Photograph by Nathaniel Mela
Monkey Shines: Monkey resisted trends and stuck by ska.
Decade of Decadence
On its 10th year, Curtis Meacham of Monkey reveals the secrets of longevity
By Todd Inoue
MONKEY'S effervescent ska is like a cool mojito on a sweltering day: refreshing and bubbly with a kick. The band has survived trends, promoter rip-offs, a changing club landscape and personnel instability (membership tipped 39 at last count) to tour 200 days out of the year and release three full-length CDs. On the eve of its 10-year anniversary show and in celebration of its newest CD, Cruel Tutelage (Asian Man Records), Monkey founder Curtis Meacham shares a few of the lessons learned.
Shoot for the sky but be willing to accept the same fate of not making it. "If you have a really good audience but you envision yourself having a great one, don't hate yourself for it. We'll play a hall with 200-300 one night and then some place in Modesto the next to 25-30 people. As long as people are attentive we can have a show be as good as a 200-300 seater."
This band is about doing things and making things happen. "When I audition people, I tell them that this band is not about money, drugs or a crazy image. It's about the music. We're willing to accept a player without the greatest skills if the desire to play the music is greater than the ability to play an instrument. The ability will come."
It comes down to devotion. "I've had this conversation where I'll say, 'If you can't look at me and say you love this music, you have to look at yourself and ask why you're here." You have to find what you love about the music. That's the thing about being in a band; it's a huge social experiment. It's people creating art simultaneously without killing each other."
Over the past 10 years, I've seen hundreds of bands just dissolve. "It's a general depression caused by the economy and the politics of the nation. In 2002, there was a big shift with what people did with their spare time. Bands fell apart. My band nearly fell apart. In the '90s, music was explosive and huge. The world was Las Vegas. Everyone was doing well. The economy was going crazy. There was swing, rock, ska, pop punk. But then, a new president, 9/11, and now, nobody wants to go outside to see people they don't know and spend money."
Swing annihilated ska. "Everyone said, 'You're going to look back and be so embarrassed wearing the suits and the checkerboards.' But then swing got big, and we were going, 'Oh my God, this is buffoonery!' Half the ska bands started playing swing, and suddenly there were 5 billion new swing bands in a week and a half. Everyone is playing swing and wearing zoot suits. It lasted six months, and it was like a cartoon mockery of itself. It went away so fast, and it took ska with it."
When you serve too many masters, it exposes you and your audience. "It wasn't hard as far as personal choice to stick with ska. I like ska and rocksteady. There's some reggae I like, but it's mostly rocksteady and ska and some Latin. Some bands completely changed their sound. First they were ska, then swing, then punk, then electro indie pop, then they fell off the planet."
There's a saying in the industry: the average overnight success is 10 years. "It's true. It took us nine years for an indie label to take a chance on us. Either it'll come to an end or success will come really fast. We've been around long enough that we've seen the industry begin repairing itself. And everything is looking better."
Keep getting better. "Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and ask when I'm going to stop doing this. It's like a bad habit. I was really struggling to get shows and do anything for a buck. Like what fire hoop do I have to jump through, how many packages do I have to send off? Now we have contacts in the gigging world. Now I can call up clubs and book a tour in two hours. We've become a commodity that's part of people's lives."
Monkey celebrates 10 years with performances by past and present members on Friday (Jan. 27) at 10pm at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 408.29BLANK or visit myspace.com/monkeyska.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.