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.
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.”
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.”
MONKEY BUSINESS: MICHAEL WOODMAN (FRONT) AND THE BAND.