Thursday, August 25, 2016

Paul's Challenge: Base Monroe

My dear friend, author Paul Laska, decided to join me in a writing challenge.  I challenged him because I hadn't read any new fiction from him in years (he's published three books, including the amazing Four Years about his time at Penn State.)

His challenge to me: World renowned vegan violinist Base Monroe.  Document his path to stardom.  And why violin?

Paul, here's my piece.

No challenge to copyrights are intended or inferred.  I don't own the name Rolling Stone, obviously.

Base Monroe exploded on the scene last year as the dynamic lead singer/violin player of Ayrstrike.  He is one of the three remaining founding members of the band, which started in Philadelphia in 2008.  Base, whose given name is Jim Lewis, has been notoriously private; giving no interviews to the press.  This is the first time anyone was able to sit down with him.  We met over several days at a local pub as Ayrstrike rehearsed their upcoming first world tour. 

Rolling Stone:  Thanks for sitting down with me, Mr. Monroe.

Base Monroe:  Base.  It’s my pleasure!  I mean, you’re buying the drinks and all.

RS: Thanks Base.  It seems that your band Ayrstrike…

BM: OUR band.  I’m just part of it.  Ayrstrike belongs to everyone who enjoys the music.  Sorry to interrupt.

RS: Ok.  Ayrstrike is living the old cliché of the “took years to become an overnight sensation.”  What can you tell me about the early days? 

BM:  Yeah, um, those were long years too.  Well, me and a few buds were all between bands, and uh were just hanging out and saw a sign about an open mic night at the place we were sitting.  So we decided what the hell?  We real quick rehearsed a song that Tim [Tim Cat, bass player] had from his previous band.  It was really an early version of “Double Shot...”

RS: Which Ayrstrike released on its first album.

BM: Yeah.  Except then it was in waltz time.  We decided to punk it up a bit.  So me and Tim, Jax [Jax Jaxon, Drummer], and Mad Mad [former guitar player who died of an overdose in 2013], we um got up on stage and did this song, and the place just went nuts.  We were invited back the next week.  So we decided to start the band.  Mad Mad had just left KDawg at the time, and she came up with the name.

RS: KDawg was a big deal in Philly then.

BM: They had a record deal with Laska records.  They had a hit with “Four Years” that she wrote about her old college band.  Turns out that y’know we went to the same school at the same time, but never met.  I even saw her band a couple times.

RS: This was at…

BM: Penn State.  Her band was Peanuts Envy.  Kind of a thrashy-grungy band that did covers at the local bars.  So, she had hooked up with Tim somehow, and that’s how she was there.  Anyway, she came up with the name.  We decided to do a song I did with my old band P$.  That was an early version of Flood of Joan.  So the next week, we did two songs.  Word started getting ‘round you know.  That’s when Kix [Kinx rhythm guitar] and FredStar [keyboard] joined up.

RS: Is that bar still in business?

BM: (Laughing) We’re sitting in it!  [“Lion Paul’s” on 13th Street in Philadelphia] The stage was over there at the time, but aside from that, this place hasn’t changed much.

RS: So. Ayrstrike played around Philly for a bit.

BM:  Yeah.  We played the bars, parties, down the shore, that sort of shit.  Then Mad Mad got us some gigs up in New York City.  We started expanding the scope of where we played and what we played.

RS: And that’s when you brought out the violin.

BM: Yeah.

RS: Why the violin?  It doesn’t seem like a “punk” instrument.

BM: Punk is just another label.  Semantics.  I’d been playing violin since I was a kid.  My parents made me take lessons.  Classical stuff.  Then I heard Jungleland by Bruce [Springsteen.]  It had this ethereal sound, this violin from heaven that told the story as much as the keyboard or sax did.  The violinist was Suki Lahav, from Israel.  I fell in love with that sound and the possibilities of that sound.  I mean it can do that, or it can kick ass like what Charlie Daniels does.

RS: Speaking of Charlie Daniels, many people say that the time in 2014 when you played with him in Nashville is what really launched you to stardom.  Can you tell me about it?

BM: That was just weird.  Turns out that Kix had done some session work with some band that Charlie was producing, and uh, we went to this show cause Charlie left tickets for Kix.  Charlie then invited me up on stage, which shocked the shit out of me.  Kix had told him about my violin playing. 

RS: So Charlie said it was violin verses fiddle.  Is there a difference?

BM: No.  More semantics. It’s just the style of playing.  There’s violin, there’s Celtic violin like what Mairead Nesbitt [of Celtic Woman] does, and all that.  Different styles, same instrument.  It’s really versatile like that.  Anyway, I get up on stage and Charlie hands me this gold violin, and the band kicks into Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I grew up loving the song.  As the band is kicking in Charlie comes over and tells me that I get the Devil’s parts and that we can go back and forth as much as we want, that he’ll signal the band when to kick back to the song. 

RS: And between you, the duel lasted over half an hour!

BM:  Yeah, I uh, really got into it, and so did he.  It was like we were really trying to outdo each other.  Charlie told me later that he didn’t expect me to be able to hang like I did, and he actually was getting a little mad that I was upstaging him. (laughs)

RS: The YouTube of that went viral.  Some guy with a phone.

BM: Yeah.  The thing was filmed as well.  Charlie wants to release the video and a live album.  Our agents are working out the deal.  He gave me that violin after the show.

RS: Then Ayrstrike’s album Wales Blues dropped.

BM: We couldn’t believe the reception!  I mean, wow!  I still can’t believe it!  We made that as a tribute to Mad and it just I guess it stuck a chord.

RS: That’s the first album where you took over all the song writing.

BM:  Mad and I used to collaborate.  The other guys didn’t want to “break up the magic” or some shit like that. 

RS:  It had a very different sound from the previous album Vegan Viking.

BM: (Pauses for a moment) Yeah.  Yeah it did.  VV was Mad’s baby.  We still close with “Sin of Slaughter” where, um, Johnny [Poundcake, replaced Mad Mad on lead guitar] really does an amazing job of like capturing what Mad meant to us.

RS: They were lovers.

BM: That’s no one’s business.

RS: Fair enough.  The whole album was about a Vegan starting a religion.  You’re a Vegan.  Why?

BM:  I used to work in a butcher shop.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

RS: The new album that drops next week…

BM: Sophie Home Powerhouse

RS: Tell me about it.

BM:  It’s a bit of a trip, actually.  Charlie [Daniels] appears on one of the tracks, and so does Lindsey Sterling. 

RS: And you cover a Bob Dylan song.  That’s your first recorded cover.

BM: We did “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” off of Blood on the Tracks.  I figure if we’re going to do a cover, we may as well do one from the greatest songwriter ever.  We changed it up of course.  That’s the one Charlie plays on.

RS: Have you met Bob Dylan?

BM: Not yet.  He’s like the MAN.  I’d be a gibbering fanboy.

RS: What direction do you see Ayrstrike taking from here?

BM:  Anything is possible, really.  We’re still getting used to it all.  We want to stay true to the vision you know.  The vision we all had for the music.  Mad’s death really made us a true family.  We have this tour for the next year.  The label wants us to record a show for a live disc.  I’ve already started writing stuff for the next album.  We’ll hash it out on tour, warts and all.  Maybe that live album will be all new material.  Who knows?  For the first time since 2013, it feels like tomorrow could be a good thing.  And that’s just really, really, I don’t know, really good.

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