Cheap Suits and Chainsaw Guitars: The Monsters Walk Among Us

Just in time for Halloween, here are The Monsters…

Cheap Suits and Chainsaw Guitars: The Monsters Walk Among Us

An interview with Reverend Beat-Man on 35 Years of The Monsters

Interview by Matthew Hutchison

In the context of the music industry, the term “adapt to survive” does not apply to everyone. Look at Slayer, they are a prime example of how they have never needed to change their sound to maintain relevance for nearly forty years. Another band on the same path, albeit in a much smaller niche, is Bern, Switzerland’s own The Monsters. 

If this is the first time you have heard this band’s name, no surprise. It has taken 35 years for a U.S. label to release an album of theirs in the American market.

Since 1986, The Monsters have walked amongst us and have not changed their sound for anyone. Their explosive style of garage punk and trash rock n’ roll is an amphetamine-laced take on ‘77 punk and psychobilly, all while wearing red sweaters and cheap-looking suits.

The Monsters Photo by Cendre Noire 2019

In their press photos, The Monsters look like they’re dressed as a house band for a 1960s era mid-tier Las Vegas burlesque-joint. Four middle-aged, normal-looking, clean shaven guys decked out in white button downs and black ties, blood red and black lapel jackets or red sweaters with a big white letter M emblazoned on the front. They look like the kind of guys someone will either buy a family condominium from or hire to perform Roy Orbison covers at a soirée.

The reality is their music, unlike their look, is anything but conservative. Short bursts of bludgeoning guitars over incoherent vocals and pounding drums make The Monster’s style of punk rock the sonic equivalent of a fresh sheet of 40 grit sandpaper grinding into your face, a chainsaw cutting through steel, and a dragster engine explosion. It’s loud, uncompromisingly fast punk rock n’ roll music and this is just a description of how their new album You’re Class, I’m Trash sounds. 

Who are these guys exactly?

International attention to the Swiss underground punk scene developed in the late 1970s when the first wave of bands like Zurich’s own LiLiPUT receiving acclaim and airplay of their first album from tastemaker English DJ, John Peel and Bern-based Grauzone’s “Eisbar” single climbed the charts in neighboring Germany and Austria. 

In the mid 1980s, the harder and dark edge sounds of Switzerland were prevailing across the country with Geneva-based The Young Gods and Zurich’s own Celtic Frost making their way further across Europe and eventually attracting American audiences to the landlocked nation.

Around the same period of time, The Monsters formed and held their first rehearsal in the country’s capital city, Bern. Beat-Man, the founding guitarist/vocalist of The Monsters, states the band’s formation was a reaction to the conservative nature of Swiss mainstream music industry who had been ignoring changing tastes in the country’s youth culture in favor of their traditional audiences (Opernhauskrawalle, anyone?). Beat-Man elaborates, “The large music companies around Switzerland controlled all the recording, distribution, and radio networks in the early 1980s. It would not be until 1984 when the national radio would allow 30 minutes of airtime dedicated to playing youth music like rock n’ roll, punk, and hard rock.  It was only classical and yodelling the rest of the time. I am dead serious. It was terrible! We just wanted to hear real independent and alternative music, stuff from the ’60s beat, rockabilly, psychobilly, and punk rock records we were collecting, so we formed a band in response to all the mainstream stuff coming into Switzerland. Cover songs were all we intended to play, but we sucked so much at our instruments back then that it was actually easier for us to write original stuff. Since I had the loudest voice, I became the singer and Yves [guitar from 1986 – 1995] was our guitarist and the drummer was from a friend’s band called The Radiations. I remember meeting Janosh at a King Kurt show in 1984. He became the bass player in 1988 and it would not be until 1995 when Swan Lee would be our drummer when we had a two drummer clone lineup. It was 2000 when Pumi joined doing all the electronic stuff. Since there were no clubs and barely any bands in our town when we first started, we organized our own gigs and parties in an old wooden squat house in Bern. We did everything ourselves back then, even fought off the police who wanted to shut our concerts down. We were young and wanted action, the mainstream folks never accepted us, which is funny because they eventually copied the scene that we started and made money out of it. Funny how that works.”

Early touring around Europe landed The Monsters three full-length LPs on the Bern-based record label, Record Junkie. More touring, old-school fax connections, and mailing letters around the world connected the bands with California labels, Dionysus Records, and G.I. Productions who they partnered with for their first U.S. single releases in the 1990s. It would not be until 2014 when the band could see another U.S. release with Muddy Roots Records releasing The Monsters on a split 7” with The Ettes. Six years later in 2020, Slovenly Recordings released the “I’m A Stranger To Me?/Carpool Lane” single.

Since 1998 and after the closure of Record Junkie, all The Monsters full-length releases are handled by Beat-Man’s own Voodoo Rhythm Records, a label that releases underground outlier rock music since 1992 ranging from punk, trash rock, one-man bands, rockabilly, garage, to psychedelic rock. “You’re Class, I’m Trash” is the first Monsters album where Voodoo Rhythm has partnered with a North American label, Slovenly Recordings who is handling a special Swiss-German language edition, and Hamburg, Germany’s own Sounds of Subterrania who is handling a special knitted sweater LP cover packaged version.

Beat-Man elaborates on his feelings for his relationship and the history he has with these two labels,  “I have never tried asking a U.S. label for a release. Slovenly asked me about doing a release together and I have been in contact with Pete [Menchetti – owner of Slovenly Recordings] for a long time dating back to his first label, 702 Records. Gregor [Samsa], from Sounds of Subterrania, was and still is a big supporter of the band. He has organized a few tours for us in the past that were super punk organized (laughs), stuff with El Guapo Stuntteam from Belgium. I’m not good at asking for such things, it has always been Voodoo Rhythm releasing our albums and that works for us. In all honesty, I think, if I’m doing a good job, success will slowly appear.” 

For The Monsters, success has already reared its head for the band as they’ve been invited to tour across South America, play in the United States and Mexico, tour across Asia, and headline many independent festivals across Europe. Their bookings over the years have brought an influx of new heads to get familiar with their work after sharing the stage alongside Ty Segall, Zeke, High on Fire, Shooter Jennings, Eyehategod, Negative Approach, and King Khan & The BBQ Show among others. 

Beat-Man reflects on the audience their shows have attracted over the past few years and the diversity involved, “We attract all kinds of people. Young kids show up and blend in with the hipsters, goths, metalheads, and old rock n’ roll crew at our shows. I’m glad the youngsters judge us by our music other than our age. We’ve even had gig organizers say they thought we were teenagers based on how we sound.” 

In America, The Monsters are known within pockets of the underground and have grown in name since first playing New York in the early 2000s. 2013 is the band’s last U.S. appearance as part of the main act for Tennessee-based punk/metal festival, Muddy Roots, alongside Greg Ginn’s reformed Black Flag, and the late Bakersfield trucker-country artist, Red Simpson.

For those wondering why a return hasn’t been attempted, the costs associated with acquiring an O-1B visa with the help of an attorney can run as high as $6,000 per artist. Underground rock n’ roll doesn’t entirely pay the bills, unfortunately. 

Money aside, Beat-Man explains that the band is not used as a means for the guys to make a primary income. Each member already has stability in their professional lives in Switzerland’s arts and technology sectors. “It’s a good thing we learned early on not to have the band as a need to make money, surely we charge affordable rates for our shows, but we all have day jobs as our means to earn a living. We have mostly used this band as a free and creative means to work together without any pressure because we’re not only the band, we’re also the label and graphics person too. When you have been working with the same guys for a long time (bassist Janosh since 1988, drummer Swan Lee since 1995, and electronics Pumi since 2000), it’s an easy process. I bring the songs that are in my head to the practice room and the band works like a meat grinder and shredder just cutting every part that is too long and boring.”

2020 brought on two things for the band, the Slovenly Recordings single, which gave a preview of the newest Monsters material since 2016’s “M” album, and nothing but time to write a new record with all of Europe completely shut down over COVID-19. Over two weeks, the band fleshed out ideas that they exchanged through voice memo messages into full songs before stepping into Shirt Off Studios in Bern to make the album.

Between the live takes captured by Shirt Off and the mastering job by Toulouse-based engineer and longtime Voodoo Rhythm collaborator Lo Spider, the band sounds like they are running on nitroglycerin from start to finish.

The opening “Gimme Germs’ ‘ doesn’t waste a second grabbing you by the throat with its high-speed three-chord attack and Beat-Man shouting only two words throughout the whole song. In fact, the entire album is only 120 words long.

A break from the high-speed intensity of the band comes at the fourth track with the mid-tempo punk-swing feel of “Dead,” only this time Beat-Man’s shrieks the song title throughout before going into an improvised guitar solo mid-song until breaking into a mellow clean tone acoustic rhythm towards the track’s ending.

Video for “Dead (Mortem Batkovic)” ft. Mario Batkovic

There’s an alternative version of “Dead” included towards the end of the album which features notable Bosnian composer, Mario Batkovic, who reworks the track into a gothic-sounding rendition choked with eerie choir harmonies. A pipe organ mixed with Beat-Man’s agonizing background vocals gives the impression you’re listening to a nightmarish stop-action animated short film on one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of Hell. 

The rockabilly swing on “Blasphemy” has the band breaking from their dissonant assault and revisiting their old psychobilly roots that were prominent on their first two albums, “Masks & The Hunch”. 

The band’s dark and offbeat sense of humor is displayed on the backwoods acoustic “Yellow Snow Drink” where the lyrics (which contain the most unique word across the album) are a mix of knee-jerk reaction, left-field topics like suicide, colorful death visions, and The Powerpuff Girls.

The noise factor and simplicity of “Devil Baby” is The Monsters’ crescendo point with its B-movie horror chamber entrance segueing into the band at their most chainsaw-through-bones form throughout the track’s 4:29 minutes. 

It has been eight years since The Monsters have roamed American soil, something Beat-Man is adamant on changing, especially with this new material on the horizon.“Organizing a tour lately has been hard because no one wants to take the risk with the virus still out there,” Beat-Man says. “It is expensive to go to America from Switzerland, but it would be a great tour. Swan Lee is actually a dual citizen, American and Swiss. He was born somewhere in California and had a great time when we first went to America to play CBGBs in New York. They hated us there, I think, the people were too wild and the show was loud. People there are still shocked about how there’s a Swiss rock n’ roll scene. It seems like their knowledge of Swiss culture is only chocolate and “Heidi”, sweet and boring. Then they hear us playing this 110 dB noise level hardcore rock and roll! Our sound works over there. The Americans have a big rock n’ roll heart, that is for sure.” 

From the consistent music and long-built career The Monsters carry with their name, the term legacy band does not begin to describe their place in today’s rock n’ roll world. They have been playing some of the most primitive forms of rock n’ roll music for half their lives and are respected throughout the global underground music community, all without compromising their sound for some short-term gain. They have paid their dues. 

Beat-Man reiterates this best, “I know there will always be other bands taking our spot, but I do not care. Those bands are on top for a few years, then they are forgotten forever. We will not be forgotten, The Monsters will always be here.”

Pre-order link:

https://themonsters.ffm.to/youreclassimtrash

The Monsters online

https://www.themonsters.ch/

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