Psych-Rockers Mondo Drag Moved From Iowa to Oakland to Find Success
When John Gamino, the singer and keyboardist of the heavy psych outfit Mondo Drag, was in 7th grade, he attended his middle school's talent show. That's where he first heard future bandmate Jake Sheley play guitar.
Mondo Drag Mondo Drag plays Bottom of the Hill Friday, May 9 with Kadavar and The Shrine.
"He performed a guitar solo medley of Metallica and Van Halen, and I was like 'Holy shit. I need to get a guitar, and play rock music, because that's fucking badass,'" Gamino, 29, says. "That's what got me into music. Now here we are, in the Bay Area still playing together."
Gamino and Sheley, along with guitarist and synth player Nolan Girard, grew up in Illinois and have played music together for nearly 15 years. In 2011 Mondo Drag saw what Gamino describes as "band purgatory," in which a rotating cast of members filled in on drums and bass. Last year they relocated the band from Davenport, Iowa, to Oakland. The three teamed up with Bay Area drummer Ventura Garcia and bassist Andrew O'Neil to continue the group in their new home.
"We were looking for somewhere there is more of a scene, more culture, and people interested in what we're doing," Gamino says. "Andrew and Vinny are the two guys that we found out here. We started jamming and that all just worked out."
Where the forefathers of heavy psych and prog-metal left off in the mid '70s, Mondo Drag has picked up today. Mondo Drag sets Sabbath-y guitars against melodies distorted by echo and phaser effects. These surreal soundscapes are infused with keyboard and synth passages reminiscent of the early years of Yes. A song like "New Rituals" showcases the group's dynamic by starting with an ominous drone, then building to upbeat tempos and chaotic interludes that highlight the band members' musicianship.
The original three members share a common love for psych and prog-rock --- not just the genres, but the the tones of the late '60s. From vintage tube amps to albums recorded strictly on analog equipment, Mondo Drag takes a minimalist approach to achieve the droney sounds of '70s doom metal.
"We're kinda infatuated with the [idea of] using very few things, but those components are very high quality, and not trying to add much to it," Gamino says. "There's a certain sound that we look for, and we basically want to sound like the records that we love."
Gamino explains that technology changed rock in the mid '70s. Higher-gain amps and recording equipment contributed to the evolution of the '80s rock and metal scene. The unique '70s sound was eventually eclipsed by hair metal and thrash, and psych bands struggled to adapt. Mondo Drag offers not an imitation of the original heavy psych scene, but a continuation from where it fell off.
Like "New Rituals," the song "Autumn Sun" evokes the vintage rock era, but adds elements of fuzzy blues. The guitar tone is thick and the vocals are rough and raspy, with the whole thing energized by riveting drums and space echo. In other places, like "Love Me (Like A Stranger)," the music mellows in between choruses with wah-wah solos and notes that reverberate like water droplets in an empty hall. With the addition of Garcia and O'Neil, Mondo Drag's dynamic comes enriched with Latin influenced rhythms.
In 2010, Mondo Drag released its first album New Rituals on Alive Records, an L.A. label with a strong European presence. Gamino says the deal with Alive was a smart move on their part: It brought them a fanbase overseas, and they were able to play with big-name acts such as the Black Keys, Blue Pills, and Pentagram. Mondo Drag also started touring heavily behind the album, including more than 100 shows in 2010 and South By Southwest performances for two consecutive years. Their next goal: tour Europe. Mondo Drag is also currently working out a deal with a German record label to release its next LP this summer. The band is also compiling songs to make a new record that it hopes to record and release soon after.
The newest lineup of Mondo Drag is not yet a year old. Gamino says the group is beginning to find a following in the Bay Area, and sees a thriving psych music community. "I think of it as a natural style of music, organic. It is growing in popularity," Gamino says. "Our goal is not to 'make it'; it's to make music that we like and people who are into the same kind of music that we're into will appreciate."