Three years ago, Major and The Monbacks bought a used van, booked over 150 shows in nine months, and embarked on their first-ever national tour. There were no labels or booking agents or tour managers at the time, just a bunch of twenty-somethings with an independent streak and a shared love of making music. It wasn’t glamorous—it still isn’t—but they all agreed it beat the hell out of working a day job. The Monbacks pushed that van to its limits and beyond with their relentless tour schedule, developing a rapport with the tow truck drivers of the greater Norfolk area as they burned through three different engines and blossomed from local favorites into one of the most promising young rock bands working today. They’ve got a new van now, and, more importantly, they’ve got a new album to go with it, one that fully delivers on their promise and then some
Produced by fellow Virginia wunderkind Matthew E. White, ‘Moonlight Anthems’ is a raucous blend of soul, roots, and rock that tips its cap equally to Levon and Lennon. The album is Major and the Monbacks’ first for Yep Roc Records, and it finds them building off the wave of critical success garnered by their eponymous 2015 debut, which they recorded and released themselves. Pop Matters hailed that album’s “propulsive soul energy,” while The Huffington Post described its sound as “Chicago meets the Grateful Dead meets The Band,” and RVA Magazine raved that it had “not only revived, but given a psychedelic face-lift to the soundtrack of the dancehalls of the ’50s and ’60s.” The record offered but a taste of Major and the Monbacks’ ecstatic live show, which began to draw sell-out crowds across the region and earned the band a slew of high profile festival slots everywhere from Firefly to Floyd Fest in addition to support dates with Charles Bradley, Os Mutantes, Antibalas, and more.
It would have been hard to predict all of this back in the group’s early days, though. The band—whose name is a portmanteau of the common southern farewell “C’mon back”—initially grew out of informal, after-school bedroom jams led by bassist Cole Friedman and his twin brother Neal, a gifted keyboard player and singer. The sessions were what you’d expect from a bunch of teenagers: loose, fun, and all over the map. Players came and went as the band’s sound morphed and matured, but when the dust finally settled, a core six-piece remained: the Friedman twins, plus brothers Michael and Bryan Adkins (guitar/vocals and drums), percussionist Tyler West, and guitarist/vocalist Harry Slater.
Music ran deep in each of their veins. The Friedmans’ grandfather owned a record store on the African American side of town called Frankie’s Birdland, which had served as the epicenter of The Norfolk Sound, an early mix of horn-fueled rock and soul that put artists like Gary “US” Bonds on the map. The Adkins’ father toured up and down the East Coast in the 70’s with a few different bands. West showed such a proclivity for percussion as a youngster (he’d create makeshift drum kits out of pots and pans) that his grandparents nicknamed him “Bammer,” and Slater was an instrument obsessive who made the unlikely transition from roadie to one of the group’s primary songwriters.
“I was really into collecting and tweaking electric guitars, and when the band first started playing, they always needed help with their instruments,” remembers Slater. “I would show up to the gigs with some extra guitars and strings and hang out, and it got to the point where one night they told me to just grab an acoustic and jump onstage.”
Though democracy has been the downfall of many a band, for Major and the Monbacks, it’s the defining feature of their sound. There is no single frontman, no one songwriter. While the kernels of most tracks begin with ideas from Neal, Michael, or Harry, the eclectic finished products are almost always the results of melodies and riffs run through the spin cycle of six wildly creative minds.
“Everybody’s got their own influences that they’re individually bringing to the table,” says Michael. “Creating a song for us is all about condensing that into a cohesive whole. Our only guiding principle, really, is that if it sounds cool, we like it.”
When it came time to record their second album, as far as the Monbacks were concerned, nobody sounded cooler than Matthew E. White, a fellow Virginia native who first caught their ear with his production work for Richmond’s Natalie Prass. White took on the role of mediator and mentor for the band, which he was surprised to find had such a fully realized sound already. The clarity of their vision enabled him to take a more holistic, big picture approach to capturing their songs.
“Matthew was used to writing a lot of the arrangements for other artists himself,” says Neal, “so he was excited that we had such fleshed out music already. He was able to step back and really be a coach for us and provide us with a valuable outside perspective.”
In their eleven days in the studio, the Monbacks recorded live as a band as much as possible in order to convey the excitement of their shows, but they made sure to leave time to get a little weird, too.
“Some of these songs we’d been playing on the road for a year and we really wanted to capture that live energy,” explains Cole, “but we also wanted to experiment and overdub. We’d manipulate the tape and mess around with the analog outboard gear, and a lot of those subtleties are really important to the sound.”
Album opener “There, There” sets the record’s tone perfectly, with bouncing piano, swirling organ, and psychedelic guitar all coming together in a chipper, harmony-rich earworm that seamlessly blends the sounds of the British invasion with sunny southern California. “Moonlight Anthem” and “You Only See Me (At Night)” channel the funky Americana of Big Pink, while “We Are Doing Fine” and “Here Comes The King” recall The Fab Four at their most playful, and “You Should Know” and “Happiness” take cues from the rich vocal layering of bands like CSNY and the Beach Boys. On “The Clap,” high-tempo R&B meets southern rock, and prog influences creep into the breezy soul of “Condition.” Far from feeling scattered, though, the ornately detailed arrangements and lush orchestrations enable the songs to play out as a remarkably cohesive collection. Pressing play on each track is like opening the door to another room in an eccentrically curated mansion; it’s impossible to predict what you’ll find, but every discovery is more fantastic than the last.
“It’d be difficult for anyone to pinpoint a specific musical identity or pigeonhole what we do into a set genre,” reflects Michael. “With us, the diversity is the point.”
Agency John Everhart at New Frontier Touring