By Philip Runco
Matt Mondanile has two bands: the “real” one and the imaginary one.
The former, Real Estate, put him on the map as a guitarist whose bright leads could feel simultaneously spry and lackadaisical. It’s not until you actually see Mondanile performing with the five-piece – hunched over, lurching back and forth, sweating out pond-rippling riff after riff – that you realize how difficult it can be to sound so laid back
Over three increasingly refined and personal albums, Real Estate has maintained the ambiance of an early summer evening, when the air feels like bathwater and the novelty of warmth slows your winter hustle. The band has been content to drive a straight course, in a way, burrowing deeper and deeper into its sound, and finding itself playing to bigger crowds along the way.
His other band, Ducktails, has been a different story.
“Ducktails isn’t really a band,” Mondanile told me in June. “There’s a various cast of characters that get involved, but it’s my project. I like to think of it as more of a concept or an imaginary band.”
The clarification is somewhat necessary because these days, Ducktails can look and sound a lot like a proper band. This wasn’t always the case. The project started in the tool shed behind his parent’s Northampton, Massachusetts, where Mondanile crafted low stakes, lightly psychedelic instrumentals – part tropical vibes, part 80s nostalgia – and pressed them to cassette. Titles from those early recordings include “Pizza Time”, “Chill Jam”, and “The Mall”.
But with each release – of which there were many – Ducktails took on more significance. The recordings became cleaner. More people joined him, even if temporarily. It became clear that Mondanile has a restless mind and that Ducktails gave him the opportunity to meander stylistically, to wander outside the well-established confines of his main gig. It’s hard to imagine what Real Estate would even do with a swooning yet chintzy slow jam like 2013’s “Letter of Intent”.
“I have a lot of ideas musically, and they’re kind of all over the place,” Mondanile shares. “I like when records are eclectic and don’t sound all the same.”
His latest, St. Catherine, is his strongest statement yet – a rich and wide-ranging tapestry of chamber pop and languid guitar rock. It also finds the recent L.A. transplant at his most intimate, both lyrically and with his vocals high in the mix, thanks to the assistance of seasoned producer Rob Schnapf.
“I wanted this record to really show that I was trying to make something put-together and well-rounded and concise and to-the-point, something people could relate to it,” the guitarist says, speaking from New York. “It’ not like I sat down and said, ‘This record is going to showcase this aspect of my creative proclivity.’ You just go in and try to make it better than the last one. More importantly, you want to make something that people can listen to over and over and over again.”
A simple enough goal. Nothing less, nothing more.
Real Estate has reached some noteworthy heights, but is it more gratifying when Ducktails passes a milestone? Do you view this project as a truer reflection of your own interests and abilities?
It is. Ducktails is more of a showcase of myself and what I can do. Real Estate doesn’t necessarily limit me but it’s just one thing that I do – it’s writing and playing guitar parts. Sometimes, I’ll write a song .
With Ducktails, I can create the worlds and stars within a whole universe. I put them all together and that’s the album.
St. Catherine is conceptual: It’s the idea of being in love and falling out of love, but also being surrounded by this beautiful and religious artwork. It’s like walking through the botanical gardens of a museum in Europe. It’s this fantasy kind of world. I like to think of Ducktails as this kind conceptual, fantasy band playing throughout.
What’s the significance of St. Catherine?
St. Catherine of Alexandria devoted herself only to Jesus Christ and was a very scholarly Christian who converted nonbelievers to Christianity. I thought her story was really interesting because she was so set in her ways.
The title track is a metaphor about her life. I say, “Nothing is less, and nothing is more.” She doesn’t need anything else. She’s satisfied with wanting an unattainable thing – to be with Jesus Christ. It’s interesting to be satisfied with something that’s not even tangible. That’s not the whole idea of the record, but the record is about falling in love and being lost in the fantasy of love.
“Heaven’s Room” is about falling in love and having an angel take you up to heaven. It’s a way to explain to love: All of a sudden you’re in this amazing place and you’re kind of lost in it. You’re almost distracted by it, but there’s nothing that will pull you out of it.
When did you come across her story? How religious was your upbringing?
I was raised Catholic, and I knew of St. Catherine, but I didn’t really know much about her. When I was writing the record, I was looking at a book and there was a story about St. Catherine, and I was like, “What’s the deal with this lady?” I researched her from there.
You’ve said Flower Lane wasn’t an outwardly emotional record. How did you get to the point where you were writing a record about love?
I was in a relationship that made my emotions come out. I also had a lot of time to write music and listen to what I was working on and spend a lot of time with it. It was almost an outlet for me to write about the relationship when I was in it.
These are genuinely real feelings. I don’t think I had ever really tried to express that before, at least not on purpose. I had kind of written love songs before, but in a weird way.
My previous music was more about escapism – an escape from reality. This is about being in the reality and talking about my life. Before I just wanted to be in this exotic, fantastical world, but without explaining why. This is more directly poignant to my life in every way.
Is that more satisfying? Or is it just the other side of the coin?
It’s satisfying but it’s also a little bit scary. Some of the lyrics are a little bit emotional. It’s scary to sing them aloud. But it does feel great.
Ducktails is an amorphous project, but did you give any thought to releasing this sort of record under a different name, given what a break it is from your past?
Yes. Definitely. I thought about changing the name millions of times. The name was such a stupid idea. At the time, I was really young and just wrote Ducktails on a 15-minute of cassette of music I had made. [Laughs] I just stuck with it.
But I don’t really like my actual name. My last name is really hard to pronounce, and people say it all different kinds of ways. I also didn’t want to be a singer-songwriter. I didn’t think that it would get the picture across. I like the idea of bands names and the imaginary band – it’s kind of an alter ego. If I ever do something that I think should come out under a different name, then I would do that.
With this record, I was thinking, “Maybe I should call it Matt Mondanile.” But then I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to do that. I want to have the people who have heard my music see me get to this point.” I like the idea of going through the records and getting to a point. I think if you listen to all of my records in order – I have five LPs – and you get to [St. Catherine], you’ll think, “What the heck happened to this guy in between these records?” I
It’s almost like a maturing of time over the years. I want people to see that progression.
Julia Holter’s appearance on “Church” stands out on the record. It’s more than her vocals – there’s a sensibility that permeates the whole song. How do you go about choosing whom to collaborate with on a given record? At this point, you must have a sizable rolodex.
It’s usually on a case-by-case basis. Julia is a good friend of mine. I had moved to L.A. and she lives there, and she kind of showed me the city. I was working on music and she encouraged me to work with string players. She had string players at her disposal, so it kind of all fell into place.
I usually work with the people that I’m spending the most time with or who I just want to work with. It kind of happens on the fly. I’m not very picky about it.
But I wanted to make this record mostly by myself. I didn’t want to have a lot of collaborators. Still, there were people who really helped with St. Catherine and made it what it was – especially Julia.
I could work with all of these different types of people, but really it’s a matter of where I am at the time and who’s with me.
What led you to Rob Schnapf? What were you hoping he would bring to the table?
When I was working on the record, I was tracking it in different studios, and when I’d play it for friends, they’d say, “This reminds me of Elliot Smith.” I’d be like, “Really?” I wasn’t listening to Elliot Smith at all. I had in the past, when I was younger.
I went on Wikipedia and looked up who had produced those records. I saw Rob Schnapf, and I got his e-mail, and I reached out and said, “Hey, man, I’m looking for someone to help me mix the record. It’s all scattered. I can’t finish it myself. I need a producer.” Domino [Records], my label, had been saying, “We’ll help you if you want to work with a producer. We’ll pay for someone to finish this.”
So I e-mailed Rob, and I said, “I play in this band Real Estate. This my project, Ducktails. Here’s my record.” He immediately called me and said, “Are you from New Jersey?” I said yeah, and he was like, “I’m from New Jersey.” He loved the fact that I lived in L.A. and I was from the East Coast – specifically from New Jersey because that’s where he’s from. He’s half-Italian, and I’m Italian. We immediately clicked. He loved the record, and he loved that I had recorded a lot of it myself.
His studio ended up being six minutes from my house, so we cut a deal to it with him. He was just down to do it. There was no one else that I really wanted to work with. It just kind of fell into place in a beautiful way.
Do you ever try to bring more eclectic ideas and sounds to Real Estate? It’s a band that does a lot within a significantly narrower lane.
Do I ever try to take the sound of Real Estate and do more with it? The thing is that it’s not really my band. Well, it is my band, but it’s a group effort. When you’re in a group of people, it’s a democracy. Things move a lot more slowly. We have a really clear system in terms of how we create music. It’s hard to be, like, super-free with that; whereas with me, I would have a fun song and a soul song and a disco song on my record. Genre doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t like the restrictions of genre.
With Real Estate, you have to go with the flow of what everyone is doing so you don’t upset the balance. That’s the magic that we have: We all bring a little bit of stuff to it. It’s hard to be like, “Hey, maybe we should take out all of the guitars on this song and have one long synth breakdown or one long keyboard.”
Ducktails started as instrumental project, and even as it has become more based around vocals, each record has contained a few instrumental songs. Why bookend St. Catherine with them?
The first song on the record, “The Disney Afternoon”, was the first song that I wrote for the record. I wanted the record to be a chronological experience, in a way. But that song also has all of the sounds from the record in it. It’s a palette opener for everything.
With the last songs, the reprise and, before that, “Krumme Lanke”, I think it’s nice to bookend things with a landscape imagery of everything, rather than something lyrical.
Most of my early music is instrumental, and I don’t really see a difference between instrumental music and music with lyrics. Something is always telling a story, no matter what, whether it’s a guitar or keyboard or some melody line or a lyric. I wanted people to listen to this record and come into it not immediately hearing a very hi-fi voice. I wanted them to hear this organic bed of sounds. I wanted them to come in and leave the record with that. That’s what was important for me.
The jump in the vocal presence between Flower Lane and St. Catherine is striking. You’re higher in mix and much more cleanly recorded. Did that come from Rob’s encouragement or was it something you already had in mind?
Rob just took my voice and made it stand out. He took it to the next level. I wanted my lyrics to be clear. I wanted them to be heard. I didn’t want my voice to be buried in the mix.