Frontman Ian Jacobs reflects on “the pressures of modern life.”
Monograms, the Brooklyn-based “nuke wave” group fronted by multi-instrumentalist Ian Jacobs, look to the pop of the past to make sense of our social media–saturated present. With its post-punk-inspired, synth-heavy sensibilities, their upcoming debut LP, Living Wire, recalls the best of the ’80s and ’90s while lamenting the rise of negativity online (“Sounds Like Mean Spirit”) and referencing episodes of Black Mirror (“Nose Dive”).
When we asked Jacobs to curate a playlist of his favorite technology-themed tunes ahead of the record’s release, he went a little overboard at first: “I got so hopped up on Mountain Dew when you asked me to do it,” he says, “and put 60 songs on it without even realizing.” The playlist’s final 17-song iteration, which includes tracks by Radiohead, Beck, Echo & The Bunnymen, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, explores the existential struggles of living in our “constantly evolving” world.
Check out the playlist, our conversation with Jacobs, and a premiere of Monogram’s newest track “Pirate Government” below. Jacobs shared his thoughts on how social media has (and hasn’t) changed our relationship to art, the best place to listen to music, and how his love of DJing informed his approach to making the album.
AdHoc: Can you tell me more about the social media theme of the record?
Ian Jacobs: Social media has taken over our lives in a lot of ways. The way we’re all super connected [is cool], but it can also really change the way we live and the way people create things, and the reasons that they create things and the way fans appreciate those things. [The record isn’t] necessarily saying it’s good or bad, but observing the way things are.
There’s an episode of Black Mirror called “Nosedive,” and there’s actually a song on the record [named after it]. That episode was a commentary about the way everything revolves around social media. It’s [set in] a not-so-distant future where there’s this app where you have a profile that [everyone] can see [when] they’re talking to you, and then they rate you based on how nice you are, or if you’re cool. And everything you do in life is based on the score that other people give you.
How do you feel about having to use social media to promote yourself?
I think it’s necessary. I look at it like making flyers: People have done that forever and posted them up around town. It’s a great tool to connect with people, but I think the whole idea of an influencer is a little bit backwards, a little bit “follow the leader.” There’s a really fine line [with] this amazing world where we have the ability to connect with anybody, but it can turn very sour, very quick.
[I saw] this tweet a few weeks ago that was like, “No wonder the whole world is a little bit depressed. Everyone on social media’s comparing themselves to all of their friends instead of just realizing that they’re cool and special on their own.” That’s a big part of the album. Relatively speaking, all this [social media] stuff we’re talking about is really new. It’s only 10 years old or so, so we’re in this weird adolescence of it. There’s so much content everywhere that it can be really overwhelming. It can be hard to just quiet that noise and make what you want to make.
Has that changed the way you make music?
The goal is to say no, but I think that would be an act of futility. Everyone wants to connect and feel heard. I just think the medium for that has changed. There’s more pressure involved, because it’s all so out in the open. It is easier for me because a lot of the project is just me goofing around in the studio or in my little home studio. [I can] experiment and get more lost in that, [rather] than worry about results.
Have you had any unexpected positive experiences on social media with your music?
Yeah! It happens all the time. How cool is it when someone just writes to you and says, “Hey, are you guys ever coming to Peru?” Or [you get a message from] someone who owns a radio station in Greece. Both of those things have actually happened, and it’s really fucking cool, because that couldn’t happen without that medium. I think that’s awesome. So, it comes with a flip side.
There’s a huge range on this playlist, with songs from the ’80s to songs from 2019. What do you see as the thread between all of those songs, when some are pre-social media?
Even [with] the stuff from the ’80s or ’90s, I think they’re still sort of talking about the same thing: the way that things are constantly evolving. There’s that Echo and the Bunnymen song called “Over the Wall.” If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot in there [about] the pressures of modern life. I’m sure they were living through Reaganomics or 1984—all that crazy stuff.
The big one to me that nailed it and was so timely was OK Computer. I only had room for one song on there, [“Let Down,”] but that’s the one that really speaks to everything we’re talking about: What does it look like when we end up on the other side of this whole [technology] thing?
There’s a Thom Yorke song, too. Is he a big influence?
I love the way he thinks about music, especially rhythmically. He’s one of the most interesting artists of the last two decades. That new record [Anima] is really ambitious—he’s always doing something different. His use of electronic elements is so unique, and the content is always right in line with [issues of technology].
Beck’s also got two songs on the playlist.
He’s probably my favorite artist. The thing I love about him is how he’s able to break all the rules, [and] how eclectic he’s able to be, with the ability to keep it within the same package. He could do a country song, or a hip-hop song, and it would still be “Beck.”
The last song on the playlist is kind of like a classical, Mozart-esque piece of music called “Diamond Bollocks.” It’s a hidden track on an album of his from the late ’90s called Mutations. It goes all over the map in one song. Within four or five minutes, he takes you into seven or eight different worlds.
How are you feeling about your new album? What do you think makes it different from your earlier work?
I’m really proud of how eclectic it is. I think it could be a really interesting challenge and a cool experience for the listener. I produced it with my friend Ben Rice, and something we talked about a lot in the studio is that a lot of the stuff that I made before this project was kind of two-dimensional, within the mix and within the counter-melodies. We wanted to add a lot of accoutrements and weird sounds to the landscape to add more depth and space. One of the things I used all over the record is a drum machine and sequencer from the ’90s called an Electribe. There’s even a song at the end of the record that’s just that drum machine. With those old-school tactile drum machines, you can manipulate them and change the pattern and pitches on the fly.
What’s “Buzz Choir” about?
It was a phrase that popped into my head: A buzz choir is like a constant hum—all the noise [around us]. It doesn’t stop, it’s always there, but it’s good to push that aside for a while so you can make what you want to make.
How do you push that aside in your life?
Honestly, sometimes I have to just shut my phone off. After the election happened, I deleted the Facebook app because it was just too much. It’s especially good when you’re in those creative environments to put that stuff away. Within the realm of art, it can take away from what you want to create, because you’re living in the realm of all of these other people. You’re watching them, but you’re not in the moment. You’re not creatively in your own moment. People will go to a show and take a picture of the band and post it, but not necessarily be paying attention to the show or really be there.
What do you notice or appreciate when you step away from social media?
It simplifies things. Instead of staring at my phone on the subway, I’m looking up.
What do you do on the subway?
I’m always listening to music. I think that’s one of the best ways to listen to music, because you’re moving. It helps choreograph the music, gives it landscape and mood. I’m also down to just sit in my living room and put on a record; that’s cool too. But there’s something really cool about being in that observant, weird mood and having the city moving around you. I actually made the playlist on the subway.
I was impressed by how cohesive it is.
[Playlists] are a huge part of the way I think about music and albums—[like] the thing I was talking about earlier [with Beck], where the songs each take you on a different journey, but they’re all connected in some way. With our new album, you can go from one song to the next and it feels a little bit like a different world, but there’s still that thread of it being from the same project.