When culture changes, as it always does, there are always those that get pegged as the last of a dying breed. In the case of the '70s style rock star, the case can be made that there are few holding up a bic lighter to the myth of the eternal rocker more powerfully than Dave Wyndorf.
His band, Monster Magnet, may have formed in the late '80s, long after the heydey of both '70s super-rock and '80s glam-hair-metal, but that didn’t stop him and his fellow Magnets from attempting to steamroll over fey indie culture with a sleek turbocharged vehicle made out of long hair, monstrous riffs and dripping sardonic lyrical bluster. The band had several major-label mini-heydays before peaking in the late '90s -- but Wyndorf is still trucking to this day, and his newest, Monster Magnet’s appropriately-nomenclatured Mastermind (Napalm Records) is arguably the band’s most forceful bull-snort in a decade or two. At this point nothing seems able to stop Wyndorf and Monster Magnet: not time, age, overdoses (like the one that almost killed him in 2006), unstable lineups, or the supernova of '70s-rock culture. I caught up with the bullgod himself by phone at his New Jersey home/studio, where, in between drags on cigs he expounded on his view of the golden ages of rock. Behold:
Monster Magnet’s music, as much as it celebrates rock, always seems to have this built-in nihilism and cynicism. As much as you guys rock, it’s never a happy fun rock thing.
Yeah, definitely not. With a good amount of humor and satire, it’s always been me singing about a time in my life that I thought was really fucking awesome and weird, which was the '70s in New Jersey. And the '70s in New Jersey was like, they finally got the '60s mentality, but of course the suburbs always get it all wrong. So, you know, everyone had long hair, but those guys will beat you up and sell you speed, because they aren’t really hippies!
It’s kind of a weird dichotomy, that time.
Yeah, the whole dichotomy of the message of the flower power generation, and what really really happened always really gets me. Because it promises so much, and just like everything in life, nothing is that pure. It always cracked me up because it had this ultimate message of peace and love but also this Hunter S. Thompson side. I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, and he was the ultimate, because through all his bitter sardonic satire, he really was a lover at heart, and that’s the voice of someone who was disappointed. Same with me: I was in love with all this stuff, this music and culture, and I was in love with the way my mind reacted to it at a certain age. But as I got older and got to know the world more, a lot of those absolutes started to crumble, and that’s real, that’s real emotion. And I’m not saying that the world sucks because this happens, I’m just saying that this does happen, and it’s... of note.
You place the genesis of the band at a certain time and place, but at the same time, so much of what you’ve done in Monster Magnet is to universalize your experiences and make them writ large, even with the interface of the unrealistic hopes of the '60s and the realities of the subsequent decade.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely try to universalize as much as possible, that’s one of the reasons that I work with metaphors, you know? I mean, after my teenhood, when Monster Magnet took off, my life got interesting and weird and I had a lot more to write about. I mean, really: it was this thing where I got everything I wanted when I was seventeen years old. And of course, I had to find problems with that, too! Because, you know, once it’s not a dream anymore, thus begins the steady erosion of the quality of the absolute. It’s not an absolute anymore. But it was interesting to write about and it really helped me, it helped me in my head to write about that stuff. It would have been way worse if I were to just start writing, like, Iron Maiden songs. “I’m gonna write a song about The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” -- No!! You don’t write fiction, never write fiction! Write from the heart -- and if you have to wrap it in evocative images or whatever, do that, do what you have to do to make it sound interesting. But the whole point of it is to write about how you’re taking the world and taking your life, and that’s a writer’s job. And that’s what I did, year after year.
It’s interesting that you mention satire: once Monster Magnet got big, it was clear that you were satirizing it, but on the other hand your rock star trip, in a '70s themed way, seemed relatively authentic and real.
Oh yeah, you’re right, it was real! The thing about satire, though, is that it isn’t satire once you do it, it’s real. Spinal Tap was right, you are it once you start doing it. Basically, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too!
I remember the feeling I got when I was 14 or 15 and seeing Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult and Bowie and Alice Cooper and all those guys: I wanted to be those guys and provide that vibe for people. At the same time, I was old enough to know that a lot of that stuff was really laughable. But there’s nothing laughable about the glory of fucking rock! You know? This is the glory of rock, when something catches on fire and the heavy chord is there and you’re at a concert and no matter how played out it is or how many critics have made fun of this stuff, there is no substitute for that feeling of a heavy chord with, you know, a certain amount of bravado behind the vocalist. There’s a reason those things are cliches, because they’re true: Fire! Tits! Rock! Doom! All that kind of stuff. I mean, it all goes back to my childhood: that Monster Magnet was the kind of band I’d want to see when I was 15, 16.
I guess there is a certain punk rock element to my attitude, like “Don’t be too obvious.” It was fun to piss people off -- that’s how we started, really, playing in local bars to old punk rockers, with our hair as long as it could be playing one Grand Funk song for a half hour. And it pissed punk rockers off, and I’m laughing, like “Dude, I was you three years ago.” I’m trying to pull the ultimate punk rock trick, because it got results.
What’s interesting is when you hit big with “Space Lord” off of Power Trip in the late '90s. And there weren’t a lot of big rock stars at the time, rock stardom was becoming passe or morphing into something else. And with the “Space Lord” video, you were almost latching on to the imagery of rap stardom.
Oh, I totally agree! Rock stardom was abandoned, because it was too embarrassing. And yeah, at that time, the definition of rock star, the ultimate rock star, was somebody who makes it, can’t handle it, and blows their head off. Like Kurt Cobain. He might be the last big rock star, and it’s really sad if it goes that way. Like you know, “Guess what, I can’t handle it, don’t do it.” Boom. Goodnight.
And at that time, it was a real dichotomy, like either that or the Howard Hughes-eque Axl Rose thing -- either you were this paranoid germophobic weirdo or you were this dour person uncomfortable with the fame that was handed to you.
I know! Either way, it didn’t look like it was a very good destination. And I always thought “When you’re a rock star, you can do anything you want.” My ideal of a rock star was someone like David Bowie: This guy that could go and reinvent himself, he’d go into this little experimental laboratory, come out with a new album, and he was just doing it! He’s a rock star and he’s fucking doing whatever he wants and he’s coming out with different styles and some of them work and some of them don’t but he’s always gonna be around!
The two examples that you gave, it doesn’t sound like either are having much fun, it sounds like they got caught in a trap. And we all know that show business can be a trap, but at the same time, in these modern days, you’d think that someone would have figured out a way to move around those traps. But I think this story, this whole late-20th century rock stars suck thing, that was something that people wanted to hear. Like you know, there wasn’t any fire in the suburbs anymore. Rock fans had gotten smarter, smart enough to know that everything’s been done. It’s a horrible moment in your life when you realize that everything’s been done!
But you must have felt that way too, growing up -- seeing the shows you saw, they were so awesome, part of you must have thought “Oh man, these guys are so great, everything’s already been done!”
Yeah! I always said “Monster Magnet isn’t anything other than my fucking glorious hobby of trying to remain in the happy place that I always wanted.” We may not be the last rock band on earth, but I guarantee that we’ll be putting the fucking nails in the coffin. And it may sound funny, but I also make no bones about it, I’m not trying to push the future. You can’t make futuristic music, it’s ridiculous. Like you know, in the '90s, people were playing with computers, making beep bop music, and I thought “Dude, it sounds like Kraftwerk in the 70s!”
Yeah, that reminds me of when I saw Star Wars when I was a kid in the 70’s and there’s the Cantina Band scene, and I thought, “This is the music of the future?”
Yeah, right! Music of the future is the music that you get in the future, and most of the time it’ll be a retread of music of the past. I mean, there’s only so many notes, right? It’s more of an attitude -- unless of course our brains change and evolve and all we can do is listen to numbers. You know, way way in the future.
But at the time, I couldn’t believe that there were so many crybabies around. I remember doing Monster Magnet while Nirvana was around, before the poor guy shot himself, and I remember thinking “What is up with this lonely guy routine? I mean, this guy is 27 years old and at the top of the world, stop feeling sorry for the guy, start rooting for him. He’s a rock star, get him up there rocking!” I mean, Nirvana were a rocking band -- a big difference between Nirvana and a lot of the bands that tried to copy them was that Nirvana were proud of themselves and their music. The bands that came up around them had all these excuses: It’s not cool to rock, it’s not cool to be excited, etc. Hey, guess what? There’s a million hip-hop guys out there that would just love to get excited about what they’re doing. And guess what, the kids loved that enthusiasm because they went out there and did it. And those rock guys, in their big effort to distance themselves from hair metal, kind of lost the plot, kind of gave the whole circus away.
It must be weird for you to still be doing it, what with that whole change having evolved and morphed.
Oh yeah, there aren’t rock stars any more, at least the way it was defined to me when I was a kid. It used to be a person who was really really popular amongst a certain amount of people and unknown or feared amongst everyone else. That whole world of Circus Magazine, Creem Magazine, and all that rock press, Crawdaddy and all that in the '70s: all those people, all those stars, all those fans, they lived in their own world, and rarely crossed over to the straight world. I mean, there was Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and couple other shows on TV, that sort of thing, but nothing like it is today. Car commercials didn’t play hip music, it wasn’t part of the culture!
It was a real us-vs.-them thing.
Yeah, absolutely! And they were very proud of it. Now, it’s like even the term “Party like a rock star” is an accepted slang. It doesn’t really mean that much any more. Today, everybody’s a star, of various degrees. Everybody’s got a poster, a little magazine article. That’s what social networking is, Facebook and whatnot: everybody’s got a magazine article. “Love me!” It’s a perfectly natural thing to have happened, it’s an extension of the telephone and the “I’m With Stupid” t-shirt, tattoos and everything else. Just this massive identity crisis that began with the advent of electronic media.
Yeah, it’s so obvious that post-WW2 mass culture led to everything: rock worship...
...Celebrity worship, the whole thing. And now, the whole rock star thing doesn’t mean anything, but the present and future hold an ability to craft a niche for bands, for bands to get better for their music and let go of the whole “Sell millions or die” thing. That’s kind of still with us with major labels because they haven’t really learned their lesson, but there was a golden time in the record industry where they gave bands six or seven album deals and they’d get better and either be successful or not, financially, but their musical progression usually happened.
Sure-- I mean, just look at David Bowie!
Oh yeah. Bowie’s an absolutely fantastic example of a series of multiple album contracts that did everyone a favor.
I mean, could you imagine if someone saw Bowie when he first started, and they just said “Nope” to his folkie thing in 1967 or whatever, and then that was it?
It seems like another constant in Monster Magnet’s sound, besides the whole '70s rock thing, has been psychedelia. How did that come about?
I love psychedelia: I think it’s pretty and evocative, it’s a mood-changer. Listen, there were two times when it really hit me. Once was when I was a kid, listening to a lot of things that were left around from the '60s, just the psychedelic touches that I found on stuff that I listened to as a kid, stuff like Hawkwind, Black Sabbath, and it really stuck with me and was just really cool. It was a way of getting in a mood, I loved the mood of psychedelia, I bought it all. I’d sit there as an 11-year-old and watch A.I.P. flicks that were in the drive-ins in the '60s on TV in the '70s, movies like Psych-Out.
I loved the idea of a whole generational pop scene, you know? I mean, just think, there were people that were like “Yeah, you know what we’re gonna do? All the kids are gonna get together and take mind-altering drugs, we’re gonna find god and make music, it’s gonna be fucking cool!” I mean, that’s fucking insane! It’s comic book stuff, and it’ll never happen again! It’s like “Alice In Wonderland”. Add that kind of thing to the darker elements of the time, you know, like Hunter S. Thompson, Hawkwind, The Stooges, and you really have a really cool thing that would turn a teenager on, and it really turned me on.
The second time it hit me was after I’d been in a punk band for a while, I really became a garage-psych aficionado, crazy buying up all the old singles, all that Nuggets shit, and I was hooked for the rest of my life because there’s really something about psychedelic and psychedelic garage that really represents the ultimate teenage expression. Stones, surf, early rock and roll, melodical lyrics written from a very inexperienced age, and this crazy touch of psychedelic art on top, the whole thing is irresistible to me!
Is it all about, when you are an adolescent, you think you have the power to do things and you haven’t been proven wrong?
Oh sure, man: it’s wide open. And I can imagine how wide open it was in the '60s, because, you know, people knew a lot less back then. In the post-JFK years, I mean, JFK meant a lot, and he basically told everybody that they could do anything. And the kids did everything: they tried to end a war, they took psychedelic drugs. And I’m not saying JFK said this and everyone went out and did it, but at the same time you had this young guy that said “Basically, America, you’re all superhumans.”
And it led to a man on the fucking moon.
Right! It was a time where there was so much enthusiasm, from a young person’s perspective, for the idea that you could do anything. And then, of course, we’re back to the dichotomy of the '60s: the institutions that stomped down on that. But for a short time it was all “better living through chemistry,” and fuzz. Yeah!
For a lot of the bands that inspired you, especially Hawkwind, I imagine it was always about more than the music: the live spectacle, which you have always brought into Monster Magnet.
Oh yeah. Completely. I mean Hawkwind, oh my god, they killed me. I saw them really really early and they blew me away. I’ve still never seen anything like it. It was low-tech, bright, loud, extremely effective. Probably one of the most punk rock things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen all the punk rock bands. These guys blew them all away. They were just so audacious: Lemmy just plowing, drum fill after drum fill, lead solo after lead solo, with strobe lights pointed not at the band but at the audience. We’re talking total seizure-inducing strobes, vomit-causing nausea-creating experience with these old sci-fi films in the background, and it was all really weird and strange and not love and peace and just mean. And to top it all off, the saxophone player with a papier-mâché frog head playing his sax through a wah pedal and a fuzz box, it sounded like some mad science fiction goose. And this six foot tall naked girl covered in psychedelic paint doing these crazy dances. When you’re eleven years old, what else do you want? That thing changed my life forever, it’s up there with the Ramones as a life-changer.
Yeah, it seems like you can hear it on record or hear accounts of it, but you just can’t get it, and it will never happen again.
Yeah, and it didn’t happen again -- they came through the next year or two and it wasn’t the same, they’d mellowed out a lot and the vibe was changed. It kinda lost some of it’s intensity -- but I think they didn’t want to go down in history as being this mass seizure-inducing band. You know, like “Yeah, what are you famous for?” “Oh, we gave a million people a bad trip.” But at the time, I was like “Yeah! Bad trip.”
And they were mean.
Yeah, they were mean, it was not happy. The hippie thing was old in 1973 -- but these guys, there were only a couple other bands doing that sort of thing. I mean, at that time you had Robin Trower and Mahogany Rush doing the Hendrix thing, and that was around representing the old guard. The new guard was stuff like Alice Cooper and Kiss and whatnot. But then there were all these older blues guys, and they didn’t do it for me. Hawkwind, it was like someone put together the ultimate Altamont anti-Pink Floyd thing, like Pink Floyd with teeth. And Sabbath too, these mean crazy chords. Never got big in America at the time, wonder why?
Totally. And this brings it back to Monster Magnet: that the truth is that rock has to be dumb, but it’s actually quite difficult to make intelligent dumb music. And the bands that achieve that, whether it’s Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk, or Monster Magnet, do something that is really hard to do even though it’s knuckle dragging.
Yeah! Dude, it’s important. I’ve been jealous my whole life of people who can just go out there and do it, and I know that there was a time where this kind of music was prevalent enough for there to be more players to know how to do it, and you could get into situations where it could accidentally be great. Like the MC5 and the Stooges, going to each other’s practice space and trying to cop riffs. And obviously there’s something going on there, and I get really jealous of those things. I have to shut off my brain when I get like that and think “Don’t analyze it too much, just do what you love”. What can I say, I’m a huge fan of that kind of stuff. Smart dumb music, you put them together and that’s been a huge objective of mine for so long. And it really works live, repetition is your friend. Like, are we doing this four more times? Hell yeah, let’s do it eight more times! Drive it in like a nail!!