LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - On a hazy mid-August morning at the swanky Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica, California, indie rock royalty Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis -- who have gathered to promote their new band, Monsters of Folk -- are nestled on a mustard-colored couch in a quiet room with all-yellow vintage decor that resembles a set from a Stanley Kubrick film. At the moment, however, their concerns are based in hard reality.
The band is attempting to understand the purchase options for three new Monsters of Folk songs made available on iTunes in late July to stir buzz for their forthcoming album. “Isn’t it like, if you buy them you get the rest of the record?” asks Oberst, who enjoys a solo career and also leads the band Bright Eyes with producer Mogis. “Do you buy the record and get three songs now? Is that it?”
James, the bearded frontman of My Morning Jacket, gestures in agreement.
“Oh, that’s different,” says singer-songwriter Ward, admiring the idea, before taking another bite of a blueberry pastry. (Ward splits his time between a solo career and the She & Him collaboration with actress Zooey Deschanel.)
Mogis is skeptical. “I don’t think it’s that way,” he says to Oberst. “If you buy those three songs, I think you get a discount when the record comes out.”
“Like a coupon in the mail, or something?” Oberst asks with a laugh. After another minute of discussion, the artists agree that it’s best to leave such questions to the business folks. “It’s the ‘90s, man,” James says with a grin. “It’s a confusing time to be alive and be a musician with all that s--t.”
The Monsters of Folk may not be fully aware of the marketing strategy for their self-titled debut -- due September 22 in the United States on Shangri-La Music. But the chemistry among the foursome is as obvious during the interview as it is on the new 15-song album, which displays an effortless blend of classic rock, alt-country and folk tunes. Not only does the combination work creatively, but it also presents a significant opportunity for marketing the new album to established fan bases.
EAST COAST MASH-UP
Monsters of Folk dates back to June 2003, when Oberst and Mogis caught My Morning Jacket’s performance during Field Day at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. “We were blown away and became friends,” Mogis says.
The following evening, James was invited to play a solo acoustic set at a last-minute show with Bright Eyes and Beth Orton at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. “That night we had this idea, like, ‘That was fun, and we should play a few shows like that together,’” Mogis says. Ward also came to mind because he opened a 2001 tour for Bright Eyes.
In 2004, the artists joined together for a theater tour during which the road crew dubbed the foursome “Monsters of Folk,” because “we were all such legendary folk players,” James jokes. The name stuck, and the musicians vowed to collaborate when time permitted.
Shangri-La Music co-president Jeff Ayeroff first heard about the group through veteran art director Gary Burden, who “kept pimping me on this record, saying, ‘You’ve got to hear this record, you’ve got to heard this record,’” he says. After being captivated with the music, Ayeroff asked the Monsters to consider signing to Shangri-La Music, whose roster also includes Jerry Lee Lewis, the Duke Spirit, Band of Skulls and the Pretenders.
“I hadn’t met any of them prior to it, but I was intrigued by the idea of the record,” he says. “Being old enough to have seen other collaborative records become very interesting, I know these things can be magical.”
One of the larger challenges of marketing Monsters of Folk, Shangri-La Music head of online marketing Cory Llewellyn says, is informing fans that the band includes some of the best-known names in independent rock. So Llewellyn encouraged the artists to reach out to their respective fan bases.
“People are finding out about (the band) in different ways,” Llewellyn says.
The band plans to release a video for “Say Please,” a Wilco-meets-Jayhawks song on which Ward, Oberst and James swap verses and harmonize on the uplifting chorus, “Hold out your hand, say please.”
GANG OF FOUR
Since the announcement of the Monsters of Folk album, media outlets have been quick to compare it to the Traveling Wilburys, the late-‘80s supergroup of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Although the Monsters of Folk have already been called a “supergroup,” James jokes that he feels more comfortable with being referred to as a “superior” group.
“They were really a supergroup, because every one of them could fill stadiums on their own,” James says of the Wilburys. “We’re all fortunate to have had some success, but we’re still thinking of this as a project, as a band.”
Oberst doesn’t miss the opportunity to modify James’ statement. “Well, (Ward) is the only one who can probably fill a stadium at this point,” he says, “and we’re close behind you, bud.”
From start to finish, the Monsters of Folk project took almost two years -- “and then three years before that of talking about it,” according to Oberst. “A lot of planning went into it, because we wanted it to be perfect circumstances.”
The album was recorded in 16 days, with recording time split between studios in Malibu, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, according to Mogis, who played a variety of instruments on the set and also served as its producer. The band says all songs on the album will be credited to Monsters of Folk.
“Each started with someone’s concept and the other three helped fill it out,” Oberst says, adding that the group didn’t rehearse before entering the studio. “Then we would sit around and help each other finish the lyrics, arrange the songs and maybe someone would suggest to change this chord or make this part longer or shorter.”
Oberst, James and Ward trade vocals so seamlessly that at times it’s difficult to discern who’s singing. “That’s something we wanted,” Mogis says. “There are obviously times when it’s distinct who’s doing what vocal-wise, but there are also times when it sounds like a group.”
James notes that egos never got in the way during the collaborative songwriting process. “Nobody ever got their feelings hurt. It was just a constant exchange of ideas.”
The group will embark on a 17-date North American theater tour, beginning October 13 at the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver and wrapping November 9 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. From there, the band will head to Europe for eight performances.
As to whether Monsters of Folk will perform additional dates beyond those that have been announced, Ward says with a quiet chuckle, “If the country wants us.”
James adds, “Yeah, if the country demands more Monsters of Folk, we might have to give them what they want.”