SixthSense Talks #9 – James Monro

Our favourite Mad Monday / Marathon DJ – James Monro, recently caught up with SixthSense Australia to talk some shop about his recent album ‘Spark’ which was released on Yuli Fershtat’s imprint, Digital Structures. In this interview, James dives deep, as he opens up about the effects of the COVID-19 situation, where it all began for him and what makes him tick as a DJ & Producer…. Enjoy !!

SSA: Hey James! Thanks so much for joining us. We have been big fans of yours for many years. How are you? 

JM: Great to be able to join you and have a chat! I love to be down under too! Miss you guys…. Yeah all okay this end, thanks. Strange times and obviously life has taken a turn for the unexpected. Not being able to be on the global trail doing one of the things I love to do most – playing music, dancing and being a part of that collective magic, has been a real jolt to the system, but I’m very lucky to be where I am, with whom I’m with and I have adapted easily to a pretty isolated, but fruitful life on our little farm in Brazil. To be honest life has carried on pretty much as normal for me here, as I keep myself to myself here when not travelling. We have a really nice little crew who live around us and we have been in a collective bubble together throughout this shit show.

SSA: We’re very glad to hear you’re doing well and safe during this testing time. Born in the UK and residing in Brazil now hey? What is Brazil life like for you at the moment? What area of Brazil do you live in?

JM: Yes, exactly that. I first came here in 2003 after the eclipse in Australia and Brazil has been home since. Came for a holiday and stayed! We live, my wife Tash and I, in the south of Brazil in a place called Encantada, near Garopaba which is an old fishing village on the coast not far from the Santa Catarina state capital Florianopolis, which serves as our nearest airport. Life is pretty amazing here, despite what people may read and the realities going on with this hideous global scenario that’s unfolded. We are surrounded by, and immersed in, beautiful nature, and have a farm full of animals, kind of our family really. We have our 4 wonderful dogs, the goats, horses, pigs, a cat, chickens, ducks, and our rogue sheep Dolly, and we live supplemented by the produce we have here. We are growing as much of our own food as we can with amazing live water feeding us, so we are in a pretty lucky and fortunate situation. We also have incredible wildlife all around us so whenever one steps outside there’s always something to marvel at and help reduce any anxiety. An anxiety that seems to permeate everything right now. The strange and uncertain times we live in are making life pretty tricky for everyone, so I feel very blessed to be where we are to be honest. The big downer is not getting to see our families and friends. It’s been a very long time now, which is a real wrench, but hopefully one that will be rectified soon. Let’s see!

SSA: What has the last 12 months been like for you? Have you been able to focus time into the studio and being creative? Has it led to any interesting outcomes in that department?

JM: Well as I touched on above, this year has been highly intense on many levels. One doesn’t have to look far to know that. This pandemic has turned life on its head for so many people. Sad to say I know more people who have committed suicide than have died from the virus. I have found myself away from the studio for longer periods of time than normal, but only because life has got in the way, and the need to survive! That’s not to say that I have not been in the studio at all, I have, and have managed to write some very personal and emotionally reflective music. With no immediate dance floor to inspire the creative process, it has been more of an internal dialogue that’s created recent inspiration. The studio has been a welcome refuge in amongst it all, and recently I’ve written music from 138 bpm slamming tech-trance to some fully beat-less meditative music, and lots in between. 

SSA: Where did the journey of “Spark” begin and how did the last twelve months affect the journey and outcome of the release? 

JM: Well, it was sparked (ahem) by the onset of corona and the discombobulating and anxious emotional state that Tash and I found ourselves in knowing we were stuck. Stuck as foreigners in a foreign land and not having a clue what was going to unfold. My ability to earn was suddenly cut off at the knees, and it was pretty scary, to be honest. There were so many mixed emotions. From a strange euphoria to shit scared. In this initial uncertain period I wrote Spark – it was originally called Corona, and it kind of echoed what I was feeling. I had a selection of tracks that I had made over this period that I sent to Proton Music in the US. A label I work with a lot and have had a great relationship with for years now. Included in this selection were Corona (Spark as it became), Places, and Icarus. Proton who have a slightly more melodic taste for their releases chose 3 of them and suggested I get in touch with Yuli as they reckoned they would be more up Digital Structures’s strasse than theirs. Proton works with DigitalStructures on a distribution level so are very aware of the label’s taste. Obviously, Yuli and I are old buddies and have known one another through music since the Jurassic age, and I have always admired and respected his angles of immersion within the scene. As such it was the perfect opportunity to take the plunge and send him some tunes. He was very positive about the music, and the ep was born, which with time and lots of chat and my sending him other bits and bobs, he suggested turning it into a mini album. The great remix artists were his choice and so here we have it. Spark. It was a joy to reconnect with him, we had some hilarious chats and it sparked what I hope will be a fruitful ongoing relationship with the label. 

SSA: It was pretty difficult for us to decide which track from Spark we wanted to premiere, we connected with the whole release deeply. We were happy with the final choice of “Icarus” though, it’s a seriously epic freaky groover. Can you tell us what was the inspiration behind “Icarus”? 

JM: Funnily enough, Icarus is the one track that wasn’t written under the auspices of Corona. It was something I started a couple of years ago. It was a track that I was never totally sure about in its conception, but knew there was a groove and vibe about it. I would keep getting stuck, stop writing, and then go back to it a few months later. Fresh ideas would keep appearing little by little and with time it turned into one of my favourite tracks on the album. I kept thinking recently how man has come so close to burning himself with the way we are on this planet, so I decided Icarus was a befitting name for this track.

SSA: Let’s go back in time to the UK… Where and when did it all begin for you? How old were you when you went to your first electronic music event? What were the genres and styles of music being played in those earliest days of the James Monro story?

JM: Well I was raised in Edinburgh in Scotland, and it all began there in my Dad’s hifi booth that he built. He built his own speakers and had a cupboard full of records (including lots of rare ‘78rpm’s), reel to reel tapes and it was from this revered and slightly out of bounds place where music happened and became so fundamental to me. My personal journey started with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. A slightly eerie children’s story whose characters were all associated with an individual instrument and melody. It sparked my imagination and was so emotive to me, it started my initial link to instrumental music and visualisation through sound. That was my first record with my first record token. I must have been 4 at the time! Shortly thereafter Jean Michele Jarre and his epic album Oxygen entered my life. I was 8 at the time, and was pretty miserable at the school I was at. My mother gave me a copy of this on cassette, and it immediately became my escape route. I’d never heard anything like it and became utterly transfixed by it as it enabled me to disappear night after night into this stratospheric, euphoric, synthetic yet somehow familiar environment that helped me find a peace and joy that was missing in my life right then. That was it as far as electronic music was concerned. The ability to let the imagination run riot through instrumental sound and the otherworldly potential of synthesised music had me utterly hooked. Fast forward 5 years to when I was at a public school in Edinburgh home of “The Playhouse”, the city’s main music venue. I regularly broke out of school with a couple of pals, hopped on the bus into town, and went to see all sorts of bands who I didn’t necessarily know, but happened to be on tour playing there. The Cure, Depeche mode, Eurythmics, Simple Minds, Heaven 17, Yello, Human League etc etc… 80’s pop electronica, some of whom hit the right buttons, helping me form my sonic palette . Obviously by this stage I was hooked and a total vinyl junky and thus, as the voluntary resident DJ at my school discos, I got to meet other dj’s a couple of whom gave me 12” versions of underground dance music and ealy hip hop dub versions which opened me up to even more ideas, sounds and possibilities. My first dj gigs were kinda’ self indulgent, but only because I was so sure the music would rock other people’s world, in the same way it rocked mine. It’s been like that ever since really! Obviously the acid house explosion after I left school was a huge influence and brought everything up to the next level. I was in my element and started to play my first real gigs shortly thereafter. Goa also fundamentally touched my world when I was travelling around india in 1990, and it’s been a journey of passion for all things hypnotic and weird ever since. The combination of acid house, new beat, early techno and the echoes of my initial obsession with ’70’s and early 80’s electronic music all helped me to develop my craft into what it is today.

SSA: You’re a man of many styles and talents. Between the James Monro project and your Bumbling Loons project with Dick Trevor, well… you’ve got house, techno, progressive and psytrance totally covered. When you step into the studio and onto the stage, what are you aiming to achieve and how does the goal differ depending on what style of music you are producing or playing?

JM: Ultimately as a DJ, it’s that dance floor alchemy when the people, the energy, the music and the environment all link together to create that euphoric, united “pop” and it all just clicks! Nothing beats it. It’s a special place and a rare place, but one that I constantly strive to help create.  

In the studio I find it to be different. It’s not always governed by that power of the “pop”, so it can be a more subtle and less intense approach. It’s ultimately the individual tracks within the mix that help creates the ride, so each track doesn’t have to be a monster to make that happen. One of the absolute joys of writing music is creating your own individual ingredients that help the collective journey to those magical places we all love to go…

SSA: Thanks so much for joining us James, we hope to see you in Australia soon!

Check out James Monro’s mini-album SPARK

Listen to James Monro’s SixthSense Soundcast below