Major and The Monbacks

Interview by Davey Jones
Issue 27 • May 2015 • Norfolk

After years of performing and hundreds of gigs, this good-time soul-pop band has a more mature sound than ever before.

“Chuck! Chuck! It’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you lookin’ for? Well, listen to this!”
–Back To The Future

How far will a band go to promote what they’re doing? For Major and The Monbacks, the answer is a road trip that’s long enough to just about circumnavigate the earth. From May to November of last year, they drove over 23,000 miles and performed more than 100 shows across the country. At every stop during those seven months, they were focused on refining their new sound, a refreshing blend of sixties-inspired pop, soul, and roots rock. It’s a notable departure from Monback House Party, the ska-infused EP they released almost three years ago, complete with black-and-white sunglasses-adorned album art worthy of The Specials. These days, they’re bringing something that sounds classic yet contemporary, like a freshly unearthed live recording of some heavyweight mashup you never knew existed. Imagine Otis Redding in a guest appearance with The Band or Gene Vincent fronting Dr. Dog for a night. It’s kind of like that.

Major and The Monbacks have come a long way from the high school garage band they started as. Back in 2008, it was just twin brothers Cole and Neal Friedman jamming with their musician friends, percussionist Tyler West and guitarist Michael Adkins. As the band evolved, saxophone and trumpet parts were added, roles currently filled by Nate Sacks and Aaron Reeves. Harry Schloeder, another longtime member, was originally a makeshift roadie, filling roles as needed such as photographer and guitar tech. He joined the band on stage for the first time at The NorVa in 2012, slinging an acoustic guitar at the back of the stage, then later taking a more prominent lead guitar and vocalist part as Neal shifted to electric piano.

Just like the lineup, the venues have changed over the years. “We’ve built up a pretty sizable fan base from word of mouth and just playing shows,” said Neal. Enduring fan support has helped them transition from frat parties and regional festivals to road trips through musical meccas like Nashville and New York City. “We’re learning the business,” Cole said, “Where to stay. Who to contact. We hired a publicist (I had to learn what that even means).” After their show at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn last August, the band drove around until 4 a.m. looking for a place to leave the van for the night. In the process, they came upon a taco truck and, realizing they were famished, stopped for a late night snack. As soon as they finished eating, the truck packed up and left, allowing them to take its spot. “That’s a tactic we’ll have to remember,” Harry laughed, “It was a good taco, too.”

Road-tested and audience-approved, Major and The Monbacks returned to the studio this past January, specifically the one in Nashville known as Welcome to 1979. It had been recommended to them by Nathaniel White, a promoter in Alabama. Though White had first suggested FAME Studios, the place where artists such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and Wilson Pickett all captured some of their greatest hits, it was way above their budget. When they finally arrived at Welcome to 1979, though, they weren’t disappointed with their choice: wood panel walls and rugs that “really tie the room together” decorated a space with great acoustics and an analog recording setup. Harry reminisced, “When we saw it, we all said, ‘I want to record an album here.’”

They didn’t take their time in the studio lightly, either. After the extensive tour last year, longtime drummer Hunter Rhodes left the band to be replaced by Michael’s brother, Brian. In the month leading up the the recording session, Brian practiced with the rest of the group for eight hours almost every night to make sure everyone had their parts down cold. To keep that natural feeling they had built up in practice, they opted to record as a group in the same room instead of track-by-track “We did it for our fans and for ourselves,” Cole said, “We’re ready for people to be able to hear the band.” Despite the fact that Major and The Monbacks had been performing some of these songs for over three years, they had never actually heard them recorded. “It was new to us, too,” said Harry, “The more we listened to it, the more we liked it.”

The self-titled full length album, Major and the Monbacks, that came out of those sessions stands tall even after repeated listens. The Wilson Pickett influence on it is strong, but has a special backstory for the song “I Do.” “We used to play more covers,” Cole explained recalling their younger days, “Sometimes we were hired to take up as much time as we could.” To help get through those longer gigs, they would play Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and spill over into an extended solo. After doing that for a while, Neal wrote a song in the same key that they would add on to the end in a mini-medley. “It’s the second half of one of the craziest things we did live,” Neal said, “but it had never stood on its own before.” True to form, “I Do” closes the album and does it with a bang. A music video for “I Do” drops this month, filmed at a mansion in the Stockley Gardens section of Norfolk.

Of course, the only thing to do once you have a new album is to get back on the road and promote it. Their 2015 tour kicks off this month and includes plenty of shows close to home. One of the highlights will be their set at the LAVA Music Festival in Suffolk on May 16 where they’ll share the stage with Fitz and The Tantrums, Of Montreal, and Mutemath as well as other Virginia-based acts including Wyteshayds and Kishi Bashi. If you can’t make it there, Major and The Monbacks will also be performing at Dominion Riverrock in Richmond on May 17 and Rooster Walk in Martinsville on May 24. It’s a new Norfolk sound that they’ve got and they’re bringing to the rest of the world, one gig at a time.

To see all of Major and The Monbacks’s upcoming gigs and listen to the new album, visit their website at majorandthemonbacks.com.

Photography by Karla Espino

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