Lipstick, Bros, and the Grateful Dead: A Conversation with Nick Monaco

Recorded at a studio owned by Bob Weir, Monaco's new LP 'Half Naked' finds the club kid leaning into complex, guitar-tinged pop—with achingly beautiful and unabashedly sexy results.

|
Jul 15 2016, 2:00pm


Photo courtesy Nick Monaco

Nick Monaco is getting coffee in upstate New York when he answers the phone. He’s in the woods for a few days, spending time at a place called Dreamland. The recently opened summer camp-style retreat is owned by electronic duo Wolf + Lamb, with whom 26-year-old Monaco—who’s been DJing since he was a teenager—is tight. The 60-acre property functions as a sort of summer camp for musicians looking to escape the grind of life on tour and on the internet. Over the phone, he’s thoughtful, affable, caffeinated, and excited that Dreamland will soon have a farm.

While Monaco, a native of rural Healdsburg, California, came up through the club world, making his full-length debut with 2014’s house-leaning Mating Call, his current immersion into nature falls neatly in line with the honest, intimately human themes explored on his sophomore LP Half Naked, out now via Crew Love.

Recorded at a San Francisco studio owned by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Half Naked features cameos from vocalists Roland Harper and Richard Kennedy and finds Monaco leaning into complex, guitar-tinged pop—with achingly beautiful and unabashedly sexy results.

The album’s companion project is a collection of ten fragrances, each of which correspond to a track. Created in conjunction with Thai perfumer San, the fragrances are intended to create a double-sensory listening experience, and will be available via Monaco’s website and a series of listening/smelling parties that he will host. The perfumes are Monaco’s second foray into cosmetics. His debut was released with a customized lipstick called Freak Flag, which Monaco—a longtime wearer of lipstick onstage and in daily life—made in an effort to challenge conceptions of gender and sexuality in the increasingly bro’d out world of dance music. The profits from Freak Flag were donated to the Jim Collins Foundation, which funds gender confirmation surgeries for people in need of financial assistance.

We spoke with Monaco about the new record, gender fluidity, and his close encounters with the Dead.

NOISEY: You have a really tactile element to your work, with the lipstick and the perfume and the video you made of yourself taking a bath while listening to Half Naked. Are you doing this stuff in order to consciously create tangible connections to your music?
Nick Monaco: I don’t know if I’m doing it consciously, but now after the fact, I do realize this push for intimacy—it keeps coming back to intimacy for me. My music, I want it to be like I’m in the room with you, speaking to you and singing to you. The lipstick absolutely connects with people on such a physical level, because it’s touching their lips, and perfume is something you can smell. Those are very human experiences.

There’s an allure to that, and there’s a general curiosity, I think with music especially, to add another dimension. Music has become so one-dimensional. Especially when musicians talk about digital compression and how that’s even changing the dimension of how music sounds. To connect music with the body again, the physical, is something I’m tapping into that I’m now realizing.

Why, do you think?
I’ve always had a thing about listening. When you play someone your song, you never know if they’re really listening. You don’t know if people are actually creating the space to listen to music and not just hear it, especially because there’s such an abundance of it. Things like the perfume are getting people to really listen with more than just their ears.

That’s also biologically practical, because connecting more than one sense creates a greater impact than the listener is even able to consciously control.
Yeah, absolutely. You hear about synesthesia where people see sound and hear taste—their senses get mixed up. I think this [perfume project] could be a window into that synesthesia experience.

People really seem to be craving that tangibility right now—like they’re missing something, and don’t even necessarily know what that thing is.
I agree. I think in this modern life we need to choose to slow down and pay attention.

You’ve gotten attention for the way you use your appearance to play with the notion of gender roles. Did Bowie or Prince have any influence on you in terms of gender fluidity and pop music?
Not in direct ways, but I listened to their music and knew them as figures. I think it was more of a response to growing up in a small town. There were the bros and the gangster Mexican kids. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with either, so that made me really aware of masculinity. I identified more with the theater kids and the freaks and started to identify with people like David Bowie and Prince. Like, “Oh, I’m the same kind of kid.” Those kinds of figures encourage you.

Did you always know you were going to get out of your hometown?
Yeah, I was itching to get out since I was young. At 11 I was taking the bus to the city to go to concerts and spend the day in the city. I was also traveling a lot. I opened up a credit card as soon as I was 18. I swiped that shit, and I was out. I was not trying to hang out in that small town environment for too long. It was inspiring in that there was nothing to do.

What plays did you perform in during high school?
My first appearance was as a cross-dresser in The Pink Panther Strikes Back, and then 1776. I actually wrote a musical as my senior project, but it got rejected because it was too racy. I had clashes with the administration. It was just about shit that happens in high school, with a political angle. Like, we had a song about ginger kids and how they were outcast, and a song about boobs and evolution versus creation. I had a pretty Kanye West moment where I said, “If I can’t perform in the main theater, I won’t perform at all.”

This album is being framed as your most personal work to date. What are the most personal moments on Half Naked?
When I make an album, it’s an amalgamation of whatever happened in the six months building up to making it. I don’t make a lot of music, but when I do, it comes out in like, three weeks. The album is a lot of relationship stuff coming out—ups and downs of relationships and being vulnerable. “Lovers Do” is an especially personal manifesto. It’s always after I make the music that I start to process what it actually means, if that makes sense.

What does it mean, now that you have some distance from it?
I’m learning that the album is about vulnerability and intimacy. The last album was more of a dance music format, so it’s harder to open up in that format. The expectation is making fun music, but with this one I was able to be more open, less guarded.

Do you feel a tension between dance music and other genres?
I wouldn’t say tension, I just see the expectation when you are considered a dance music artist to stay within that format, and that’s what people expect in a club space. But I don’t think things need to be so divided or one-dimensional. My live set I’ve also adapted to a club as well. I think it’s just about versatility, for me at least.

In terms of the cultural climate, do you feel a pressure to be political in regards to your sexuality?
The lipstick specifically was sort of challenging the hyper-masculinity I was seeing in the dance world, which is kind of counter to how [that world] began. It was a queer space, and now it’s been really claimed by white straight men. It’s kind of befuddling. Trans-politics become sort of a hot topic coincidentally, which is good. I hope my cause pushes that ideology and re-injects it into the club world, so there’s sort of a trickle down.

How did lipstick become your form of activism?
It was going to these festivals and seeing the audiences there, and also just seeing the reactions to me wearing lipstick. The strong reactions and discomfort around something so small and seemingly insignificant was the call to action to me. A lot of these causes are pretty patronizing and to make people feel that they don’t know enough about the cause, or that they’re doing something wrong. It throws people off the deep end, so I think this lipstick thing is a way of making it more accessible. I’ll pass lipstick around the party and pretty soon everyone’s wearing it and laughing and playing with their identity a little bit and seeing that it’s not such a fixed thing.

It’s an effective hack.
Yeah, and it’s so symbolic. Lipstick is phallic to begin with, and when you put something on your lips, people pay attention a bit more. It also has feminine quality. It’s a multi-dimensional symbol.

What’s your favorite shade to wear?
I like the classic fire truck red. I’m a classic lipstick guy, I guess.

Finally, how did you, a 26-year-old dance music producer, end up recording Half Naked in the Grateful Dead’s studio?
It was a funny situation, because I was dealing with my roommate/executive producer, and he was working [as an engineer] at the Grateful Dead’s studio in San Francisco. He wasn’t sure if the studio was going to make it, so he started growing weed in the house, trying to pad his income. The room he turned into the grow operation had been the studio, so he put me into the Grateful Dead’s spot.

I had a little room there, and nobody really knew who I was. I would do my thing and interact with all of these rock legends. That’s not really a world I’m interested in or was a fan of, but I had all these funny interactions and access to all of this amazing equipment. I was using Jerry Garcia’s microphone to record most of the album. John Mayer would roll up to rehearse for their tour. For a superfan it would have been like heaven, but for me it was like, “Whatever.” They were just old hippies. Bob Weir, it was his studio, and he would roll up into the room and just stand there quietly for a few minutes. He didn’t even ask who I was. There were also these crazy stalkers that sort of haunt the Grateful Dead, like they took too much acid in the 60s and have this theory that Bob Weir killed Jerry Garcia, so they’d call the studio every day and rant for two minutes on voicemail. It was really crazy to have that going on around me. We laughed at it every day.

Katie Bain is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.