Guitarist MonoNeon On Missing Prince, Being Inspired By Cardi B & More [Interview]
On the week of the second anniversary of Prince’s passing, we sit down with the last bass guitarist he worked with, MonoNeon, and talk about an array of topics.
“All I have is determination and an imagination.” — Dywane “MonoNeon” Thomas Jr.
It’s very rare where you meet someone who is as nice as they are in real life as on the internet, but MonoNeon is that unique phenomenon. Born Dywane Thomas Jr., this son of a bass guitar player was raised in a musical family and expressed himself to have the DNA of a creative from day one. He began playing bass at the age of four as a self-taught wunderkind. The older he got the more he found himself in the mix with real-life music legends. The Bar-Kays, Ne-Yo and even had the iconic Prince wanting to play with him.
A true scientist on the guitar, MonoNeon has put his skills on full display in a myriad of ways. From creating stream-of-conscious bass suites to finding the melody within a human being’s voice (ex. His adaptation of the Angry Grandpa YouTube series is absolutely legendary) — MonoNeon is an example of when intelligence, positivity, creativity, and supercharged-style-and-flair merge in bright technicolor. Hell, his style is so appreciated by the world and fellow creators that our own Questlove played Mono’s Cardi B instrumental on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
A creative risk-taker in a modern music industry where so few exist—MonoNeon, Dywane Thomas Jr., or however you refer to him as—is an individual who is necessary because the game needs someone as intriguing, mysterious, and colorful as him. As an artist who has ridiculous chops, an endless supply of creativity, an honor and a relatable philosophy that is as enriching as it is educational, MonoNeon is one of the most easily recognizable bassist playing today (and not just because of the bright colored clothing and sock on the guitar). The future of music and performance art needs a person like MonoNeon so originality and transformation can happen.
All of that is why Okayplayer was excited to talk with the avant-garde guitarist in this exclusive interview for #PrinceWeek slash #Celebration2018. In our chat below, we premiere two videos from his I Don’t Care Today album and we speak with the talented audiophile about missing the Purple One still, being inspired by the Bronx badass Cardi B, and why he might be working on something special pegged to Marvel’s Black Panther
Okayplayer: Your story is pretty well known by now: Berklee College of Music, a Prince disciple and a wickedly talented bassist. For those just getting acquainted with you what would you like them to know that not too many people do? Also, can you talk about where the love of neon came from?
MonoNeon: I would like people to know that a n***a is just trying to get his name out there [laughs]. I just want to be heard and seen, bruh. Nothing more! That is why I am always posting stuff on the internet and social media daily because I have to get my sounds, visions, and ideas out immediately so I can be happy. I don’t like to sleep at all because of my urgency to get my ideas out in some way. If I am not being heard the way I want [then] I feel worthless. To answer your other question, my love of neon came from having a fancy for neon light installations, high visibility clothing and wanting myself to be seen [from] far away.
OKP: In an interview, you did with KEXP in Seattle, they asked how you connected with the Purple One, but how did he and his team discover you? Prince is notoriously engaged with new artists (ex. Eryn Allen Kane) and scours the internet like a true webhead, but were there any other instances you guys talked or chatted before the formal ask to come play in his band happened?
MN: Prince became aware of me from my videos on the internet. One of his former managers contacted me via email telling me Prince wanted me to come to Paisley Park. I officially started working at Paisley Park in early 2015 with Judith Hill as her bass player for a band Prince created for her. In late 2015 until early 2016, I started working with Prince as his bass player. Prince wanted to form a band to play some live shows at Paisley in the NPG Music Club Room. The band was Prince on keys / guitar / vocals, Donna Grantis on guitar, Adrian Crutchfield on saxophone, Kirk Johnson on drums and myself on bass.
The only times I and Prince really talked was in the studio. He knew I didn’t say much, y’know? It was a really chill vibe being around him. During the studio sessions we had with Kirk Johnson and Adrian Crutchfield, I was always in the control room of Studio A with Prince to record. Prince would be on keyboards for the sessions and I would sit adjacent to him recording bass. The only song that was released from the sessions I had with Prince was “RUFF ENUFF” (originally released on Tidal under my name “MONO NEON”). One funny moment I had with Prince in the studio was when he said he was allergic to cell phones when I had my phone out and asked me to put it away [laughs].
I miss Prince so much, man, it was a beautiful experience playing music with him. Till this day it still hurts that it ended just when we were getting started.
OKP: In that same interview, you talk about leaving rehearsals full and that Prince was everything and more when it came time to practice. Were there any lessons or experiences that you could share with us that you carry with you to this day?
MN: I was the new guy with Prince. The rehearsals and the Paisley Park After Dark live shows we played together were otherworldly… at least for me. To be on stage with someone like Prince made me better as a creative. The command he had with his instrument(s) and [his] creativity was mad crazy. To be around that energy is something I will carry with me till I leave this world.
Another cool thing about the times I had playing with Prince was that he just let me play. Sometimes he would say, “I will follow you,” when we jammed on some songs. Prince gave me a lot of freedom, which I didn’t expect… he let me be MonoNeon. Outside of playing music, Prince would invite us to hang with him at the Chanhassen Cinema down the street from Paisley and we would watch a movie with him.
I think the last movie I went to see with Prince and the band was Kung Fu Panda 3.
OKP: At Berklee, you were on everyone’s watch list, correct? Left-handed bassist who’s actually right-handed, has his own style, his own flair and was among the gospel musicians favorite musicians. Did you go into Berklee wanting to stand out or has that always been your bag since a young age? Also, talk about any never-before-told stories from any Okayplayer-related alumni that you might’ve crossed paths with while attending school. If not, please share any noteworthy reactions from people who saw you play while at Berklee.
MN: I’m not sure if I was on everyone’s watch list at Berklee. Honestly, I went to Berklee to meet people that were on the same wavelength I was or wanted to be on. I have always been the outcast since a very young age. Once I got a little older I worked on cultivating and embracing whatever made me the outcast. What I always get from people is, ‘That n***a is weird [laughs].’ But they always let me play though! Now that I think about it: at Berklee was when I started gradually developing my person, started to wear high visibility clothing, but [I] didn’t have a moniker yet.
The only thing I enjoyed at Berklee was encountering David Fiuczynski and I learned some cool shiet from him.
OKP: Your cover videos are what brought me to discover you, but your new work, I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-fi), made me wish I had some of your earlier-earlier stuff. As someone who lives in the now, do you ever go back and check out your past work to see how you’ve progressed? Or do you see and hear all you do as a progression to somewhere?
MN: Sometimes I go back and listen to stuff I put out when I was PolyNeon. [At the time] I was really into John Cage and Iannis Xenakis then. The thing with me is once I put my music out there I kinda don’t like it anymore [laughs]. The album I recently released, I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-fi), I do think it is a dope album, but probably in a few months, I’ll be over it.
I definitely see and hear everything I do as a progression to somewhere, but I usually don’t know where that somewhere is though. I try to let the universe lead me and enjoy the journey. I don’t think about my future much, I’m living minute-by-minute-by-minute-by-minute [singing].
OKP: Another question about the cover videos… Do you ever take requests? If so, who has been the most surprising requester? What is it about finding that pocket within the human voice that inspires you versus riffing and finding a melody to create a song? Better yet, what’s the challenge in doing that versus creating melodies for songs?
MN: Nah, I usually don’t take requests, but if someone sends me something I did then I would do something with it. Harmonizing and developing music from people talking is for real a cathartic thing for me. I do it so much that if I can’t find a groove in the human speech I feel like I suck [laughs]! The challenge for me hearing the melody in the people who are talking is that I have to repeat, repeat, and repeat what is being said to hear the melodicism, the musical pitches, y’know? It’s not like creating an actual song, I gotta find the song from something we usually don’t hear as music initially.
OKP: You’re definitely a left-of-center thinker, which goes well over here at Okayplayer. You have an affinity to Geometric Abstraction, Surrealism art, microtonality through David Fiuczynski and do I detect you’re a Dragon Ball Z fan [laughs]? If not, I understand, not everyone is, but I do want to know how these influences and theories help you to create your own unique sound? Also, please share how art has helped you to navigate your own journey in learning more about yourself?
MN: I do watch anime sometimes… occasionally Dragon Ball Z. I watch Blaxploitation movies more than anything though. Plus old black sitcoms like What’s Happening!! and Good Times. The Geometric Abstraction and Surrealism art inclinations came from wanting to find inspiration from other places. Dadaism (an avant-garde art movement) influenced me the most because of its iconoclastic, rebellious nature.
Marcel Duchamp, who is one of the pioneers of Dada, inspired me to put the sock on my bass and create my own iconography. I got the idea from Duchamp’s readymade art. And yeah, when I met David Fiuczynski that dude opened my mind to a lot of cool microtonality thangs. Eventually, I started messing around with microtones in my own way, creating some “microtonal-southern-soul” stuff. Think funky quarter/eighth-tone grooves.
OKP: Some of my favorite titles from I Don’t Care Today are: “She Out With Another Ni99a,” “Internet Rooms,” and “The Jam for the Lord”. Can you talk about the development of these songs specifically and the project as a whole? What obstacles did you overcome in order to present these 16 songs to the people?
MN: I was just writing stuff for the moment I was in. The song “She Out With Another Ni99a” came from a groove I created from one of Cardi B’s rants, where she talks about having fake perfect tits and a fake perfect ass. Cardi B was my muse for the album I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-fi). “Internet Rooms” was a collaboration with drummer Amber Baker and vocalist Xiomara.
I sent Xiomara the track and told her to say some sensual poetry shiet about the internet on it. “The Jam for the Lord” came from simply wanting to sing about the Lord in my own way. The whole project was me finding a way of putting music to my journey dealing with the flesh and the spirit. It didn’t take me long to create and finish the album because I knew exactly what I wanted the concept of the album to be.
OKP: You also recently hit the road with Pete Rock, Daru Jones, and The Soul Brothers and made an appearance at NYC’s legendary Blue Note nightclub. What was the experience of playing such an intimate venue like that? And were you able to get anyone out of their seat during your solos? If you could also talk about working with Pete, how it felt to have Daru on I Don’t Care Today and what lessons you’ve learned from both that you hope to apply to your own journey?
MN: Yo! Working with Pete Rock and The Soul Brothers was so much fun and I am grateful to Daru Jones for bringing me into musical situations where I can truly be myself. I didn’t know Pete was aware of me until Daru told me he was a fan of what I do.
I learned something new every time I was around Pete. Like I would be saying to myself when plays a track, ‘Damn, he produced that?’ or ‘That’s where he got that sample from?’
When I played with Pete Rock at The Blue Note in New York City, that was my first time at that venue, and it was a great night of music. Renee Neufville came out and sung a song with us too! I don’t solo much on shows with Pete, but if I do a solo I just groove. And yeah, having Daru Jones on my album was a blessing, as it added a totally different thang to the project.
OKP: Last question, Mono. I’ve only been on your IG lately, but I don’t believe you’ve done any covers with Marvel’s Black Panther yet. What do the people need to do to hear “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer” through your bass?
MN: I have done something related to the Black Panther movie. If you’ve seen it it was with this little kid saying he wants to be all black. But now that you mentioned it, maybe I will figure something out to develop some music from a catchy dialogue moment from Black Panther.