90 Hours in New Orleans: The Monkey Power Trio’s Twenty-Fifth Day as a Band

[above: We were staying right on a trolley line, and the buzzing of the overhead power lines was incessant. I doubt that it’ll make a record, as we had better songs this time out, but this fact gave rise to our loudest endeavor of the session, a number called Stray Voltage.]

The weekend of November 16 marked the 25th meeting of my one-day-a-year band, the Monkey Power Trio. For those of you who might not be familiar with our origin story, it all began back in 1995 with a promise between old friends one hot, summer afternoon in Brooklyn. Without much in the way of any real planning or forethought, we’d decided to make a record in the unlocked basement storage room of a Carroll Gardens apartment building. So, while an old cassette recorder whirred away, suspended in front of us from a string tied to a sewage pipe, we screamed and beat on things. The result was a 7″ record, which we decided to call The First Hour, acknowledging the fact that we’d agreed to meet up and do the same exact thing every year until the point when only one of us was left alive, creating extemporaneous noise over beers with no practice, forethought, or concern as to what people outside the band might think of it. And, against all odds, we’ve stayed true to our word for 25 years now, despite the fact that, every year, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the five of us to get away from our real-world obligations, put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, which have grown more extreme over time, and express ourselves creatively. [And there’s also not nearly as much beer, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.] This year, we elected to meet in New Orleans, Louisiana.

DOING IT WITHOUT THE SELF-PROFESSED “MIDDLE FINGER” OF OUR BAND… Before I get into the specifics of this session, and why we chose to have it in New Orleans, I should mention that we were without one of our members this year. As some of you may recall, in my write-up of last year’s session, I noted that one of my bandmates had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Well, that particular member of the band was my old high school friend Mike, and, while he survived his initial surgery, and continues to improve, he decided not to join us for this year’s session, instead opting to participate remotely, chatting with us online, and contributing tracks by way of email in real-time. Here, before I get into what it was like for us to play without him in the room with us this year, is an excerpt from what I’d written last year about his diagnosis.

…When all of this started, and we made our “every year until death” pact, none us really considered the fact that, one day, we’d be gathering to record either soon before, or just after, the funeral of a bandmate. And, this year, that thought was very much on our minds, as one of us had recently been diagnosed with cancer. As it turns out, it seems to have been a very treatable form of cancer, and we’re told that, now that it’s been removed, he doesn’t even have to go through chemotherapy, which is awesome. We didn’t know that when we met, though. [His surgery was a week after this year’s session.] All we knew when we met for this year’s session was that this might be the last time all five us would be together. So there was a lot of drinking chardonnay while walking on the beach, and talking about wills between games of Scrabble. Not exactly what we signed up for as kids back in Brooklyn almost a quarter century ago…

So, Mike didn’t join us this year. He’d just undergone a series of tests, and, as he was waiting for the results, he decided to stay home with his family. As it turns out, he was fine, and the cancer hadn’t returned, as we’d all been worrying might have been the case, but none of us knew that during the session. So, as with last year, the mood was a bit darker than normal. And, of course, it didn’t help that Mike’s lyrics were often punctuated by bursts of uncontrolled coughing, which some of us took to be evidence that his cancer had spread to his lungs. As it turned out, he’d just had a bad case of acid reflux, but, at the time, having recently lost two friends to lung cancer, it was hard for me not to think that this might be our last session together.

My thoughts about Mike, a man I’ve described here in the past as “my high-school-bully-turned-bandmate,” are complicated. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he can be a dick. To give you an example, he once knocked me momentarily unconscious by drilling some kind of practice baseball into my neck from just a few feet away. I awoke to his howling laughter, unable to turn my head more than an inch in either direction… a condition that persisted for at least a week, and still comes back to haunt every few years or so. I should add that I was there with him on that day, in our old high school gym, because he’d asked me to come out and help him as he practiced hitting balls before heading off for a career in professional baseball. The career lasted for a few years, and, at some point, once it wall all over, our paths crossed again in Atlanta. I’d just graduated from the University of Michigan, and he’d just washed out of the big leagues with an injured back. And, I guess, I invited him to join the band for our second session, which would have been in 1996. And he’s been a part of the band ever since.

So, this was the first time in decades that the Monkey Power Trio played without Mike being in the same room with us, constantly pushing people’s buttons, inserting drunken drama, and hijacking songs with his unwelcome and poorly-executed heavy metal guitar licks and cringe-worthy raps.

We used to joke that, if one of us had to go first, it should probably be Mike, the self-proclaimed “middle finger” of the band. Confronted by his illness, though, and his absence this year, I’ve been forced to face the uncomfortable fact that, for whatever reason, I actually, truly love this man as if he were my own brother. And, as I told him recently, as much as I hate him sometimes, the thought of never playing with him again absolutely breaks my heart. [right: Mike’s description from the band’s website, which, for what it’s worth, hasn’t been updated in over 20 years.]

GET YOUR ASS CHECKED… I don’t usually include public service announcements in these painfully detailed annual Monkey Power recaps, but I think it’s worth pointing out that all five of us in the band have now turned 50 and had colonoscopies. Two of us got clean bills of health. Two of had polyps removed that, thankfully, turned out to be non-cancerous. [If you follow that link, you’ll see Dave’s polyp.] And Mike, as we’ve been discussing, was diagnosed with an “ass full” of cancer. I know it’s a small sample size, but, if you’re 50, and you haven’t gotten checked yet, you really should schedule a colonoscopy. If our small group is at all representative of the wider world, there’s a pretty good chance that you might have something that needs checking out. And, if you’re lucky, like Mike, you might catch it while there’s still time. [I didn’t do it, but it occurred to me during the session that we should do a spoken word PSA on the importance of colonoscopies. I think it would have made a nice, college radio-friendly b-side.]

WHY NEW ORLEANS… Generally speaking, we like to do things as inexpensively as possible, which usually means that we go where we can stay for free, whether it be at the vacation home of someone’s family friend in Lake Tahoe, or the basement of a bandmate who lives in the soulless exurbs of Atlanta. Occasionally, though, we all chip in and rent a house for a few days, like we did the year before last across the street from that liquor store in Baltimore, or a few years before that in a Cleveland neighborhood, where we thought we might find some inspiration at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or a few years before that in Jackson Hole, where we knew someone with a truck who promised that, if we came his way, he’d not only set us up with an inexpensive place to stay and record, but drive us around in search of large, wild animals. Well, this year, having exhausted our network of friends and family, we set out to try someplace new, and ultimately decided on New Orleans, where two of us (Dan and Matt) had never been before. I, as someone with an unhealthy affinity for po-boys and gumbo, lobbied pretty hard on behalf of New Orleans, but I don’t recall there being much debate. We all pretty much acknowledged that New Orleans was the kind of place that we should record at least once. It was just a matter of timing it in such a way that we weren’t going at peak season, but also weren’t likely to get hit by a hurricane. And, as it turned out, we did pretty well, aiming for the very end of storm season.

THE DRIEST MONKEY POWER SESSION IN RECORDED HISTORY… Maybe it’s because Mike wasn’t with us, but I got the sense this year that, collectively speaking, our emphasis had significantly shifted away from alcohol and toward food. While there was still some moderate drinking, nothing came even close to being problematic, which, historically speaking, hasn’t always been the case. [We were never as bad as the Replacements, but we’ve had our share of drunken arguments over the past 25 years.] In fact, I think I carried all of our empties from the entire four days to the recycling bin by myself in just one trip. This wouldn’t have been even remotely possible in any other year.

As for why this is happening, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think a lot of it just has to do with getting older, and seeing people around us starting to fall victim to cancer and the like. I don’t think it’s any coincidence, for instance, that I decided to cut down on processed foods, sweets and alcohol in the wake of last year’s Monkey Power session, after seeing firsthand what Mike was going through. I know, of course, that not everything can be avoided. In the past few years, I lost someone I knew to lung cancer who never smoked, and someone to colon cancer who was one of the healthiest people I knew. But, I figure, why not at least try to make it a little more difficult for illness to get a foothold by eating better and losing weight. And, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all starting to think more about mortality and what we need to do if we want to stick around a little longer. I suspect this is probably pretty normal for folks who are lucky enough to make it into their 50s, but it’s not something that I really anticipated. It never occurred to me, for instance, that the five of us would be texting about jogging, and comparing our weights.

I should also say it’s good to have friends to get old with. [If you don’t have friends your own age, you should really go out and get some.] Mike, for instance, told me not too long ago that he got his colonoscopy because I’d shared with him that I’d gotten mine… I don’t mention this to take credit for saving the life of my bandmate, but just to illustrate that good things can happen when friends talk openly about their large intestines and rectums.

NOT MUCH PRE-SESSION INSPIRATION… If I had to name one thing that didn’t go well this session, aside from Mike not being with us in person, I’d say that we should have done a better job of getting out and exploring prior to the session. While we got to see quite a bit of the town, most of our wondering about didn’t happen until after the session’s 24-hour window had drawn to a close. And, I think, had we, for instance, attended the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival immediately before our session, instead of immediately after it, the session would have been dramatically different. In the whole scheme of things it’s a minor complaint, as we still had a great time, and wrote about eight pretty decent songs, but it would have been nice, I’m thinking now, if we’d visited the Museum of Death, or spent an evening in the local cemetery, prior to starting the tape rolling Friday afternoon. With that said, though, we saw some pretty awesome stuff. The influence of it, however, likely won’t be felt in our work for years to come. [Look for a brass band number in 2020.] But, yeah, if we had to do it all over again, I think we should have made more of an effort to get out before recording, borrow a trombone or two to augment Matt’s crumhorn-heavy horn section, and maybe even try to hire a local singer to lay down a track with us… like maybe this woman who was singing at the restaurant down the street from where we were staying.

[above: This restaurant was called Live Oak Cafe, and they had really good biscuits and grits.]

The fact is, we’re getting old. And, as a result, I think our music is going to change in unanticipated ways from here on out. For instance, the night we flew in, the Rebirth Brass Band was playing just down the street from where we were staying, and we chose not to leave the house to see them, as they weren’t scheduled to go on stage until 10:00, and we were all tired. In any other year, that would never have happened. We would have enthusiastically gone, and the session almost certainly would have been different as a result. This year, though, we opted to just stay in. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a bad thing. As I reflect on the session, though, it’s definitely something that I think is noteworthy. And I wonder if we would have gone if Mike had been with us, if more of us had been up for drinking, etc.

THE WTUL INTERVIEW… While we didn’t do much before the session, we did go out to eat at Jacques-Imo’s and visit Tulane’s student radio station WTUL for an interview… The idea to reach out the station had just kind of come to me when I noticed that the house we’d rented was close to Tulane. I mailed a copy of our most recent record to the station, mentioned that we’d be there in a few weeks, and asked if they’d be interested in talking. And, thankfully, they were. They put the word out to all their DJs, a few expressed interest, and we chose to talk with a guy by the name of Brandon because his early afternoon time-slot worked for us… If you’d like to listen to the interview, you can find it here. [note: I want to try to do a college radio interview every year from here on out, assuming we find stations in the states we travel to that are interested.]

I’m glad that we did it, but, like a lot of things, it made me feel old. Maybe it’s just because we hadn’t done an in-studio interview in about a decade or so, but it felt really foreign. I mean, we aren’t exactly decrepit, but it’s just weird being around young people. And it didn’t help much that Brandon, who goes by the name DJ Phoenix, started the conversation by saying that his parents graduated from high school in ‘87, which would make them about a year younger than us. [Dave is a year or so younger than the rest of us, but the rest of the band graduated high school together in ‘86.] It was good, and he was genuinely interested, but our cultural references didn’t quite line up. When we told him about our pledge to get together one day a year and make a record, for instance, his first thought was to ask if we were aware of YouTubers Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang, who apparently had come up with the idea to do the same thing two years ago. We weren’t, we said… adding that 25 years is a lot longer than 2.

The project by these two YouTubers, which we looked up upon getting back to the house, is called First of October, and I’ll just say that it’s considerably different from what the Monkey Power Trio does. I will say, however, that I’m glad that it exists, as it made me realize the truth of something Dave has been saying for a while now, which is that the “one day a year” thing isn’t what makes this project of ours interesting. It’s the work that we come up with inside the constraints which we’ve set for ourselves. Any group of musicians could get together once a year and make a record. With the exception of Dave, though, we aren’t musicians. And what we come up with isn’t like anything that exists elsewhere.

[above: Matt in the WTUL studio with DJ Phoenix, on the program Rising from the Ashes.]

THE PROCESS… I hesitate to say it, as someone could infer that the reason things went so smoothly this year is because Mike wasn’t with us, but everything came together really easily this time. It just felt like, for maybe the first time ever, we just all had our shit together, at least on the technical end of things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we operated flawlessly, like a crew of professional safe crackers or a team of military surgeons, but there was something different this year. We all just did what we had to do in a very workmanlike fashion. At the appointed time, we all just started doing what needed to be done. I started disassembling lamps to build mic stands, and scavenge for things like ironing boards to use as tables. Dave started assembling the recording equipment. Matt turned a bedroom into an isolation booth for his various wind instruments, which he laid out around him like weapons. And Dan started running wires, setting up the mics, and doing whatever else needed to be done. I don’t think we had to talk about much of anything. I remember asking Dave for tape at one point, but otherwise it was like we were all moving in this really well-choreographed dance, sliding around furniture, lining up instruments, and getting everything in its place. There was no asking, “Where do I plug in my headphones?” There was no confusion as to where we’d all be playing. It just kind of magically happened.

Again, I don’t know how much to credit any of this to the fact that Mike wasn’t there, but it certainly didn’t hurt that he was relegated to an iPhone on the fireplace mantle, where we could just mute him if we started to find him annoying, instead of having him chase us around like usual. [Mike, it should be pointed out, is also the most Fox News-watching, politically ill-informed, Trump-loving member of the band, so he would have probably objected to our watching the impeachment proceedings during the session.] Here’s Mike, who was sitting at home on his couch, watching us from the mantle at 8116 Jeanette Street.

THE CIGAR BOX GUITAR… We added a new instrument this year, a cigar box guitar built by one of Dan’s high school students, who apparently did a little research, found out about the Monkey Power Trio, and asked his English teacher to play it on a track. [I’m not typically jealous of my bandmates, but when I heard that Dan had inspired this kid to build him a guitar, I’ll confess that, for a moment, I questioned my decision not to go into teaching.] As it turned out, I got to play it on that one song – a number we called Stray Voltage. It was my first time playing a guitar in years. [I’m thinking that we should get someone to build us a new instrument every year.] Oh, and we were super lucky that this cigar box guitar made it to the session in time, as Dan checked his bags, and they were apparently lost in transit. Thankfully, the airline located them, and had them sent to the house just in time. And we were happy to find that the old cigar box hadn’t been smashed to dust inside Dan’s suitcase… Oh, I should also add that the frets were sharps as hell. I think the kid made them out of razor blades. [Maybe he doesn’t like Dan all that much after all.]

A SCENE FROM THE SESSION… I hesitate to do this, as I’m afraid it might give away too much of the magic, but here’s what it looks like when we draw the blinds and get to work. I shot this, if I’m not mistaken, as we worked on the song Baby Wolf, which began as a song about the founding of Rome. Years from now, when the record of this session finally comes out, and you wonder how we captured the high-definition saliva slurping sounds in the background, this is how we made it happen.

MAKING A MOVIE ABOUT CANCER OUTSIDE OUR HOUSE… Universal Studios was shooting a movie down the street from where we were staying. Dan, like the old man from the midwest that he is, asked someone on the set what was going on, and he was told the movie’s called All My Life, and that it stars an actor from the film Crazy Rich Asians by the name of Harry Shum Jr. We looked it up before the session, and discovered that it’s about a young couple that decides to go ahead and get married, even though they get news that the husband-to-be has terminal cancer. It’s apparently based on a true story about a couple that raised over $50,000 on GoFundMe to have the “wedding of their dreams” after being given a positive cancer diagnosis… And, again, this made us think of Mike, at home in the exurbs of Atlanta, awaiting his test results with his wife, who he just married a few years ago. So, every time we left the house, and encountered the production, it was yet another reminder, at least for me, of what Mike was going through, our own mortality, etc. [One of our songs this session is called All My Life. It’s about an egocentric actor contemplating death after a life spent not engaging in the real world. It has wind chimes.]

RUINING MIKE’S HEARTFELT CONTRIBUTIONS… Mike, probably because he thought that he might be dying, contributed a number of uncharacteristically introspective, heartfelt lyrics over the course of our 24 hour session, and, invariably, we ruined them by Monkey Powerifying them. Had it turned out that his cancer had come back, we would have probably felt like shit. As is, though, I think we’re OK with it.

It’s also worth noting that Mike, on a few of the tracks he submitted, had asked his wife and stepdaughter to join him in singing. So, if you should hear a female voice, that’s what’s going on. I may have this wrong, but I think it will only be the third time a woman or girl has ever joined us during a Monkey Power session. The first time was in New York in 2003, when our friend Anne Shapiro joined us on Hacking Through the Tentacles of Despair. The second was the year that our friend Andy Calder’s kids joined us at the Wyoming silo where we recorded Two Miles from Mormon Row. And I think this would be the third.

BIGGEST LAUGH OF THE WEEKEND… I think the longest prolonged laughing fit took place about ten hours into our recording session when Dave walked into the kitchen, noticed an empty bottle of wine called Frico, and came back to the group with the idea of adding a new personality to our ever-growing cast of characters. He wanted to write a song, he told us, about a man named Frico Chicho. As things progressed over the following half hour, we added a fellow by the name of Nigel Witherbottom, and rounded the group out with someone named Vasco Spermo. I don’t know that any of them will stand the test of time and go down in Monkey Power lore along the likes of Snappy Urethra, or Fuzzy and Jenkins, but anything is possible…. But, yeah, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. I loved standing around and talking about the made-up language of Frico.

We also, for some reason, got to talking about James Brown prior to the session, and how, when he was upset with his bandmates, he’d hold up a certain number of fingers during live performances, indicating how much money he’d be docking them. For instance, if a drummer missed his mark, and came in a second late, Brown might raise five fingers as he launched into his vocals, indicating that said bandmate was going to be docked $50 for his mistake. So, all this session, whenever one of the guys fucked up, I found myself silently raising a finger or two. I don’t think anyone really laughed, but I found it funny to imagine what a perfectionist like James Brown might make of a band like the Monkey Power Trio, were mistakes are the norm.

[above: Dave lets me in on the inspiration for Frico.]

FOOD, DRINK AND THE LIKE… There was a lot of food. In addition to Jacques Imo’s, we also hit Melba’s, Cochon, Bacchanal, BJs Bywater, and a few other places. Some of the best food I got was bought on the street, from Miss Linda “The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady” Green.

[above: Miss Linda “The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady” Green’s gumbo, and shrimp and crab meat dressing.]

THE REST OF THE STORY… Here, before I wrap this up, are just a few more things I’d like to have recorded in the official history… We were in Louisiana for Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’ reelection win over Republican businessman Eddie Rispone. Trump had won Louisiana by 20-points in 2016, and had come to the state twice in the ten days before the election to campaign for Rispone, who still lost, amplifying Trump’s earlier loss in the Kentucky Governor’s race. The Republicans had tried to paint Bel Edwards, who is a conservative, pro-gun, anti-choce Democrat, as a “socialist,” but people apparently saw though it. In retrospect, upon hearing that he’d won, I should have found a Bel Edwards campaign party the night of the election, but, if memory serves, I’d turned in early to watch an episode of Columbo by then… There were a bunch of folks in matching t-shirts at the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival. Apparently, they’d all come to the free community event as a part of a family reunion. I can’t remember the name of the family, but I’ll always remember what was written directly below the family name on each of the t-shirts; “Balls Deep in the Gumbo.” Again, this is the kind of thing that surely would have found its way into a song, had we seen it prior to the session… We didn’t spend more than a few minutes in the Latin Quarter, but, as some of the guys had never experienced beignets, we did make one trip in. And it was during that stop, as I was standing around outside, waiting for my bandmates to order their beignets, that I was nearly run down by a large group of hard-laughing, likely drunk, older women in matching black shirts being led down the sidewalk by a younger woman who kept looking back at them and yelling to everyone on the street, “I’ve got hoes for sale.” Every time she said it, they’d all explode in laughter, and grab onto one another as if they’d otherwise collapse to the ground. It might not sound it, but it was really adorable… The night before the session, for some inexplicable reason, we watched a documentary about Steely Dan and how they recorded the song Peg… As for the session itself, we recorded 8 relatively decent songs over the course of 24 hours, during which we probably actively worked at songwriting for about 14. All in all, I’d say it was pretty productive by MPT standards. We probably would have been more productive, however, had we not been watching the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who, sadly, put into somewhat stark relief just how little this project of ours matters in the whole scheme of things… Back to colonoscopies, I think it’s worth noting that my bandmate Dan, the English teacher, refers to these detailed write-ups of mine as “painfully thorough annual colonoscopies.” He also says that no one will ever care. And he’s right, of course, on both counts. But yet I persist.

[above: No session would be complete without a douchey band photo. Here we are in a cemetery not too far from the Tulane campus, just after we did our interview. I don’t know how common it is in New Orleans, but it appeared to me as though this particular cemetery allowed people to just come in and bury their own loved ones without any kind of regulation or oversight.]

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9 Comments

  1. iRobert
    Posted December 8, 2019 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    First Katrina, and now this.

  2. Eel
    Posted December 8, 2019 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    What’s the female equivalent of “balls deep in the gumbo”? Is is “vag full of gumbo”?

  3. Anonymous
    Posted December 9, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    TIL that when you ask Alexa to play Monkey Power Trio, music actually comes out. Apparently this is more real than I’d thought. God help us all.

  4. Jean Henry
    Posted December 9, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Eel– The female equivalent to balls is ovaries. Clit = penis. These things are mostly hidden but functionally related. the clit is 4-6″ long, shaped like a wishbone, and wraps around the vaginal canal when aroused. Just the tip of the clit is exposed. There is no male vag, but a rectum usually suffices.

    Also women remain fully sexually functional until death. Men not so much. I keep wondering how it is that our now well established boredom with monogamy and post menopausal waning of sexual activity became equated with sexual disinterest or dysfunction…. Nah not really.

  5. Eel
    Posted December 9, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    It had occurred to me, Jean, but I didn’t like the sound of “ovaries deep in the gumbo.” The more I think about it now, though, the more I’m thinking about trademarking it.

    I do think you’re off, though. The be “balls deep” in gumbo has little to do with balls. It just means that your entire shaft, up to the balls, is in the gumbo.

  6. Jean Henry
    Posted December 9, 2019 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Same with ovaries. You can’t get to them without covering the other territory. So what was your point?

  7. ElsieGal
    Posted December 10, 2019 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    So thrilled you are still doing the annual gig and reporting about it. Kudos to all y’all. Loved every single word.

  8. Michael A
    Posted December 10, 2019 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating new chapter in the MPT saga. Things are getting real. Can’t wait to hear the recorded results.

  9. Jean Henry
    Posted December 18, 2019 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Thought of you, Mark:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hxg8F22Vv44

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