“We actually started out as more of a ‘jam’ band, and I’m using that definition very loosely,” says Forest Gallien, bass and keys player for Rare Monk. The Portland, OR, band fits that description half the time. The other half of the time it fits the image of a loud, boisterous rock band. The best moments of Rare Monk fall somewhere in between. Layering saxophone and violin to what would otherwise be straight-up rock jams is uncommon, but in the case of Rare Monk, it’s very successful. This has everything to do with the musical makeup of the band. Both Dorian Aites (vocals, guitar, keys) and Issac Thelin (violin, saxophone) are trained concert violinists. All the members have backgrounds in rock, some studied jazz, and the resulting split between improvisation and fundamentals makes up the dominant colors of Rare Monk’s sound collage.
A song like “Shoot Me Down” serves as a best example of respect for head-on rock and one of its enduring features: the rock character. Like Kenny Rogers’ “Gambler” or the Rolling Stones’ Lucifer in “Sympathy For The Devil,” Rare Monk spins its yarns off of a ne’er-do-well figure living out on a dangerous and wild edge. “Shoot Me Down” plays out like if No Country For Old Men were a rock opera. There are sheriffs to outrun, lines to cross and a mattress full of cash waiting just beyond the border. “Through the story we can experience something that’s normally out of our reach,” says Gallien of the song. “Fiction is an extra appendage—another hand to grab with.” That idea lives in the track “Teak” as well, where a metaphoric man of the Earth gets beaten and abused but as Gallien points out “can also exact his revenge…”
The narratives are accompanied by blistering guitar lines courtesy of Aites and fellow guitarist Jake Martin. They blast out rock chords one moment and segue off into echoing psychedelic solos the next. Aites’ voice fits the bill with its rock-squawk tone and attitude of the Mick Jagger school of singing. Drummer Rick Buhr handles the back-beat while bandmates shoot into jam-space for a few minutes. It’s Thelin on violin and saxophone who stands out most on the jammier tracks. Guitars can generate circular riffs and loops, but it’s Thelin’s swirling and chaotic fiddle playing and sax blowing that give the songs a much-needed layer of texture. The song “Mama Bear” is a near four-minute jam with the band settling into a deep groove, but it proves to be Thelin’s time to shine as he breaks through the song’s cloud cover.
“We don’t put any limits on ourselves as to what influences we are drawing from when writing music,” says Gallien. The band’s inspirations are drawn from Chopin as easily as Cheap Trick. Mixing backgrounds and tastes is to let a lot of free radicals loose in the musical laboratory, but it produces in this case good results. Even when the band is soaring into a long jam, it doesn’t sound excessive. “We use these instrumental pieces to explore the musicianship within the band and allow everyone to speak with their respected
instruments,” explains Gallien. “Sometimes we start writing a part or a song that we decided doesn’t need vocals because we feel it takes away from music itself.”
The band is heading to the studio in February to record a 7″ EP and after that on the road through mid March. Doing their own booking and managing can be tough, which is why the group members are looking for some kind of management or representation. The music? They’ve got that part under control.
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