Douglas Spencer is taking a bumpy ride down memory lane. Huddled up with Monofog vocalist Hayley Helmericks on a snowy Colorado day, the wiry guitarist is recounting how he first got into music. When he was eight years old, Spencer and his dad stopped at a yard sale. That's where he picked up his first guitar, a '58 Musicmaster. As auspicious as that beginning sounds, however, Spencer's initial inspiration crouches in parentheses with an embarrassed grin. "I also thought Michael J. Fox was super cool in Back to the Future," he confesses.
Few self-respecting indie rockers would cop to being inspired by a questionably talented child actor covering Chuck Berry -- even when redeemed by owning such a remarkable first guitar. Luckily for Spencer, he's not the only Monofogger with a slightly humiliating backstory. Lucas Rouge, the band's kinetic drummer, took music lessons on a homemade violin as a child. A short time later, he was called to the drums by a brief, thundering solo that captured his ears and his imagination -- during the Spin Doctors' aggravatingly catchy hit "Two Princes." Gulp.
Helmericks, on the other hand, recalls growing up in a house where there was always music playing, music that was infinitely less grin-inducing. "When I was young, it was mostly singer-songwriter stuff," she recalls. "I was always taken with Joni Mitchell and any music where thoughtful words were important."
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That description certainly fits Monofog, whose story begins up the road in Fort Collins in 1999, when Helmericks and Spencer were still in high school. Spencer and bassist Dave Yob played together in various Northern Colorado bands, and shortly after graduation, the pair moved into one of the college town's party houses with some other friends and set aside a room for their musical endeavors. Helmericks became a frequent visitor, and the three began writing songs together. They invited Rouge to join them after having witnessed his multi-dimensional kit work with other area bands. The chemistry was immediate, and soon the artsy, punky, grrrl-powered quartet was in full gear.
At this point, the Monofog story gets a little, well, foggy. Justin Loendorf joined up as second guitarist but soon left and was replaced by Blake Brown, who departed after recording Monofog's last disc. Rouge followed suit shortly thereafter, moving to Connecticut for a year. Spencer, Yob and Helmericks, meanwhile, soldiered on as a keyboard-driven trio and briefly rechristened themselves Ready Machete. Rouge returned in 2004 -- and so did the act's punch, power and original moniker.
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In six short but complicated years, the band has sharpened its vision and grown more sophisticated, but the energy among the four musicians remains as fresh and raw as it was in those early days. No greater proof of Monofog's sustained spunk exists than Runner, its latest effort and the first in three years. The self-released full-length finds the group simultaneously leaving behind and embracing its complicated past while looking forward to a bright, post-punk future.
"We all view this album as a chance to document songs that we've been playing for a while," Spencer explains. In fact, the crushing slow creep of "Headstart" was one of the first songs these friends wrote together, and the full-tilt rock of "Everything in Its Place" is nearly as well-aged, dating back to 2003. Even the recording process was a trip back in time.
"We recorded with our friend John Hruska, from the band Fucking Orange, in his home studio in south Denver," notes Helmericks. "He recorded our very first group of songs in 2001, so this was a good opportunity to return to the attitude and atmosphere of that time."
"This record," Spencer adds, "is the culmination of years of songwriting."
But the disc is more than an exercise in nostalgic navel-gazing. Watching Monofog grow and mature has been like seeing your toddler go from her first awkward, almost drunken steps to a full run, and Runner sounds like the work of a band coming into its own. The CD's release was beset by scheduling problems that pushed it from one year to the next. But as hippies and your mom love to point out, everything happens for a reason, and Runner seems to fit much better in the sparkling, unspoiled environs of 2007 than in the Fergie-besmirched year that preceded it.
Opening with the swaggering spy theme of "Zombie Love Song" -- which features Spencer's ominous lead, a rhythm from Rouge that stops just short of breakbeat, and Helmericks's inscrutably sassy growl -- Runner's angular anger and muted mania herald a new beginning for the foursome. This is especially true for feisty frontwoman Helmericks. On both the new record and in Monofog's live shows, the vivacious vocalist takes the microphone like a lioness pouncing on a baby gazelle. Hips swivel, eyes dart and lips curl into a snarl that's part flirtation and part menace. But it wasn't always like this. During early live shows, the singer often focused more on her bandmates than on her audience, completely turning her back at times and giving audience members the discomfited sense of having crashed a rehearsal.
"I always liked to sing, and I've been a writer as long as I can remember," says Helmericks, "so it was just a matter of reconciling my stage fright and show-off natures, and meeting the right people to play music with at the right time."
Clearly, that time is now. Following a lineage from Grace Slick to Patti Smith to PJ Harvey, Helmericks finally seems comfortable. Likewise, her bandmates have hit their stride. Gone is the experimental, disorganized noise of earlier incarnations, replaced by an intensely focused, refined approach that smooths the bumps and sharpens the edges to a bone-cutting blade. The polish that Monofog and Hruska apply to the songs on Runner only makes the exquisite pain and power of Helmericks's intensely enigmatic lyrics and the group's combustible songwriting more poignant. Spencer chalks up the act's newfound confidence and character to that most reliable of teachers: experience.
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"By sheer virtue of playing a lot of shows, it has become easier," he says. "We know what we want to accomplish with each performance now. We are all much more comfortable and connected with what we are doing."
"Mostly, the actual music itself has evolved," Helmericks contends. "We are all continuously trying to improve in our own areas. The last thing any band wants is to be stagnant."
In the midst of all the growth and evolution, Monofog's members haven't lost sight of the things they truly love about being in the band.
"The best thing is having a space to make music with your best friends," says Helmericks. "Meeting people, being part of a good music scene, traveling and creating opportunities for yourself. At the beginning of all of this, we had nothing. Now we have two records, people at our shows, we've traveled, played with great bands -- and we still have each other as friends. Right now is a crucial time for us. It's a time to seize the reins and make this happen if it's ever going to. We have a new album we want to share with people and spread the word. I can't be a receptionist forever!"