Ducktails -Headbanging In The Mirror

Matt Mondanile
breathes LA air

© Federico Ferrari

Words by:

An encounter with Matt Mondanile is like being enveloped by a gentle California breeze. The lanky Real Estate guitarist might be from New Jersey, but when I meet him on a surprisingly blissful afternoon in London, he’s an enviable paragon of West Coast cool with his Hollywood megawatt smile, chestnut hair and perfect tan. ‘What a bastard,’ I think to myself, as I broil slowly in the summer sun.

Mondanile’s sanguinity shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for anybody who’s detected the 60s jangle-pop influences in Real Estate’s music. The Brooklyn-based band have always sounded out of time but even more obviously, out of place. And in 2013, Mondanile relocated to Los Angeles after becoming disenchanted with New York. “I don’t miss Brooklyn really, it’s too much,” he says. “It’s like … If you were in Shoreditch or something – it’s totally blown-over and corporatised, right? Well, it’s like that in Williamsburg. I just didn’t want to be there.”

Mondanile also had other motives for the move besides escaping corporate colonisation. “I moved to LA for personal reasons and artistic reasons. Like, I was dating a girl out there so I moved out and just wanted to see what it was like to live on another coast.” He won’t be drawn on the specifics of ‘the girl’, but new album St. Catherine is a noticeably more personal affair than previous Ducktails outings.

Mondanile wrote the album on tour with Real Estate and recorded it across multiple cities, but at its core the music reflects the recent upheaval in Mondanile’s life: following a girl to LA and finding his feet.

Recent single Headbanging in the Mirror is a case in point. “I just talk about how I’m from New Jersey and how I’ve moved to California and I drive on the highway and I don’t work,” Mondanile laughs. “It’s kind of an autobiographical story of myself. I wanted the record to sound like going to a new place and experiencing a new land.”

It feels like there might be something to prove here. Ducktails previous album The Flower Lane met rave reviews in some quarters but also a fair degree of cynicism, with some suggesting that the music was gorgeous but ultimately hollow. I wonder aloud whether this was something he was conscious of when recording St. Catherine? “I guess that’s true,” he concedes. “I wanted the record to sound personal, that it was coming from me and yeah – straightforward and sincere. You know, from the heart. All the songs and lyrics are very realistic depictions of my life. A lot of them are using religious imagery and Bible imagery to explain my relationships. I’m not religious but I was raised Catholic and I think the idea of Catholicism and the imagery that they use in Christianity is really beautiful.”

© Federico Ferrari

Although there are a couple of collaborators on hand, including the experimental producer James Ferraro and fellow LA native Julia Holter, St. Catherine represents an unfiltered statement from Mondanile. Long-time band members Luka Usmiani, Alex Craig and Samuel Franklin are still involved but largely as hired hands.

That said, Mondanile has again outsourced production duties – former Elliot Smith and Beck producer Rob Schnapf takes the reins this time. For what is an ostensibly deeply personal and individualistic record, St. Catherine still exists along a familiar continuum to much else of Mondanile’s and Real Estate’s output: wistful melancholia wrapped around the prettiest of guitar and organ melodies.

However, there are a couple of outliers which recall Ducktails’ more experimental early material. Penultimate track Krumme Lanke and album closer Reprise, for example, feature the kind lo-fi woozyness which saw Mondanile’s name fall under the hypnagogic pop category a few years back, with breathy vocals, vintage DX7-style synths and muddy electronic percussion reflecting a dream-like state.

It’ll be interesting to see where Mondanile takes Ducktails next. He’s already five albums in to what is allegedly just a side- project, and it’s hard to imagine Real Estate producing a drone or krautrock track, for instance. “Right, but I can do that with Ducktails and people will accept it. I guess it’s just a way to express all the different interests I have in music. It’s a bit more restricted in Real Estate. I just…”

Mondanile catches his breath. “Ducktails to me is anything I want it to be. It’s kind of my project and how I explore – creatively – artistic elements, different styles of music, whatever I’m thinking around themes and imagery. It’s basically just me.”


St. Catherine is out now via Domino.

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