Ducktails' Matt Mondanile talks escapism in his EP & LP

Michael Wojtas

Matt Mondanile Ducktails

Matt Mondanile makes music you can escape into. Take a random sampling of titles from the Ducktails catalogue — “Beach Point Pleasant,” “White House With Green Shutters,” “In the Swing,” “Backyard,” “Ivy Covered House” – and you get what could be a list of peaceful places from the memory of any child of the suburbs.

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While Mondanile’s output as Ducktails has been largely successful as music for reflection and retreat, a certain wry quality occasionally surfaced, causing a bit of an emotional disconnect. See his 2011 album Ducktails III, on which he paired his most wistful melody with shaggy lyrics about the difficulty of finishing books and finding lost handkerchiefs (“Art Vandelay”). Named for the alter ego George Costanza employed while avoiding all manner of honest human connection and personal growth, the song was perhaps occasion to question Mondanile’s sincerity.

Which is why the latest release under the Ducktails moniker, the Wish Hotel EP, feels like an ever-so-gradual awakening. The soft rock and sophisti-pop accents that graced this year’s The Flower Lane LP – sometimes humorously – – are delicately integrated into Wish Hotel’s songs in ways that are never less than genuine. Breathy synth washes, breathier vocals, more concise soloing – this is the language Mondanile has developed to express an unexpectedly nuanced range of feelings. This push toward openness extends to the EP’s lyrics, as well. Opener “Tie-Dye” acknowledges the flipside of a life lived in the isolation of hideouts, and it’s more tinged with melancholy than anything else in the Ducktails’ songbook; “Honey Tiger Eyes” is the closest thing to an earnest, straightforward love song Mondanile has done yet; and, in the title track, he even confronts the insincerity question. Key lines: “It’s the story of my life/No one believes me.”

Making time for Impose, Mondanile offered up some thoughtful ideas on how he imbued his songwriting with a more personal focus for Wish Hotel. In the process, he also clued us on in the mechanics of working alone versus recording with a full band, EPs vs. LPs, and abstract impulses vs. pop ones. As a bonus, a few rays of light were shed on the upcoming Real Estate record, tentatively set for 2014.

I just caught the solo set you played at Woodsist Fest. You played a lot of newer songs, but it in a stripped down style reminiscent of your early records. Was that a last minute thing?

Matt Mondanile: That was a last minute thing. Sometimes I end up playing shows like that – stripped down – but that was really last minute because I filled in for a band that cancelled. So I just borrowed an acoustic guitar and didn’t really practice and I just made up what I was going to do right beforehand. I just sort of had a set list in my head.

When did you write the songs on Wish Hotel? The Flower Lane just came out, what, 9 months ago?

The Flower Lane came out in January, so those Wish Hotel songs were something I was working on all year when I wasn’t touring. They started on my computer, in my apartment. I track a lot of them just straight into my computer, like a lot of the guitar. Then I ended up moving back out of my apartment in New York to my parents, where I had more space and gear and I continued to slowly work on them. Then I finished those songs in the studio where I did Flower Lane in New York with Al Carlson, who recorded my last record. He helped me do some of the work at the end, like mixing the vocals and drums. So it all came together slowly over the course of a few months.

One thing that really stood out about Flower Lane was how collaborative it was, especially contrasted with everything else you’ve done alone as Ducktails. Can you talk about that dynamic a bit?

Since it was such a collaborative thing with the band for The Flower Lane that I was kind of concerned with keeping my own identity as well with the project. So I thought it would be good to continue what I did before, but see how it would change after working with other people. So I’m excited to be doing music on my own. I think I’ll keep working on stuff that’s…not similar to the Wish Hotel EP – I feel like the reason I wanted to put out this EP is that it’s like a certain batch of songs that are kind of related to each other. I just wanted them to be heard by people, you know what I mean? Not in the presence of an LP, but more of a shorter EP version of a record thing, where it’s just kind of a little message rather than a big statement. I’ve never really done that, and I thought it would be cool for people to hear it.

In addition to the Ducktails releases, you also came out with the Egyptian Sports Network 12 inch this year with Spencer Clark [Monopoly Child Star Searchers], which is more reminiscent of some of your very early, drone-y stuff as Ducktails or Predator Vision. How do you view this project in relation to your Ducktails/Real Estate work?

That was just so different because it was with Spencer. It was more of like his thing, but we were working on it together, it was a collaborative thing. And that’s basically trying to make like interstitial music for the news. The concept is, if there were an Egyptian sports network, what would the interstitial music be like? [Laughs] Or that was the idea behind it, but when we executed it, it kind of became its own thing. That was fun, because it was more improvised and abstract. It was an abstract idea, then we just improvised our way through it, and working with Spencer in that way was cool. We did it over like the course of a week, and then he edited it. We recorded it almost two years ago in Portland, Oregon at his house.

I’m a fan of all different types of music, especially weirder, more fucked-up sounding music. I always want to keep working in pop music as well as working in any other kind of music. It’s important to me to be able to express myself in different ways, I guess, you know?

Sure, I was actually wondering if Egyptian Sports Network was sort of an outlet for your more psychedelic or, like you said, abstract inclinations. Because newer Ducktails stuff has been maybe more pop, more streamlined…in a good way.

[Laughs] Thank you. Yeah, I’ve always had an interesting time balancing the two kinds of things.

Or really most of the stuff on New Images [Mondanile’s label] leans that way, toward the weirder side. What’s up with New Images right now?

I have a lot of stuff coming out on that. There’s this band Francisco Franco that I’m really excited about. I’m putting out their debut. They’re three guys that don’t live in the same city, and they kind of focus on music as a hobby. They kind of make music that sounds like Neu!/krautrock mixed with classical guitar. And I’m doing this reissue that’s probably going to come out this year for a band that’s called Beat Rhythm Fashion. It’s a New Zealand band from 1982 that’s amazing. It sounds like the Cure’s synths, but also in a New Zealand kind of style, so hopefully people will be into that. It’s a slow process, but right now I have some time off from both projects, Real Estate and Ducktails, so I’m working on the label, trying to get it going. And this EP that I did is cool because I’m not really touring behind it. I’m just kind of putting it out there and not really promoting it, so I have time to work on the other things that I do.

That’s cool. Are you pretty much doing all of New Images yourself?

I curate it and everything like that. But Ari Stern, who does Underwater Peoples, basically runs the label for me, and Mike, who is his friend, does the graphic design for it. Ari, he talks to the pressing plant and does all that technical stuff. So it’s cool because he helps me out with the mail order, since I’m usually away. It’s impossible for me to send people records. So while it’s my thing, we’re kind of like partners, in a way, both creatively and physically.

Getting back to Ducktails, I think the project’s progressed from release to release, to the point where you have a pretty sonically diverse output. But I noticed there’s an escapist thread running through all of it. Lots of songs about hideouts, imaginary places…

Well, it’s sort of like exoticism in a way. I guess the idea behind imaginary things, settings or places is because when I started the project I was really into the concept of making a fake band. And now it’s different, because it’s kind of real. But I think the first thing I probably released was 1992 Demo.

Right.

But it was like 2008 when I released it. The idea was that maybe someone would find this, and think it was a band called Ducktails, and it was really a demo from 1992. And I always kind of think of it in that way, to this day, and try and create themes or concepts within the project that kind of relate to each other. I’ll always think of it in that way. It’s funny, because I’m working on this other interview right now, and it’s kind of a template, like “Get To Know the Band!”

[Laughs] Which would be weird.

It’s like, “When did you meet?” “When did you start?” But I didn’t really meet anyone else, people just ending up playing with me as my friends. It’s just kind of its own thing, in a unique way. Whereas Real Estate, or something like that, it’s a band, we all contribute to the songwriting, all the parts are there. It’s obviously different with something like Ducktails.

Like you were almost kind of a band with Flower Lane, then it was just you again on Wish Hotel…

It’s really weird. Because I would tour a lot solo, like in New York and Europe I’d play solo, so people would think of it like that. Then I started playing with the band, and started touring with them too. So now, it’s like, “hmm, what could I do?” I could do either thing; it’s up in the air, which is cool. It could go any direction, which is really what I always wanted it to be like.

The flexibility must be nice. Lyrically, Wish Hotel seems a little more candid, more personal. Was that intentional? Did it have anything to do with working solo?

Yeah, that’s true, it was definitely intentional in the way that when I was doing The Flower Lane, I was surrounded by a bunch of guys in the studio, like literally at all times. Just like five people there, hanging out, it was a group effort. I was trying to make this new one less like that, because in a way that process was less personal. Because I couldn’t really be exactly who I was, and always call the shots. So that was a big important thing with Wish Hotel, it was just me, I was being pretty honest with it and what I wanted to say. And it ultimately just came down to me at the end to decide what I was going to sing. Whereas before with the LP, I would say, “Oh, what do you think about that line? I don’t know if I like that?” And the band members would be like, “What if you tried changing it to this?” So it wasn’t actually me, it was a compromise.

But that seems like it could be cool in some ways.

It was really cool. It was almost as if I was in a band in the ‘70s in the studio, trying to make a hit record. [Both laugh] “What can we do to make this the best?” It was funny; it was like being in the laboratory. But now, I don’t second-guess myself when I’m doing things. I can just say, “I want to do it like this.”

Is that something you might go back to as Ducktails? Collaboration?

Yeah, definitely. I don’t really have any plans, I’m just beginning to think about what I might do next. It’s more like, just letting things come to me.

I also caught you with Real Estate at Woodsist, playing a ton of new stuff, which was cool. Any words you can give me on the upcoming Real Estate album?

We’re still sequencing our record, but we recorded a ton of new material in Chicago this summer at the Wilco studio, they have a loft there. So we spent two weeks there tracking, and we ended up recording like 16 or 17 original songs. So we’ve been editing them down to what the record should be. We’re still in the early stages of that, and it’s going to come out next year, but it’s all done and recorded and mixed. We just need to master it. I think people will really like the new record, because we did it mostly live. It’s four, sometimes five people playing live for the whole record with no overdubs – there’s overdubs for the keyboards and vocals and stuff, but I feel like it sounds more live than any of other records. I feel like it has a more natural sound to it, whereas the last record was mostly overdubs in the studio. But this one’s organic sounding.

Did you write any songs for it?

Yeah, there are two songs I wrote. I don’t which one will get on, or if it will be one or two, but they’re cool. There’s one song where I sing lead, and there aren’t even much vocals. It’s mostly an instrumental song. But we’re not really sure if that will go on the record or not, we’re just trying to decide.

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