet, Zach of Las Vegas math rock band Crochet, Frank AKA El Café Atomico, the Venezuelan legend himself, and, of course, DJ Rozwell, who has worked with me very closely to make sure this thing sounds phenomenal. I also want to extend my gratitude to Skylar Luna of post-rock/ambient project Walking on Glass, she has been with me all the way throughout this journey, we go back for years at this point, and she has always believed in me. She put out a wonderful album called Portfolio just a few months ago, and if you have the time and the desire, I would absolutely recommend you give it a listen. Same can be said for Vinny of Armpit Termites, who put out a really interesting plunderphonics mixtape last year that has garnered them a lot of fanfare. I’ve been with him since he started music, and it makes me so happy to see him get to this point.
Lastly, because I know everyone has to have a cause nowadays, with more and more bad press coming out about Spotify and the general unsustainability of streaming platforms, I, as a musician, want to say that you have a moral obligation to not only pirate everything, but also to support artists. So take that as you will, but what I will do, when this album comes out, is make the digital version free on Bandcamp and have a download link available if, for some reason, you really do not want to download it from Bandcamp. Alongside that, if you want a physical copy but can’t afford it (please, only if you can’t afford it, I’m taking your word here—honor system!), reach out to me and I’ll see what I can do. Also, treat service workers nicely! I worked as a cashier in a restaurant for two and a half years and that can really make our day better. I’m serious! It makes a world of difference. So, do it! Please! That’s all.