Monsters of Folk: Making hits without the hype

Even in this age of iTunes and Rock band video games, the supergroup has found an audience and an album hit.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Monsters of Folk foursome (l. to r.) Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, M. Ward, and Jim James cashed in on word of mouth.
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    Gaining some major exposure, Monsters’ guitarist Mike Mogis played ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ in September.
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The Traveling Wilburys, the late 1980s supergroup that featured Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne of ELO, set the blueprint for chummy band projects whose sum often happened to be as good, if not better, than their equal parts.

While it's an old concept that might seem passé in this age of iTunes and Rock Band video games, Monsters of Folk are giving it new life. The four-member group – which features solo songwriter-performer M. Ward, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes – represents the kind of project that often falls through the cracks these days because nothing about it – the music or the marketing – conforms to what is considered necessary to sell records.

And yet, because all four members are not household names, the project is also a reflection of artistic resilience. The group's self-titled album, released in September, and a North American tour, with dates through mid-November, are endeavors that together reflect an old-fashioned approach to making music that is more homespun and more about the total experience than selling a hit single. At the same time, their album hit No. 15 on the Billboard charts and No. 3 on Top Independent Albums.

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Beginning in the early half of this decade, all four members quietly built audiences without the benefit of a hit song or video or even major commercial placement in television or film. Instead, audiences organically found their way to My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes, and Ward's music through entire albums, which became essential listening for anyone interested in folk-based songwriting. They also toured relentlessly, which helped them transition from playing small clubs to large theaters and headlining slots at major summer festivals.

For young fans who hadn't grown up with the classic Woodstock-generation artists, these new bands provided a connection, by making albums with cohesive beginnings, middles, and ends. All three also were at the forefront of releasing special vinyl editions of their music to generate enthusiasm among fans who had never experienced the tangible side of music, something that was lost once major labels ushered in CDs and then digital files.

To Ward, technology has become a double-edged sword. Despite the fact that "people are becoming aware of music in millions of kinds of ways" today, not all of them are as powerful as "the most old-fashioned way" – word of mouth. "I still believe the best way for people to hear music is with someone telling them, 'Hey, this is good,'" he says.

Because of the unlimited media platforms currently available, Ward says there is too much distraction now and not enough of the community spirit that used to be found at local hangouts such as record shops. "Sometimes it's a little bit too easy for people today," he says. "I, for one, miss the anticipation I used to get to see if this record store I was walking into would have the record I was looking for."

According to Nielsen SoundScan, album sales have dropped 45 percent since 2000. Today, about two-thirds of all music sales are made at big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which stock limited titles, control pricing, and often shut out independent artists in favor of major-label hitmakers.

Those kind of realities have made it more difficult for independent artists and their achievements more significant. For instance, when Bright Eyes released two albums on the same day in 2004, both entered the Top 20 on the Billboard charts. Mogis says that the attention heaped on Bright Eyes and its contemporaries in the early part of this decade made them feel like "indie rock was a viable job," but that since then, it's been a struggle. "We're fortunate enough that we made good records and got a comfortable footing as far as a fan base and income during those years before things really got rough," he says. Today, because of the vanishing retail landscape and the popularity of illegal file sharing, "the records don't sell that much anymore. Not because people are not listening to music anymore but because [they can get it for] free."

All four musicians decided to create Monsters of Folk after a happy accident: Mogis and Oberst opened for a solo Jim James show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City in 2004 after both bands played rock shows on a festival bill in New Jersey the night before. The acoustic setting allowed them to hear songs James had not yet recorded and revealed a side of the Louisville, Ky., songwriter they had never heard.

"We were blown away by the guy we saw rock out the night before," says Mogis. "The room was on pins and needles, everybody was in awe. His voice carried through the hall. It was such a cool feeling; that night we talked about doing a tour."

They brought in Ward and scheduled an acoustic tour, which, five years and five albums later, led to recording Monsters of Folk's debut. All four entered the studio with parts of songs the others helped finish, a process Mogis says was possible because of their similar influences as songwriters, and also a "shared human connection." Because all four worshiped the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and John Prine, among others, they knew that lyrics mattered, especially when attached to parts that generated not just musical hooks, but emotional ones, too.

They were aware that the collaboration had a precedent. However, because the music industry has changed so dramatically since the Traveling Wilburys first recorded in 1988, Monsters of Folk were keen on keeping sales expectations reasonable.

"The age of giant singer-songwriter superstars, I don't know if that'll ever happen again," says Mogis. Citing a time in the 1970s when new artists such as Jackson Browne or Prine filled theaters or stadiums, Mogis says that "artists don't get that popular as they did back then," which will ultimately result in fewer albums like his own being made.

"It is harder to be as prolific nowadays [as veteran artists once were]," Mogis says, because of how rapidly the music industry is changing in response to illegal file sharing.

But that doesn't mean their approach was not motivated by personal reasons. Ward says that despite the collective name of the title, the four songwriters intended to make the music less specific to a genre and more about "what feels right for the people in the room."

"If you go through life calling yourself a folk musician, you know people are going to put you in a certain box that has legends in it and there's a lot of legacies to deal with," he says. "I think it's better if other people define what you sound like. I would much more prefer to hear people's interpretations and misinterpretations than to hear people's reaction to my interpretation. My reaction to the world around me is the music."

Folk music's continuous evolution is largely one that is about the approach the musicians make, rather than the style of music they play. The connection between any era of musicians who consider themselves folk-based, says Mogis, is "a spiritual searching for a higher consciousness."

"There's something fantastical about that, but also kind of inspiring," he says. "When Mozart was your Kanye West of his time, I'm sure there was a guy with a two-stringed instrument who came from the people to play the people's music. So [folk music] doesn't dictate the type of music we play, but it does come from the belief of doing music just for the sheer satisfaction of it."

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