The Monophonics’ set with French rapper Ben l’Oncle Soul at the 2015 Telluride Blues & Brews Festival was unforgettable. The California-based five-piece band laid down a funky, soul-infused backbeat to tight rhymes provided by the Parisian rapper. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen live and I was instantly hooked on Monophonics.
Having seen three of the band’s shows since, I’ve concluded that Monophonics is one of the tightest, funkiest bands on the scene. I plan to put another notch on my Monophonics musical belt when the band takes the stage Saturday at the Sheridan Opera House.
Monophonics blend the funk and soul traditions of bands like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone with the psychedelic sounds of The Beatles, Beach Boys and Pink Floyd.
“We call it psychedelic soul because it’s rooted in R&B and soul, but it has a rock ’n’ roll attitude, and a heavy dose of San Francisco psychedelia,” lead singer and organist/keyboard player Kelly Finnigan told me in an interview last year. “We play O.V. Wright, Sly Stone and Vanilla Fudge, which is psychedelic rock ’n’ roll.”
Monophonics formed in 2005, and for the first five years were an instrumental funk/neo-soul fusion outfit along the lines of The New Mastersounds, Galactic, The Budos Band, Soul Live and another Bay Area band, Vinyl. In 2010, Finnigan joined Monophonics. Not only did he bring serious chops on the keyboards; he could sing. His Joe Cocker-esque bluesy howl changed the direction of the band.
His impact was immediately felt with Monophonics’ 2012 album “In Your Brain,” which not only got in your brain but also blew it at the same time. One of the best albums of 2012, it exploded in funk and soul circles in the U.S., and led to tours throughout Europe, fueled by the band’s compelling take on the Sonny & Cher song “Bang Bang.”
“Bang Bang” first went big in a rather unlikely place — Greece.
“We finished ‘In Your Brain’ and it was received really well with the soul community in the U.S.,” Finnigan said. “We did our first tour through Europe and played France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Greece, and ‘Bang Bang’ just blew up in Greece. It was a hit record there. There was a station in Athens that played it three or four times a day. It was pretty wild.”
It was on the group’s next album, “Sound of Sinning” (released in 2015 on Transistor Sound Records), that Monophonics began exploring more psychedelia.
“Monophonics started as a college band; the guys were listening to funk and soul — Tower of Power, Galactic,” Finnigan said. “You move forward a decade and some of the guys are now listening to The Band and Neil Young. They were tripping out on the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds.’ We’ve been inspired by bands like Beck and The Vultures, who don’t always make the same record every time they get in the studio. For ‘Sound of Sinning,’ we wanted to record three-minute, well-crafted songs that stick in your head. We’re really interested in the craft of songwriting, following people like Brian Wilson, Neil Young and Smokey Robinson — those kinds of artists.”
In February, Monophonics released a six-song EP called “Mirrors,” an album of covers — some well-known, others obscure, but all dripping with the soul, fuzz and funk that defines Monophonics.
The band’s cover of the ’70s Seals & Crofts tune “Summer Breeze” turns the saccharine soft-rock song into a psychedelic, sitar-driven tune that is the musical equivalent of biting into an orange and having the juice roll down your cheeks. Monophonics’ take on The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” is equally sumptuous and ethereal. The band has reimagined these familiar tunes in remarkable and unexpected ways that make you look up at clouds and swear you see the outline of Bob Marley and an elephant smoking a joint.
In addition to Finnigan, Monophonics is made up of Austin Bohlman on drums; Ian McDonald on electric guitar, electric sitar and backing vocals; Max Ramey on bass and backing vocals; and Ryan Scott on trumpet, percussion and backing vocals.
Asked what he would do if Monophonics made him extremely wealthy, Finnigan didn’t miss a beat.
“I’d buy a place in Telluride,” Finnigan said. “I’m not just saying this, but Telluride is my favorite place in the country that’s not a city. Of all the beautiful places we’ve played, Telluride is the best. There’s just something about the town: the beauty, the people, the audiences and the venues. Nothing can touch it.”
Monophonics took an unusual path to move up the food chain of Telluride performers. Whereas most bands debut at the Moon, Monophonics played its first gig at the Steaming Bean in 2012.
“We’re not usually a coffee-house band,” Finnigan said. “But we all wanted to play Telluride so badly, we were excited to play anywhere. Most places we play, people get double shots of tequila; that night it was a double shot of espresso.
“Playing Blues & Brews with Ben l’ Oncle Soul was a real highlight in our career,” Finnigan said. “We love playing the Sheridan Opera House, too. It’s one of the most beautiful, intimate theaters anywhere. We can’t wait.”