While some groups might sideline their keys or situate them behind strings, Monophonics’ Kelly Finnigan sits squarely center stage and commands the room. At the San Francisco band's recent show at Mercury Lounge in New York, sweat drops fall onto his organ as he sings Eddie & Ernie's 1972 soul sleeper, “Bullets Don’t Have Eyes.” He’s flanked by members of various West Coast soul groups, who are standing in for the band's usual horn players. A member of Brooklyn soul revival band The Dap-Kings is on guitar, but the sound is undeniably San Francisco, dripping with the primordial ooze of Sly Stone.
Monophonics are a true showcase of the heavy, but often under-recognized, California brand of modern funk. The style takes influence from multiple genres but remains steeped in the state’s history of psychedelics, jamming and experimentation. Amid growing national and international recognition, Monophonics’ undeniable funkiness, keen interpretation of '60s and '70s sounds and intense live shows have remained a driving force in the Bay Area scene.
The six-piece band will perform at Outside Lands for the first time with two sets on Aug. 11 and 12—a feat for a homegrown act operating on the fringes of mainstream pop sensibility.
Monophonics’ fifth studio album is due out in early 2019 and promises a similar aesthetic to 2012’s mind-melting In Your Brain, which tapped into the region’s psychedelic, funky heritage and kicked opened the door for more local, modern funk and soul bands like Con Brio and Baby and the Luvies.
“In 2009-2010, there were a lot of bands popping up that wanted to be Sharon Jones [and The Dap-Kings] and, 'Let’s wear a suit and two step.' We love that band and love what they do, but there really was a void of people playing psychedelic soul,” says Finnigan, adding that the band knew In Your Brain would make a statement. “One thing that excited us about being from the Bay was how the music was connected to the history of that culture, and the scene and the soul that people don’t know.”
Monophonics are an easy link between the Bay’s musical past and present, where Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Con Funk Shun and Darondo intermingle with the sounds of '60s counterculture and lingering acid jazz. Sound of Sinning, the band’s third record, conjured The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin's soulful, Summer-of-Love psychedelia.
“There’s a weird little brand of funk, soul and R&B from the Bay," says trumpet player, percussionist and founding member Ryan Scott. "I think it has to do with the liberal weirdness in the Bay Area and how it’s OK to be different."
Yet the Bay didn't feel like a very funky place when Monophonics, originally an instrumental group, formed circa 2010, when garage rock reigned the San Francisco scene. At the time, old friends and founding members Scott, drummer Austin Bohlman and guitarist Ian McDonald combined their interests in prog metal, blues, soul and world music like Fela Kuti to create Monophonics’ depth of sound. The band would reach new heights with the addition of Los Angeles-born Finnigan.
“We streamed away from the jam improvisation, instrumental kind of stuff and into more songwriting, paying homage to Bay Area bands that we were influenced by and trying to take on the Bay Area psychedelic soul approach,” Scott says from the band’s North Bay headquarters.
The band’s big break came in the form of a soulfully cinematic cover of the 1966 song "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra and later by Cher. Finnigan’s pleading vocals, laid over a fantastically paired-down guitar and heavy organ, gained traction in Europe and exposed Monophonics to an international audience. The band has since toured multiple continents and has a large fan base in Greece.
Monophonics’ songwriting capabilities may be their greatest differentiator, particularly among other West Coast cinematic soul groups. “We wanted a groove that was heavy and lo-fi," says Finnigan. "I want the melody to be stuck in your head; I want to put an earworm in you.”
On 2015’s Sound of Sinning, Monophonics put their songwriting to the test with a 12-track album of shorter, poppier songs that reflect the Bay’s ’67 sound as well as the cultural context that created records like The Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack. Their latest, an 2018 EP of covers titled Mirrors, pays tribute to The Isley Brothers, The Mamas and The Papas and even Frankie Valli. All the while, Finnigan has done guest vocals on friends’ records, including a covers album by Los Angeles’ Orgone. And Monophonics have opened their Marin County studio, Transistor Sound, to other local bands looking for places to record.
Monophonics have become trendsetters in Bay Area funk and soul while connecting Northern and Southern California scenes. As a result, Finnigan believes the larger musical community has embraced the state’s musical movement.
“Whereas a lot of people looked at New York and Brooklyn as the epicenter [of soul and funk], I think it’s safe to say that there’s something happening in California," Finnigan says. "California is strong. We have Surefire Soul Ensemble and Orgone and Soul Scratch and The Humidors. The Grease Traps and The M-Tet. We feed off each other and feed off other bands from around the country.”
Finnigan says their forthcoming record will be more reflective of In Your Brain while employing more falsetto vocals in the style of Curtis Mayfield. The new “Last Man Standing,” for example, melds soulful vocals over a heavy bass line, while songs such as “Battle Cry” employ political messages.
Monophonics’ solid brand of psychedelic soul is the result of little demoing and what Scott calls a “shitty is pretty” aesthetic that relies on vintage gear and analogue recording processes. For their as-yet-untitled album, Monophonics went deeper into Northern California’s serenity and spent some time writing at a friend’s 19th-century school house in Sonoma. Although the band will continue to pull from a well of California sounds, Finnigan says Monophonics never intended to be the torch-bearing “big fish” funk band in the San Francisco Bay.
“If that is the case, then I’m proud. That’s why we’re all here: because music moves us," he says. "If in any way we encouraged people to get up off the butts and start a band, I’d be proud."
Monophonics perform at Outside Lands on Sunday, Aug. 12 at 4:20pm on the Panhandle Stage, with an additional, shorter set at 4:20pm on Aug. 11 on the GastroMagic Stage.