Heavy Metal Bebop: Ben Monder, Jazz Guitar Virtuoso, Contemplates the Darkness

Apr 18, 2018

Ben Monder's sound world has a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality. Since the early '90s, the guitarist's fluid, lambent, often borderline-ambient contributions have accented and elevated a vast array of projects, from the Maria Schneider Orchestra to his longstanding duo with vocalist Theo Bleckmann.

But as suggested by his swooping, lava-like solo on "I Can't Give Everything Away," the concluding track from David Bowie's Blackstar, he also loves kicking up dust. It's an impulse that Monder has taken even further in his own work – for a prime example, check out the cyborg-fusion riff workout "Tredecadrome," from 2013's Hydra – and in select other settings, such as Dan Weiss's metal-informed Starebaby band.

"Depredation," a track from that group's new album, features some of the year's most thrillingly gritty guitarwork, as Monder moves from a busy, overdriven solo turn to pure crackling static.

In interviews, Monder has occasionally alluded to his love for heavy music. But for years, I've wanted to know more about his tastes along these lines, and how they might have helped shape the wilder side of his playing. I met with Ben last December to discuss how his listening has taken him from a youthful prog obsession to the most extreme reaches of modern death metal. Here is a lightly edited excerpt of that conversation.

Starebaby is an interesting record because it has metal in it, but a lot of it is very slow-building. In no way is it simply a metal record.

I didn't think so either. I suppose there are a lot of subgenres of metal, and they're kind of all found in there at one point or another. There's some ambient stuff and there's a bunch of doomy sort of stuff, and then quite a bit of odd-meter things. It seems like Dan gave the hardest role to himself at all times, which I'm grateful for.

In terms of the role of the guitar, knowing that metal was in the air, was there anything along the lines of "I'm going to take my playing further in that area than I would have otherwise"?

Not really, no. I never really felt compelled to do something that wasn't within my vocabulary. And like you suggested, there wasn't anything so overtly metal that I felt like I had to step into some weird kind of role and put on a wig or something. [Laughs] Not really. Part of my sonic palette is definitely a pretty saturated sound — like I have two distortion pedals, and I sometimes use both at the same time. I can definitely go for that wall of dirt if the situation calls for it, but I can't really do more than I can do. I don't really have the technique to go to some of the places that those guys go, so I'm not even going to try.

All the other guys on Starebaby have been vocal about their interest in metal too. Did having everyone on that page push it further along?

I don't know. I think we were dealing very specifically with the material Dan brought, and what was appropriate for that. I wasn't really even aware of Matt Mitchell's love of metal until we actually sat down and he gave me a list of like 20 bands to check out. I definitely knew about Craig Taborn's interest, because we would talk sometimes about bands he was checking out. He was the first person who hipped me to Gorguts, which I'm infinitely grateful for.

Is this the closest you've come to actually playing metal? Or are there times when you've, like, learned a Metallica solo that we just don't know about?

[Laughs] Yeah, it probably is, other than... in the jazz realm. I had only done professional gigs in my early or mid-20s with R&B and funk bands. So as far as pop music, that's the direction that I always used to go in, 'cause those were professional bands that I would play with. I definitely wasn't anywhere close to being a metal performer. So this is definitely the closest — not that it's even that close.

Yeah, because in the past on your own records, when that crops up — like, "Rooms of Light" on Oceana and "Tredecadrome" on Hydra — it seems like you and the other musicians are pushing that way from more of a jazz place.

Yeah. I think if the musicians had zero experience in that genre, or even zero exposure to that, it wouldn't have worked at all. I've always tried to hire people versatile enough to materialize wherever my vision might want to go. But yeah, there's probably some compromise involved.

As a guitar player, do you feel like you had to choose between a jazz way and a rock/metal way, at a certain point?

I wouldn't say I chose a jazz way. I just think at some point I sort of chose a creative way, as opposed to a commercial way, and whatever that ended up being. I never identified so much as a jazz guitarist, even though it's probably 90 percent of what I do. But like I said, I was doing most of my actual work, to make a living, was in commercial types of situations, and at one point I really had to decide: Am I going to go this way and just pursue whatever that world brings to me, whether it's Broadway, or the studio, which was a lot more alive in the '80s? Or am I going to sacrifice some of that and sit there and see what I come up with?

 I've read interviews and heard you talk about early exposure to rock. Do you remember the first time you heard something that pushed past rock and into these heavier realms?

There's not a moment that I can really specifically recall, but I was always attracted to heavier sounds, whether it was, at the time, Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, or whatever was considered the heaviest thing you could put on. It was kind of like a parallel of hard rock and progressive rock; that was kind of my thing as a kid. And then when those things came together, that was the best.

But as far as a specific moment... I can think of specific moments in jazz where a lightbulb turned on and I was like, "This is my passion now." But rock was just always around. I would start with the records that were sitting around the house that my mom had: Beatles records, there was a Cream record, the Rolling Stones, and then it kind of went from there. And every time I would save up $5, I would go to the record store and get the next thing, like a Deep Purple record, or Edgar Winter Group, that was a big one. Or Humble Pie. And that's always remained — just the attraction to, I don't know, darkness. [Laughs]

In terms of that zone of heavy and proggy stuff coming together, was that more like Yes and King Crimson? Or the Mahavishnu Orchestra? I've heard you talk about them.

Yeah. Well, Mahavishnu was a significant influence, but not the biggest. Yes was up there, for sure. Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Brain Salad Surgery was a big record. Focus; about a year ago, I was on the same bill with Jan Akkerman, which was kind of thrilling. It was all I could do to not try to play "Hocus Pocus" in front of him. [Laughs] And then that sort of morphed into an interest in fusion, which was relatively short-lived, and that was the gateway to jazz. Because when I first started learning jazz guitar, I wasn't even really that interested in jazz. It was just like: there was a jazz teacher, and that was the local guitar instructor at the conservatory, so just by default, I was like, "OK, I'll learn this. It seems interesting and challenging, and I don't really know anything about it." And at first I thought, this is way too hard to actually do. I thought maybe I could be a fusion player. That seemed more doable, but then just a listener, I started getting more interested in the details and the language of jazz and got into other instruments. You know, at first you just want to hear your own instrument, and then you branch out. 

Just to get back to McLaughlin quickly — so you said he was there, but not necessarily the biggest influence...

I kind of came to Mahavishnu a little bit backwards. Like Visions of the Emerald Beyond is the first record that really blew my mind, but then I went back and discovered Birds of Fire and Inner Mounting Flame after that. Another early fusion guy that people don't talk about so much anymore is Larry Coryell. I liked a lot of the Eleventh House records. That was a pretty big early influence as well.

Do you think that that prog and fusion are where the seeds were planted from that strain in your music, something like Oceana? The through-composed title track to that always struck me as kind of an ultimate prog statement.

Yeah, I think so. Between that and classical music, which has always been a lifelong influence. I don't really think too hard about where inspiration comes from or what the origins of a language are, but I'm sure that, yeah, the prog is definitely in there, and an interest in 20th- and 21st-century classical, and rock, and everything. It winds up coming out in some weird form or other.

Did Robert Fripp and what he was doing in various projects speak to you?

Honestly, no. I mean, when I hear him, it's great, but that was just not anything that really crossed my path early on. But people do ask me about him a lot. It seems like he should be an influence, but it just didn't happen.  

So from that stuff — hard rock, fusion, more of a '70s thing — when did what we could call metal, per se, come on the radar?

Hmm, it may have been through Meshuggah's Destroy Erase Improve, as late as that. So that would have been, what, like '94, or something? At any rate, a friend of mine said, "I think you'd really like this band Meshuggah." "What is it, like a klezmer band?" [Laughs]

Yeah, it's such a funny name...

...for a bunch of Swedes. And I checked it out and immediately loved it. I was like, "This is the best music ever made, seriously." It really seemed unprecedented, what they were doing. I listened to that record over and over again, and I guess that was what led me to other forms of metal.

Can you talk a little more about what felt new about that?

I'd never heard anyone marry those aspects that I love so much, the heaviness and the mathematical aspect, and also the virtuosity, at that point, the more Allan Holdsworth-influenced guitar playing. It was all just this great blend of all these things that I really loved that I'd never heard come together quite in that way. I was probably more attracted to the technical end of metal, mathy stuff, because other things seemed maybe a little bit regressive.

So you moved on to other extreme metal from there?

Yeah, it probably started in the early '90s. I started poking around and before YouTube made it so easy to check everything out, I'd just take suggestions and got into Morbid Angel a little bit, which was almost like the opposite. It's simple, but I'd never heard anything that was that dark before. It was like, wow, they're exploring some really sinister territory here. [Laughs] But there was something that kind of scratched a certain itch there.

And then Slayer on the other side of that was a different kind of darkness. There's something about the energy of it that was attractive to me, although I never really aspired to play like that or write like that. But I probably was introduced to a lot of stuff maybe more within the last 10 years, just 'cause it's so easy to check things out on the Internet. I always make an effort when I hear something I like to buy the physical CD or at least download it and pay for it. So it's kind of a great resource but it can really obviously be abused. [Laughs] I've bought a lot of stuff within the last few years that I like.

So I saw you at that Defeated Sanity show [at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn]. I'm trying to remember where I first heard them... I don't know. It might actually have been on the radio, one of those metal shows... What's that one?

The Seton Hall station?

Yeah, exactly. And they always seemed [to be] one of the bands that was as interesting as Meshuggah to me, but with a totally different vocabulary. Really dealing with a lot of complex ideas and also super-dark at the same time. I really like that drummer [Lille Gruber]. It seems like he has, like, seven different snare drums on any given record [laughs]; they're all, like, a different snare drum sound for every track, or even more than one sound on a single track.

Yeah, Defeated Sanity are interesting because they're either really basic-sounding or they're playing some sort of prog...

Yeah, well that's more like the last record.

The "split" one, Disposal of the Dead / Dharmata?

Yeah, that's like that dichotomy, but on previous records, it's more integrated to me than that.

Passages Into Deformity is a really good one.

Yeah. Or Chapters of Repugnance. I think that's my favorite. But yeah, the guitar player's amazing... and one interesting thing is there's barely any guitar solos on any of those records, if any, but then he'll do just a run that's technically so mind-boggling and it's just for, like, five seconds. It's so much more effective than some over-indulgent shredfest for 20 minutes.

I know you talked about how inspiration wasn't that direct for you, but when you see or hear something impressive like that, does it ever find its way into your work in any way? 

Not even that direct, no. I'd say that probably happens more with classical music, like I'll hear something and I'll make a mental note of it. Like, with the level of my own ignorance, how can I approximate that effect in my music? [Laughs]

On Oceana and Hydra there have been moments where it pushes in a heavier direction and moments where it pushes a total other way, and obviously Amorphae is a completely different thing. Do you ever see yourself wanting to take the heavy aspect of what you do and magnify it over a whole record?

I hadn't thought about that. Probably not. The stuff I've been writing for whichever next thing I'm going to do, which is really not in that direction at all. It's more, I don't know, more of a clean, ethereal thing. So, not really. And both of the tracks off of those two records you mentioned, I've never performed them live. It would just require probably more effort than I really want to muster, to create a project like that and actually play it live. But I wouldn't rule it out.

Since you mentioned writing the more ethereal stuff, are you already thinking at the writing stage of how you'd want to present a given idea? Like, if it would be more of an aggressive feel, is that built into the writing?

Yeah, it usually is. It usually comes from whatever initial idea sets the piece off, and that suggests a whole bunch of things. So I haven't really come up with anything that would suggest a more aggressive approach, but that's not to say it won't happen. Lately I've been focused on just a whole covers project, so I've put the writing on the back burner in the last year or so, until I can finish this thing. But maybe this conversation will inspire me to do a whole metal record.

Yeah, I think a lot of people would be interested to hear what that would sound like!

Yeah... I'm just a such a slow writer that I would need to set aside all kinds of time that I don't have [laughs], or make time that I need to have.

Guitarist Ben Monder
Credit courtesy of the artist

Yeah, those last couple Sunnyside albums, I can't even imagine how long that must have taken to put that music together.

It was a long process. And I never really feel like I quite know what I'm doing, which is what I like; I kind of like existing at the edge of what I feel is possible for me, and just poking around in the mystery of that, just biting off a little more than I can chew. But that's why it takes so long.

Have you checked out stuff like Sunn O)))? I was just thinking about that in relation to some of the more ambient stuff you do.

Not really. I definitely was introduced to Sunn O))), and checked it out for a while. I wouldn't be brave enough to try to see them live, just for the volume. That's definitely a direction I like, but it kind of gets old fast. I wouldn't necessarily want to do a whole record like that — or even a whole tune like that. But I like that all-enveloping, saturated timbre. It definitely has its place in the universe, for sure.

You mentioned Morbid Angel, who, along with Black Sabbath, are probably my favorite metal band. Growing up I was into Metallica and Pantera and things like that, but when I heard them, I found them terrifying.

[Laughs] Right. What was the name of that record... ?

There was Covenant, Domination...

Domination, yeah. Yeah, they all start with the next letter of the alphabet, right? [Laughs] And then Formulas Fatal to the Flesh.

Which is a completely insane album. What did you think of him, Trey [Azagthoth] from Morbid Angel, as a guitar player?

I heard some rehearsal demo stuff from them where he just sounded amazing — almost atonal, avant-garde, just going for it. And then there are solos on Domination that don't quite sound integrated into the track; they almost sound Van Halen-ish, or like '80s hair-metal-type solos. The aesthetic, it was a little bit of a rub. So when he goes in that direction, it doesn't really work for me as a soloist, but I've also heard him do other things that are very appropriate and striking. So I don't know. He's a great guitarist and he has the ability to do that. Did you find the same thing?

I definitely know what you mean about the Van Halen thing. He's basically an Eddie Van Halen disciple; he's always talking about that. But he does have that other aspect to his playing that's almost psychedelic and just extremely colorful and unusual.

Yeah, at his best, that's definitely where he goes, for sure. And I was also super-impressed with Pete Sandoval. At that point, I'd never heard double-bass drum stuff like that before, and it was kind of pushing a new limit. Partly, I was just attracted to the dedication, like, 'I'm just going in this direction 150 percent. This is my identity and just filling it all the way up.' I like that.

Yeah, there's this story about Pete Sandoval, when he joined the band. He'd been playing more grindcore or hardcore, and he didn't play double bass. The other guys all had day jobs and they would basically just leave him in the basement to practice. He would be down there all day and they would come home and he'd be passed out in a pool of sweat, and they would wake him up and he'd just start practicing again.

[Laughs] Whoa. Huh, that almost sounds like a Hindustani ritual kind of thing.

So you did mention Sabbath on one hand and then you mentioned Slayer. Did you ever sort of go through the Metallica catalog, or the Megadeth, or...?

No, no. 'Cause in a way I guess I came to the metal thing a little bit late. I never checked out the forerunners, and I wasn't into hair metal at all. Metallica never really appealed to me. ... It might be one of those things where you have to grow up with it. If it's an early influence, you have a love for it.

So what about the vocals? Do you like the death-metal vocal style?

Yeah, for the most part. And it's just a purely aesthetic thing without probably a lot of thought or reason behind it, but the screechy approach — or what you hear more I guess in black metal, that sort of high-pitched squealy stuff — it just kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit. But the guttural thing seems to work better with the vibe of the music, for the most part, and it almost seems like another percussion instrument. I'm not sure what attracts me about it, because obviously there's nothing really going on except just sort of like animal sounds. [Laughs] But again, it just sort of helps the atmosphere of the thing. You would definitely miss it if it weren't there. Like, an all-instrumental death-metal band just wouldn't have the same impact.

Yeah, I think it's odd, especially with a band like Defeated Sanity, where the vocals still have that quality but the instrumental technique has become so refined... Especially watching the drummer — that's not Pete Sandoval. 

Yeah, no, that's like Tony Williams.

Exactly, yes. It's like a fusion concept. I don't think it's out of the question that in 10 years or even less that people at Berklee are going to be forming a Technical Death Metal ensemble.

Oh, I'm sure it's happening already. I think some of these guys have come through Berklee. Like, at that [Defeated Sanity] show, I met the former drummer from Pyrrhon, Alex Cohen. He said he saw me at NYU do a master class, so these guys are coming through the jazz schools.

I heard an interview with Paul Masvidal, from the band Cynic, and he had mentioned being a big fan of yours.

Oh, that's nice.

Have you had that other times, like more metal musicians or people from that world either shouting you out or coming up to you?

No. [Laughs] It doesn't happen a lot. I mean, that guy Alex, who recognized me from some master class. It seemed like he knew one of my records, so that was pretty cool. One other time, Kevin Hufnagel posted some chord exercise sheet that I distributed. Sometimes I give people just worksheets; if I don't have time to teach them, I'll just give them a sheet. He posted one of them, and I recognized the name from a Gorguts record, and I'm like, "Wow, here's this awesome metal guitar player, and he's referencing one of my chord sheets." So that was pretty cool.

Yeah, Kevin is a great guy, and is very versed in all of this stuff. He played a gig with Craig not that long ago.

Oh, OK. I'm sorry I missed that. He's a friend of yours? Tell him I'm a fan.

I will, for sure. So did you hear the Gorguts albums before he joined, like Obscura?

Yeah, well, back when Craig first told me about them, I looked up maybe their first or second record, and I was like, "I don't know about this." But then when I heard Obscura, that was... I mean, it doesn't get better than that. It's just so ridiculous. It just came out of nowhere and devoured everything in its path. Such a great record. So that was... they really found their voice. Or he, Luc [Lemay], found his compositional voice on that. And then, you know, pretty much after that I think I bought all of their records up to now. But that was quite a milestone.

How would you describe what's happening on Obscura? I'm not a guitar player, so I can't necessarily verbalize it.

It's not about guitar at all. There's nothing really virtuosic on that. It's just like, there are sounds that he was getting — I don't know technically what you would even call it, like pick-scraping type things. I had never heard that before. It was more about the mystery of what was happening. I had never heard those elements put together in that way before. You know, when you first heard a record like that, you just don't know what's going on; there are all these novel ideas swimming around and colliding. And it almost seems like it shouldn't even work, but it's perfect. And it's also very integrated. It doesn't sound clever or contrived; it sounds like this integrated language that is just natural, but it's the result of all these technical elements. I like that aspect in music where it's mysterious and sounds correct and yet you have no idea how or why it works. And of course it has the darkness, and it's got "Earthly Love" with the violin. Where else is a death-metal song going to have a prominent violin feature that sounds perfect, you know? That's one of my top five metal records.

What would be the others?

Oh, man... Well, Destroy Erase Improve, just because it was the first one. It's not necessarily my favorite Meshuggah record, but I think their last one, The Violent Sleep of Reason, might be their best.

Yeah, that's my favorite. It blew my mind. 

Catch Thirty-Three is another favorite of mine. Just the suite aspect of it. It feels like a real narrative going through there. I mentioned [Defeated Sanity's] Chapters of Repugnance. I'm kind of drawing a blank. I could go and look at my collection... [Goes to CD shelf, comes back with a few selections] Here are a few, all very different.

Let's talk about these.

[Cryptopsy, None So Vile]

I think this is my favorite Cryptopsy record. I don't know... it's kind of hard to verbalize this one for me. It just has a great atmosphere. I think that guy Lord Worm is my favorite singer that they've had; he seems to capture their spirit the best. I love the drumming. It's maybe one of their more... they've always been sort of a technical metal band, but that one seems more... I don't know, the least derivative. It seems like their later records got more... they were thinking too hard about it, or something. And that one is a pure utterance, or something.

[Brodequin, Festival of Death]

And these guys are just... [laughs] it doesn't get darker than that. It's just all about Medieval torture devices and stuff. And the drumming is just insane. I don't know how the guy does blast beats that fast. And the production, it just sounds like it was recorded on a Pro Walkman on a radiator, or something, with the radiator on. It's just so... basic, but it works perfectly for the music. It's just like this giant mess of darkness. And I also feel that total commitment to what they're doing.

[Ulcerate, Everything Is Fire]

Ulcerate just seems to be all about the drummer [Jamie Saint Merat], in a good way. That guy's just crazy. I like how, a lot of the sense of this record is you're just kind of getting swept up in this pleasantly confusing wave of sound, not even sure of meter or anything; it's just this trip through an ocean of fuzz and rhythm. And I like that it's kind of disorienting and all-enveloping. And there's a lot of timbral variety. Just a unique atmosphere I haven't really heard another band accomplish.

[Suffocation, The Close of a Chapter: Live in Quebec City]

And Suffocation is, you know, what do you say: classic death metal. And I really just love the production and the intensity of... this is a live record; I don't know if they have any other live records. But they're just on fire on this performance. It's just one gig, I think.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of the super technical stuff that's going on now, Suffocation is definitely an early influence. There's always been so much information in their music.

Right, but not too much. It's still pretty brutal. And also a great vocal approach... Do you know this record?

No — I have all the studio albums but I don't think I have that one.

Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous. ... I think it's early 2000s. I have Effigy of the Forgotten and Pierced From Within — it's a double record that they re-released.

Yeah, Pierced From Within is just amazing, clear production, super technical. And that was when [original drummer Mike Smith] left for a record... It's amazing that they could find someone else who could even do that.

But then also if you joined a band, it's not like us jazz guys who are in like 20 different projects, you're just committed to that project and it's basically your full-time job. There's something to be said for that, I think.

I think any metal fan responds to that because it's part of what makes a band be able to go that far, the "band" thing of metal versus the mix-and-match personnel approach of jazz. Is there ever a desire to plant your feet a little more in one thing, to find people and just stick with it?

Theoretically I definitely have that desire but it's just not really practical. And opportunities like that don't really come up for me. Maybe if somebody said, "We want you to join our band and we have this amount of work" — the work is kind of necessary — then I would seriously consider that. And if I could somehow form my own band... I tend to be a little bit passive.

If you had thoughts in that direction, like your dream band, what would it be?

What it would even look like? There are a number of things I enjoy a lot, so it could take any number of forms. It could be an all-improvisational thing. I've been playing with Tony Malaby lately; you know, I've been playing with him for 20-odd years now, but our bands have taken different forms, more or less improvisational. But lately, we've just been going and doing gigs where it's just... we don't talk about anything. It's me and him and usually, lately, it's been Tom Rainey. That's super fun, and we always come up with something. So if someone wanted to put us on a world tour for a year just doing that, I would be like, "Yeah, let's do it." Or if somehow I found the courage and strength to just play my last couple records live and put a band together and just tour that, I could see doing that. That might be rewarding. Or, you know, any number of things. But I don't realistically see any of those scenarios.

Hank Shteamer, senior music editor at rollingstone.com, started Heavy Metal Be-Bop in 2011, as a series of conversations about the intersection of jazz and heavy metal. To learn more about the series, and read past interviews with Craig Taborn, Dan Weiss, Bill Laswell, Trevor Dunn and more, visit heavymetalbebop.com.