MONO Makes OATH with Steve Albini

Roddy Nikpour
photo courtesy of MONO

Since 1999, MONO has been a four-piece Japanese post-rock band known for cinematic orchestral arrangements layered with gazing guitars. They’re releasing their twelfth studio album OATH on June 14 via Temporary Residence Limited. 

They recorded this album with Steve Albini, the engineer known for capturing the raw sound of bands like The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and so many others. He died of a heart attack on May 7

As part of our month-long celebration of Asian and Pasifika stories and Pushing Boundaries, KEXP’s Roddy Nikpour spoke with Taka Goto (guitarist and composer) and Dahm Majuri Cipolla (drummer) about the themes on OATH and their relationship with the late Steve AlbinKEXP · MONO Talks Making 'OATH' with Steve Albini

When it comes to popular music from Japan, delay pedals and tremolo picking might not be the first to come to mind. Perhaps you initially think of something with a bit more pop — not to mention lyrics. 

When MONO started out 25 years ago, it was difficult for the band to book shows. “Even now, in 2024, the music market and industry in Japan is 80% J-pop and J-rock, 10% for K-pop, and 10% overseas,” Taka said. 

Despite being a Japanese band, MONO’s sound falls into that latter category: overseas. So, that’s where they took their sound: to the United States. 

“I wanted to have a band to play shows,” Taka said. “I don’t care where. Playing the show is the most important thing in my life. Fortunately, America is more open to us.” 

Dahm added, “Listening to music and playing music is everything. It’s basically my anxiety drug. It’s the most important thing in my life other than my daughter and my wife, but it’s a close tie.” 
Part of the reason they love performing is because, when they’re on stage, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. It’s all about being there in the moment with the music. 

"Everyone’s there for the music,” Dahm said. “That’s where all the politics go away, from China to Russia to everywhere. When it comes to the music, everyone is there to experience it. Everyone is the exact same.” 

On the topic of current events, Taka rebuked what he sees in the news. He posited, “It’s very simple: Love each other, respect each other, help each other. It’s about our kids.” 

A big inspiration for OATH comes from loss on a personal level. 

“In the last five years, I lost my dad, and I lost many, many friends,” Taka said. “I had so many questions that I needed to answer for the future by myself.” He added that he’s focusing more on everyday miracles like access to clean water and beautiful weather, turning his attention away from sadness, darkness, and fear. “We’re surviving life, and life has a limit. This feeling — that’s the inspiration to compose the songs.” 

OATH is a concept album. For example, the synthesizer that kicks off the album in the track “Us, Then” represents the memory of someone who’s passed on. And, just like the memory of a loved one who’s passed, that synthesizer loop comes up again and again on the album, including at the very end of “Time Goes By.” 

On MONO’s Bandcamp page, Taka wrote: “We live with a vow that hasn’t changed since we were children. Hear the wind sing. We are part of the universe. We already know what we should do and what the most important thing in life is.” He says the answer to that is to “Run On” — which, conveniently, is the title of a song on the album. It captures this feeling of looking up, watching the credits roll, knowing that there will be a sequel to this chapter of life, and you’ll run on — not just because you can run on, but because you believe you should. 

This powerful, soul-healing sound on OATH simply reflects how MONO sounds live — thanks in part to the techniques of the late recording engineer, Steve Albini. 

MONO was one of the last bands Steve worked with before he died. After taking time to grieve, Taka and Dahm said they were ready to talk about their friend. 

“For two days, I cried until there were no tears,” Taka said. “Suddenly, I realized I have to talk about how he was beautiful, how he was talented, how he was amazing. So, now I’m okay. I’m ready to talk about him.” 

If you know anything about Steve’s recording methods, it’s probably one of two things: First, that his drum tones were like no other. “He was playing back the drums to me, and I couldn’t believe I was hearing myself through his process,” Dahm said.  

As mentioned, the other technique you’ll know is that Steve Albini liked to capture bands exactly how they sound live. We talk about this in a few episodes of KEXP’s Cobain 50 podcast since Steve also produced so many of Kurt Cobain’s favorite records and worked with Nirvana themselves. 

Taka first experienced Steve’s rigid recording philosophy when they started working together in 2002 on MONO’s third studio album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined. 

Taka says he was going for a big orchestral sound, but he only brought two violinists and two cellists to the studio. He asked Steve to overdub more strings into the recording and, according to Taka, Steve said, “You shouldn’t do that because it’s fake. If you need more strings, you have to bring more.” 

So, Taka brought eight string players to the next session, and 24 string players on a later album. 

“But Steve still only used two microphones,” Taka laughed. “I was surprised. It was a special moment. I was learning how to make music sound real. I’m still trying to do it ‘not fake.’” 

Since those days, MONO helped Steve tour with his band Shellac in Japan, and Steve did the same for MONO in the U.S. 

The last project that MONO worked on with Steve — just a few weeks before he passed — was for a soundtrack for an upcoming Japanese documentary. In retrospect, some of the track titles were eerily foreboding, including “A World Without You” and “Eternal Story.”

Taka’s last moment with Steve was also foreboding. 

“The last day of the mix of the songs, Steve-san looked at me and said, ‘Taka-san, how many years has it been since we met for the first time?’ And I told him, ‘22 years.’ It’s amazing, but now I’m thinking it’s kind of weird. A very sad moment.” 

Dahm’s last moment with Steve happened somewhat by accident. His flight was delayed by nine hours, so he spent some extra time at the studio. When his car came to pick him up during another band’s session, he tapped Steve on the shoulder to say goodbye. 

“I have to say, normal Steve would have been like, ‘Oh, wait one minute until we get this track finished,’” Dahm said. “But he stood up, he hugged me, and he said that it was always a pleasure to work on this music together. And I was like, ‘Man, same. See you soon.’” 

The band’s bond with Steve went beyond the studio, though. 

“When we had an earthquake in Japan, we were in the studio and everything stopped,” Taka said. “I had to walk to get home, and Steve-san was the first person in the world to say, ‘Taka-san, are you okay?’ He was always the first person in the world. Always caring, so nice and so cool.”

“I want to be like him. He’s my hero.” 

Taka mused further: “We can only bring memories of how we did after we die.” To me, this sounds like the title of MONO’s next album. 

Before I let them go, I asked about music that’s been inspiring them lately. Perhaps it’s no surprise that both Dahm and Taka both recommended film scores. Dahm says he’s fascinated by the soundtrack to the new Brian Eno documentary, which Brian Eno wrote himself. 

“It’s super interesting because he’s writing a song about a film about him,” Dahm said. 

For Taka, it’s Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for the Italian film, Confidenza

“It’s very emotional and very natural,” Taka said. “He’s never pretending to be someone. I cannot sing, but I wish I could sing like him — his music and his voice.” 

MONO has tour dates set across Europe and Japan this fall. For most shows, they’ll be joined with chamber ensembles featuring brass and strings. They’re also planning a U.S. tour this winter, but dates have not yet been announced. 

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