Thumper­mon­key’s new al­bum has been ges­tat­ing for 10 years, and it’s well worth the wait. From Scott Walker to Kurt Von­negut, Michael Wood­man and Rael Jones dis­cuss the in­spi­ra­tions be­hind, and mak­ing of, Make Me Young, Etc.

Prog - - Contents - Words: Dom Law­son Im­ages: Ash­ley Jones

There’s less noise and more art on the Lon­don quar­tet’s fine new al­bum.

Pro­gres­sive mu­sic teaches us to ex­pect the un­ex­pected. Quite what ev­ery­one is go­ing to make of the new Thumper­mon­key al­bum is an­other mat­ter en­tirely, though. If you thought you knew the band, per­haps based on the jud­der­ing, amor­phous skronk of 2012’s Sleep Fu­ri­ously al­bum or its bois­ter­ous fol­low‑up EP Elec­tric­ity, then pre­pare to have your pre­con­cep­tions oblit­er­ated.

Their new record, Make Me Young, Etc, is that rare beast: an al­bum that very nearly de­fies any sort of earnest, jour­nal­is­tic de­scrip­tion. Vol­ubly pro­gres­sive on every level and yet cu­ri­ously time­less, gen­tly psy­che­delic and at times densely or­ches­trated in the man­ner of some high­fa­lutin prog rock opera, it’s both one of 2018’s most dis­tinc­tive cre­ations and a ma­jor curve­ball for in­ter­ested ob­servers an­tic­i­pat­ing the Lon­don­ers’ next step.

In many ways, the new Thumper­mon­key al­bum feels like a bold leap into an un­know­able fu­ture, not least be­cause it also hap­pens to be a con­cept al­bum about a gi­ant as­ter­oid de­stroy­ing the Earth. But as vo­cal­ist/ gui­tarist Michael Wood­man and key­board mae­stro Rael Jones ex­plain to Prog, Make Me Young, Etc has been in­cre­men­tally ges­tat­ing for the best part of 10 years.

“We’ve had two of the songs, the open­ing track Veldt and Make Me Young, Etc it­self, for a decade in their orig­i­nal form,” says Jones. “I re­mem­ber I first heard Veldt all those years ago and Woody’s orig­i­nal demo was not that far from how the fi­nal thing turned out. It re­ally was a very good demo. And I cried when I heard it, gen­uinely. I thought it was as­ton­ish­ing.”

“Ha! And Rael hates all mu­sic,” Wood­man in­ter­jects with a wry chuckle. “So that re­ally is quite an achieve­ment!”

“Hon­estly, I loved it so much, I was scared to lis­ten to it again for quite some time,” the key­boardist re­calls. “I cried again, lis­ten­ing to it a sec­ond time, so I was very emo­tion­ally at­tached to mak­ing this mu­sic and get­ting ev­ery­thing ab­so­lutely right. We talked about mak­ing this al­bum and how it would prob­a­bly be a con­cept thing. So it’s al­ways been there in the back­ground. We dis­cussed mak­ing it in 2011 and 2012, I think. But we then said, ‘Let’s do Sleep Fu­ri­ously and make a slightly more punk rock, ‘play it live in the stu­dio’‑type al­bum…’”

“Al­though it turns out that we don’t re­ally have that punk ethic,” dead­pans Wood­man. “The records just turn out the way they’re meant to turn out, re­ally.”

“It must seem like a re­ally bizarre tran­si­tion, but it’s just some­thing that ag­gre­gated over an ex­tremely long pe­riod of time.”

Michael Wood­man

It would be disin­gen­u­ous to sug­gest that there’s no red line con­nect­ing the mu­sic on Make Me Young, Etc with its nois­ier, more rock‑based pre­de­ces­sors, but there’s still some­thing gen­uinely shock­ing about new songs like the doom‑laden, melo­dra­matic Figstorm and the re­strained, twin­kling men­ace of Deckchair For Your Ghost. This is a side to Thumper­mon­key that may have been lurk­ing in the back­ground all along, but its blos­som­ing is a won­der to be­hold, al­beit an oc­ca­sion­ally jar­ring one.

“It must seem like a re­ally bizarre tran­si­tion, but it’s just some­thing that ag­gre­gated over an ex­tremely long pe­riod of time,” Wood­man notes. “If you look at the time­lines, they’re all quite con­fused. We ba­si­cally pre­sented the al­bum to Sel Balamir from Am­pli­fier, who’s re­leas­ing the al­bum on his Rock­os­mos la­bel, and he loved it. But his ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing us was watch­ing a cur­tailed, 20‑minute set when we were the clos­est we’d ever get to a punk at­ti­tude be­cause we were a bit grumpy and just blast­ing out the fastest, rock­i­est

num­bers! [Laughs] So that was his route into Thumper­mon­key, say­ing, ‘Oh, okay,

I want to start a rock la­bel!’ Then we present him with this ridicu­lous, 45‑minute prog, as­ter­oid‑de­stroy­ing‑the Earth con­cept al­bum.”

It shouldn’t re­ally come as a sur­prise to Thumper­mon­key fans that Make Me Young,

Etc is smoth­ered in lush or­ches­tra­tion: the clas­si­cally trained Rael Jones’ day­light hours are spent writ­ing and ar­rang­ing sound­tracks for what he calls “pe­riod dra­mas and that kind of stuff”. There’s a def­i­nite widescreen rush to the new al­bum’s twin peaks of sump­tu­ous­ness: the open­ing Veldt and the ram­bling, 10‑minute ti­tle track. The for­mer is par­tic­u­larly stun­ning, with its dis­qui­et­ing surges of mi­cro­tonal strings and off‑kil­ter, sludgy riffs, all in­spired by one of the avant‑garde’s most iconic fig­ures.

“With Veldt, it was specif­i­cally an at­tempt to steal what Scott Walker was do­ing in about 1995,” Wood­man grins. “He’d have some­thing pretty hap­pen­ing and then he’d have this hor­ri­ble, atonal clus­ter of notes go­ing [makes screech­ing noise] eeeeu­u­ur­rgghh over the top of it. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have some big riffs on that?’ but it took so long to ac­tu­ally cre­ate the al­bum that Scott Walker had made his Soused al­bum with Sunn O))), which is all him mak­ing strange, keen­ing synth noises over enor­mous doomy riffs, while sing­ing about nose holes caked in black co­caine, or what­ever it is he sings about! It’s a re­ally weird mix­ture when you think about all those things to­gether.”

Al­though thank­fully bereft of ref­er­ences to drug‑soiled snot, Make Me Young, Etc’s ti­tle track does give Scott Walker a run for his money in the be­wil­der­ing stakes. A sprawl­ing, in­tri­cate and in­ti­mate mini‑sym­phony that could hardly be fur­ther away from the jud­der­ing poly‑riffs of Sleep Fu­ri­ously tunes like Wheezy­boy, it’s a grand crescendo be­fit­ting of its core the­matic thrust: if you knew that the end of the world was com­ing, how would you live your life?

“The ti­tle of the song is ac­tu­ally the last line in Kurt Von­negut’s Break­fast Of Cham­pi­ons,” Wood­man ex­plains. “It’s a line where Kil­gore Trout, the made‑up sci‑fi au­thor that’s al­ways ap­pear­ing in Kurt Von­negut nov­els, meets Kurt when he steps into the book at the end and says, ‘I’m re­ally sorry, but ac­tu­ally you’re not real!’ He says, ‘All of these aw­ful things that I’ve been putting you through in this en­tire se­ries of books, I just made it all up… sorry about that!’ It’s re­ally har­row­ing, be­cause the end of the book is about this char­ac­ter, who’s re­alised that he’s fic­tional, beg­ging

Kurt Von­negut to make him young so he can start over again. So there was a res­o­nance that just seemed to fit into this whole idea of know­ing that the en­tire hu­man race is go­ing to be de­stroyed along­side you.”

For Thumper­mon­key, the main prob­lem with mak­ing an al­bum as am­bi­tious and seem­ingly ex­trav­a­gant as Make Me Young,

Etc was the sheer cost and scale of the whole au­da­cious en­ter­prise. For­tu­nately, it seems that Wood­man and Jones are men with huge re­serves of pa­tience and a shared re­source­ful streak: the road to fin­ish­ing this project has plainly been a tricky and ob­sta­cle‑strewn one, but the goal at the end never lost its al­lure for those in­volved.

“It has been frus­trat­ing at times, but we were very com­mit­ted to re­leas­ing it prop­erly,” says Wood­man. “There have been some great things that have hap­pened. It’s re­ally ex­cit­ing that Prog, in par­tic­u­lar, have been so kind to us and have re­ally trum­peted what we do. There have been some frus­tra­tions about get­ting our mu­sic lis­tened to and ex­posed, I sup­pose. The last year and a half has been an elab­o­rate and com­plex se­ries of lam­i­nated itin­er­ar­ies for how this was all go­ing to be done, so that we could get as many peo­ple lis­ten­ing to it as pos­si­ble, with the limited re­sources that are avail­able to a weird band like us.”

Now that it’s fin­ished and about to be re­leased, do you feel a huge sense of re­lief?

“Now it’s like, ‘Thank god!’ It’s like do­ing the big­gest poo in the world,” Wood­man laughs. “It was about be­ing fi­nally able, to some ex­tent, to for­get how frus­trat­ing it had all been in the past. But we did it to our­selves to some ex­tent be­cause we wanted to do it right.”

De­spite the new songs’ in­her­ent com­plex­ity, Thumper­mon­key have al­ready be­gun to per­form them live and are cau­tiously op­ti­mistic that 2019 will bring a splurge of op­por­tu­ni­ties to take this ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­sic to as many stages as pos­si­ble. Beyond that, the mak­ing of this al­bum seems to have a pro­found, pos­i­tive ef­fect on the men that pieced it so metic­u­lously but grad­u­ally to­gether. Thanks to the power of mind‑bend­ing mu­sic, even the end of the world doesn’t seem so bad.

“I have on­go­ing is­sues with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and the mu­sic is some­times a great thing to make me feel more com­fort­able about my­self,” Wood­man muses. “There’s a line at the end of the song Make Me Young,

Etc that says, ‘Take this use­less sad­ness and throw it away,’ and it’s al­most a mantra, an at­tempt to try to force my­self into a state of pos­i­tiv­ity by mak­ing these bold state­ments about leav­ing that part of my­self be­hind. So it’s a very in­tro­spec­tive al­bum, but that’s just from my per­spec­tive!”

“It’s that com­mon re­al­i­sa­tion of ‘Why am I hold­ing on to this sad­ness?’” Jones con­cludes. “That’s why there’s that re­peated line, ‘Take this use­less sad­ness and throw it away.’ It’s what I imag­ine the whole hu­man race is think­ing or chant­ing at the ex­act point the tidal wave comes af­ter the as­ter­oid hits… I think there’s some­thing beau­ti­ful about that.”

“I was very emo­tion­ally at­tached to mak­ing this mu­sic and get­ting ev­ery­thing ab­so­lutely right.”

Rael Jones


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