Toronto jazz group Monkey House are getting ready to release their new album Remember the Audio.
It’s the followup to their Juno-winning recording Friday, which topped the iTunes jazz chart and hit No. 11 on the Billboard contemporary jazz albums chart when it was released in 2019.
The new album features Monkey House’s regular lineup of keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter Don Breithaupt, drummer Mark Kelso, bassist Pat Kilbride, and guitarist Justin Abedin, along with guests including trumpeters Randy Brecker, Guido Basso and Michael Leonhart, guitarist Drew Zingg, and singers Lucy Woodward and David Blamires.
Breithaupt joined us to talk about Monkey House’s new album, the band’s 30th anniversary and what it took to get to this point.
As a Canadian who’s been living in Los Angeles, what have the last couple of years been like?
I had finished writing and demoing all the music for this album in early 2020 and I was really excited about it, and I had to sit on it for a long time. Like everybody else, I wasn’t doing any shows or sessions. I did get lucky in that I had a big arranging project and a book project, which were things I could do at home. But like everyone else, I went into human contact withdrawal.
Every artist had to navigate how or whether to release music during this time. Did you see a light at the end of the tunnel and think that it’s time to get the album out there?
I’m an optimist by nature, so I had to keep believing there was a light at the end of the tunnel. From the time that I finished these songs, it was well over a year before I could get everybody in a room to start recording them. Someone that I used to work with would say, “Let’s do it while we still like it.” If you sit on a batch of songs for a year, you get a chance to rethink and overthink. Anyway, it came out great and I can’t complain.
Weren’t some of the lyrics done during the pandemic?
That was some of the tinkering I did.
Did that influence the way you were looking at things?
Undoubtedly. If you just read the lyric sheet without listening to this record, you would see signs that maybe the author had been sitting in a room watching the paint dry during the pandemic.
Did the lyrics go from “everything’s groovy” to “oh no, everything’s not so great”?
Not exactly, but there is a little undercurrent of end-times thinking. But hopefully the catchy choruses and the grooves propel you along. It was Tom Waits who said, “I love when beautiful melodies are telling me terrible things.”
What shape are these songs in when you bring them to the band? Are they fully formed and ready to go?
They’re never fully formed until I let the other monkeys get at them. I show the guys the charts and play the demo and let them off the leash. My demos end up being pretty specific. If you heard a demo and compared it to the album track, the tempo, length, key, groove — all the basics would be similar.
But there’s certainly room for input?
Oh, yeah. With the calibre of musicians I’m working with, you wouldn’t want to muzzle them. I try to be specific because you don’t want to be at a loss for what to do in the studio, but if somebody’s got a better idea, it always wins.
It’s the 30th anniversary but it’s also, in a way, the 13th anniversary. The albums from Alma onward are a sort of rebirth of the band, but there was everything that came before, too. How do you thread all that history together?
This whole project started when I was working for a studio in Toronto called Marigold. I worked with them for a good 10 years, and a lot of the time I’d be contributing songs to other people’s records or co-writing with artists who were working in the studio. Occasionally, I’d get a little out of hand with too many chords changes or odd lyrical ideas, and they’d go, “I don’t know about that one. It’s a bit quirky for me.” I had this ever-growing pile of those songs, and finally [producer] Rich [Dodson] said, “This is enough for a record. Why don’t you do these songs?” That was a brainwave I hadn’t had before. I needed that shove.
It was something you hadn’t considered.
Not really. I had always thought of myself on the arranger, producer, songwriter end of things. I was a piano player, but I backed into singing and got used to it.
When you started back in 1992, did you ever think about the longevity? I can’t imagine that you’d have thought that you’d be here in 2022 with another record, but here we are. That must be very gratifying.
It is hugely gratifying. I love the feeling that there are more and more people waiting for the next one. The first time around, I would’ve bet you $1,000 that it was going to be a one-off.
Most of the time when I speak to an artist, especially in jazz, there isn’t really a commercial consideration around it. They’re making music for a whole bunch of other different reasons, and a lot of those reasons would be the same as yours. But there is momentum behind the band. The Billboard charts and the iTunes charts have been there for you. Does that influence how you perceive this moving forward, maybe differently than some of the other things you do?
It doesn’t change how I do it. I’m always trying to write the album that I would like to hear someone else do. Commercial considerations like what our chart position is going to be and whether we’ll kick ass on the iTunes chart, that’s all after the fact. It’s in the same category as trying to make a record to win a trophy — that’s not why you do it. It’s great when it happens and it’s great when you have a big first week and you get the sensation that people were waiting for this. That’s great.
I just wonder if it happens a few times that you then want that juice the next time.
You get that little adrenaline buzz. I just figure if we stick with what’s working and keep the bar high every time, we’ll please ourselves and we’ll please those people as well.
I get the sense that the recordings you make with Monkey House have an analog vibe. Is it like that, or is it a combination of digital and analog? Can you actually reject the new ways?
You’re right in that there’s a lot about our modus operandi that is old, but we’re not staunchly that way. Certainly these songs begin as all-digital demos with my vocal on top, and occasionally some of those elements from the demos that I played from a synthesizer into a computer will worm their way into the final mixes. But most of it is the quartet live off the floor, then I sing, then we add horns and strings.
That sounds to me like a very simple way of making music. Is it as simple as you’re explaining it?
Even people who are using live drums and live bass and guitars, they tend to get tracked separately in separate rooms, separate cities.
And it still gets tweaked in post all the time.
Of course. You don’t want to ignore the technology that’s available, but there’s nothing more satisfying than when everybody’s at their station and has their sound right and you count the song off and the band plays it for the first time. That’s when the hair stands up on my arm. I think, Yeah, this is how you do it.
That goes back to your choice of musicians, too.
Right. The learning curve with people like Mark, Justin and Pat is negligible. The first or second take could be the record.
You’ve got some cool guests on the new record: David Blamires, Lucy Woodward, Randy Brecker. I wanted to ask you about Guido Basso being involved. There’s something really sweet and lovely about having him be part of this contemporary sound. How did that come to be?
To some extent, that’s my co-producer and label boss Peter Cardinali’s connection with Guido. But for me, seeing Guido with the Boss Brass at the rotating stage at Ontario Place, those are formative musical experiences. Pretty much undisputed, Guido is one of the greatest flugelhorn players there ever was, and certainly at this point the greatest living. To be able to hand him this gift of a beautiful, jazzy tune and say, “Do your think,” it just warms my heart. Yeah, he’s a different generation, but we all speak the same language.
Tying those generations together is the essence of jazz, and of music in general.
People of that era may not know that they’re your mentors, but they are by proxy because you saw them live, heard their recordings and learned the discipline and the inspiration.
These are songs that you’ve written, but there is the Mose Allison tune Ever Since the World Ended on there, too. How did that one find its way in?
Once in a while, we’ll do a cover. That one seemed to be thematically a tongue-in-cheek nod to what’s been going on in the world over the last two years and change. “Ever since the world ended, I don’t go out as much.” It was also something we could put our stamp on musically. It started as a straight 12-bar and then of course I’ve tinkered with the harmony, as I’m wont to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.