Following my recent interview with Matt Jones about his trip to Gettysburg, I’ve been inundated with suggestions as to other musicians I should speak with about their vacations. Today’s interview is with Timothy Monger, an accomplished singer-songwriter, who is perhaps still best known in these parts for his work with Great Lakes Myth Society. Well, Timothy recently flew out to Oregon to attend a wedding, and took the opportunity to search for Puffins and walk in the footsteps for Corey Feldman. Here’s his vacation story.
MARK: So, let’s start with the basics. Who are you? Where do you live? And how would you describe your music?
TIMOTHY: I’m Timothy Monger and I live in Saline, Michigan. I’m a singer and guitarist and also play a bit of accordion. I fake it on several other instruments. I try to write pop songs. By that, I generally mean songs with strong melodies and good hooks, but sometimes they’re just more like folk songs. Or rural pop.
MARK: I’m struggling with the “rural pop” label. Can you help me to understand? Like, could you give me a traditional pop lyric, and then show me what it would be if it were translated into rural pop? Or is it more about the instrumentation, and less about the lyrics?
TIMOTHY: It’s just a term I made up to describe my last album. It was recorded on a farm down in Lenawee County where I was living. It was heavily influenced by the geography both musically and lyrically, but, personally, I don’t associate it with being a folk album. Rural pop just sort of described my sensibility at the time. I’ve recently moved into a neighborhood again, so I guess Neighborhood pop is up next.
MARK: How long have you been performing?
TIMOTHY: I formed my first band in 1989 when I was in 7th grade. We played Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and a few other early David Bowie songs. We were really into Bowie. I still am. I’ve been playing in bands or as a solo artist ever since.
MARK: If I could raise $25 right now, could I commission you to record Moonage Daydream as rural pop? Or would that require a great deal more in the way of funding?
TIMOTHY: Easy. You’d just do the instrumental section on accordion, maybe record the backing tracks in a barn to get the nice authentic cricket bleed and sing it in a plaintive Midwestern tenor. For the record, Bowie’s initial release of that song was under the pseudonym Arnold Corns. If that isn’t Rural Pop, then I don’t know what is.
MARK: OK, I’m going to raise $25. Get ready.
TIMOTHY: Lay the real thing on me.
MARK: And do I understand correctly that, not too long ago, you took a vacation that you’d be willing to talk with us about?
TIMOTHY: Yes, I did, and I’d be glad to!
MARK: So, where did you go?
TIMOTHY: I took a few trips this year, but probably the most notable one was to Oregon back in March. We spent some time in Portland and also in Bend.
TIMOTHY: My girlfriend, Kristie Brablec, was with me. We went to a wedding in Portland where we rented a small apartment with two other friends who also flew in from Ann Arbor and San Francisco. Afterward, the two of us drove across the mountains to Bend to stay with the Smiths… Not the British band, but some really good friends of ours who are from the U.P. and also play music. A lot of great people were involved in this trip.
MARK: In case there’s anyone in the audience who’s never taken a vacation, what’s the advantage of taking along a traveling companion?
TIMOTHY: That’s a good question. I’ve actually put some thought into this. I have genuine loner tendencies, and I’ve done a lot of travelling by myself. While I’m quite content on my own, I do find that the trips I remember most fondly were always the ones shared with others. Old family vacations, tours with Great Lakes Myth Society and all of the wonderful places I’ve gone with Kristie and our friends. Companions make it more vivid for me. Sharing both the experience and the memory is important.
MARK: What, aside from a traveling companion, are the six most important things to take with you when you travel?
TIMOTHY: Birding field guide, binoculars, old jean jacket, Moleskine journal, a good pen, vitamins.
MARK: I notice you didn’t mention a toothbrush. Do you not take good care of your teeth? Or do you just floss with the pages of the birding book?
TIMOTHY: I just pour some whiskey from my flask onto my finger and brush with that. The flask is the unmentioned seventh item I bring.
MARK: What happens if you don’t take your vitamins while on vacation? Do you get disoriented?
TIMOTHY: I just space out and walk into traffic… Kidding aside, I do seem to get a cold or sore throat on most of my longer trips no matter how many vitamins I take. Perhaps I should scratch them from my “must bring” list in favor of something more fun.
MARK: Such as?
TIMOTHY: Well, I guess I have to bring a toothbrush now, don’t I?
MARK: Most people who go to Oregon, from what I can tell, never come back. Why’d you come back?
TIMOTHY: I had tickets for Opening Day at Comerica Park. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
TIMOTHY: Dammit. I was going to say Jim Leyland. I recently had a dream where I was on the Tigers team and I was in Leyland’s office telling him about my offseason plans to record a new album. He was really supportive. As for players, you know Torii Hunter would be a lot of fun.
MARK: I know we’re supposed to be talking about vacations, but have you ever thought of writing a baseball song? The world needs something better than John Fogerty’s Centerfield.
TIMOTHY: I wrote a song back in 2000 just after Tiger Stadium closed called Michigan & Trumbull. It was about my fond memories of going to ballpark with my dad. It was released on the second album by The Original Brothers and Sisters of Love, which was our band before Great Lakes Myth Society. In retrospect, I could probably write something a bit better now, but the sentiment is there. Maybe it’s time to revisit baseball-themed songwriting.
MARK: Why do you think it is that so many people from Michigan gravitate toward Portland?
TIMOTHY: Do they? I guess I know a couple of Michigan expats living there and some who’ve returned. It’s a very nice city. The people generally seem healthy and athletic. They support the arts and there’s a lot of good food. The whole state of Oregon is physically beautiful so I can understand the appeal, but Michigan doesn’t suck to look at either. As far as the generally trendiness of certain neighborhoods is concerned, it can be an easy target to poke fun at, but some would also say that about Ann Arbor. Portland has some great things going on and the “Portlandia” stuff is really only in a couple neighborhoods which were generally pretty fun to visit anyway. I won’t say it’s my all time favorite city in the world, but I’ve definitely enjoyed myself the two times I’ve been there.
MARK: I don’t know how real it is, but a friend alerted me a few days ago that there’s someone in Portland trying to organize a reverse migration, into the heart of Detroit. He’s trying to assemble a small army of settlers with the intention of buying land and creating a kind of utopia.
TIMOTHY: The idea of reverse migration into Detroit is an interesting one. Are these former Michigan people coming back or new colonizers? It’s so completely unlike the last migration of workers seeking automotive and industrial jobs. Back then, there was something specific and tangible that people were arriving for. Now, it’s a very different sort of thing. I think a lot of outsiders see Detroit as an empty canvas waiting to be filled. It appeals to entrepreneurs and dreamers now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are people in Detroit now who’ve always lived there and will probably have an opinion on that.
MARK: OK, I found the reference. “Detroit will be Portland without large-scale gentrification,” this person says. “It will be revitalization that includes the people who are currently living there, the people worst affected by the arbitrary machinations of a system and way of life that does not care enough for people’s well-being. It’s time to take back our world for the people. It’s time. And the place is Detroit.” I know it’s just one data point, but I’m wondering if maybe Portland’s reached its saturation point. What’s your sense, having just been out there? Did you get the sense that the people of Portland are ready to move on and try something new?
TIMOTHY: Wow. I’m not sure how to even respond to that guy’s ad. “Idealists welcome.” He seems optimistic, but I don’t think his plan sounds very well thought out. Again, I don’t think Detroit is really the blank canvas that these people see it as. It’s great that young people from elsewhere are fascinated by Detroit. Rightly so! Maybe they can make some sort of personal Utopia happen for themselves, but I’m not so sure that his “Michigan Trail” would be received with open arms. But, then I’ve never lived in Detroit, so my opinions are just one more outsider putting in his two cents. As for whether or not Portland has reached its saturation point, I really couldn’t say. I haven’t spent enough time there. It seemed pretty vibrant.
MARK: If you had to boil your whole Oregon trip down to just 100 words, what would they be? Like, if you could see a long lost relative for just a few minutes, and you wanted to convey to them what you’d done on your vacation… what would be 100 words you’d use?
We flew into Portland arriving too early to check into our rented flat. On recommendation from our friend Nora, we drove to the coast and ate oysters in Netarts Bay. Then we slowly drove up the coast to Cannon Beach where parts of The Goonies was filmed. It was low tide and you could walk out to the big monolith, but we didn’t. Feeling jet lagged, we drove back to Portland and got the key to our flat, which was above a rock venue called Mississippi Studios. We found it on Airbnb.com… It seemed like a good idea.
Well, that’s 100 words and I didn’t even get through the first day. I’m not much for brevity. Can I try again?
MARK: Sure. Everyone deserves a shot at redemption.
TIMOTHY: Got to Portland. Drove up the coast eating oysters and seeing Cannon Beach. Rented a flat above a music venue. Prime location, bad idea. Doug and Joslyn came to stay. Drank, shopped, saw reunion show of A2 free jazz expats. Went to Josh and Sadie’s wedding. Drank homebrew. Colin Stetson played awesome sax. Got woken up at 6:00 AM by music venue’s automated cable radio over the PA blasting classic rock. Lasted four hours. Cops couldn’t help. Drove across Cascades to Bend to visit Nora and Jared. Did the “Ale Trail” in their mint green school bus. Came home.
Boom. 98 words. Those are the Cliffs Notes.
MARK: So many questions… Let’s start with the Ale Trail. What is it?
TIMOTHY: The region around the city of Bend, Oregon has a ton of different breweries. Someone came up with the bright idea of making a sort of challenge out of hitting them all. You go around with this map, drinking beers and collecting stamps, and, if you get them all, you go the visitor’s bureau and get this odd little plastic cup and a sticker to commemorate your achievement. I think we hit 12 of them. Fortunately, our friends Nora and Jared Smith were willing to take us on this adventure in their awesome old modified short bus. It’s painted mint green and is fully outfitted for touring, camping, etc. Of course, I had a sore throat because my vitamins weren’t working. Nora was pregnant with their first child, so we had a designated driver for the bus. Jared brought his guitar. Assuming things would get really epic, we loaded up Nora’s entire CD collection, which was in crates in the garage. Around brewery number four or five, things were delayed because we really, really wanted to find an Enya CD, but couldn’t. Bend is sort of out in the high desert. Way different looking than the lush Pacific Northwest vibe of Portland and the coast. It was a wonderful place to have a pub crawl with some of our best friends. It was also totally exhausting!
MARK: What was it about the vibe of the trip that made Enya so critical? And, failing to locate an Enya CD, how did you compensate? (I’ve never been to Bend, but I’d imagine that Julee Cruise might be up to the task.) And how much better would the trip have been had you been able to acquire an Enya CD?
TIMOTHY: No guilty pleasures here. I’ve been an Enya fan since the late 80’s. I think her first two albums are really beautiful. I don’t know how well her music would have fit the scenery in Bend, but as soon as someone said something, it just seemed really important that we find the album. I would put Julee Cruise more in the western half of the state, or up in Washington. That’s where the Twin Peaks vibe really starts happening, although Agent Cooper would have loved the smell in Bend. “Big, majestic!”
MARK: Can I assume you went to Cannon Beach because of the Goonies connection? And, if so, do you do a lot of Goonies tourism?
TIMOTHY: Yes, we might not have discovered Cannon Beach without the Goonies. In fact, I downloaded the film score and that wonderful Cyndi Lauper song before we went. I wanted to listen to the Fratelli Chase Theme when we were at the beach. On a previous trip to the Oregon, we visited Astoria where much of the primary shooting was done. It’s a wonderful movie! I just watched it again last week.
MARK: I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve never seen Goonies. What makes it so compelling?
TIMOTHY: It’s just one of those movies that has just stayed with me since I was young. It’s a perfect, fun adventure movie. I think Spielberg did a great job writing a script that appealed to kids in a relatable, honest way. The movie really captures that imaginative “what do we do on a rainy Saturday” feeling I remember having with my friends when I was a kid. Plus, it’s got pirate themes, treasure maps, excellent villains and a great film score!
MARK: Tell me about the monolith and why you chose not to wade out to it?
TIMOTHY: It was the absence of puffins that kept me from climbing Haystack Rock. I’m an amateur birder and I’ve been trying to see a Puffin for over ten years now. I’ve been up the New England coast, all through the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland, Scotland… I always come up Puffin-less. Haystack Rock has a colony of Tufted Puffins that arrive every year, around April 1st, and we were a couple of weeks early. It’s an impressive rock, but I wanted the Puffins.
MARK: You’ve mentioned music a few times in this discussion… How important is it to have the right soundtrack on a vacation?
TIMOTHY: Sometimes obsessively so. I’ve always tried to theme up my travel by matching appropriate music and books. Sometimes it works brilliantly to enhance an experience and sometimes it’s at the expense of an otherwise spontaneous moment as I’m frantically trying to cue up whatever song I thought would fit this moment back in Michigan weeks before. I used to spend a lot of time making themed mix tapes before trips. Now I’m lazier with advent of the iPod.
MARK: What was your biggest mistake in Oregon… your biggest regret?
TIMOTHY: I guess our biggest mistake was staying above a rock venue. On tours, I’ve stayed in all manner of crappy, loud places and am totally fine with it, but on a vacation you want something a little nicer. We thought it would be a good idea to stay in a central location and we found this nice looking flat to rent for a few days on Mississippi Ave above a place called Bar Bar.
MARK: Point of clarification… I thought the venue below your rental unit was called Mississippi Studios.
TIMOTHY: The venue is called Mississippi Studios, and the adjoining bar is called Bar Bar. I think I have that right…. Anyway, it’s a trendy neighborhood with lots of little shops and restaurants around it. Our friend Doug Coombe flew in from Ann Arbor to join us, and also our friend Joslyn Layne, a former Michigan gal now living in San Francisco. We only had one rental car between us and this place seemed to solve a lot of logistical issues. It was fine at first. Big and roomy, beds for everyone, a bar downstairs. I imagine it’s where they lodge the higher profile bands who play at Mississippi Studios and it would be a damn nice place to stay with a band. We were all in town to see our friends Josh and Sadie get married and it was a big lovely party. Naturally we had a good time with the drink. The following morning, at 6:00 AM we were suddenly assaulted by Steve Miller and Journey songs blaring out of the PA system at the bar downstairs. Not only was it coming from inside the closed bar, but also from the outdoor speakers in the beer garden behind us. My first thought was that some cleaning guy or dishwasher had to come in and work on a Sunday morning and was cranking it up out of sheer spite. We pounded on the locked door, and called the bar repeatedly, only to hear the phone ringing below us to no avail. I talked to a cop standing outside the beer garden, who was there to field a noise complaint that someone else had made. It was horrible. Doug was the hero here. If you’ve ever met him, he’s the most mild-mannered and wonderful guy you can imagine. It takes a lot to piss him off. After about a half hour of this madness, though, he began his epic counter-attack on the bar’s Facebook page, basically live-blogging the playlist and adding his own insults to each song. We have a screen capture of his fine work. At exactly 10:00 AM, the music just shut off. We found out later that some bartender had messed up the automated timer on their cable radio player. It was really unpleasant, but almost worth it to watch Doug lose his cool.
Biggest regret? Not spending more time on the beautiful Oregon coast. We decided to go there almost as an afterthought and it was so nice I wish we had actually budgeted a couple of days to spend there.
TIMOTHY: I have plenty of anger, but being actively vindictive is just too much work. Plus, they did apologize and refund part of our lodging.
MARK: What was the most beautiful moment of the trip? I know it’s an incredibly tough question, but, if you could keep just one memory from this trip, what would it be?
TIMOTHY: That is tough. To be honest, it isn’t even anything I’ve already mentioned. Our friend Nora drove up from Bend to spend one of our Portland days with us and the three of us just spent a really happy, sunny Saturday walking around downtown looking in shops, hanging out. The three of us have known each other a long time and it was just one of those memorably joyful days that stands out for no particular reason other than the good company.
MARK: Do you vacation often? And I know it’s kind of a weird distinction to make, but, for the purposes of this interview, I’m trying to stick to vacations where you don’t play shows. In other words, tours don’t count.
TIMOTHY: Yes, I love to travel. Kristie and I try to take as many vacations (long or short) as we can afford each year. I didn’t do any touring outside of Michigan in 2013, but I did drive to Minneapolis last month for a marathon. I often use a one-off gig or some other event to build a vacation around. Not that anyone should have to have an excuse to travel, but it helps motivate me. Kristie helps to motivate me as well. She’s an unbelievable vacation planner. When I’m stressed out about money, time off of work, or anything else, she helps me put it into perspective, and I’ve never once regretted a trip we’ve taken.
MARK: Do you have a day job? If so, what do you do?
TIMOTHY: I write web content for a large online music database in Ann Arbor. It’s cooler than it sounds. I’ve only been there a few weeks but, so far, I’m really happy. Prior to that, I worked in a violin shop doing setups and repairs for many years.
MARK: Did you break any laws on your trip to Oregon? The last musician I interviewed for this series admitted to trespassing on federal land.
TIMOTHY: I don’t know if we behaved perfectly, but no laws were broken. We should have brought Matt Jones with us.
TIMOTHY: Wow… lot’s of great food. But I’m a junky for good pastries so I’d have to say the Ocean Roll at Sparrow Bakery in Bend. It’s this sort of flaky pastry with cardamom and other spices, a little bit doughy in the middle. It reminds me of this Swedish coffee bread my mom makes. Pair it with some good coffee… perfect! Beer will be a tough one. In Bend, our friend Jared runs this exceptional little beer counter (I hesitate to call it a bar… more a like a tiny cafe) within a bike shop called Crow’s Feet Commons. We tried so many great beers there and I really can’t remember their names. So I’ll go with the beer at Crux Fermentation Project, which was my favorite of the breweries on the Ale Trail.
MARK: What’s better, a vacation or a tour?
TIMOTHY: I love them both. On a tour, you sometimes see things you might skip by on a vacation because you’re stuck in one place for an afternoon/evening. But on a vacation, you have the freedom to go on a wild goose chase if you want to. Both are worthy forms of travel!
MARK: One last question… If you had a friend from Oregon, who had never been to Michigan, and had just three days to spend here on vacation, what would you advise him to do? And, for the sake of argument, let’s say money isn’t an issue.
TIMOTHY: Not fair… that’s like a whole separate interview! …Okay. This person is from Oregon, so I’m just going to assume they enjoy good beer, food, music and road-tripping around to pretty places. Basically they like all the things I like.
Their flight will arrive at DTW in the morning so they’ve got an afternoon in Detroit. They’ll probably already have some preconceived notions about going to Hitsville and looking at “ruin porn,” which is now a nationally recognized term thanks to Anthony Bourdain. I’d threaten to take them to a Tiger game, but they don’t care. Their state doesn’t even have a ballclub. But maybe we can go get sliders at Green Dot Stables or tacos at Lupitas, hit a couple of record stores and do a driving tour. Wait a minute… I just assumed I would be driving around with this fictional visitor, but I’ll obviously be working because I want to save my paid vacation days for future personal travel. Sorry, Oregon dude, you’re on your own. If it’s summertime, I guess I’ll meet you at Bill’s Beer Garden in Ann Arbor after I get off work and just tell you to go up to the Leelanau and drink at Tandem Ciders then maybe go stand-up paddleboarding in Sutton’s Bay for a while. (Notice I’m no longer describing what I would do and am now directly addressing this fictional person. What a mess.) Obviously, you’ll need to cross the Mackinac Bridge and get a pasty from Lehto’s on Highway 2 on your way up to Marquette. What a great city, Marquette! Go get a beer at Blackrocks Brewery and listen to Michael Waite play. If he’s not there, he’s probably singing at the Ramada. Everything is really beautiful up there, so just pull off the road when you feel like it and go exploring. It’s fine. You’ll probably meet someone really cool or hang out with some elk. Since you’re already up there, you should probably just keep going up to the Keweenaw and visit Houghton, which is possibly my favorite city in Michigan. Keep going north. That crazy-ass iron dinosaur thing in the water? That’s the Quincy Dredge. Keep going. Alright, you’re in Calumet. Go buy a beautiful woodcut print from Tom Rudd. He’s an artist up there and is also Kristie’s uncle. Keep going. Copper Harbor… Fort Wilkins. No more peninsulas left. Wait, you only had three days and your flight leaves in the morning from Detroit? Sorry. Good luck getting home. Our state is huge!