Interview: Dave Wyndorf on Cobras and Fire, Drugs, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love and Spinal Tap
Throughout the 90’s, space rockers Monster Magnet tore through the US and Europe on the back of their gold-selling album Powertrip, which featured the band’s juggernaut single ‘Space Lord’. Since that time they’ve faced some seemingly insurmountable challenges, including line-up changes and the dawn of an online generation that has declared all demonstrations of earnestness to be powerfully uncool. Despite this, Monster Magnet have remained steadfastly and unapologetically committed to their retro-futurist aesthetic, while continuing to explore and refine their unique brand of rock and roll escapism. We called Dave Wyndorf at his home in New Jersey to talk about the re-imagining of Monster Magnet’s 2010 album Mastermind as the new, sitar soaked Cobras and Fire. Can you tell me about the new cover art for Cobras and Fire?
I had paintings on the last two albums and this time I wanted something different – so I was like, “Hell man, I’ll just go and take some pictures of these action figures I’ve got in my room!”. As I started getting my old stuff out from when I was a kid, the ideas just kept coming. Eventually I thought, “Why don’t I just recreate my entire room from when I was 15?” - so that’s what I did. I went up to my attic and I took down all the stuff I had saved from when I was a kid. I recreated my entire room piece by piece! It’s up there right now in the attic!
I go up there like 4 nights a week and just sit with it all. There’s the same lava lamp, my posters with the black light, my records and record player - all the original pieces I saved. They live again but they’re all dusty now; it’s like a psychedelic sarcophagus up there.
You went back and turned 2010’s Mastermind into a completely different album, like you did last year with Milking the Stars: A Re-Imagining of Last Patrol. I noticed superstar mixer Joe Barresi was involved in this album too.
Oh yeah, I wouldn’t have started these projects without having Joe Barresi involved in the mixing. I take a lot of liberties in the recording of these tracks. It’s a lot of low-fi stuff that comes together quickly, because I know that when I take it to Joe we can bump everything up and fix parts if needed.
I initially decided to do this record because I had so much fun extending Last Patrol into Milking The Stars. It was different this time around though; Milking The Stars was just an extension of Last Patrol, but with this one it was like, “I don’t like Mastermind – I’m taking it back and I’m gonna make it something else altogether!”.
The reimagined 'Watch Me Fade' from Cobras and Fire
What didn’t you like about Mastermind?
I didn’t have a problem with the lyrics for Mastermind at all. What I did have a problem with was the sound of the record – it got away from me and I thought the vibe was a little too slick at the end. Right after that record, I had got into a new way of working and a new mindset of not wanting to try and professionalise anything anymore. In fact, I wanted it to sound as kooky and weird as I feel - and believe me, as you get older you feel kookier and weirder. I tell everybody: it’s not that you settle down when you get older, you just get weirder.
You need things to play around with too! Exactly! Like what am I doing, trying to get on the radio? There is no radio! (laughs) Would you like to work on soundtracks and film scores at some point?
Oh, it would be awesome! I actually did a soundtrack once but they didn’t use it. It was for Warner Brothers... a mainstream movie called Torque. Ice Cube was in it. I couldn’t believe they actually gave me the job! So they paid you for it and everything? Yeah, it was so awesome! At first I was asked by the director to be in the movie with Monster Magnet, but then I got talking to the guy and was like, “I could do the music for this!”. So I wrote a load of instrumental music that sounded like Monster Magnet versions of a spaghetti western – something along the lines of Ennio Morricone’s work. I was basically doing my version of a biker movie from ’68, but they were making a biker movie in the year 2000! (laughs) So they gave me the money and I flew out to Hollywood, and Hollywood is so great. They give you money and they don’t even pay attention to what you’re doing. I went out there for 3 months and spent a tonne of dough, stayed in amazing hotels, hired studio musicians. I had like, Tommy Lee and Josh Freese playing on the record! I hired the lady from The Lion King to come down and do a vocal. And at the end they were like, “What is this? We can’t use this!”.
In the end they did a hip hop soundtrack – which is what they should have done from the beginning! (laughs) But that music is still around somewhere, maybe I can release it one day.
Monster Magnet You mentioned bikers, which made me think of Sons of Anarchy. Monster Magnet’s songs were all over that show, how did that come about? Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy creator) was just really cool! I never even met that guy; he just started requesting the music. I hope to meet him one day ‘cause as far as I’m concerned, he's a friend for life for putting the songs all over the place! So where do you stand with the remix concept at the moment? Are you looking at re-doing any other albums?
You know, it can get a bit much and the novelty can start to wear off, but if there’s one album that needs to be redone it’s God Says No - that one has a lot of potential. It’s one of those records where I was on a huge, immensely tight major label deadline and I screwed it up. A lot of the tracks and guitars on the album were done by two guys who were extremely good and over the top professional. It was just too slick! The weirdness wasn’t there for me, so I’d like to do that again. I’d love to, actually.
I have to touch on 'Negasonic Teenage Warhead' (the 1995 Monster Magnet song title which inspired Marvel’s character of the same name), being a main character in the upcoming and highly anticipated Deadpool movie. I know! The character that will never die! It’s unbelievable. Grant Morrison, one of the greatest living comic writers of all time, invented a new mutant character in his new X-Men book that was named after the song. The character disappeared after about 10 issues – but sure enough, about four months ago someone shows me the Deadpool Comic-Con trailer and I’m like “Holy Shit!!” (laughs) I’ve always had really good luck with anything comic-related in my life (trivia: Dave used to work at a comic store which was frequented by a young Kevin Smith). They’re a constant source of inspiration for me. At their best, they’re produced by only by a couple of people working closely together - usually a writer and an artist. It’s just their imagination without much interference by anyone else. I find that very inspiring. Monster Magnet and all things psychedelic go hand in hand. Can you tell me some of your acid stories from back in the day? Oh, I have so many. I first did acid when I was 16, and I had stopped doing it by the time I was 22 - so all up it was less than 10 years out of my life. I was very young. It was the early 70’s, and back then it was sort of a badge of honour to lose your mind on psychedelic drugs. There were jocks and guys who took their challenges from playing football, and then there were the freaks who thought if they fried their brains enough and came back they’d won. (laughs) I went on trips where it was just so unbelievably out of body, like a Dr. Strange comic. I could rise up out of my body and look down on myself, watch myself get up, walk through the woods and into a house. It’s just insane. If you do enough LSD, I guarantee you you’re going to be gone. It’s really dangerous and after a point you’re playing Russian roulette with your psyche.
My idea of what psychedelics would be was way better than actual LSD was. What I pictured was an amalgam of comic books, posters, movies, the news and my own imagination. When I actually did it, it didn’t come close to what I thought it would be. It can get scary too. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing that stuff in the 21st century - there’s just too much information out there now. You’d be swallowed by your own demons. What was high school like for you? High school for me was suburban New Jersey, old suburbs, not rich or poor, just nice and normal. I went to a High School where it was really nice and racially mixed, and I was just a complete ghost. All I did was go to school, get C’s and D’s, then go home and listen to records. I worked at a car wash to get enough money to go to shows. It was all about buying albums, smoking pot and going to the shows. For me school was like, “I gotta get outta here, there’s nothing for me here”. I just felt like an insect - music was everything for me and school was just jocks and normal people. It didn’t feel normal for me. Shrapnel was your first band back then, yeah? Yeah Shrapnel was the first band I was in, but for a year we were called Hard Attack after a Dust album. We got our start in like 75’ and we did 3 hours of cover versions of all our favourite songs - MC5, Black Sabbath, Iggy & The Stooges... just an incredible weird mixture of 70’s rock. We used to play these High School dances and everybody hated us. It was great to do like a Stooges song, then a UFO song, then Lou Reed followed by Sabbath. It was really cool for sure.
Shrapnel - with Monster Magnet guitarist Phil Caivano second from the left and Dave Wyndorf in the middle
How did the Black Sabbath cover of 'Into The Void' come about years later with Monster Magnet? It's one of my favourite cover versions by any band. I was listening to a lot of the band Suicide at the time - one of the best bands ever, just total primal art. I was asked to do a track for an upcoming Sabbath tribute album (Nativity in Black Vol. II) and you can’t just do a straight forward Sabbath cover, because you can't beat Sabbath. So for some reason I just thought “I’m gonna do a Suicide thing with this and freak it out!”. I made it up right there in the studio with Dave Sardy (Producer and Mixer for Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Rolling Stones and Nick Cave to name a few). I just thought it would be funny to have some guy screaming in the background too. “Dinosaurs in Vietnam!” Yeah! I just pictured a T-Rex stomping through Vietnam and chomping everything up during the war. I made it all up on the spot and Dave Sardy was totally into it - he knew what I was going for. The original version must have been like half an hour long and it was cut down.
Monster Magnet - Into The Void (Black Sabbath Cover) I wanted to talk about the tour with Marilyn Manson and Hole in ’99. It’s still talked about as one of the craziest tours of all time. Dude, it was the best! I have never in all of my years met people who have truly embraced their rock stardom like the Manson guys. The only other band that I’ve ever really met and toured with who embraced being in a rock band was Aerosmith. They loved it. Manson loved being a rock star and probably still does. Manson and Twiggy – those guys did it right! You have to look back at the context too - we were just coming off a bunch of years of post Nirvana pussy stuff, everybody was like “Oh no, we don’t want to be a rock star, it’s not cool to be a rock star!”... Of course it is you idiot! Manson just cut through all that. He had his own thing, his whole ‘burning the place down…and death’ thing (laughs). It didn’t matter what his shtick was. What mattered to me was he did it and he was doing it with the kind of money I always wished I had. I couldn’t afford to smash hotel rooms at $10,000 a time, but that’s exactly what he did. Not to mention all the backstage areas that were destroyed too. Totally, he’d have these meet and greets and at that time I was really after girls. They had an overspill of women which was unbelievable. Their tours were just a bounty of excess; women, drugs and ridiculously adolescent behaviour at an incredible price. And this was normal for them - this was just how it was run. It was not unusual at all to see managers and stage producers, people with huge responsibility, just sitting there with their heads in their hands or going absolutely berserk with these guys just saying, “Well that’s the way we do it, that’s how we roll!”.
Marilyn Manson performs the Monster Magnet song Spine of God with Dave in 1999 And I think they went broke, you know. I really can’t see how they could spend all that money without it running thin. Nu-metal had started taking over towards 2000, and the records stopped selling. It was suddenly all about Limp Bizkit. Manson knew that, he knew it was all a bunch of shit and we loved it. I had the greatest time with him and the guys in the band - it was insane. I was over the drugs by that point, but I wasn’t over extreme behaviour. My whole thing was wide-eyed insanity without the drugs - if you can do the shit without drugs, you’re even crazier, and that’s what I did! Manson would say, “Hey Dave, you gonna have some coke?” and I was like “No, I’m gonna go grab the girl in the rubber nun suit and head out into the parking lot instead”. Looking back it was just nuts – but at the time it didn’t seem to be a death trip, it was just how it was supposed to be done. You were supposed to burn the whole thing down.
Exclusive photo by Zepp Savini
When Hole joined the tour and it was not by choice, it was a matter of money. You had two managers saying “How are we gonna make this show fill these arenas they’ve been booked into when all the kids are listening to different things now“. So they dreamed up the unholy marriage between Manson and Courtney, and those two just battled each other the entire time! It was epic! Just constant banter and putting each other down on stage. Manson would be onstage like “Courtney Love is backstage right now playing with her dirty pussy!” and lo and behold, 15 minutes later, there’s Courtney out of her mind on pills, running on stage and trying to attack him. It was great. I was friends with both of the bands so I had an all access pass to the insanity. So why did Courtney end up leaving the tour - was it just that they couldn’t get along? Yeah, they just could not do it. The managers on both sides really wanted it to work, but she wasn’t happy and she said so many times “I don’t need this, I’ve got plenty of money. I have Nirvana money!” Jesus! Yeah, she didn’t care! She’s a fucking trip, man. She’s out of her mind. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Well they don’t make rock people like that - they make hip-hop people like that. The rock people don’t make enough money to act like that now. Did anything ever happen between you and Courtney? No! I had a relationship with Melissa Auf Der Maur (Hole/Smashing Pumpkins) starting around the time of that tour, and Courtney acted like a weird Mum the whole time... “You can’t date her!” (laughs) From what I’ve heard from a lot of musicians over the years, music videos can be very tedious to make. Were there any you enjoyed making with the band? Yeah, videos are a big pain in the ass, but I’d say the most fun would have been 'Unbroken (Hotel Baby)'. By that point I’d given up on art. I understood that the record company people just wanted a commercial for the album, so my thought process was ‘If we’re going to put so much time into it, we’re at least gonna set the video up to service ourselves’. And you can really see we did that in the 'Unbroken' video – it’s just sleazy and greasy, clearly not much artistic consideration given to the people or costumes. Everything was chosen for what was going to happen after it was shot. I really felt like I was in a hair band at that point... this was like, our Motley Crue stage (laughs).
Monster Magnet - Unbroken (Hotel Baby) Video Was there a particular Spinal Tap moment with Monster Magnet over the years that comes to mind? Oh man, I wish I could pick just one. There were so many! The whole thing is just Spinal Tap, especially if you were on a major label like we were. Even if you are the most indie band in the world, if you enter the machine it’s gonna be Spinal Tap. And the difference between me and a lot of bands is I actually enjoyed what was going on, I thought it was so funny. One of the good Spinal Tap moments: I was playing a festival in Germany which was held in this medieval, woodsy-type setting. During the song 'Spine of God' I raised my hands to the sky and screamed “Centre of the universe!”, and the echo made it sound so psychedelic and cool. Seconds later the sky opened up with lightning and the whole crowd thought I’d summoned it or organised it as part of the act. I remember just thinking “Nothing will ever get much better than this”. It was Stonehenge done right! An example of Stonehenge done wrong was when I was making the video for 'Negasonic Teenage Warhead' on a limited budget. I had an idea that the band would be on asteroids, flying through space of course. I thought the asteroids would all be digital and we’d do it against a green screen, but the director got it wrong somehow and actually built the asteroids. They were each the size of a small house – like proper Hollywood Star Wars shit! I remember walking in and being like, “What in God’s name is this? How much is this whole thing going to cost?”.
In the end I was just like “Fuck it!”. I got up on this huge asteroid and it was actually pretty cool. The guy who made that video (Gore Verbinski) ended up going on to make the Pirates of The Caribbean films and turned into a hugely successful director.
Monster Magnet - Negasonic Teenage Warhead Video
How did you feel about Gene Simmons declaring “Rock is dead”? [endif]I didn’t get the full context on the comment, but I agree with the statement. I’d say that rock is boutique now - it’s like a form of Jazz. Times and cultures change like they’re supposed to - but the model for rock that was cemented in the late 60’s and early 70’s has definitely run its course, and anyone who tries to live by that seriously and thinks they can make good music and money from it is out of their mind. There’s just not enough people who want it.
It’s a fascinating subject because, at one point, rock really meant a lot to a lot of people. It was a way to talk about things that people were uncomfortable talking about. There was a lot of poetry and a lot of weird cultural insight to it - but as our culture changed, people started wanting less and less from music. They started getting what they needed by other means. People just don’t have the time anymore... they don’t read poetry.
Dave by photographer Joseph Cultice In the 21st century it seems like everyone wants to be famous. For me, the never-ending search for internet fame is an unending, desperate waste of time. How many hours do you spend online crying out for attention, and how much do you actually get out of it? These people spend their whole lives going “Look at me! Look at me! I got it going on!”, but they actually don’t. There’s very little going on. Where’s their lasting work? It just seems like people have really short attention spans these days. It’s quantity over quality. Cobras & Fire is out now through Napalm Records