Nice Monster's music pairs beauty with the beast
The Sacramento prog-rock band’s math rock balances the pretty with the weird
On the latest full length by local math-rock band Nice Monster, the group took the time to construct 15-20 second musical interludes between several of its songs. The purpose: to create an easy transition between the keys of the songs. And it’s just one example of the sheer amount of work the four-piece has put into its third, most recent record, The Great, Long Rest.
“We thought an unreasonable amount of time [about] the ordering of songs,” says singer-guitarist Matt Gerken. “We’ve thought a lot about pacing. There are much tighter arrangements, with all the fat cut, where you might say, ’oh that sounds pretty, but do we need that much pretty?’”
The foursome, founded in 2002 as a duo with just Gerken and guitarist Jason Roberts, dug in deep on this record. The songs here sport a similar blend of the technical math-rock chops and hook-laden melodies that have defined the band’s sound in the past; this time however, they’ve also deconstructed every aspect of the music, paying attention to little details such as which instruments should drop out at any moment, and when they should be brought back in to build dynamics.
“We removed a lot of parts entirely, because the ear is not ready to hear everything at once,” Gerken says. “It might be fun for everyone to start together, but it’s more interesting to add melodic content over time and build something.”
The band members have always thought a lot about their sound, but in the beginning the songs more overtly flaunted their atypical approach. For example, when Gerken started Nice Monster, he placed an ad in the SN&R and subsequently connected with Roberts. When the two first met, Gerken played some demos of tunes that were full of weird time signatures and odd guitar tunings. Roberts admits he was initially confused—but in a good way.
“I had been playing guitar for a very long time, and I had no idea what I was listening to, so I was immediately intrigued,” Roberts says.
A lot of those early songs were instrumental, and they were pretty out there. Both musicians played acoustic guitars but shortly before recording their second album, expanded into a four-piece. Eventually Roberts and Gerken both switched to the electric guitar, giving the songs a harder rock edge than before. The current lineup is rounded out by Chad Wilson on bass and Greg Aaron on drums.
Lately, the focus hasn’t been on getting more complex, but learning how to create better cohesion and flow in their songs—in a sense, disguising some of the technicalities of the music in order to make it easier to digest.
“The music on this new record is the most evolved state we’ve ever been in. Before, we would have these songs, trying to put these songs with a part I’d written with a part Matt has written, and sometimes cramming them together,” Roberts says. “The record has the best blend of the two worlds. We figured out how to smooth out the edges.”
Finding that balance has been an ongoing pursuit. As lead songwriter, Gerken came to the band with a big interest in ’90s math-rock bands such as Heavy Vegetable and Don Caballero, but he also always loved the gorgeous melodies of artists such as the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.
“It upsets me to hear the same rhythm over and over again, so I like to have somewhat unpredictable rhythms, but always with melodic parts. I felt like if you put those two things together, you got something that’s exciting, unpredictable and vocally engaging, because you have that catchy hook to listen to,” Gerken says.
This songwriting philosophy in fact inspired the band’s name. Nice refers to the easy, catchy melodies. Monster is the more offbeat, prog-rock instrumentals that back them.
“The idea is to introduce complexity at a rate that is engaging, but not turning people off,” Gerken says. “That’s where the balance comes in.”