“I like the idea of everything being as raw-sounding as possible, with nothing covering up the sound.”
Ducktails is Matthew Mondanile, a New Jerseyian whose pop is drenched in a warm drone. There is a pretty amazingly realized aesthetic running through this stuff, with all its plastic nostalgias -- like Ninja Turtles pizza, fake palm trees, sugary cereal -- and the lo-fi tape fuzz that also permeates his other projects, Predator Vision, Real Estate, and Dreams In Mirror Field. It's home recording with one of the comfiest feels you'll find, reminiscent of Ariel Pink but with an exploratory nudge. Matthew prefers cassettes as scuffed-up homes for this stuff, but he's just released a vinyl full-length on LA DIY label Not Not Fun.
We started the interview talking about babysitting the 10-year-old who he nearly started the band with (he had this kid's computer to record onto, but ultimately artistic differences led the project to shambles), which is probably not the best angle to take for a relatively unknown musician, but pretty apt given the chilled, innocent vibes of Ducktails' music.
That babysitting thing sort of makes a lot of sense considering your music. Well, for me at least, there's this nostalgia in the sound and this childlike sort of thing. I was wondering how much you were into mining that sort of vibe, the nostalgia thing. Like, thinking about that track "Backyard," which has this homey feel, like going back to your parents' house after you've moved out.
That's basically what it was like actually. I had just graduated from school after living in Massachusetts on my own for seven years. I graduated, and I was living with my girlfriend, but we broke up because she was moving to Portland, Maine. I didn't really wanna go up there, because it was really north and there wasn't that much for me there. I'm from New Jersery, and it's so close to New York, so I moved back there. I had nothing to do at my parents' house and ended up doing a lot of recordings there in the basement. A lot of the Ducktails stuff was done in Massachusetts as well, but most of the recent stuff is from New Jersey. It's also really hard, because I can only get the comfort to make the music like that if my parent's aren't home [laughs]. If they're out for a few hours, I can squeeze in some recording in the basement, but it's kind of difficult.
Why do you think that is? Is it a self-conscious thing for you?
Yeah, I think so. I really like to be completely alone, and I don't want anyone to hear me when I'm making music. A lot of the time they'll come down while I'm recording to look at me and listen, and I'm just like "get out of here get out of here" [laughs]. Actually, the first Ducktails tape I ever recorded, I made it in a toolshed where I used to live in Massachusetts, behind my house. There was no one around, apart from cows and a field. It was amazing. I had electricity but barely anything to record with, and that's kind of where it started. I'd like to do more things like that, where I can record outside where there's just no one.
A lot of the tracks on Ducktails II have that feel. They sound like they're recorded outside. It's weird though -- it sounds real Californian or my idea of the West Coast, like a lot of those pictures of palm trees on your site or just a backyard in the summertime with a sprinkler going. It has lots of those sorts of images for me.
Definitely. It's like trying to imagine that through the music, but not actually being there, so it's kind of like making an imaginary place. That's kind of what I'm trying to do, in a sense, because I really like the idea of feel-good music, but at the same time, it's not really real; it's synthetic or fake -- a fake recreation or something.
Yeah, it has this really weird plastic-y sort of nostalgia, like a fake nostalgia, something you'd get from watching The Wonder Years -- like half-real memories.
That's definitely true. I'm glad that you understand that, because that's kind of exactly where I'm coming from. And I don't try to do that so consciously; I try to have a more unconscious action to what I'm doing, like not really focusing on it that much, a pretty easygoing kind of thing. Some of that Ducktails II cassette was recorded outside actually, in that tool shed. Like "Tropical Heat" and "Let's Rock The Beach."
That makes sense, actually; they have this sunny kind of space to them. I was wanting to asking you about the palm tree motif that comes up a lot in your music and on your webpage, because I've been super obsessed with palm trees in the last six months or so, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe because of being in England, like some sort of escapist type thing. I was wondering if there was any particular attraction for you with this?
I don't really know. It's hard to say. The photo of the palm tree on the Ducktails tapes site was one I took when I was on tour in California. There's the other photo that I took of this fake palm tree that was actually in Amsterdam at this carnival. I guess I'm just drawn to them as an image or a symbol, because they don't really mean anything that much to me, but I like how they look and I like how they're so foreign to me. I mean, it's freezing cold here right now; there's snow all over the ground. I don't mind the winter, but I wouldn't mind if I was in Portugal or something, basking in the sun. It's not too much of an obsession, the palm tree thing, but I'm interested in how images like that make you feel a certain way.
With the name Ducktails, did choosing that have something to do with the ideas of nostalgia you were mentioning?
Definitely, yeah. But honestly, not that much thought went into it, and it kind of puts me in a weird position right now because I feel like my music is somewhere between pop and noise music. When I play live, it's improvised and more like drone music. I try to do more song-y things live; it's a hard balance. It's tough for me to figure out because my recordings are like, "Okay, I'm gonna record a few jams" and then go through them and make songs and then try to make them appear like songs, whereas I'm not really planning anything out in advance. I want it to be similar live but even more improvised. But yeah, there are people who are really into noise and this dark sort of attitude, or this thing where my name is kind of really lame I think -- I'm sure a lot of people think that. At the same time, it's kind of this little kid-type thing, and it reminds people of a cartoon, but it's like I don't want to play under my own name, and I think it's catchy and people will remember it. That's one of the reasons why I like it, but it's not like my favorite band name or anything. But I'm gonna stick with it and keep putting stuff out under that.
It's funny how much it fits in with the overall aesthetic you have. The balance of noise and pop is interesting, because you could say a lot of the songs are more straight-up drone, even if it's a nice, pretty sort of drone. But some turn into songs more than others. You had described your live sets as like making a soundtrack to a movie on the spot.
It's kind of like that. I don't really think about that so much; I just kind of think about where I can take it and how I can get people immersed in it. I'll tell you what I really want to do, though: I have this band called Real Estate also, and we play a few Ducktails songs when we play live, and I'd like to work it out so I can make it more of a band thing, that would be super fun. I like playing solo, though; it's just a different thing in America. I feel like, in New York, people want to see a band play, rather than just one person. Whereas in other parts of the world, or even just other cities in America, people are more appreciative of just a one-person band. It's kind of strange.
Do you use prerecorded samples when you play at all?
Yeah, I always use samples and play guitar and synthesizer over them, because I don't want it to wander too much from the usual specific Ducktails sound.
With the improvised nature of those performances, then, do you ever get surprised by the stuff you come up with and want to turn them into songs for a record?
That's never really happened, actually. It's usually the other way around; I'll play live and some good parts will come out of it, but a lot of the time songs will come out of me just jamming in my basement and just playing the guitar. I haven't figured that aspect out as much really. I love playing shows, and I play them all the time; it's really fun, but I'd like to put more effort into the live experience.
I've been thinking lately about how a lot of music, particularly drone stuff, sounds really visual. I'm not sure if it's just me, but a lot of the stuff I've been hearing has a massive visual kind of element. Do you approach music in this way?
I definitely do; a lot of the times I'll record something with a visual thought in mind. Or, it'll be the opposite way around, where a song will remind me of something visual and that will give me the name for the song or some idea like that. I don't try to focus on it that much; I would never play live with visuals or anything. I'm not really into that idea because a lot of the times it's better to imagine it rather than see it. I have nothing against it though; it can be cool sometimes.
Is there anything in particular that you like about the medium of cassette?
Well, I only record on cassette. Ducktails started with a cassette, because I was listening to a lot of music on cassette. Actually, what happened was I was living in Berlin, and I became friends with James Ferraro, Spencer Clark, and Steve Warwick. So, I would hang out with them and were constantly working on cassettes and putting them out almost daily it seemed. It seemed like they were doing it so fast. I was really into the production aspect of it, and they were telling me not to wait for anyone else to put out your music, and that it's better just to do it yourself. So as soon as I got back back to America, I literally just recorded all this stuff in a day. That's how the first Ducktails release came about; I put it out the next day after dubbing it to some cassettes. It was so simple, because I didn't have to deal with a computer or anything, all I had to do was use cassette dubbers. It was a real awakening for me, because I like the idea of everything being as raw-sounding as possible, with nothing covering up the sound. It's like the only thing covering it up might be the quality of the recording, but otherwise what you hear is what you're hearing. The cassette is a really easy way to help me get my music out there, and it's also more of an object than a CD. I don't think people necessarily only listen to cassettes, but I do think that people will always want them.
CDs are pretty undesirable for me; they're a bit of a drag and so disposable. Having a tape collection is fun.
I have a huge tape collection, just from getting them from people in the mail. It's funny. I might have to start selling some of them to make some money.
Noise cassettes can go for pretty absurd prices on eBay sometimes, like a Thurston Moore noise cassette or something. With the rawness you're talking about, it probably helps how image-based the music sounds as well, with more intimate sort of spaces, like the song "Backyard," it has this closed kind of space like a basement, which is where you recorded it, yeah?
Yeah. I'd like to do more stuff like that for the next album that I'm recording.
So more song-based than droney?
More song-based, yeah, and a lot more guitar. I want it to be simple like it has always been, with maybe like 10 or 12 songs that aren't too long. I don't really know how it's going to turn out, but I'll just have to do it and then see. I have an idea in mind though. The one that is coming out on Not Not Fun is an LP that sounds more like a compilation, because all the songs are from different times and focus on different aspects of recording. I picked all these different songs that I wanted to be on a record and put them together.