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Monophonics get wise with 'Sage Motel'

Geoff Whitman

San Francisco's Monophonics are currently on tour with GA-20 and Kendra Morris as part of a bill that brings together sounds of soul and blues.

“Sage Motel” is the latest release from San Francisco Bay Area soul band Monophonics. The record follows in relatively quick succession behind 2020’s “It’s Only Us,” an album that was issued just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold. Despite that fate, the record sold well and came to be revered as another exceptional work within the group’s oeuvre.

Band leader Kelly Finnigan says that Monophonics spent the early part of 2021 working on “Sage Motel,” eager to bring fans brand-new music once COVID protocols allowed for touring and supporting a new collection of material.

All the hallmarks of a classic Monophonics release are evident on “Sage Motel,” from lush, layered production to Finnigan’s soulful singing and emotionally-charged lyrics.

The band will perform at Wave on Saturday, Oct. 1, with GA-20 and Kendra Morris.

Finnigan recently spoke with KMUW about the new album and tour.

Tell me about this tour that you've put together with GA-20 and Kendra Morris. There's a connection with your label [Colemine] but I suspect there's more than that.

We really respect Kendra and the records she's been making for a long time — basically her evolution as an artist and someone who has been making great music. GA-20 is a little more of a recent act that's popped up in the last handful of years, but we really appreciate what they do as a band and Kendra for what she does as an artist.

We're big fans of a bill that you might have seen in 1970 at the Filmore West, like a Bill Graham Presents with Jefferson Airplane, Muddy Waters, then, finally, Sly & The Family Stone. It's really a night of music. It's not just about beating someone over the head with the same thing, something that lacks the eclecticness that music should provide. It should just be a part of peoples' palette, I believe. I can't imagine listening to the same music all the time.

Let's talk about "Sage Motel." You released your last album on the first day of lockdown in 2020 and so didn't get to support it with a big tour and all the usual hoopla. Did you start having conversations during the pandemic about making another one, sort of saying, "Let's get another record out so that we're going out on the back of something brand new"?

That's exactly right. We weren't able to do any support for the last one. Once we got through things and saw a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, we said, "Well, we know we're really going to get back to it hard in 2022 so we might as well have something in tow." We got together for a handful of months in 2021 and knocked out the record. We started the first week of March, and I finished the mixes around the middle of July. We made it pretty quick.

I love the album and song title "Sage Motel" and that it can work in a couple of different ways. I took it at first as "Here's someone who has experienced some heartbreak and they're checking into this place to get some wisdom."

I like that. I can see that. Listen, when it comes to music and art, I think one's own interpretation is very important because visual art and aural art and all the things that really excite us human beings [can have that]. That's very cool to hear that that's what struck you. It's not far from that.

The Sage Motel is a place that really exists. I used to drive by it a lot and there's just something about the name of it that stuck with me. This was years and years ago. As we go into writing and recording the record, I wrote a song and instead of making the focus the title … I wanted to make sure that you knew this story was happening at this very interesting and mysterious place, this big event that was almost life-altering for this person… I think when something important in our life happens I think we remember where we were.

So, in this case, it's the Sage Motel. I thought that was a unique angle to approach a song from. From there, my mind took me down a rabbit hole. Obviously, I'm a big fan of concept records, everybody from De La Soul to the Beatles to Pink Floyd to David Bowie to David Axelrod. I'm a fan, and we've never done that. So I went down this rabbit hole of making a concept record about a place people come [to do various things]. It can be a safe haven for some, it can be a toxic place for some, but it's this crossroads of life where people are coming and going from all over the city, the state, the world. They're all going through something. Maybe they're having to face that truth, that heartbreak. Maybe they're there with someone they're falling in love with.

There's a story in each room and each room is a song and that's a story. It all kind of unfolded and became a larger story, which I think is very exciting when you're making music and creating things that you want to share with people. That was all very inspiring, and it was a fun record to make.

I love that there's a balance between the single material and the album cuts … there's the stuff for radio and then the stuff that people who are listening to the record over and over will really latch onto.

Those things do fall into place. We've been making records for years, and I like to think that I have an instinct for those things. Yes, when you're writing songs you think, "This one's really going to translate well onto the stage," "This song will be a deep cut," "This song will be a single." You have those slots. But the great thing about making records is that you never really know which one is going to be someone's favorite. It's always unexpected.

Having seen you live a few times I get the sense that you appeal to a broad range of listeners.

We're very lucky. That's what we want. We want to remind people of all the amazing things that are a part of making records—the history of it, dating back to the '60s and '70s; we definitely love the writing, arranging, engineering and production that went into all those great records—but we're living in 2022 and we want things to feel fresh and new, so we try and walk that line between vintage and retro and new and modern.

We're not trying to be a throwback band or a retro thing per se; we just wear our heroes and our inspirations and all the records we love on our sleeve when it comes to creating music. But we also all listen to a lot of new music and love a lot of new bands and records. I think that plays into the music speaking to a wide variety of 20 to 65-year-olds.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.