This sucks balls, people. One of my all-time faves, the USA Is a Monster, are breaking up.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for them. They’ve had an awesome run. But after 10 years, four full-lengths, two EPs, a stack of CD-Rs, and a zillion cold floors around the globe, co-founders Colin Langenus and Tom Hohmann are thirtysomething dudes who crave new adventures. Y’know, the typical stuff: siring children, making a little green for a change, living in the country, recording a double-album fusing quirky country-pop and Rhys Chatham–inspired minimalism.
“The next project Tom undertakes is probably a family,” Langenus speculates from his Greenpoint apartment, where he’s frantically working out details for both the band’s final jaunt across Europe (which will conclude by the time you read this) and something called the “Last Show Ever,” which longtime promoter Todd P is helping put together. Scheduled for May 9, it’s a Last Waltz–like bash, featuring the Monster, nine other bands (Awesome Color included), psychedelic video projections, a couple of DJs, and even a curry dinner.
“I don’t know about Tom, but I have no idea what’s going on May 11,” Langenus adds, sounding a bit overwhelmed. “I don’t even know how I’m going to feel in July. I just know I have a million things to do until this band is done.”
Herein lies the pickle for a selfish, hardcore fan like myself. Sure, an amicable split, as these things are always called, is no doubt a good thing. But, fuck, now is a terrible time for the Monster to retire. It’s not as if the band is some broken-down slugger with bad knees and gimpy wrists. Just the opposite, in fact. The past 12 months have been the group’s most productive season since 2003, back when freak-rock institution Load Records dropped 2003’s Tasheyana Compost, which cemented USA as the coolest prog-noise band this side of Lightning Bolt and Hella.
“Sometimes I really do think a band’s so-called ‘best album’ is merely a product of good timing,” explains Langenus. “I don’t know if it’s our best album, but it’s when we got a little bit of hype. There was media exposure for the first time. But our most cohesive album is probably the latest one, Space Programs.”
Cohesive, to be absolutely frank, is a goddamned understatement. Released last autumn on Load, Space Programs is a major evolutionary leap on just about every level. It is—believe it or not—a pop album, albeit a fantastical one built from gloriously layered vocals, crystalline ornamentation, and melodies that slither like sidewinders across scorching sand. “I’ve become most attached to this last album,” says Load’s Ben McOsker from the label’s homebase in Providence, Rhode Island. “I’ve listened to it more than any of the others. It’s the most interesting songwise. The vocals are so developed. They’re pretty, even.”
Those killer vocals, like the rest of the record, are in part the product of a rediscovered unity. Separating Compost and Space are two other albums: 2005’s Wohaw and 2006’s Sunset at the End of the Industrial Age. Both, as Langenus points out, contain “some of our best tunes.” At the same time, both suffer from fractured-vision syndrome. Hohmann did his thing (sprawling art-rock anthems about Native Americans or cryptic druid jams about naked elves), while Langenus did his (lo-fi folk pop or raw, funk-the-man post-hardcore). “I would write short songs to counter his long songs,” admits Langenus. “And I guess, in a listening way, it didn’t totally work.”
That iteration of USA Is a Monster could’ve never pulled off a song like “Tulsa,” Space Program‘s apex. Starting as one of Hohmann’s bubbling rain dances about ancient Indian spirits, the focus seamlessly shifts to Langenus and his guitar’s psychedelic twang, the interstellar offspring of Kurt Kirkwood and Papa Jerry circa ’74. Hohmann then returns, and together, brothers in arms, they melt into a throbbing rock ‘n’ roll drone, from which this surreal incantation emerges: “Sometimes I’m sure/I’m really quite sure/That the obscure images have a great significance/Iceberg tip/The hull of the ship/There’s an awful lot of love that’s got to make a little difference.”
There’s only one minor problem with Space Programs: “We did more on the record than we could ever do live,” admits Hohmann, who provided keyboards and bass pedals along with the usual vocals and drums. “There were no limits to the overdubs.” Yet this was a blessing in disguise. Thinking about pulling the plug as early as spring of last year, the Monster instead decided to recruit fresh blood for touring purposes: synth experts Max Katz (from Miami Nites) and Peter Schuette (from Silk Flowers). In addition to enabling the group to play jams like “Tulsa” onstage, Langenus and Hohmann credit these new bandmates with renewing their purpose, so much so that the quartet is actually in the process of preparing another album.
“Three songs are already recorded,” says Hohmann, super-busy himself. He and his wife, designer Barbara Schauwecker, are preparing for a summertime move from their Bed-Stuy warehouse space to the farmlands of southeastern Michigan. “We have three more new songs that we’re going to polish up in Europe. Then, the week we get back from Europe, we go into the studio.”
Amazing: yet another record. Getting hit with news like this makes it hard to believe that a group this on top of its game would actually call it quits thereafter. Load’s McOsker agrees: “Tom is moving away,” he says. “But they’re not necessarily breaking up—that’s just my hunch.”
Then again, they both sound dead-ass tired of the grimy noise-rock lifestyle. I suppose that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering the Monster are busting their asses right before retirement. But there’s no great secret here. It’s quite simple, really. Like Ted Williams, who hit a home run on his very last at-bat, Langenus and Hohmann want to go out on top. Banal? Sure. But have they succeeded? Without question.
USA Is a Monster play ‘Last Show Ever’ at Market Hotel May 9.