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Joshua (from Kind Monitor)
An acoustic spirit in a digital world.
Phillip Hong
July 12, 2010
I must protest the direction that music in general is heading into, with the sneers of caked on, digitally constituted and "remastered" notes from instruments that could never produce the right sound naturally. It's also disconcerting to hear bleeps and bloops with silly exclamations replacing the point of music's existence, as a form of communication.
I speak of songs that communicate, that tell important stories to the listener. We need to cherish artists like Kind Monitor because they direct you to thoughtful, poetic messages that carry a sincere meaning.
In the following interview, we talk to Joshua, who seems to be one great exception in the useless follies of today's digitally generated emptiness.
PHIL: How did you get into music? How was Kind Monitor formed?
JOSHUA: When I was young my parents required my sister and me to take piano lessons starting in 2nd grade. They felt it was essential for our overall development to learn piano. In 5th grade they offered us the chance to choose an additional instrument that we wanted to learn and I chose percussion. I played piano and percussion from that point until college. Also my dad collects acoustic stringed instruments so there were always guitars, dulcimers, banjos everywhere around me. I can't remember a time when I wasn't working on a new song of some sort on some instrument.
Kind Monitor was formed slowly over a number of years. I lived on Haight Street in San Francisco and had developed rather intense performance anxiety. I dealt with it by writing music and recording music in my home recording studio. Most of the songs I was writing were inspired by the dark personal stories I overheard from a nearby drug rehab center through my apartment window.
After some soul searching I realized that I was ready to transcend my anxieties and share my music with audiences, for better or for worse. I moved to Brooklyn and put together a band with some close friends. We rehearsed for about a year and then started playing in an artist warehouse and then local coffee shops and bars and then at larger and more famous venues like Joe's Pub and Knitting Factory.
PHIL: You've employed quite a few acoustic instruments in your music. How important is this element to your overall sound?
JOSHUA: When I was younger I was a big fan of artists who used mostly acoustic instruments like Leonard Cohen, REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Liz Phair, and Joni Mitchell. Plus my dad was always strumming acoustic guitars around the house. When we started recording our first Kind Monitor EP, we included an eclectic blend of instruments from drums to a harmonium to a fretless bass to an old, very out-of-tune upright piano.
I like the variations that come from using live instruments - their timbre, the way they blend imperfectly but beautifully. I think we got the best results in our song "Cairo" which has a bit of a baroque feeling to it; we recorded the vocals on an old "salt-and-pepper" mic so it sounds like it is from long long ago. I also love the blend of an electronic keyboard or Wurlitzer with an acoustic guitar and a tambourine with close-miked vocals... need to do more of that on my next album!
PHIL: What was the inspiration behind your album, "Somebody Saves My Life Most Every Single Day"?
JOSHUA: My friend Skyler almost hit someone with his car crossing the street one day. Not on purpose or anything and it shook him that he had almost run over someone. I think maybe the woman he had almost hit yelled at him due to her fear. When he told me the story I got to thinking about the delicate balance that exists in our everyday lives.
For example, we have three thousand pound vehicles careening down the streets and stoplights with cross walks set on timers, and pedestrians on foot. And yet relatively few people are killed each year in pedestrian/automobile collisions. This somehow sparked me to write the song "Somebody Saves" which basically is about someone realizing that just getting through the day in our intensely mechanized, computerized world requires so many other people to 'save' our lives, through choosing not to run us over or blow us up or poison us or whatever way it is that we can harm each other.
And similarly the album overall I would say positions the narrator in a place of confusion and wonderment that the world is so awful and lovely at the same time and that he is alive to experience it and share it with others.
PHIL: If music wasn't a major part of your life, what would you picture yourself doing?
JOSHUA: I think about this question more often that I would care to admit. This is a very hard business! Even at my most successful moments over the last year, when there were articles and reviews about my band being published, and videos playing on MTV's Logo Network (and on, and playing our big shows at Galapagos, Knitting Factory, and Joe's Pub in NYC... well there's just no real income to be seen! It's very disheartening. And there's this constant need to self-promote which I find rather repellent and at times embarrassing. So, yes, I have been thinking rather a lot about what I might do with my life if I can't find a way to support myself doing what I love to do (writing and sharing music).
The most frequent idea that comes to mind is to become a psychologist or social worker - I actually know a lot of people in creative arts that cross over to these fields. I think music and therapy are actually rather closely linked; they both delve into our inner emotional spaces and shake things up in there. Also I'm currently working toward an honors level master's degree at NYU in music technology, which would potentially allow me to become a sound designer, acoustical technician, or an academic. Still related to music, but not in a way where my own music is directly required to bring me my income.
PHIL: How is the audience reaction to your live performances? Were many inspired by the poetry?
JOSHUA: The best moments for me are when people cry at our shows! I don't mean to sound sadistic or anything, but it's very gratifying as a musician to have someone tell me that my music moved them to tears. One audience member recently told me after a show that she had cried because our music filled her with an "appreciation of the human spirit." That was very special to hear some say.
There's a small but growing group of people that write me on our Facebook page (we're searchable on Facebook as "Kind Monitor") or email me and tell me that they find our songs to be very deep and powerful and complex. They often say it takes several (or many) listens to get into the core of our music. So yes I would say people are inspired by the poetry our music if they will take a bit of time and explore our songs. A person commented on iTunes that you have to "listen intently, dim the lights, sit comfortably... and hear it." That's pretty cool to me to know someone out there feels that way.
PHIL: If you were forced to perform a so-called "rock" song from the past decade, which track would be least cringing to you?
JOSHUA: Hmmm, that's a tough question. I'm assuming you mean it has to be a mainstream rock song that a lot of people have heard, not an indie rock or obscure song. I guess when choosing from the super mainstream, maybe I'd choose "The Scientist" by Coldplay. It's catchy as all get out and also kind of sad... yes, that's a song I'd choose if I were forced to perform a mainstream song. And my pop back up would be "Slave 4 U" by Britney Spears.
Also, the cover of "There She Goes" by The Boo Radleys from 1993 kind of almost makes the last decade and I do really like that song, so fun! It always pops into my head.
Phillip Hong is a presenter on AMPM, combining some great indie music with quotes and interviews.
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