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Interview with Mondo

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Somewhere on a quiet cul de sac in suburban Bolton, Ontario, I meet Mondo. This was a meeting made possible by friends of mine who had grown up in Bolton and moved to Toronto, escaping the isolation of the mill village. Mondo was described to me as the younger brother of a friend who was always around, hanging out, and talking about music. While driving through the winding Caledon roads, I listen to “Taking Up Space”, his latest EP. The release features five tracks of original music ranging from deeply personal and lethargic pop, to angsty and honest face-melters satisfying the 90’s grunge nostalgia still lingering in even the most musically repressed people. “See Me” is a tongue-in-cheek bop complete with back up vocals (and sarcastic vocal fry) and complemented by a guitar solo. As I approach my destination and reach the final track, my favourite, “Home Sick”, I can’t help but experience goosebumps when the chorus hits, immediately reminding me why I reached out for an interview.

The person I meet is a soft-spoken, young man with long hair hidden beneath a toque. He is proudly clutching his cat, Ophelia, who greets me with little mews. He welcomes me into his living space, a basement apartment with a drum kit centrepiece surrounded by archived media and tape cassettes. One area is decorated with a series of electric guitars with familiar Fender silhouettes, each painted a different pastel colour and mounted to the wall. Tape recorders are neatly stacked in several areas like an analogue museum exhibit, some looking as though they are mid-surgery. As I glance around, Mondo laughs, “This is the cleanest it has been in a while.”

Background

Mondo is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who predominantly uses analogue recording methods. Mondo has managed to release several full length albums of his trademarked melancholy lo-fi sound, which range from solo acoustic home recordings, to experimental sound collages, to full band ensemble studio tracks. His independent label, Manic Juice Records, has released works of emerging artists via limited runs of second-hand cassette tapes, which are usually found and recycled from local thrift shops. 2019 saw Mondo's first solo release, an acoustic tape he called "Kikini Bamalaam", which echoed his inspirations from the 90’s alternative scene and his obsession with obscure pop-culture.


Smol: How long have you been playing music? What made you want to start?

Mondo: Embarrassingly enough, my first instrument was a harmonica which I got as a gift when I was three years old, and my parents made me take lessons for, like, 10 years. I’ve retained none of that knowledge because I hated it and wanted to try something else. I think as an act of rebellion, I was like, “What’s the opposite of harmonica? I want to play drums!” I got this drum set when I was 12 and I didn’t know how to play so I would play along to Weezer and shit. And then, I was living at my sister’s for a bit and she just had her first baby, and I couldn’t play drums so I started playing guitar. My whole life, like, my mom would play violin and sing, and we had a piano in the house and I would fuck around on it. But I didn’t take music seriously until I was about 13 or 14. I wish I kept up with harmonica, because now I love Neil Young, so I do try to play every now and then, just to keep up my chops. But when you only play harmonica, like a solo harmonica player, that’s not cool [laughs].

Smol: Are you self-taught on guitar?

Mondo: I did have guitar lessons for a little bit with Eric Mahar in Bolton, I love that dude. Shout-out to Eric Mahar. I used to like going to him just to hear him talk and ask him questions about his life and he’d say, “Ok you’ve been here for 25 minutes and haven’t played” [laughs]. He’s the most down to earth, chill guy. So, I did lessons for a few years but at that age I just wanted to play punk shit, and he wanted to show me jazz chords.

Smol: At what age did you start writing songs? What was your first band?

Mondo: Probably 13 or 14. Eric Mahar was pushing me to start writing my own shit. That was when I was living at my sister’s, and there was some family shit going on, and I found it was a good way to work through my angst. But I probably didn’t write a real song until I was 16. I was in my first band around 13, I played drums, and we were called The Flying Fucks. I was so desperate to have people to connect with musically because in Bolton there aren’t a lot of them and most of them are still jocks and stuff and hard to relate with. In high school, I was in a band called the Konkrats, which was a play on our music teacher’s name, and we were trying to do the whole punk thing. I was in lots of bands with the same few people, but we never left the basement, and at that age I was intimidated and didn’t know what was possible.


Smol: Tell us about growing up in Bolton. How did that environment affect you?


Mondo: I’m going to be honest, I hate this town. In very recent years I’ve learned to appreciate the landscape. It’s such a beautiful place, I go for hikes and I love to be out there, but fuck, the people, bro [laughs]. When I was in high school, everyone was into mumble rap and Jersey Shore and shit, and it was so terrible. There was just nothing to do, and no connections to make, and honestly no culture.


I went to shows in Toronto a lot but it was so far away. Anywhere I go I have to drive. I used to not drive too, so when I’d go to shows in downtown Toronto I’d have to take the GO bus. It only comes every two hours, so if you miss it you’re fucked, go to Malton station, take the train to Union Station, take a subway… so it takes fucking three hours to go anywhere. And then you’d have to get to Brampton for 8PM to get the last bus home, so I would be sleeping on benches and shit. Haha you know what I mean? [Mondo makes it very clear to me that he is absolutely exaggerating about having slept on Toronto street benches and states, “Luckily I’ve never had to - I prefer to sleep in my bed.”]


I like Toronto, I like the anonymity. Just like, walking down the street and everyone looks so crazy and you can do whatever you want. There’s a scene for anything, you just have to find it.


Smol: Did you find a scene or a culture in Toronto that helped to shape your identity as an artist? Was it a struggle to enter the scene?


Mondo: It has always been a struggle. For such a long time, especially in a small town, I was the punk guy. That was my identity. I wore my lock chain, listened to all the hardcore shit, went to all the shows downtown…and even there I would be like, “I don’t fit in with these people either.” I’m just so past that point in my life, I just don’t give a shit anymore. You don’t have to fit in with anyone, you can be a bit of everything, you can take it anywhere, and it’s kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys.


I had a prof in college who told me “The one most real piece of advice I can give to you is: if you really believe in what you’re doing, someone else will too.” So fuck it. I try to remember that when I’m not sure what I’m doing.



Smol: Tell me about “Taking Up Space”.


Mondo: These are basically songs I wrote years ago, and we actually started recording them in 2018. I hate these songs now, they’re so old and I’ve played them so many times at this point. Quite honestly I wrote them… I was really depressed and going through an intense bout and it was just after a serious breakup, like I was just a little stoner. But these were the first songs I wrote that I was able to break out of being the punk guy, because I was struggling with identity and started doing this singer songwriter stuff and it was all on my acoustic guitar. And this guy I went to school with, we had music class together, Mike D’Arolfi, started doing production work and he said “Let’s do a collaborative thing,” but I didn’t really have the songs arranged because they were just in my head, so we did it together. They’re very personal songs, just me kind of bitching about my feelings, which I’m trying to get away from, but I feel like there’s nothing else to say about me. Anyone who knows me or has ever known me, like, if you listen to these songs you know this is me. I know that sounds cliche but some things in these songs are so honest it's almost embarrassing. But I felt like after I wrote them I didn't have anything to be ashamed or be scared of. Like, this is what I do. Sometimes I write songs about feelings so if you like it, you like it, but if you don't that's totally cool [laughs].


This is the first release that was actually produced, because most of my stuff has been recorded at home or weird lo-fi shit, but actually working with a producer was exciting because I want people to hear this now. They sound pleasing to the ears and I’m proud of them.


Smol: Yeah, we can hear in some of these songs, like on "Home Sick", some nuances. Like, the distortion guitar creeps in to foreshadow the chorus, which sounds really cool.


Mondo: Yeah, yeah. When you get the skeleton of the track and then get to add all the fun, like, facial features and stuff. I love that part.


Smol: Where do you get your inspiration from? What drives you to write?


Mondo: I hate thinking about that because it makes me feel like a cheap emulation, you know? Like people will listen to it and say, “Cool, this sounds like 90’s music like Nirvana or grunge shit,” and I’m like, “No!”, [laughs] but it comes out either way. I love 90’s music. Weezer and Nirvana. I love pop songs too, rock songs, whatever, but even like Mac Demarco and Daniel Johnston, I love all of that. Some people have said my stuff, or the way it was recorded, sounded a little like Elliot Smith, which is nice.


I know it’s a little cliche to say, but I think my biggest inspiration comes from my friends. When I was younger I thought basically, “You’re either a rock star, or you’re nobody, you’re a loser,” and that's not true. Just getting out to shows, meeting the people I did, and seeing what my friends are doing, seeing their bands, seeing my friends become producers–it inspires me, you know? It made me realize this is real. You don’t have to be a huge band to make a video, you just have to find the right people and do it together. It’s the small people that inspire me because everyone likes Led Zeppelin and stuff but we’re in a different league, and we all feed off each other.


Smol: It’s so cool to see artists inspiring each other and creating a cycle of energy and positivity, it really keeps hope and creativity alive. Like when one artist sees another perform and thinks, “Cool, I want to make something now!” People feed off that energy and it grows.


Mondo: I know, and I love it, and I’ve been riding that. I didn’t have that for a long time too, so it’s nice.


Smol: Tell us about Manic Juice Records. Is it your label or is it collaborative?


Mondo: It’s my label, I wish it was collaborative but it’s my label. It was kind of just a day dream I had in school, this thing I wanted to do, and I wish I started then but I was too timid and made all kinds of excuses. But I finally just started doing shit. I wanted to record all the music. I love all kinds of music and wanted to have, like, a black metal project, punk stuff, electronic stuff, everything and I wanted to make all this music myself and release it under different names and stuff. But then people started reaching out to me and I couldn't believe it because I had like 50 followers. People from France and Brazil, and they would say, “Hey do you want to put out our tape?”, and I was surprised like, “Why are you talking to me?” But this side project thing just turned into this really positive and beautiful project and I’ve met all kinds of cool people. I can put out anything my friends make, anything I make, and there’s everything on the label. Maybe it’s more of a mindset, but it’s kind of in the same vein of what you guys are doing. I just want to support people.


I put out this tape from these kids who were 15 and the music was rough and whatever, and we made like 20 tapes, but they were so happy and appreciative and it made me feel good. Maybe they wouldn’t have had an outlet for their music, so I’m glad I helped. I want to help people who deserve a chance.


Mondo brings out several tapes, showing me their artwork and talking about the cities they came from and what projects he helped with.


Mondo: I put out this cassette, these guys are great. It's a split EP, a punk kid and a noise kid from the states. All three of us have never met each other but I'm sure we all consider each other as good friends - we still talk occasionally. Take a listen, you'll hear what I mean.


He puts on a cassette that starts to break up like a skipping record, or a changing radio tuner. At first, I think the tape is broken until I hear, “Welcome to Anti-christ broadcasting”, and a punk song cuts through fast and loud.


Smol: Why tapes?


Mondo: Well, some of these artists approached me and wanted to do a release but didn’t really have funding. And it started, too, because I was so poor, and I would go to thrift shops and buy whatever I could find and come home and tape over them. I would make albums the length of the tape, right to the end. Then I discovered there was kind of a scene for them, people are still doing this, and I didn’t know that. How else, like people like us, how can you make a release? We’re not going to go get vinyl pressed. We don’t have thousands of dollars to do that, and we’re not getting a CD made. So what can you do from start to finish? This way you can draw up the artwork, like, it’s the only way I think for independent artists to have total control and do it themselves.


At this time, I take a washroom break. During this break, Mondo leaves a hidden message on my audio recorder, repeating, “Hi Noah. I hope you’re having fun,” in a cartoony voice. I come back. He asks me about growing up in Ottawa, and we discuss venues like House of Targ, Fun Boy Clubhouse, Mugshots, and Gabba Hey.


Smol: Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect you as an artist?


Mondo: That is part of the reason it took so long to get the EP done. My family takes it very seriously and I have six nieces and nephews and they can't get vaccinated. And this is a bit of an over-exaggeration, but it felt like for a year I didn’t leave the house and it was fucking brutal. And right before the pandemic happened I was like, “This is the year I’m going to play open mics every weekend,” just to feel comfortable playing and own the stage and everything, and I haven't gotten to do that. Meeting up with people to record and shit, it’s all been a pain in the ass. Artists need help right now.


Smol: Do you have a favourite song on the album?


Mondo: Probably “See Me”. It’s just, like, the funnest song to record, it’s the funnest to play, and it’s the poppiest. I’d like to record more songs in that vein but I know it’s super cheesy, it totally sounds like a Weezer song. But I like “Sleep All Day” too. That was the first song we did, and it took so long. That song has tape on it. I convinced Mike D’Arolfi to do a hybrid recording, and he didn’t want to because he went to school and knows his stuff, and it sounds very polished, but I was like, “Let's get the tape machine in and try some stuff.”


Smol: Yeah, that can be really cool, but in my experience, if there’s even the slightest warble on the tape it can mess with the timing when you put it back into the digital realm.


Mondo: It fucks everything up! It fucks up the key and the pitch and the time. But we found ways to work around that because Mike was so into the sound. We dubbed something down a couple of generations. We would take the tape out and crumple it up and then wind it back, all kinds of weird shit. Then he’d have to put it back into Pro Tools and he’d have to change the pitch and line everything up again, and it was a lot of work for him, so I appreciate it, Mike! We did lots of fun, silly things. And he was doing it for his catalogue as well, working on passion projects and just trying experimental things. And it was cool because I had never worked with a producer before, and he was very involved. We tried a lot of new things and it was awesome.


Smol: Did you play all the instruments on the EP?


Mondo: Mike played bass on one or two of the songs. I didn’t have bass lines and we would go back and forth, and if he came up with something cool we would go with it. Then we got his brother-in-law to come in and play trumpet on “Sleep All Day” faintly in the background. I never thought I would have a trumpet on any of my songs. He mixed it down so low. Mike was like, “I don’t even want anyone to hear it,” [laughs] some producer shit. But yeah that stuff I don’t know how to play, but everything else, yeah. I’m just tired of trying to get bands to work, obviously playing live is a different story, but in the studio I love recording my own shit. It’s just hassle-free. I know what I’m doing and I know what I want to get. Unless it’s more of a collaborative thing, it’s just easier.


I don’t want to step on people’s toes, I don’t want to tell people what to do. Bands I’ve been in didn't work out and I think it’s my fault because I’m kind of awkward. One of the bands I was in was called The Quiet Packs, which I didn’t know but apparently means ‘shitty weed’. And my one friend was singing because he would write most of the guitar riffs, and he wrote most of the stuff. We played our first show and it was fucking terrible. It was at Cherry Colas and it was a packed show–that’s a whole story in itself–and after the show, he was like, “Man, I hate singing. I want you to sing,” and I think I was uncomfortable with taking on that role, being the leader, whatever.


It’s different though with your own shit. If I had a band for Mondo shit I wouldn’t feel bad because I’d be like, look, you know what you’re getting into, I’m still open to whatever, but the songs are written. Play them. That’s why I like Weezer so much because Rivers Cuomo has written thousands of songs. He demos them at home and he just brings them to the band. It works for them. So for something like this, I don’t mind that process. But I still love playing with people.


Smol: The vocals on the EP don’t sound like someone who was uncomfortable to step into that role. How did you develop confidence in your singing?


Mondo: A lot of that came out through recording I would say, because I didn’t have much confidence at all. Every time I was in a band I was thrusted into that position because people didn’t want to do it. And now I’ve just decided I don’t give a fuck anymore. Have you ever listened to Daniel Johnston? He doesn’t sing because he’s a world class singer, he sings because he needs to get it out. And like, not everyone is going to like you, like in general in life, but some will. So why not?


Smol: How can people support local music?


Mondo: I think the most important thing is just going out to shows. A couple of years ago, I found this band on Instagram, they had no followers but their handle was Big Fucking Losers. I checked them out and they had this video with, like, horrible lo-fi sounding things, and the band was called Losers so I was like “OK this is perfect, this is for me”. And it was weird at first because I was just this random kid from Bolton who went to every single one of their shows and sometimes nobody would be there. These guys were like “Who is this kid?” [laughs]. This was years ago now, but we’re friends now, and just by going to lots of shows, I’ve seen so many cool bands.


So go to shows. If they sell merch, buy the merch. I think that’s the most important thing. These people are doing it, they’re working hard. I know we haven’t been able to do it for a long time but, when you can, go to shows. Say hi to people, be chill, ask them how you can support them. Be like, “Hey, I like your music, do you have any merch? Are you playing more shows?” That’s the best.


Smol: What are some underrated Canadian bands you like?


Mondo: Honestly, for the rest of my life I’ll be repping Losers. They’re great. If you haven’t heard them, go listen to them. And a friend of mine, Depanneur, I think that’s French for a convenience store. Depanneur is great. He had a video shot for one of his singles and it was so inspiring to me, it was so well done. And yeah, Loser’s producer, Jesse Turnbull, anyone he’s working with I have an interest in, and Mike, anyone he’s working with I have an interest in. Because they’re always working on good things.


Smol: What's your mission?


Mondo: I think my mission is just to promote all things creative and mental wellness through creation, and kind of just to make people realize that you really can do anything you put your mind to. And I know that sounds like something your mom would say, and cliche and shit, but if you realize the power in that, you really can do whatever you want. I think if you don’t do art in some way, you should. It can really improve your life. I’m still figuring out how to promote these things because I have issues with how mental health is portrayed. But I think I’ll figure it out and be casual about it, but, you know, do art! There are no limits.



You can listen to and buy Mondo’s music from his Bandcamp, Spotify and Apple Music! Check out his website for Manic Juice Records!


Manicjuicerecords.bandcamp.com

Manicjuicerecords.com



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