Blue Sky High : A Conversation With Monarch’s Dominic Denholm

There’s a certain vibe you get when you drop the needle on a Monarch LP. It’s a blast of classic 60s and 70s psychedelic rock and roll, but with more heft. A band that pulls as much influence from Hawkwind and Can as they do Allman Brothers and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. Chiming triple guitar attacks and a groove-heavy rhythm section paints pictures of both a sunny southern California upbringing, as well as a desert walkabout on some journey to find oneself. Writing songs that range from heady, progressive jams to groove-heavy guitar riffage to pure 60s psych pop, this five-piece that has their beginnings in Encinitas, California are pushing the SoCal sound to new sonic heights.

Monarch, which consists of Dominic Denholm(Guitar/Vocals),Thomas Dibenedetto(Guitar), James Upton(Guitar), Matt Weiss(Bass), and Andrew Ware(Drums), released their debut full-length Two Isles with El Paraiso Records back in 2016. They just released their sophomore record, the excellent and epic Beyond the Blue Sky. They keep expanding and honing their sound, opening swaths of space for extended jams, soulful vocals, and even creating an epic suite which includes “Beyond The Blue Sky”, “Phenomena”, and “Counterpart”. 

I sat down with singer/guitarist Dominic Denholm and we talked about the band’s beginnings, influences, writing process, and the whole San Diego psych scene. Check out our conversation below.


J. Hubner: So tell me about Monarch. How did you guys get together?

Dominic Denholm: We all grew up together in Encinitas which is a small beach town north of San Diego. Went to high school together, partied together. In high school we all played in bands but not with each other. Then after high school a bunch of friends would get together whenever we could and jam. Our friend Anthony Meier would record these jams under the title of YAR! Primarily influenced by Hawkwind and a handful of Krautrock bands( Amon Duul ii, Neu, CAN). Out of these jams we formed a band named COLOR consisting of Andrew Ware, Brenden Dellar(Sacri Monti) and myself. We played for awhile then I moved up to Portland and Brenden started Sacri Monti with the other dudes of YAR!,  Thomas Dibenedetto , Anthony Meier , Evan Wenskay , Dylan Donavon.

J. Hubner: You moved to Portland? How long were you there?

Dominic Denholm:  I moved back from Portland a year later then started writing some stuff with Andrew Ware, Nate Burns and Matt Weiss . At the time I was working at a cafe with Matt Weiss and Thomas Dibenedetto and Thomas heard we were gonna jam,  wanted to come hang and play some guitar.  After a few times playing with each other we then had a solid line up … Andrew – drums , Thomas – Guitar , Nate – Guitar , Matt – Bass , Myself – Guitar / Vox.

Photo by Marcos Manrique

J. Hubner: Who or what were some influences on Monarch’s sound? 

Dominic Denholm: Initially the main influences were The Allman Brothers, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Wishbone Ash to name a few. We all had quite a variety of music we were listening to but having three guitars ourselves we naturally gravitated towards these bands using a lot of guitar harmonies. Nowadays it’s so all over the place with influences I can’t  really pinpoint anything in particular(laughs).

J. Hubner: How long was the writing process for your first album ‘Two Isles’? 

Dominic Denholm: The bulk of the songs had already been written within the first 6 months we had been playing with each other. We had a couple more that we had been working on after the EP which took a few months to dial in. The more time consuming aspect was mixing, we had all kinds of stuff going on and it needed to be organized for us in a very meticulous way to reach the desired effect.

J. Hubner: Speaking of your debut full-length, how did you guys get hooked up with El Paraiso Records? I hear a connection between your sound and cats(and El Paraiso alums) like Brian Ellis and Psicomagia. 

Dominic Denholm: Yeah Brian Ellis was the catalyst for our relationship with El Paraiso. We recorded a four song EP with Brian back in the summer of 2014. Prior to that Psicomagia recorded at Brian’s studio also releasing with El Paraiso, along with his own outfit The Brian Ellis Group. So by association they caught wind of us and I emailed them seeing if they would be interested in putting out a Monarch record. Luckily they said yes.

Photo by Isaac R Larios

J. Hubner: So let’s talk about the new album ‘Beyond the Blue Sky’. How long was the writing and recording process for the new record? It’s an amazing record, btw.  

Dominic Denholm: Thank you. It was a two year process writing and one year process to track/mix the record. Consisting of us working at Audio Design Studio located in San Diego, going in for a handful of days every couple months. 

J. Hubner: Going into the new album, did you guys approach the creative process differently than with ‘Two Isles’? If so, what did you want to approach differently? From a fan and listener standpoint, I feel like ‘BtBS’ feels and sounds looser than ‘Two Isles’.

Dominic Denholm: Yes very much so.  After “Two Isles” was released our guitarist Nate Burns moved to New York to pursue an education in music. We brought in our friend James Upton to play guitar.  Drummer Andrew and myself had both played in other bands with him, so it wasn’t a completely new dynamic. But we had to catch him up to speed with what we had been writing and then dived right into new material. Also with time passing the music that was catching our ears wasn’t purely guitar based and we got a hold of some new instruments … keys, synths, saxophone. 

 

J. Hubner: It’s always exciting to throw new instruments into the mix. 

Dominic Denholm: We weren’t very good at any of these things(laughs), but to keep it interesting we incorporated these new sounds into the songs. Over the next year we got the songs to our liking, took em on the road then hit the studio.

J. Hubner: How did the studio process differ from the last time around?

Dominic Denholm: This time around we decided to do the record entirely analog to tape. Tracked the drums live then re-recorded over all the scratch tracks. Had a good idea of what we wanted to have on the album as far as instrumentation but the studio had a variety of other instruments that spontaneously found themselves on the record, like vibraphone, congas, string machines, etc. That kind of loose attitude of randomly adding an instrument or effect enabled a loose tracking work flow. Mixing was not a loose work flow(laughs), very focused effort and especially mixing live to tape for the first time. It was a big learning curve.

J. Hubner: What’s the overall writing process like in the band? Is it more of a communal vibe of getting together and jamming, or are riffs and songs brought to the band already created and worked on from there?  

Dominic Denholm: It can vary from song to song. Sometimes they come easy, Beyond the Blue Sky started off as a joke and then two practices later we had a full song and we all agreed that we liked it. Other songs like “Two Isles” or “Hanging By A Thread” go through many forms and lots of doubt(laughs).  Sometimes we all come together in the moment and other times it’s one of us sitting in our rooms working on a tune. At the end of the day it’s a democratic process, which is why things can take some time for us to write.

J. Hubner: The southern California psych scene feels very unique. It’s like this community of like-minded bands in southern California that are channeling free-form psych and the fusion spirit of late 60s and early 70s bands(and oddly enough, El Paraiso has introduced most of them to me). You guys, along with Earthless, Astra, and the Brian Ellis Group are capturing this heady vibe that’s based more in the light than dark. Are you all channeling the same positive vibes? I think the world needs more of what you’re offering. 

Dominic Denholm: Every band around San Diego has their own distinct charm, be it heavy or softer . Earthless and Astra were the primary influences for a lot of bands, including ourselves, pushing the notion of musicality and atmosphere …. displaying the possibility/flexibility of reaching for both musical qualities in a symbiotic fashion. That particular musical ethos was a strong goal for lot of bands from the 60s/70s. We came into contact with those records at one time or another and bonded over a lot of them and share the same ethos. Fortunate for us we had Thirsty Moon Records(RIP ) here in SD curated by Mike Egginton and Mario Rubalcaba of Earthless. They are kinda responsible for providing us with so many great records.  El Paraiso has been an awesome force in highlighting some great SD music including  Brian Ellis and Psicomagia. I wish they still played around but regardless, they shared that music with a much larger audience, with great response, providing an opportunity that other labels might have just passed up.

 

J. Hubner: Is Monarch heading out on the road to promote ‘Beyond the Blue Sky’? Is it just a West Coast tour, or are you hitting more spots in the US? 

Dominic Denholm: Yes, west coast with our bros Sacri Monti in early September. Working on more west coast dates and southwest dates with the main goal to make our way over to Europe in 2020.

J. Hubner: What’s the rest of 2019 looking like for Monarch?

Dominic Denholm: Writing new material, recording, and booking more shows around the US with intent of making it across the pond.


Monarch’s Beyond the Blue Sky is out now. Grab a copy at El Paraiso Records. Check out the video for “Counterpart” below, as well as a live session that’s not to be missed from 2016. 

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