The heavy psychedelic/prog band from Oakland-via-Iowa has been through enough changes that it is reintroducing the band with its self-titled second album.
“Zephyr” fades in to start Mondo Drag’s new self-titled album. It’s tempting to interpret that fade-in as an indicator that the song a continuation of something, but that’s not quite right. Mondo Drag’s debut album, 2010’s New Rituals was much closer to stoner rock with a heavy dose of Black Sabbath.
“Zephyr” doesn’t lumber. In fact, it’s light enough on its feet and seemingly enlightened by a swirling Hammond B-3 that it has more in common with another classic rock behemoth—Deep Purple minus the side-long blues rock explorations. Like Deep Purple, Mondo Drag flirt with prog rock pretensions—“It’s very arrangement-intensive songwriting,” says singer John Gamino—but they still have some garage in them, and they love distortion and aggression too much to give themselves over to tweedy explorations of Bach or Bilbo.
Mondo Drag will play Siberia Sunday with psychedelic rock bands Electric Citizen, Slow Season, and Birthstone, and the fade-in that starts the album is really deceptive. They’re a very different band now with a new rhythm section for the recording session and Gamino graduated from a guest keyboard player during the recording of New Rituals to a full-time member, songwriter, and singer. And, they relocated from Davenport, Iowa to Oakland, where they recorded the album.
“We couldn’t find a rhythm section back home,” Gamino says.
The Davenport scene that produced the band was a small one. Many of the musicians who played in the band at one point or another had played together before under different circumstances—either in a band or on the same bill. The community was small enough that the underground musicians and fans saw each others’ shows because that was where they’d find their people more than because they were fans.
“If we were only playing to people who were into psych rock and prog, we’d have played to crowds of four or five people,” Gamino says.
Gamino started out playing guitar with Mondo Drag’s Jake Sheley when he was 14 or 15, banging out Iron Maiden and other ’80s metal riffs. At the same time, guitarist Nolan Girard played noise in extreme punk bands. Although Gamino knew everybody, he wasn’t a part of Holy Smokes, the two-guitars-plus-drums stoner rock band that evolved into Mondo Drag. (“That band was just loud. Loud loud loud.”) He never saw himself as a keyboard player and grew up with Santana fantasies, but he switched to keys because there were fewer keyboard players than guitarists. On the new album, he also adds some prog flute passages.
After the band changed its name and became Mondo Drag, Gamino was brought in as they prepared to record their debut album. In a scene like Davenport’s, some gigs and bands were inevitably mismatched. “We used to play cafés with three full stacks,” he says, laughing.
He’s a minor part of New Rituals, and drummer Johnnie Cluney was the singer. Cluney left the band late in 2011, and Gamino became the new singer. He had already started writing for the band, and nudged its sound away from stoner metal and toward classic, early ’70s hard rock. those two changes help to account for the differences in sound between the two albums.
The departure of Cluney and bass player Dennis Hockaday set in motion a merry-go-round of rhythm sections for tours, none being quite what they were looking for. When the band was ready to record after moving to Oakland, it went in the studio with drummer Ventura Garcia and bassist Andrew O'Neil of Blues Pills, who also play bass and drums on the current tour. They added their own flair to the parts, but not as much as you might think.
“They brought some of their own interpretations of the songs and the feels, but basically everything was already done and written,” Gamino says. He attributes the change in the feel of the band’s music to the songwriting. “The organ is much more present, and that has helped to push the direction and feel of the music.”
On Mondo Drag, the band sideswipes garage rock and dallies with prog at points, with some moments that feature Gamino on flute. “Shifting Sands” is the band in krautrock mode, complete with the motorik beat. “We thought Man, it would be fun to have a really kraut-y song,” he says, though the band became a little self-conscious playing it live while on tour with Cave, who specialize in that sound.
When Mondo Drag decided to leave Davenport, it had toured enough to have some idea of places in America that would suit their music and personalities best. The Bay Area had been supportive, and the members of Mondo Drag found like-minded musicians there. It helped that they could still find houses in Oakland with the sort of large yards that they were accustomed to back home.
“I don’t know how we would have fared in a city like New York,” Gamino says.