Pay attention. There's a band in L.A. that has been turning a lot
of heads in the past three years or so, and based on the reactions
of industry people, as well as the steadily growing, word-of-mouth
fan-base, these guys are going to go far. That band is called Mellowdrone.
I say "band," but in reality, Jonathan Bates was
Mellowdrone until very recently, when he recruited his friends Tony
De Matteo (guitars and keys), Scott Ellis (drums), and
Greg Griffith (bass) to join him. Now, the four guys have
set out on an eighteen-month tour around the U.S. and Canada, promoting
their new EP Go Get 'Em Tiger.
Mr. Bates has three previous EPs under his belt: The Glassblower
EP, Boredom Never Sounded So Sweet, and the one that
is available in most record stores, A Demonstration of Intellectual
Property. Each one was "lovingly recorded in [his] bedroom,"
as he puts it, but no professional recording studio on earth could
make them sound more perfect, or more intimate. Bates puts his impressive
vocal range to good use, layering haunting melodies over satisfying,
memorable instrumentation that you can't help but hum to yourself.
That is, you couldn't stop humming to yourself if you weren't already
singing along to his witty, insightful lyrics. Go Get 'Em Tiger
is no exception, and it is mainly songs from this latest EP with
which Mellowdrone are winning over new crowds on the current tour.
Recently, they stopped through Austin for the first time, and Jonathan
and Tony were gracious enough to sit down with me backstage at Stubb's
and let me pick their brains for a few minutes.
Hybrid Magazine: You've gotten a lot of attention from some prominent
British bands, like Elbow and South. Has that helped you develop
a large following in the UK?
Bates: No, not in the UK. They helped me out in the U.S. more,
because in the U.S., UK bands are kind of mystified, so the fact
that we were cool to them helped us out more here than over there.
In the UK, British bands are dime a dozen, so
When we went
out there, we went with Johnny Marr, and he's like worshipped out
there. But we weren't really there long enough. We were only there
for two shows, but the people out there were really nice to us at
HM: Based on other interviews and articles I've read about you,
you seem to have taken yourself out of the "who's the best
guitarist/rock star" pissing match and just decided to go in
your own direction. Would you agree with that impression, or how
would you describe your decisions musically and stylistically?
JB: Well yeah, when I started playing guitar it was just
to be good at something. It didn't really have anything to do with
music; it had to do more with technicality and being able to fit
as many notes into one space, and you get to a point where you can
do all that shit and nobody cares. It wasn't until [after that]
that I started listening to songs and went, "Oh wait, there's
something completely different." So, musically now I can do
anything technically that I want, but usually the prettiest thing
doesn't require anything. So I just go with whatever the prettiest
thing is. All of us are incredibly technically proficient with our
instruments, but we've found that that's nowhere as near satisfying
as playing beautiful melodies.
HM: So you feel that that kind of technicality kind of separates
you from your audience?
JB: Well, it's left and right field. It's yin and yang.
You know, technicality is like the dominant "Look at how cool
I am," male. And then you have the feminine side, which is
about beauty, and both of them can't usually exist in the same plane.
So, I'd rather be feminine than be this masculine tough guy, because
I feel like all my favorite artists are the same way. From Van Gogh
to Tim Burton, they all have this aesthetic and they're not technically
shoving shit in your face.
HM: Along the same lines, a musician-friend of mine once said,
"Some of the best music could be played by anyone, but could
be written only by a true visionary." Do you agree with this
statement? How do you think it relates to what you do?
JB: Exactly. Absolutely. Because if you can play the song
acoustic, or someone can play it at their home, then you've written
a good song. And if it can be played eight million different versions,
then you've written a good song. And it wasn't until the last year
that I started writing
and we all started writing in that
sense, like, "Can we get away with this with JUST a guitar?"
And if you can do that, then you've written a good song, and if
not, then you need to let it go.
HM: So, I know you probably talk about this a lot, but
You used to play by yourself, am I correct?
HM: And I heard a little bit about it from Guy Garvey (of Elbow),
that you layered several simple melodies on top of each other. How
did you discover that process? How did you do that?
well, when I first started playing out in L.A,
I'd never done it before, and I started playing open mics. At these
open mics, everyone had a guitar, and
most of it was shit, and so was mine. So I started working on my songwriting,
but at the same time I started working on my presentation as well
because I thought that, in order to stand out, and not become just
another John Mayer - which I'm not having anything to do with,
but can be easily mistaken for, initially when there's just some guy
with a guitar - so I thought, why not just keep this lo-fidelity,
but since I can technically do a lot of things, just do those things.
So I bought this little machine and would build loops on stage, and
people were into it because I could involve them as well. I needed
that at the time because I was keeping my head busy and wasn't thinking
about myself. But then I got tired of that because I would have to
play interpretations of songs, as opposed to the way they really were.
And I got tired of doing that. So me and Greg (Griffith) and Scott
(Ellis), I'd met just because we'd been friends. And they were all
musicians and had their own bands, and everybody was just like, "Why
don't we all play together?" And we just started pooling our
resources and it just made it so much better. I like playing by myself
a lot, but I like playing with the band a lot better.
HM: How about your recording process? You record in your room?
How did you get started doing that?
JB: I went to Berklee (School of Music) in Boston, and it
was always snowing out, and I'm really, really sensitive to cold.
Every time there was a party or some kind of social event, I couldn't
go out because I couldn't deal with the fact that I had to walk
a quarter of a mile uphill in the fucking ice. So, I stayed at home
and did a lot of drugs, and you know I did a little bit of recording
at home with an analog four track. Then when the digital world took
over, and it was easily accessible and I could download programs
off the net, and could go to Guitar Center and buy a $300 card,
it opened up a whole new thing. So I just stayed at home and fucked
around and learned a whole bunch of new tricks on my own. And it
was great, because at Berkeley I had all these friends who had learned
the "correct" way of recording shit, and they all sounded
the same. Then I came along and it sounded really different. So
that's how we try to approach everything in this band now, is: "Everybody
does it this way. How do we do it that makes it comfortable for
us?" Like, when we recorded this last record, instead of recording
it in my bedroom, we did it live. Just straight live. And it's the
best thing we've ever done. I'm so insanely proud of it. I mean,
we did it completely the opposite of the way that everybody else
does it, and it sounds like it, so
The only way to stand out
these days is to
Most people are trying to be something that
they think is going to be successful. As gay as it sounds, we're
learning to accept ourselves and be ourselves as much as we can.
All of us have been fucked around with our whole lives and have
assumed that we're just pieces of shit, and we're JUST NOW realizing
that, you know what? We're not that bad. And musically we're doing
the same thing. And it's great. Because we're all like, "Hey,
you're not that bad." And, "Thanks, neither are you."
HM: It's been said that those who write more than they read
are ignorant fools. Do you feel that's true for music as well, or
do you think the ability to write good music comes independently
of how much of a music fan someone is?
JB: No. I guess, how do you know what's good unless
you always have to start somewhere. I think in order to be a great
Being a great musician in terms of technicality,
anyone can do. But, in order to be a great songwriter, you have
to know what a great song is. You have to have good taste. And that's
just personal. Like, if you're a country singer, you should like
good country songs. You know what I mean?
Tony De Matteo: Yeah, well, listening to good songs is like
doing your homework. You know, knowing what other people are doing.
JB: But it's fun as shit.
TDM: I think, almost to be a musician you have to be a huge
fan of music anyways.
JB: But there's a lot of guys who don't listen to music;
they just practice their instruments.
HM: What have been some of your favorite venues to play in?
JB: Nashville. That was our best show.
HM: Was that the Exit/In?
JB: Yeah, it was! Good call! It was the Exit/In, and it
was the best show. All of us were really stoned, and having a really
good time. And the crowd completely reciprocated back. It's like,
when you're giving your all, and the crowd's giving your all back,
it's orgasmic. That was probably our best show so far. That, and
playing the Troubadour in L.A.
HM: So, are you referring specifically to the crowds, or do
the venues help as well?
JB: You can be in the coolest venue in the world, but if
you're playing to a shitty crowd, you're going to be depressed afterwards.
I remember in Bakersfield, CA there was this place called Jerry's
Deli, and the venue's literally a basement. There's no monitoring
system. It's just two speakers out of a four-channel mixer. We showed
up and we were like, "Oh my God, this is going to suck."
But all these kids showed up to see us, and it turned out to be
the most punk-rock, greatest show ever. It was fucking drenching
sweat down there, and we couldn't hear anything, but everyone was
having a great time, and that was one of the best shows we've ever
played. So, people make the venue, not the venue itself.
HM: So what's happening with the record label? I've heard that
Artist Direct couldn't release Go Get 'Em Tiger; are you signed
to a new label? Starting your own?
JB: So what happened was, Artist Direct used to be a corporation,
and this guy bought it out. He's starting a new label. He's also
a movie producer. He produced The Last Samurai and other really
huge movies. So he's starting a new label, and he's giving us our
own money. So we're doing everything ourselves. We're printing up
CDs ourselves, and vinyl, and selling everything ourselves. But
when the full-length comes out, it'll probably be on Columbia or
BMG, one of those two. Whichever one ends up winning.
HM: That was part of my next question. So the next step is the
full-length, and it's not going to be through the same label? You're
really talking to other labels?
Well, luckily this project has never had a problem with label interest,
so I'm not worried about where the record's going to come out. All
I ask for is money, so we can be on the road for the next year and
a half, because that's the only way we're going to get across to people.
And they're cool with it. They're paying us, so we're happy. And I
don't care if it doesn't come out, because we'll just leak it out
on the internet. I don't care, just as long as kids come to the shows.
That's all that matters.
HM: Now I have a few questions sent to me from fans, so they're
What is your favorite fast food?
TDM: Yeah, I'm gonna have to say Wendy's, because all we've
been eating this whole trip has been Wendy's.
JB: We're fucking furious about it now. But we know it's
the best because we won't eat at McDonald's or Burger King.
HM: What's your favorite home-cooked meal?
TDM: My mom makes unbelievable barbecue chicken.
JB: My dad makes a really good fillet mignon.
HM: How old were you guys when you started playing your instruments?
JB: Yeah, 14.
HM: What music are you listening to at the moment?
TDM: Nellie McKay.
JB: Air. The new Air record, the Grey Album. Simon
and Garfunkel, the Best of.
TDM: Phantom Planet. I've been listening to that
record a lot. And Go Get 'Em Tiger. Actually, I've been listening
to both (our albums) a lot.
HM: What's the new album going to be called? Or do you know
JB: I don't know yet. I keep thinking I've come up with
good names, but then the next day I'm like, "That sucks."
HM: This one comes from someone that wants to go by "Mr.
Florian 'Flower Petal' Gruhl." I don't know if that's an in-joke.
TDM: (laughs) That's a good one.
HM: Yeah. Will there be a video for Motivation or Seclove?
HM: And also, Jon, do you like ponies?
JB: I don't know. I rode a horse once for a friend of mine's
birthday, and it was kind of scary. But you know, I like them just
fine. I just don't want to ride them. I think they're cute.
HM: One fan who wanted to remain anonymous asked to do free
association with you. Do you mind?
No, not at all.
HM: Thanks so much for giving up your time for another boring
interview. At the end, I always like to allow people to turn the
tables for a minute: are there any questions YOU'D like to ask?
JB: What is it about The Glassblower EP that everyone
likes so much? Because I don't get it.
I didn't hear all of Glassblower until after
I'd already heard A Demonstration of Intellectual Property EP,
but I heard "Fall On Your Knees" back in 2001, and the
thing that I liked about it was that
I was like, "This
is so beautiful, and it's so rock, and it's
a Christmas carol?"
And I'd never heard anyone do that before, except in this gay, white
American Protest, like, "We're gonna make Jesus rock'n'roll!"
kind of way. But that wasn't it at all! So I was like, "This
is such a great song!" I'm not dogging on other people's religion.
I'm just saying that it's kind of retarded when people try to make
a hymn sound rock'n'roll to be like, "Yay, Jesus is cool and
still relevant." And it was so cool to hear someone make a
Christmas carol into a rock song because it was beautiful without
being religiously motivated.
JB: Coming from an atheist. No, I'm not atheist. I guess
the closest thing I'd be is Buddhist.
TDM: Mellowdrone is a Christian rock band.
JB: We should be Buddhist rock.
HM: I want a shirt that says, "Mellowdrone loves Jesus."
JB: You want one? Well let's go make one right now.
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