Interviewed by Jonathon Freeman-Anderson
Currently The Reigning Monarchs are raising funds at www.indiegogo.com/Monarchsmakearecord to record a new album and go on tour. All fans who contribute receive a dub remix of a Reigning Monarch’s song. In addition, The Reigning Monarch’s makes silk-screened t-shirts by hand in Greg Behrendt’s garage. “The t-shirts sell really quickly cause we have cool merch.”
The Reigning Monarchs are a surf punk band from North Hollywood, California, formed in 2009 by guitarists Greg Behrendt and USA Mike Eisenstein. All songs are written and produced by Behrendt and Eisenstein. The Monarchs have released a full-length LP and a split EP. Their music is frequently used on “Walking the Room,” Behrendt’s podcast with Dave Anthony, and the band performs live at the show’s “Starfish Circus” events. The Monarchs also play gigs independently throughout Southern California and feature in surf videos.
Recently The Reigning Monarchs guitarist, Greg Behrendt, discussed in an exclusive interview the pride he has in the band and his music, the under-appreciated nature of surf rock, and that getting older should not stop one from wanting to be on Warped Tour. “I think that there is no expiration date. You get this one ticket and you’ve got to make the most out of it no matter what’s going on.”
You have music on Reverbnation.com and I really liked your song, “The Duke,” All that music sounds like it would be good for a soundtrack or a road trip. Yeah, me too. That’s from our first record and we got a couple of those songs licensed and used on fantasy factory for a Laird Hamilton episode. They used four songs and “The Duke” was one of them. We were like, ‘oh, good, people get that these are supposed to be licensed.’
How did the group get together? It sprang out of guitar lessons. My talk show was cancelled in 2006 and I started taking guitar lessons from my buddy, Mike Eisenstein. I was going to go back on the road to do stand-up comedy and I wanted a piece of music to walk on stage to. So we wrote, “Fanfare for a well-dressed man.” It came together really quickly. It kind of sounded like The Clash meets marching band. He asked, ‘do you have any other songs.’ And I said, ‘I have a handful of riffs.’ We started recording them and then after awhile we started a band. When I left the house, I told my wife, ‘I’m not starting a band. I’m fucking 44, who the fuck wants to see an old man play guitar?’
How old is everyone? Mike and I are, essentially, the band, but with the dudes that we play with, I’m probably the oldest topping out at 49. Our bass player is 29. We have a girl who plays keyboards and sings with us once in awhile. She’s 20. It’s just whoever’s around and whatever they can do. We play with some of the best people in town, but I’m the old dude in the band. But I have a pretty good skincare regiment so I don’t think people are bummed by it.
What’s going on with the band now? We released an EP this summer called All Summer Single, which is really good and very surfy. We were gonna make a full record, but we didn’t have the funds. We had three surf songs and we really wanted to make a reggae/ska record. We thought lets burn these songs now and put them out. We love em, but they may not go on the new record. We sold some t-shirts to raise money. The t-shirts sell really quickly cause we have cool merch. We sold that in seven hours and made $450 and that’s what we used to make the record. When the record came out it started charting on band camp. It was in the punk section because there’s no ska section. We got offered a tour. My friend said, ‘you should go on tour.’ I was like, ‘They’re offering us $300 a night. There’s six people in the band.
There’s no way it would work. I’m almost 50.’ My friend said, ‘no dude, you should do it and you should document it.’ That’s what we decided to do. We knew we were gonna need more money and we needed money to make a record so we started an indie gogo campaign to raise money to make a record for $10,000, hopefully raise $5,000 to hire a publicist and then another $10,000 to tour. (The indie gogo campaign is currently over $16,000). People have been so cool. The documentary will be about a dude that leaves his family with a mortgage to go play in a ska band. It couldn’t be a stupider idea. It couldn’t be a dumber move as a father. It’s a very eat, pray, ska moment.
How does your family feel about that? You know my wife is the coolest. She’s very supportive and she gets it, but she’s only giving me a year to get it done. That’s the fun part about it. I get 365 days to try to make this happen. So far so good, we’re raising the money. We shot a little Christmas video and we’re going to go in the studio soon. We’re in pre-production with some songs. Sideonedummy, which is a really cool record label, has Gaslight Anthem and Flogging Molly. They’ve been really supportive and are helping us try to figure out the logistics of the tour.
Sideonedummy is a good label. They are good guys. Joseph Quever does stand-up now. He is a co-owner of that label and was the singer in Wax. He and I our pals, but he asked me if he could open for me. So I looked at his stand-up and I said, yeah, that’s cool. He was good and represented it. He was at work and told his buddy whom he has the label with, ‘oh shit, Behrendt has a band. What if his band is awful?’ Then he listened to the band and he said, ‘oh my God, this is legitimately good music.’ It’s cool cause he’s not just doing this because we are pals. He really believes in the band and that’s kind of a neat thing because they’re a cool label.
Are you signed to them? No, we don’t need to get signed. They’re acting like a consigliore. Maybe if the documentary comes together, they’ll help us out and distribute it, but at this point having a label doesn’t make sense. We have our own money to make a record. They don’t need to invest anything in us. It’s like one hand washes the other. If we can do something for them, they can do something for us. They’re really good people over there. They’re gonna help us for free only because they believe in the band and they have the connections to help us go out on tour.
Are labels only good for distribution now? Look, they’re necessary. The beauty of a record label is that they’re just venture capitalists who invest in bands. For every Rage Against the Machine, you get ten Green Apple Quicksteps. They get painted as this big, bad monster, but they do a lot of heavy lifting for bands. It’s figuring out how do you get money, publishing, rights, and that kind of stuff. I think now if you make your own record, bring it to them, and they’re interested then there could definitely be a conversation to be had. They can put you out on tour.
They can make a certain amount of money on you. It is a business at the end of the day as long as everybody gets paid at the end of the day. I think its labels like Sideonedummy that are smart. Those guys try to get you to sell 5,000 records before they get you to sell five million. They’re really practical good guys. They’re punks. You get a sense that those guys just want to make ends meet. They want to have nice lives with their families and put out music that they feel good about.
Even they’re approval on a band level is good. The fact that Joe plays me on Complete Control lets some of the punks think that the music is pretty cool. Band development is hard. It’s a hard time to make money as a band. Also, what we’ve tried to do is that we also make a really decent t-shirt. Our merch is solid. It comes from my garage where I silkscreen with my buddy. It’s all really genuine stuff. I think that you have to be more than just music at this point to really capture people’s imagination. It’s not so much about finding a fan base as much as you’re trying to find a group of friends to come watch you. You’re literally trying to create your own community.
Does the band dress as well as you do when you perform? Totally. They’re all down with that idea. We’re adults. It’d be silly to come in there and look like a bunch of kids. We can’t just pull off a t-shirt. There’s something about the music that says, ‘look a little elegant, man.’ We like that. We sell ties. Dress is part of the whole thing.
Look as good as you sound. I think so. I come from the school of loving when a band pays attention to all the different elements. The band has a look and point of view, the Jack Whites and the No Doubts of the world, where you can see it coming. It’s not everybody’s piece of cake, but it’s definitely mine.
Are you originally from Los Angeles? No, I was born and raised in San Francisco. I came down to L.A. in 1994. When you play in any big city, it’s hard to get people’s attention because there are so many different things that they can do. I like Los Angeles more than San Francisco because it’s less provincial and a lot of my favorite bands are down here. I like anything that’s close enough to have Mexican influence in it. I’ve always loved Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Oingo Boingo.
Those were my jams. Those bands were highly influenced by the area. Also, all the voodoo and stylistically, L.A. is all over the place. I always dug that and fantasized about Los Angeles when I lived in San Francisco. A lot of cool bands have come from Los Angeles and only a handful of cool bands from San Francisco and not even straight out of San Francisco. You can’t claim Metallica; they were from the East Bay. You can’t claim Green Day; they were the East Bay. Rancid, East Bay. San Francisco is straight up Grateful Dead, Third Eye Blind, and members of the Counting Crows.
Where else do you think might appreciate your style? Florida. I think they would dig us in the southeast. If we could be a jam band for the punk scene, that’d be a cool thing. If you could come out and see a little bit of a swing thing, a ska thing, a reggae thing, a little bit of a surf thing happening. That’s what we do. We can jam a song for a little while. It’s a place for people that don’t like Phish but want to dance. Those people who still go to No Doubt shows and want to start a mosh pit exist. They go to thirteen nights at the House of Blues to see Social Distortion. We want to be a band that you can go out, lose your mind, get drunk, and have a good time. We’d love to put on shows where people can dance forever.
“Short Pants for Fatty” is the only song with a lyric. That is the lyric. Would you have singers sub in with the band? Totally. When we play live, we bring singers out. We’re smart enough to know that it’s great to have a band that’s instrumental, but we’re not such purists that we can’t have a night where we don’t do normal songs. We do old ska songs and weird covers. We did a song with this band, Crime Rock.
The singer came up and did the song, “The Ledge,” by The Replacements, but we did a ska version of it. It’s wicked, dark, and weird, but it also has a skank to it. We’ve had guys like Marc Maron, who’s a comedian, but can also really sing and play. He came down and whipped out a couple of almost Johnny Thunder-ish versions of the Peppermint Twists and a few other things. We put on a show when you come see us. It’s not just indulgence. Our records are instrumental because it’s easier to write. You don’t have to have a singer. Lyrics are difficult. That’s what we do on record, but when we’re live, we expand it.
When is your next gig? We don’t have one right now. Our next one booked is in March cause we’re going to go in the studio, but things will pop up. There’s a place in Burbank called The Other Door which is just a box. We love playing there. It’s small and will probably do something in January.
Where can we find your music? At reigningmonarchs.com, you can get the first record free. The EP, All Summer Single, which I think is our best work you have to pay for. It’s only $3 and three songs. We’re on iTunes, Amazon, and all those other places where you can buy music. Band Camp I love. If you go to Band Camp and give us your email address, you can have the record free.
Do you think that the people who sport bowling shirts would like your music? Yeah, there’s that genetic code that kind of goes with surf/ska/punk/rockabilly. We did a show last Christmas at a burlesque thing and they loved it. You go to a roller derby or a rockabilly show and they love it. We’ve done a couple shows with Celtic punk bands and we can get into that whole scene.
It must be nice to be able to play in such an array of scenes and genres. Yeah, we’re like the perfect setup band for anyone. We’re a good opening band. We blast through our stuff in a kind of punk band, but we’re definitely not going to be like anyone we play with. We’re the only band around that does what we do. I think it’s kind of interesting and hopefully we’ll be like some American version of the Skatelites.
How important is music in your life? It’s what I came to Los Angeles to do. I came to Los Angeles with a band. I had been doing stand-up as well, but I saw myself having a music career. Of course, my band wasn’t very good, but I was worse. I like to say that I didn’t get fired, but that the band broke up and reformed without me, which is the truth. Somewhere around that time, I got sober. Comedy was a fallback for me. It’s something that I can do and I loved it. I ended up being ok at it and loving it. It was easier to do than having a band, but I always saw myself playing music. I always wanted to play music. I love comedy. I adore it, but it’s not my first love.
What was your first experience with music? I played in a band in high school. We were a little punk band and we were terrible. I had a guitar for two weeks and thought it’s time to have a band. As soon as I learned a bar chord I said, ‘It’s band time.’ Enough of these lessons, let’s just play. Try and get to the end. I’m an alcoholic so I want results. I longed for that without actually trying to earn it. I started playing almost immediately and wanted to do that forever.
Who are some of your major influences as a performer and guitarist? I live everything. It depends on what day you ask me, what’s in my iPod. I’m a massive fan of The Clash. They’re the be-all, end all band on all levels from their performances to their records to the way they looked to their stylistic integrity. The Replacements are one of my favorite bands. Also, Aerosmith and I’m a huge No Doubt fan. The Specials, The Skatelites, my head just starts swimming with bands when people ask you that. I love Van Halen. I kind of like all of music in a way. I like something from almost every category.
Would you say that you respect all genres, but do not like every artist? Yeah, I’m obsessed with Jack White and The White Stripes, that whole thing, but I also like him as a person and an artifact. I also like jazz stuff. I just like music, love the people who make it, and I’m fascinated by all of it. When it doesn’t turn me on, it doesn’t turn me on. I don’t love Springsteen. I don’t love any of the things that I’m supposed to love. I don’t love Dylan. I don’t hate Dylan. I respect Dylan. I would be playing a game if I went, put him on, and pretended I liked it. I don’t love it.
Where and when was the Reigning Monarchs first performance? Our first gig was at Largo. I was doing stand up there quite a bit. I put the band together, came down, and asked Flanagan if I could do a gig that was at the old Largo across from Canters. My dad was there. The drummer was Eric Gardner who played at the time with Gnarls Barkley. We had the bass player from Kelly Clarkson’s band. It was Mike, me, and a couple of horn players. It was really fun.
Is it a steady line-up in the band or is it like a revolving door? The drummer is the same guy on all the records; Blair Sinta who goes out and plays with Melissa Ethridge and was Alanis Morissette’s drummer for a long time. He’s our guy, but he doesn’t go out with us live. When we’ve played live, the drummers have been Eric Gardner, Mitch Marine, and Ryan McMillen. We’ve had a few. Whoever is around, not on tour, comes and plays with us. The bass player live has been the same guy, Andrew Samples.
The bassist on the record has been Mike Eisenstein, but we may have a guy named Dave Hawkins play on this new record. He was our bassist for a while before he had to move back to Austin. Greg Camp from Smashmouth played bass with us even though he’s the guitarist from Smashmouth. There’s a guy named Pete Caldes who is Janeane Garofalo’s live in boyfriend and is one of the best drummer’s ever, phenomenal. He played with us. All a bunch of guys.
Have you had any other project ideas? There was a period where Mike didn’t want to do the band anymore and I was by myself. I tried to start some sort of speed-reggae project, but I never got past the point of us getting back together quickly. There’s always people that I want to play with, but I’m not one of those players. I’m not the kind of guy that can just sit in. I have a very specific style. It’s always been me by myself or me with Mike. I write to this particular thing that’s in my head and there are only a few people who can do it, or get it. Mike just got it.
Where are you getting inspiration for the new record? I listen to nothing but really old ska, but sometimes I’ll put on a Bow Wow Wow record or Adam Ant to get some weird tones. I love those bands. I’ll listen to PiL or Sex Pistols. I’ve been listening to a lot of Skatelites and Desmond Dekker, all the Trojan records with old ska on it, the instrumental, and reggae. I’ve been listening to a lot of dub, not dubstep, but some real, actual dub. There’s a dub remix of one of our songs that anyone who contributes to the indie gogo campaign will receive it.
How does this album compare to your previous work? I definitely notice a sonic evolution. All Summer Single is way more electric. It definitely has more ska influence. The record we’re going to make now will be more dance-able, but it will still retain some of its surf parts, punk breaks, and be a little more adventurous and epic. We all think that we’ll probably just make one more record. I don’t think that there’s a need for us to make that many records. You have 23 original songs. You’ve got enough. You got out play some covers, play your originals, and you do a Christmas single or record a song here or there once in a while, but for the most part the idea of making one epic party record is enough.
Are you doing any covers on this new record? It’s very possible that we’ll do a cover on this record. There’s a song that we do live called “Frankenstein Ska” by Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires and we love it. We do a really good version of it. It’s possible to do a vocal cover if we find something. I think they’ll be recorded. If they make the record, I don’t know, but it’s an absolute consideration.
If you go on the road, will you bring a singer? We thought about taking a hype girl with us like how the Mighty Mighty Bosstones brought a dude who just danced for them. The idea of a girl who can bang it out on the keyboards, sing occasionally, and dance occasionally would be great. Also, we’d bring one horn instead of two and she could back it up on the keyboards. Ultimately, if this band could exactly be the size we’d want it to be, there would be three horns, a piano; it’d be an orchestra almost. We would ask other bands we play with to work with us on stage. We love the idea of inclusive community.
Do you have any problems transferring what one hears on the record to the stage? Fortunately, I get to play with one of the best guitar players in the country, Mike Eisenstein, and he’s able to double the horn parts when they’re not there. He’s just unbelievable. We’ve done a fairly good job matching the record. We’ve had some clunkers, but mostly good. I’ve been impressed and said, ‘wow, that sounds like the record.’ To make sure that its fun for people to watch as well as listen is important. We like the idea of playing in a club on the floor as opposed to a stage. There’s something to just being on the ground with everybody that makes it fun.
Have you thought about a professional Reigning Monarchs video? We have thought about it, but they’re expensive. Hopefully, someone that likes us will gift us a video.
You have a great sound for film and television. We definitely are hoping that. We need someone to help us get our songs synced in, but it’s something that I’m sure is possible.
What kind of audience are you trying to reach? I don’t care who you are. You can be a Nickelback fan, just come to the show. I don’t care. Also, probably old punks, people that like to dance and like that sound who remember what that sound was all about. New people who want more authenticity are welcome. I feel that there’s a lot of programmed drum track stuff out right now and art is a real organic experience. Not to put that down because there are a lot of people love to go out to a field and watch some lasers and a dude with a computer. I totally get that that’s what this generation is all about. I also feel that there’s something to being in a room with seven people making an organic sound together and musicianship.
Have you noticed the Reigning Monarchs following? That we have a following…you know we raised $10,000 in four-five days and I was like, ‘wow, people like us.’ That’s a lot of money to make that quickly. The fact that we’ve made over that amount gives me some faith that there are people out there that want us to succeed. It makes us just want to work even harder and make the best record ever. We really want to prove that people were right to want to invest in us. They’re not going to tell us what songs to do or not to do.
They’re just fans and they want the best album. You almost do what the record companies want you to do which is really to think about your fans, whether you’re being indulgent or not, and whether you’ve written something that they really dig. You’re not being told to do it, but you’re doing it out of your own concern for the fan. I think it’s important to tell the fan a story of the band; what’s happening with you guys, what are you trying to achieve, what am I following here. When you’re in the throes of putting a record together and they see you working on something or put out a Christmas video, they see a story. When we went to start our indie gogo campaign, we made a video explaining the band. When we hit our goal, we made a video thanking everyone. Well, we want to work past our goal. So, we made a video for that. Then we thought, today, let’s not ask for money.
Let’s make a video of us playing Christmas songs. So there’s us playing a song called, “May God Rest Ye Merry Sweatermen.” So now, the fan sees a story saying these guys were here and now they’re here. This guy is a comedian and he wrote a book. This guy was in the band, Letters to Cleo. We have our story and people start to become friendly with you. You’re really are courting friends almost. We’re trying to make friends, not just fans; friends who are interested in your life and whose lives you may be interested in.
What do you think of the state of ska and surf punk? As a surf band, we love surf music, but we don’t want to play with other surf bands. It’s too much in one night to have two bands that don’t have lyrics. You want to be able to play with any kind of band. I just make music that you’re interested in. Don’t peg it. Just be the people who do that. Be the best at whatever it is you’re doing. Our sound is a combination of surf, ska, and reggae, but we’re not really straight up about any of those genres. We’re an amalgam of everything I like in one band. I think if you stick to that, really have a point of view, and try not to confuse people by doing to many things at once, then they’ll dig you. You also have to have the patience to let people get you. They have to work past their prejudices. They have to work past pre-conceived ideas of what they think you are. Just keep banging away at it. Some days nobody gives a shit about you. You don’t sell any records. Nobody cares about your video.
Then one day you’ll look down and see that a thousand people have downloaded your record. It takes time. People seem to want the reward so quickly that they forget that the fun of this is making music. I just want to make music. The reason I’m making this documentary and doing all this is simply because I just want to make music. This is the best way I can find to get people to pay attention to the music. I’m clanging every pot and pan in the kitchen to get people to pay attention just so I can strap on my guitar and not even be the main attraction in the band. I have a job where I’m the main attraction and I prefer this.
Have you thought about using your comedy connections to support the band? I think a lot of my fans are comedy fans. The crossover is a different thing. Music is a different experience. The idea of doing comedy music shows, unless the comedy is about music or the music is comedy based then it’s a different experience. One of them is look at me and the other one is just fucking dance. I’m making this music for you. When you do comedy, you’re up there and having this interaction with people, but when you do music, you’re in it. You’re a part of it and experiencing it with the fans. It’s an interesting combination. When the people hear the band, they’re like, ‘oh, this is serious. It’s not a joke thing.’ Yeah, it’s for real.
Is there any one genre of music that you feel is under-appreciated or under-estimated? I do think is surf music is under-appreciated and under-estimated. On one level, I don’t think people really understand it. I also think that’s surf music’s fault. It’s generally presented as four old men in short pants standing by a pool. It has such a retro feel to it that it has a hard time for people to take seriously.
I think that’s true of rockabilly too. Guys like Brian Setzer never make the best guitar player list, but clearly, he’s one of the best guitar players of our generation. He’s phenomenal, but I think people think of him as a novelty act. I think those kind of music because they are also so steeped in costume that people don’t tend to really regard it as contemporary so that don’t look at the musicianship. The quality of players in rockabilly and surf is beautiful shit, fantastic. There’s a band called The Tomorrow Men that are just amazing, straight up surf music. Their guitar player is an awesome legend.
Could you see yourself playing any big festivals like Hootenanny or Warped Tour? I’d play anything that we’re invited to. A big goal is to play something like that and I think it’s possible too. We just need to get people to know who we are.
You clearly have solid short-term goals. What do you think about the Reigning Monarchs for the long term? What I’ve learned about my showbiz career is that the best thing I can do is to show up. Do an open-mic. Then I’ll show up the next day and do the work. This band has been around since 2009 and it’s not going away. Every year something happens that makes it want to stay around longer. As long as I’m happy and my motives are correct, who knows? As soon as I start thinking about how we can be famous, I’m in trouble. What can I do today?
I love my records and that’s all that matters to me. I put them on, I listen to them, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to leave the Earth and I made this here. Someone else can find it and dig it.’ I’m really proud of it. I can’t say that about everything that I’ve done in show business. I really can’t genuinely say I’m glad I did that. Some things, I wish I hadn’t done. Some things, I could’ve done better or I wish I were better prepared for. I definitely feel that of the few things that I’ve done in my life that this stands on its own. It turned out absolutely the way I wish it had been. Its intentions are pure.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was awesome. It just means that its intentions were really pure. My first stand-up record, I didn’t even realize that we were recording it. It was just recorded in a club by a guy who decided to throw it on to see if his thing worked. It was just me doing stand-up comedy. I think that’s when you find the magic, when you’re not trying to play some kind of game.
Do you have any final words of wisdom that you wish to impart to your friends or family as you continue down this road, this journey? The theme of this documentary is, is there an expiration date on your dreams meaning it’s one thing to be eighteen and want to be on the warped tour, but it’s another thing to be fifty and want to be on the warped tour. I think that there is no expiration date. You get this one ticket and you’ve got to make the most out of it no matter what’s going on. You write the rules. There’s no one way to do anything. Whatever your dream is, get after it today.