Interview

Kieran Monaghan (Mr Sterile Assembly/SENDAM Rawkestra)

Kieran Monaghan (Mr Sterile Assembly/SENDAM Rawkestra)

By Chris Cudby

Wednesday 23rd October, 2013 2:26PM

Well-known as half of Wellington outsider-punk noise experimental rock two-piece Mr Sterile Assembly, Kieran Monaghan recently played a key role in the organisation and release of the debut album by the SENDAM Rawkestra - an ensemble comprised of people with past or present experience of mental health illness, varying physical and musical abilities, and support workers in the mix, these musicians produce nigh-uncatagorisable songs and sounds. We talked to Monaghan about the Rawkestra, what's coming up for Mr Sterile, his relationship with art / political activism and more. Huge thanks to Kieran Monaghan for taking time out to talk in-depth about his work.

How did the SENDAM Rawkestra come about? Who is involved? Is this a project organised by yourself or...?

It began as a health initiative in my day job as a primary health care nurse in Newtown. A big part of my role is mental health, and as such I would spend a lot of time in a day service called The Clubhouse. The Clubhouse is a peer-support day service for folk with past and current experiences of mental illness, based on a philosophy that those with first hand experience are well situated to help support others experiencing similar things, this takes place outside a clinical framework. It’s a great idea.

Anyway, I became aware that a lot of random music and musical ability was often being played, so I discussed with The Clubhouse manager who thought it was a good idea. I also spoke with musician/percussionist Andreas Lepper, who I had known had been doing brilliant music work in other complex environments, and he was keen. And finally I accessed some funding from our PHO to pay the costs. And off it went. It has grown from there.

It has been going over five years now, playing every Friday and I guess the background organisation is still sorted by Andreas, myself and another good fellow Richard Noble (who is also very involved in many local community groups, activities, church). There is also a growing group of regulars now over the years who have developed solid skills and a voice to offer input, alongside care workers who support some of the other players. The music is a grand leveler.

Can you please tell us about the new SENDAM Rawkestra album – 'Greatest Hits / Who's Mad'

For a while we had discussed doing some sort of recording. Then one day Andreas arrived with an invite from a close associate of his called Benni Kreuger. Benni had offered us a very accessible rates that worked perfectly with our budget. We held a successful fundraising show in the local community centre to cover the recording cost, and then booked in a date in the same venue to record one Saturday. It was an amazing experience!

As always, there is an air of uncertainty about who will actually turn up, but we had a spectacular line-up of folk who came to play. For most it would have been the very first time being exposed to the recording environment. And it was a remarkably smooth experience. Most tracks were recorded on first take, no overdubbing was required. While the mixing was being done, we ran a crowdfunded project to raise the money to produce the album. Again this was very successful, and stressful, but absolutely the best way to do it. It was a great experience to gather momentum and enthusiasm while the project was developing beyond our own networks and communities. And it also gave extra opportunities for the band to become more involved and present the project as well. We made a series of youtube clips and posted regularly to Facebook. For a number of the band members again, the online space is quite an unfamiliar territory. These small side projects (making small clips etc) also gave a sense of development as the audio mixing was happening somewhere else invisibly. It was a conscious effort to continue to maintain connection with the project by returning to rehersals to show the new clips etc, and band members seemed to got a real buzz from seeing themselves on a monitor playing music.

So the album is 10 tracks, some tracks are regular compositions that we play but every rendition differs from the last. There is a significant flexibility to sSendam's music, it dances, bends, distorts and grows in wonderful and unexpected ways. We also have a number of players to like to stretch their vocal talents as well, from singing conversation to writing unique text for the band to accompany.

How did the various members come to join/be involved with the Rawkestra? Would you describe the group as a mix of special needs and more traditional musicians?

Primarily, the group is for people who attend The Clubhouse and who at some point may be identified as service users. In addition, next door to The Clubhouse for a while was IDEA service, once upon a time it used to be known as IHC. A really lovely connection grew between the two services and spaces were made available for a number from that service to come over on Fridays to play, the lure of the percussion was too much perhaps? We also have a small core that could be describe as traditional musicians, as in fluent in techniques, ability and concept re time, tempo etc, but those concepts can be challenged due to the inspiration of the rest of the band. We have had people turning up as they have heard that there's another drum based group in Wellington and they want to practice their Latino rhythms, but this space isn't for them. There are other options available for folk who already have the means and skill to access these activities elsewhere.

What do you feel motivates the members to get involved and come along on a regular basis?

The rehearsals are a hell of a lot of fun.

Early on I thought one of the motivating reasons was that for some, in this section of society, access to healthy and positive fun events are not always easy or possible. sSendam has no cost to the participants, there's another barrier removed. Andreas has an extraordinary and beautiful collection of percussion, the temptation to pick something up, even just for a moment, often gets the better of even some of the more reserved service users. Very occasional there is a financial reward for the players, if we are invited to play somewhere and a koha is received it is always evenly split with the players (excluding Andreas, Richard, and myself) . Sometimes we ONLY get people to play concerts and never rehearsals because of this incentive :-)

The CD, I believe, has been a huge confidence booster for some. We talked about the CD for a long time, and for a long time it was an abstract idea to many. But when we turned up one day with a box of beautiful CDs to give to the band, it turned into something else precious and real.

And the positive feedback received from playing live has to be a bonus as well. Nell Thomas, from Orchestra of Spheres, has just written an essay on the band and contends that the live presentation challenges social attitudes and judgmental considerations held in a wider public space in a fun, and not brow-beating, way.

The band has created new opportunities and spaces in people lives, creates a small moment of a different connection and action, is a regular focus and validates the input and offering of all the players.

The music from Greatest Hits/Who's Mad sounds like a mix of improvisation and composition (and the liner notes mention a the Rawkestra is conducted by Andreas Lepper) – what process is involved in the Rawkestra's music making? Is there a specific desired result or is the intention more exploratory?

The desired result for me is that people come and play. What happens next is a bonus.

It's hard to discuss the intention. I'm not sure I can wrap it up in a simple statement. Yes, Andreas does conduct, as best as he can and as much as the band will listen, and even the notion of following a conductor is a skill that is constantly being learned and relearned. There is a chaos in action, with some sense of order imposed like lacework over the top. People select what they want to play, and there is a frequent mobility amongst the players and instruments, and that will have an influence on the overall sound, obviously. Occasionally people may be guided to or away from a particular instrument for a number of reasons.

Amongst the band there isn't really a lot of conversation specifically on composition. But the ability to interact, engage and play with dynamic intent is absolutely something that I would observe and register as a successful and desired result.

I asked Andreas what he thought and he wanted to remind me that, accurately, "I would mention that quite a few of our pieces are very structured and follow a (sometimes conducted) form : beep-beep, piano-forte,bolero, hall of ...hey and that original and covered lyrics determine structure: moonshine waltz, bipolar anthem, we will rock you, drunken sailor."

I'd maintain though that every time they are played they are unique and different from every other iteration of said song.

Who chooses what songs to cover?

The individual members who have the ability to bring ideas or snippets. Playing just happens and half way through you may recognise the words or motif of a songs. It can be pretty loose. Sometimes an idea just blossoms, as ideas do, on a whim and a sniff of possibility.

We're really quite an accommodating bunch.

The liner notes for the album talk about the group as 'art therapy' for some members – would you like to talk about that? Does the Rawkestra still meet up every Fridays?

Yes, Friday is a constant.

Those notes were written by Even Barraclough, one of the band members and guitarist, and he doesn't really call it 'Art Therapy', he more alludes to the therapeutic effect that may be experienced.

Art Therapy is an academic discipline in it's own right, to which I have never trained, and I don't really feel qualified to comment or expound on the 'therapeutic' nature of music.

But personally, I can absolutely attest to the benefits music has on one's confidence and well being. In some corners of society finding welcoming, supportive, non-judgmental environments to explore music in a free, creative, and accessible way are rare. I like to believe that we have helped to create something that bypasses perceived disability, and goes looking for, and fostering untapped ability. I believe everyone is able to participate in this group, no-one is without some ability that they cannot contribute musically, texturally, sonically or physically to the music that is made.

And it's more than the actual time spent making music. It's what happens before and after the music making, the conversations, the confidences, the performances that alter 'others' perceptions of what people can do and achieve. Disability is often a perception held by the fully abled.

Do you see the Rawkestra in some kind of Outsider music context or is that kind of framing unappealing to you / the group?

Outsider is generally defined by the people on the inside. I see sSendam as an inspired opportunity, an exploration across time, a joyous discovery in action, and an endless exercise in invention and reinvention. sSendam is life engaged! The music is wonderful, but it is those special moments, exchanges, and developing history, that what makes sSendam sing for me.

sSendam is not outside, it is a warm huddle, a frenetic dance, a realisation that this thing is amazing and can never happen again, and a promise that we will will try to re-imagine it again, none the less, next Friday.

Again, I asked Andreas and he said "There is pride in being an"outsider" (outlaw kinda way) ... normal people worry me and yes those real barriers will always exist but our "joyfulling" works as a "perforator" [is] to create good leaks."

Actually, that idea as a joyful perforator bringing into life good leaks is quite wonderful, thanks Andreas. I can live with that.

Does SENDAM stand for anything?

It was named by a early band members. One suggested Madness, Andreas pointed out that that name was already in use by a fairly well known UK ska band, and one young women, in a quiet tone, simply switched the letters around, and hey presto, there we go. There's quite a powerful metaphor at work I think in the notion of turning madness on its head and turning it into something else, something exotic and alluring, mysterious and tempting. All of that is of course absolutely true.

You are of course a prime mover behind the Mr Sterile Assembly – what's happening with you guys right now? Any recordings/live shows/tours coming up?

There's a growing number of shows and the starting of researching booking shows for the UK, and few European dates for next April. We spent a lot of this year writing text and tunes and we are almost at a new albums worth of material. It has been a period of reassessment, and modest reinvention. A reviewing of reasons for continuing and deciding that there remains a reason for being. We were quieter earlier on the year as the sSendam album took a lot of personal time. And Chrissie, my solid partner In all this is an immense help with editing, bouncing concepts and developmental ideas around, quality checking and as a solid source of integrity in what is trying to be achieved, making sure it doesn't deviate form the best possible intention with the upmost transparency.

You're known as being very involved with political activism, would you like to talk about how you approach being both a musician and an activist?

For me I'm not sure if there is a difference. But I am more than those two things, I am also a professional nurse, a father, and partner, a craft person, a gardener, and more. For me there is no barrier. For me it is about the integrity of reason, there is a continuous thread in all these facets of my life, in a way I demand this.

A large part of a lot of what I do is about connection, about the notion of making something better than it was before, and about exploring what it is that is getting in the way for things to be better.

I see musicians/artist/whatever holding a privilege place, in some parts of the world it is a dangerous place. We have the capacity to story tell and illuminate ideas in other formats which may convey meaning and understanding not necessarily accessible via traditional media/academic avenues. People need stories, songs, dance, art regardless of income. It is we, the 'artist' who decides if we become commodities, or contributors to community, or something else even more subversive.

I don't know how to be anything else other than myself.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

Nah. Ta.

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This interview is proudly presented by the Audio Foundation.



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