Baroque and Beyond : A Conversation with Renato Montenegro

I was trying to think of where I first heard Renato Montenegro, the East Coast musician behind the electronic project Missionary Work. For some reason I thought he was part of the whole Austin, TX and Holodeck Records crew, but he is not. He’s worked with the Goblin-heavy Dust Witch as well, but not to the degree my brain assumed he had. He plays in a post-punk-inspired band called Strange Passage and was in a doom metal band called Magic Circle, which then morphed into another band called Bygone. Renato gets around, and is far more vast musically than my assumptions ever gave him credit for.

So let’s just say that his solo project Missionary Work is truly what brought me to the world of Renato Montenegro.

I first heard Missionary Work through Library Of The Occult and their release of The Ash Tree, a gorgeous and baroque record that paints visions of candle-lit rooms, full moons, and strange scratching at the windows. It’s just the kind of album that Library Of The Occult is known for. But then I did an about face and checked out Montenegro’s first Missionary Work album Seven Sermons and was completely blown away. I bought it immediately and the day the vinyl arrived I listened to it four or five times in a row, then binged Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass. Somehow that was a perfect combination of Gothic horror and Gothic tones. That was a damn good day.

I initially asked Renato if he’d be interested in talking to me clear back in September of 2021, but things happen(life) and I never got going on the whole interview. Well it’s now April of 2022 and I finally woke from my months-long slumber. Renato Montenegro and I had a great talk about his music and process. Check it out below.

J Hubner: So where did you grow up?

Renato Montenegro: I spent some time in Boston, the Philippines, and Canada when I was younger, but my family finally settled down in the suburbs of Massachusetts. I grew up in a small, somewhat picturesque town called Boxborough.

J Hubner: What were you like as a kid? Were you into music even at an early age? Horror movies and sci fi? Comic books? Did circuits and sound waves excite you back then?

Renato Montenegro: I suppose I was sort of hyperactive and morose at the same time. I used to really love math and drawing, and a proper interest in music didn’t develop until a little later. My parents would play guitar and sing for our church, and I’d often join them singing hymns and Christmas songs and whatnot, so I had that early exposure, but it was pretty casual. I did like horror movies and sci fi, provided I could get my hands on a video cassette without my parents disapproval. Funny enough, the first rated-R flick I saw was Alien at age 8 as my parents thought it was just some dumb alien flick. That did engender a love of H. R. Giger later on in junior high school when I got into sci-fi art, graffiti, graphic novels and other suchlike lowbrow media.

I did have an interest in circuits and electricity when I was younger, but it didn’t amount to anything beyond making little switch boxes out of wires and brass fasteners, although I did end up studying electrical engineering in college and working in the field for a decade in my adulthood. Even though by high school, I was very into techno and IDM, I didn’t really make the connection between the synthetic sounds in that music and electronics until college when I was in the middle of my degree.

J Hubner: When did you first really get serious about playing music? What was your first instrument you learned to play?

Renato Montenegro: I’m not sure if this quite counts as “serious,” but I started playing drums in fifth grade. When the band director was demonstrating all of the available instruments to us, I was pretty much snoozing until she started playing a concert snare, which really grabbed my attention. From there, I picked up kit drumming, and then in high school, rudimental snare drumming for marching band and drum corps. I was really into that for a couple of years. I actually didn’t play a melodic instrument until late in high school when I started to play classical guitar, which both of my parents played. I didn’t even get my first electric until after college when I was obsessed with Morricone and surf rock (I am still obsessed with Morricone).

J Hubner: What was the first album that really rewired your brain? Something you feel was integral to putting you on the path to wanting to write music?

Renato Montenegro: Oh man, there are too many brain-rewiring albums to mention… I suppose if we’re really talking first here, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was the Hackers soundtrack, which turned me onto stuff like The Prodigy and Orbital in junior high. Shortly thereafter, when I was really into kit drumming, I properly discovered jazz with Coltrane’s Giant Steps. I really dug the post-rock stuff later on in high school, particularly Tortoise, through whose constellation of influences, I discovered classical minimalism (viz, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians) and krautrock. Funny enough, I also got into the German stuff via Kraftwerk’s Computer World as some of my buddies and I were into breaking/popping & locking. I started putzing around with Reason around that time, making silly little tracks that I don’t think anyone really needs to hear, but it wasn’t until I’d been playing classical guitar for a year or so (after getting some Tarrega and Barrios pieces under my belt) and hearing The Return of the Durutti Column and John Fahey’s The Legend of Blind Joe Death for the first time that I started writing my own pieces for guitar.

J Hubner: I’m aware of two of your musical projects, Dust Witch and Missionary Work, but I feel like I’m missing a pretty big swath of music making history in regards to your work. Who or what are some projects you’ve been involved in besides DW and MW?

Renato Montenegro: I currently sing and play guitar in a jangly post-punk band called Strange Passage that’s heavily indebted to 80s US and UK indie (a far cry from Missionary Work!). I played guitar and some keys in a doom metal band called Magic Circle, which is now defunct, but from the ashes of that band grew Bygone, which is more indebted to the one-off tracks by established hard rock and heavy metal bands in the 70s who used the synthesizer as a gimmick (a very specific point of reference). I currently play keys in Bygone. I also played guitar and wrote the songs for a shoegaze band called Bummed, also now defunct.

J Hubner: Before we continue, maybe you could tell me a little about how you found yourself on the circuital path. What brought you to the world of analog sound? Did you buy a Moog and just go all in? What was the catalyst that brought you to the heavy synth sound?

Renato Montenegro: Alright, time to out myself here: other than the 3rd Magic Circle LP (on which I used a proper four-voice modular synth rig for one of the songs), I haven’t used any analog synths on any recordings I’m on. Other than DI’d electric bass and guitar and some acoustic instruments, all of the Missionary Work synth is software. It’s all in the box. Before working in electrical engineering, I worked full-time as a sound designer for a synth company called Kurzweil Music Systems for a couple of years, so I’m comfortable creating “analog like” sounds with digital means, but I’m sure all the discerning aficionados out there can tell the difference. I still have never owned a Moog.

Even though I was very much into techno and IDM and whatnot back in the day, my proper interest in synthesis only really came after I got deep into all of the classic German stuff (Kraftwerk, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, et al) and through that, other early experimental electronic music.

J Hubner: I’m definitely not a discerning aficionado, obviously. Sounds like vintage hardware to me. Shows me for assuming that every warm, bubbly synth album I hear is built from hardware and vintage boxes. So let’s talk about Missionary Work. How did the project come about?

Renato Montenegro: Missionary Work started back in 2012 when I was playing around with a Yamaha MT4X four-track tape recorder that I bought off of a coworker at Kurzweil. It wasn’t much more than some step sequences with filter sweeps, but I was getting good reactions from my friends when I played it for them, so I kept developing those ideas. The very first sequences I came up with during that time eventually turned into the songs “Seminary” and “Sacrementi” off of Seven Sermons.

The spread of main influences for the first Missionary Work LP was narrow: Goblin, Frizzi, Morricone, Tangerine Dream, Carpenter… All of the obvious stuff! Along with Tangerine Dream, a lot of German influence came through as well: Kraftwerk, Neu!… I did end up broadening the sonic palette and scope/focus for the second LP, The Ash Tree.

J Hubner: Seven Sermons really kind of blew me away. I’d heard The Ash Tree through Tom(McDowell) from Library of the Occult and felt like I’d come across some lost bit of baroque chamber music. I then reversed course to your first album and was struck by the difference in mood. That melancholy feel was still there but it felt like more of a modern take on what was happening with The Ash Tree.

What sort of hardware are you using on Seven Sermons? And what’s your writing process like when writing for the project?

Renato Montenegro: Prepare to be unbedazzled: a 2009 Fender Player Classic Jaguar, some Fender Squier P-bass of unknown vintage, a Scarlett 2nd gen 2i2 audio interface, and a 2009 MacBook (later upgraded to a 2015 iMac). Very unsexy stuff!

I’d typically start by playing around with a basic idea—either a sequence, melody, or chord progression—and then developing it to the point where I can start to imagine other material that might work with it. I’d try those ideas out, keeping what worked and rejecting what didn’t, and attempt to exhaust what possibilities I could identify in the moment. Once that one basic idea was fleshed out to my liking, I’d go back and subtract elements from it for its various iterations in the song. It was all done in a very piecemeal manner and the final form of the song would sort of just materialize as a consequence of the musical material. It wasn’t dissimilar from, say, spending a lot of time drawing all the details of a finger, saying “hmmm, I guess the hand should be in this position then” and then drawing every detail of the hand, doing the same for the arm, and so on. I am happy with the results, but it honestly was not a great way to write! It certainly has its place, but I’ve since made efforts to get away from using solely that approach and to come at new songs with more of a big-picture, general-to-specific awareness before I even try to come up with an idea.

J Hubner: Jaguar, P-Bass, Macbook? Sounds damn sexy to me. So tell me how you got involved with Library Of The Occult?

Renato Montenegro: I was asked by my friend Pentagram Home Video to compose and perform a live rescore for a folk horror made-for-TV movie of my choosing for the 2020 Boston Underground Film Festival. I was listening to a lot of early music and Baroque music at the time and figured a period flick would be perfect for trying my hand at composing in that style, so I decided on the 1975 adaption of The Ash Tree from the annual BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas. Of course, all of that was waylaid by COVID, but by that time, I had already come up with a good amount of material for the rescore—completing the rescore and throwing myself into really fleshing it out became my lockdown project. I wrapped it up in the fall of 2020, and PHV ended up sharing it with Tom at Library of the Occult, who totally got the vibe and offered to release the full rescore. I didn’t feel like the untouched rescore would make for a proper album, so I ended up composing out a few of the cues as well as composing some totally new material before submitting the final product to Tom.

J Hubner: What were some influences on the sound of The Ash Tree?

Renato Montenegro: Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach and her other electronic realizations of Baroque music comprised the main points of reference for The Ash Tree and I devoted a lot of time and effort to getting close to that sound. I may have spent as much time designing subtractive monophonic synth patches that approximate Baroque instruments as I did actually writing any music. The “harpsichord” you hear is actually my approximation of the “harpsichord” setting on a divide-down combo organ—that’s the only polyphonic patch on the album.

A few people I’d spoken to about Seven Sermons seemed to latch on to the classical leanings on that album, so I decided to really lean into it for The Ash Tree, hitting the books hard to refine my fugal procedure, imitative counterpoint, and four-part chorale writing. I also brought on a number of talented friends to sing as part of a sort of virtual choir for the chorale tracks. All of that was a fun challenge and a good lockdown undertaking.

J Hubner: So what are you currently working on? Is there more Missionary Work coming? 

Renato Montenegro: I already mentioned Strange Passage and Bygone, which are active and ongoing. I am working on another album, which may or may not be released under Missionary Work, but it’s a bit too embryonic to really get into here. I don’t want to jinx it by giving too much away, but I will say that I’ll be drawing more from classical minimalism for it.

Check out Missionary Work here. Check out Strange Passage here.

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