Even before he moved to Los Angeles, some people thought Matt Mondanile was a West Coast artist.
The music he makes as part of Real Estate and as Ducktails doesn’t sound like it comes from any specific place. In both instances — and due in no small part to his gorgeous, subtly disorienting guitar playing — he vividly captures locales that only seem to exist in the imagination and memory.
Still, it must have just made sense to those unaware of his Jersey origins that California was the home of music so “blissed out”, as he puts it. In 2013, Mondanile did indeed move from Brooklyn to LA, a place that often resembles the endless suburban stretches his music envisions. That’s where he began his longest period writing a record, with extensive touring and a third Real Estate album happening in the interim. It wasn’t until this summer that the finished product finally arrived.
St. Catherine has many markings of Mondanile’s new home, for sure. The bliss is back, the album is dotted with references to the city, and there are brief but significant appearances by LA artists James Ferraro and Julia Holter. But if Mondanile previously captured the vibe so well that people thought he lived here, now that he actually does live here his music has evolved past it.
St. Catherine represents a deeper dive — musically and lyrically — into Duck (as he affectionately calls the project) than ever before. Early tracks like ‘Into The Sky’ and ‘Heaven’s Room’ design a musical world that’s wide and detailed in a way his earlier albums might have only suggested with impressionistic strokes. He also fills that new space with lyrics you care about. Lyrics never felt like a primary focus of Ducktails, and with Real Estate, Mondanile’s contributions were always instrumental. Here they’re an opportunity to fill his sonic world with stories, characters and themes that echo and reverberate through the whole piece.
I caught up with Mondanile at his new studio space in downtown LA where he’s already deep into work on the next Ducktails album. He sits at his mixing board, right in front of a window that captures the entire city’s skyline. The sun is blindingly bright, but he tells me the view gets incredible as the sun goes down. We talk about St. Catherine, the long process making it and adjusting to LA, but he’s more excited to talk about where he’ll go from here. After St. Catherine, it’s not hard to be excited too.
Your earlier work as Ducktails was mainly instrumental, as are your songs on the Real Estate records. Did you ever have an interest doing soundtrack work?
Always. I wish I could. I’d love to do that and I soundtracked a video for i-D magazine about tennis. At the same time, you have to work in the confines of the director. That’d be cool if they gave me creative control over what I’m doing — like a lot — but I’ve heard that’s pretty hard and I’m just more interesting in making albums. I’d love to do it at some point, that’d be awesome.
What made you want to move into writing lyrics more?
I’ve just always wanted to write lyrics and use my voice and I never thought I was that good of a singer and lyricist, and it’s hard to write lyrics. But for Real Estate, there’s a song that’s a B-side to ‘Talking Backwards’ where I sing called ‘Beneath The Dunes’ and it didn’t make the album. For Duck, I want there to be vocals, I want to tell a story.
This new album has such a vivid story to it. Was there anything different about going into this one?
Well, it’s the longest I’ve spent on a record and I moved to LA when I started it. I started demoing in 2013 in the fall and then Real Estate’s record came out in March of 2014 so I started touring a lot and would work on it slowly over time. I was traveling a lot and I’d just moved here and I was taking my time with it and listening to a lot of the demos. Eventually I finished it earlier this year with Rob Schnapf, the producer who did Elliott Smith’s stuff. I just really needed someone to hunker down and help me finish it.
When you’re writing a song, how do the lyrics and music interact?
The lyrics never come first. For some songs, like ‘Headbanging In The Mirror’, that was a title that I thought of. I was thinking about that so I wrote the title down and then wrote the lyrics and music after that. The ‘Laughing Woman’ I wrote that with the music at the same time, but usually I write instrumentals and then write the lyrics.
Lyrically and musically it feels like LA and religion are strong themes. Right from the start ‘Headbanging In The Mirror’ references LA.
Yeah, I do say that. I wanted this record to be more clear and concise, because [with] the other albums the lyrics are more abstract and vague. For this one I wanted to make something people could be more emotionally attached too.
What was your experience of moving here from New York?
It was hard, because I didn’t know anybody really. I didn’t know how to get around, I still don’t know how to get around. So it was daunting, but it was more exciting than not. So I loved it.
Was there anything different to you about music here, from what you’d been used to in Brooklyn?
Less. Less stuff than in New York. More time to spend on my own shit. Less distractions, way less, which is awesome for working on stuff.
I always get this idea with your music that it’s like exotica-in-reverse. It’s the same form as exotica, creating these fantastical imagined spaces, but instead of far off islands or something, you’re creating exotica for suburban streets. And coming to Los Angeles it’s…
Oh it’s suburban city. Like Jersey with palm trees and mini-malls, I love it for that reason. It’s just like that.
With past albums you’ve generated this imagined world, but you’re in that world now. So was this album a bit more of you processing your actual environment rather than creating something imagined?
Yeah. Before, people always thought that my music was from the West Coast, that I was from the West Coast, because my music was so blissed out. Now that I live here I guess I was trying to go a little deeper than just making exotica. I feel like all my previous records before St. Catherine were always about finding the right vibe for the situation. It’s not really about the finished project, more pointing people in the right direction, just giving them a mood or a feeling is really important to me and capturing that really well with a song. So with this, I wanted to make a sort of universe, where people could get inside and be involved with the characters and the songwriter.
Do you see the characters in these songs coexisting and interacting in different songs?
Yeah, I always have themes recurring in other songs. This one is kind of its own thing, but I feel like themes and chords and tropes from this one will appear on the next one.
The closing ‘Reprise’ does that on here with ‘Heaven’s Room’. What made you want to end with that déjà vu?
It makes it more of a circle. That was a demo. ‘Reprise’ was a demo of ‘Heavens Room’ and I slowed it down by sending it out of my computer onto a tape machine and thought, “This has to go on the record”. That demo is kind of how all my demos for the record sounded, and they had this really specific sound that’s different from the record and I wanted people to get a glimpse of that.
Shifting over to your label New Images, it’s been going for about four years now. What made you decide to start it?
I always wanted to start a label and I put out cassettes for other people and mostly my own music, but I wanted to put out records for people I’d met in Europe, like the people who played my festival. I had really wanted to put out Tomutonttu’s album because he was a friend of mine and I’d made some money from touring, so I wanted to do something cool with it instead of just spending it on my own shit.
What’s it like now compared to your expectations in 2011?
I’m still doing it, but it’s slower because I don’t want to let artists down. I always want to put a lot of effort into putting out someone’s album. Like Itasca, that’s a record I put a lot of work into because she’d never had a record come out on vinyl. The label is a way for me to show people music from my friends and people I know from touring. I’ve always like the idea of a label that has similar artists.
Do you have any new releases planned out?
Yeah, we’ve got a record from Tomutonttu coming out and Rene Hell coming out.
That’s great. So now that the record is done what are you planning to work on?
I’m trying to start a freeform music program for kids in LA, and hopefully New Jersey, that teaches kids to play music together and cooperate. It’s not really about technical stuff, it’s more about learning to work together and for kids like me who grew up not doing well in school. It’s more like a YMCA after-school club where I can give private lessons and teach small group discussion things like “record on a 4-track”, but I’m also recording another Ducktails record that I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year so it can come out next year.
What can we expect from the next album?
I guess I want it to be more off the cuff, more raw. Less pristine, more dirty, than the last record — I always kind of do that. I’m not going to work with a producer again, I’m just going to do it in here. I just got this new space and I’m stoked on it. I used to record all the time by myself so I’m just trying to do that again. The idea is… I’m looking at downtown LA all the time — it’s not going to be about downtown LA — but I want it to be really crazy sounding with a lot of fucked up noises and more rock. Like Neil Young against a skyscraper. Neil Young skyscraper music.
Ducktails tour dates:
11/12 Amsterdam, Netherland @ Paradiso
11/13 Brighton, UK @ Patterns
11/14 Birmingham, UK @ Hare and Hounds
11/15 Glasgow, UK @ Nice N Sleazy
11/16 Dublin, Ireland @ Whelans
11/17 Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
11/18 London, UK @ Bush Hall
11/19 Brussels, Belgium @ Autumn Falls @ Botanique
11/20 Paris, France @ Le Batofar
11/21 St. Gallen, Switzerland @ Palace
11/22 Basel, Switzerland @ Kaserne
11/23 Dijon, France @ Deep Inside
11/24 Montpellier, France @ Le Rockstore
11/25 Barcelon, Spain @ Sidecar
11/26 Madrid, Spain @ Boite
11/27 Lisbon, Portugal Vodafone Mexefest
11/30 Toulouse, France @ Le Saint des Seins
12/01 Lyon, France @ Le Sonic
12/02 Zurich, Switzerland @ Exil
12/03 Milan, Italy @ Biko
12/04 Rome, Italy @ Monk
12/05 Bologna, Italy @ Covo
12/07 Vienna, Austria @ Chelsea
12/08 Prague, Czech Republic @ 007
12/09 Berlin, Germany @ Privatclub
12/10 Copenhagen, Denmark @ Loppen