INTERVIEW BY LAURA BITTNER
Inspired by paisley shirts, thrift store suits, and Ray Ban sunglasses, MAJOR AND THE MONBACKS are a seven-piece band predominantly influenced by the music of the 1960s. Though they have no plans to audition for a Wes Anderson film any time soon, their trademark style and captivating sounds have been an asset to their increase in popularity in the music scene. Based out of Norfolk, Va., the band’s extensive lineup includes guitarist, keyboard and organ player, and vocalist Neal Friedman; percussionist and hype man Tyler West; bassist Cole Friedman; guitarist, organ player, and vocalist Michael Adkins; guitarist, keyboard player, and vocalist Harry Schloeder; saxophonist Nate Sacks; and drummer Bryan Adkins. The band has spent most of the last two years touring, with plans to begin touring again soon. We had the chance to talk to Cole Friedman about the band’s beginnings, as well as their new album, which is set to release in April 2015.
Your music seems to have more of a rock and soul influence. Can you tell me about how you guys decided upon making this style of music?
We started playing, obviously, rock and roll. It’s like a high school band that stayed together in college, and then after college became a full-time job for all of us, so we’ve been playing together for about seven years. We joked around we’d have a horn section one day, and it naturally progressed into ‘60’s soul. From there, we started listening to that kind of music, and it [became incorporated] into the songwriting. With the horns, we’re able to get that old school soul and R&B feel, but also a kind of mixed bag, with influences of ‘60’s rock and roll and the three part harmony. So it kind of came about just from adding horns and figuring out how we could make the music better and sound cool, and kind of incorporate horns into the rock and roll sound that we had developed since high school.
In your initial rock and roll band, did you have this many members?
In high school, it started out as a five-piece band, and [throughout] the years it grew. We added members slowly and slowly, and [at] one point we were 10. We’re down to seven now. As the music progressed and the sound and the style started changing, we slowly started adding more members. With the new album coming out, we’re looking forward to showing people the new style that the band has, [and] the direction that the band is going in, which is definitely rock and roll with a soul feel.
Has the band always been called MAJOR AND THE MONBACKS? Where did the name come from?
The band’s always been called MAJOR AND THE MONBACKS since its inception. The “monback” means “come on back,” or “come on over.” It was a term that my dad would use all the time with his friends, kind of a term of endearment, kind of just “come on over,” “welcome in.” We were trying to find names and someone shouted that out, and we kind of took it under our wing and developed it. So now, [it’s a] pretty regular term with our friends. We use it as a welcoming kind of thing. But there is not necessarily one person that’s the “major;” it’s all of us together.
Have you always been based in Norfolk, Va.?
We all grew up here and went to high school here. In college, we had guys spread out over North Carolina and Virginia, so [we would be] meeting up on a Thursday and play throughout a whole weekend of shows. But, now we all live here in [Norfolk] down the road [from one another], and finally we’re all out of college. So we’re basically focusing on touring full-time now.
Starting last year, we hit the road full time, played shows up and down the east coast, and from May until December, there were 20,000 miles [that we traveled]. Basically we went as far north as Burlingon, Vt., and went all the way down to Alabama and Georgia. … We’ll be back on the road big time for an east coast tour starting in April to promote the album, and [we will be] touring into the summer, as well as into the fall.
Where do you record?
We actually shopped around a lot. We really wanted to find a studio that fit our style, you know, getting that vintage sound, 1960’s and soul stuff. We actually went to Nashville, Tenn. and found a studio called Welcome to 1979 that specializes in vintage recording, all on analog tapes. A lot of it was actually trying to create that live energy from our shows. We found a place that set up the whole band to play live and has the analog tapes, which is the old school way of recording — all old school with microphones and everything. We cranked out the entire album in ten days [and] on budget.
What are some of the bands that you play with like?
I guess the band is definitely soul and rock and roll, but [throughout] the years, especially since we’ve been touring heavily, the jam band scene [is] really the [type of] bands we’ve been playing with. We were trying to be a do it yourself, on the road band on a regional and east coast level. It’s not often that we get to play with bands that are similar to us, but at the same time, stylistically, we love playing with bands that are not necessarily the same. There are not many bands out there that are on our level that are doing anything with horns. We’ve gotten to play with some horns, some jam bands, but not too many bands that sound relatively similar to what we’re doing.
Can you tell me about a venue you enjoyed playing at, in Virginia or otherwise?
Norfolk, Va. is a cool place, and the scene is really growing. But I think my favorite in Virginia is actually Blacksburg, Va., which you would think is a small town, but that’s the place that [throughout] the years, we’ve always loved going to. The venue is Sycamore Deli; it’s a 300-person capacity basement room. It’s always a good time. Blacksburg is always one of our biggest towns in Virginia, as far as ticket sales go. But as far as most memorable rooms, I think the coolest place, in my opinion, that we’ve played is this place in Nashville, Tenn. called Acme Feed and Seed. Its’ an old warehouse from the 1950’s, and it’s actually all on Broadway Strip — a honky tonk place surrounded by blues and country. This is a place they converted to four stories, and there’s actually a club that’s on that country honky tonk strip. But it’s promoting soul, rock and roll, and funk. So it’s trying to show everyone in Nashville, Tenn. that you don’t have to be country or blues to be a cool spot. This place is a listening room, so everyone comes to see music, but it’s a very active listening room. We’re looking forward to going back.
Do your audiences dance a lot?
We definitely like to think that we get people dancing. That’s definitely one of the cool things about playing this style of music, with the horns and the old school rock and roll dance kind of music. It’s definitely nonstop, high energy. We pride ourselves in [our stage presence at our shows]. I think that’s something people really enjoy about our live shows.
Can you tell me a bit more about the record release?
It’s basically our debut full-length album LP. We’ll have CDs, [but] it will actually be out on vinyl. We cut the record on analog tape, so we’ll actually have a direct lacquer master in vinyl, and digitally as well. It’ll be out in mid-April. We actually just finished a Kickstarter to raise funds for the tracking costs of the album, and we raised over $11,000 through crowdfunding, which blew our goal out of the water. It’s really nice to see that people are willing to support us. That money is going directly going to putting this album out.
We’re an independent band, so there’s a lot of costs that go into making our album and touring. We’re really happy to have support. We had people from all [throughout] the country, friends and bands across the pond as well [help fund our album], but having that support is really what makes it possible for us to continue playing and to make a living playing music. So, that was definitely a big part of what makes it possible to help us put this album out. We’re really thankful to everyone that did that, and we’ve got great rewards for everybody from a free CD, a free T-shirt, [our] liner notes, and up to a free show with the band. That was really exciting for us to be able to say we had help from our fans to put the album out.
Where would you say a lot of the inspiration for this album came from?
Since we’ve been touring so often — the last year and a half we’ve been on the road — we haven’t really had a chance to sit down and write and record new music, so for us this has been a long time coming. I think the inspiration for this was really the ability [for] my brother and I [after we] graduated college last May [to transition] from playing as often as we could while having other obligations, to being a full-time touring band on the road five nights a week. This is our first opportunity to sit down with the music and really fine tune everything. I think this album is a culmination of the last six months of tour, and it was our first opportunity to really hit the road as much as we did, playing [more than] 100 shows [and traveling] 20,000 miles as a band together. So all the songs on the album have actually been road tested [more than] 100 times, and some of the songs are actually as old as two and three years. A majority of them have been written leading up to this summer tour. This album has gotten us [the opportunity to] finally show people what we did for the last six months. They are new songs, but at the same time, they’ve gotten serious play up and down the east coast. For us, as a live band, that really gave us the opportunity to work the songs down, and it transformed and evolved from what they were and what the album is because of our ability to play them in front of a live audience.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
We will be releasing tour dates in the next few weeks. Once the album comes out, we’ll be going back on the road full time, and we’re looking forward to letting our fans and the people who have seen us [throughout] the years [hear the] professional recording, which in the past we never had.
For more updates on MAJOR AND THE MONBACKS, please “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and Instagram, and check out their music on Bandcamp.