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Interview: Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster [Part 1]

Bob Forrest - Thelonious Monster
5 December 2020

Photo by Dimitri Coats

Bob Forrest’s story has been well documented through both his appearance on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew as well as in the 2011 documentary Bob and The Monster which chronicled Forrest’s beginnings in the L.A. punk scene, his decades long battle with substances, and his subsequent sobriety. Forrest, who has led the band Thelonious Monster since 1984, hit rock bottom in 1996 and made the very conscious choice not to let the demons win in what, looking back, could be considered a life-or-death decision.

“The day I got arrested, that led to me being in jail for so long, and then getting sober and then turning my life around, if you had asked me that night, ‘Is this a good day or a bad day?,’ I’d say ‘This is the worst fucking day ever!’ But I look back on it like it was a godsend, it was a miracle. I was going to die. I didn’t care whether I lived or died,” Forrest says over a video chat in early November, on the eve of the presidential election and, more importantly, the digital release of Thelonious Monster’s first album in 16 years and first album with all the members of the classic lineup since 1992’s Beautiful Mess.

“The night I got arrested, I got in this car chase because that’s what we do in L.A. And they had me cornered with cops everywhere … I saw the cops had blocked off the street; I couldn’t go right because there were cops there and I just pulled sideways in the middle of the intersection, like in a movie, and I was surrounded by all these cops. They were on the bullhorn saying, ‘Roll down the window and put your hands out the window.’ They wanted me to put my hands out to show them I didn’t have a weapon. I just sat there in the car for like 5 minutes and I thought, ‘If I just get out of this car and run in any direction, it’ll be over.’ And I had been suffering for so long with mental torment, emotional torment, physical illness, I was so at the end of my rope. But I didn’t do that. I just rolled the window down, put my hands out. They always do that thing where they act like they’re going to be cool to you if you cooperate and then as soon as they’ve got you, they step on your head and they’ve got their knee in my neck and my face is in the cement. And that began an odyssey that’s led all the way to here.”

“Here” is Thelonious Monster’s sixth full-length album, Oh That Monster, released digitally on election night with a physical release coming in January. Forrest pulled together his bandmates – guitarists Chris Handsome and Dix Denney, bassist Martyn LeNoble and drummer Pete Weiss – and recorded a collection of songs that may be among the best tracks in Thelonious Monster’s catalog. From the fervent dissonance of “Disappear,” to the socially-conscious “Buy Another Gun,” to the coming-of-age “Teenage Wasteland,” there’s something recognizable in the folk-punk songs for anybody who’s paid attention to the band since the mid-80s.

My first (and only) encounter with Forrest and Thelonious Monster was in 1993 when I interviewed the singer, who was actively promoting the band’s lone release for Capital Records, _Beautiful Mess, for the college paper I was writing for. When Thelonious Monster rolled into Columbus, Ohio a few weeks later, a tale that I continue to tell to this day was born. That’s how I started my recent discussion with the affable singer who, in addition to fronting Thelonious Monster, is the co-founder of Alo House Recovery Centers which offer drug and alcohol treatment in Southern California.

I did a phone interview with you in 1993 when you were coming to play Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio and I mentioned that I found a copy of your Stormy Weather CD at a local record store. You told me that, at the time, you didn’t even own a copy so I went back and bought one to give to you. On the night of the show, I did some pre-gaming and was pretty drunk by the time you hit the stage. I believe, at some point, you fell off the stage. This is one of those foggy memories seeing as how it was 27 years ago and I had been drinking a lot, but I feel like the band left the stage but you didn’t. You pointed at me and said, “Come on up, come play guitar.” I can’t play an instrument to save my life and even as drunk I was, I wasn’t about to get on stage. It’s one of my greatest music-related memories, even if I didn’t get all the details right.

BOB FORREST: You know, the rock and roll we grew up with is so distant. We’re like dinosaurs on the earth. I saw Led Zeppelin live, you know what I mean? Now it’s become, it’s so mass produced and corporatized and digitized and in this other realm. I keep saying, “Jack White is the last rock star.” There’s not going to be rock stars anymore. Last year, there were two #1 songs called “Rock Star,” one was by Drake, one was by DaBaby. So, rappers are paying homage to what a rock star is but there are no rock stars anymore because somehow we don’t want them any more. I think there was a big anti-rock star sentiment among rock stars. Michael Stipe kind of started it, Eddie (Vedder) picked up on it and then by the time you get to Thom Yorke, this guy, when I met him, had bleach blonde hair and wore a sweater like Kurt Cobain. “Oh, you don’t want to be famous? Really? Why’d you bleach your hair blonde and wear a Kurt Cobain sweater?” And then he’s done everything he can to act like he doesn’t like the position he’s in.

I’ve been saying it for years, nobody’s demanding that these people make records and perform concerts. It’s a gift. If you have a gift like Jack White has … did you see him on Saturday Night Live a couple of weeks ago? The guy is magnetic. He’s a special human being. And in a society where no one is special, we’re all special. It’s kind of marginalized this thing. If you think David Bowie is the same as you, you’re a fucking idiot. If you’ve been around him for 5 minutes, the guy vibrates, or, well, he’s passed away now, but he vibrated and he looked you in the eye when he talked and you were just mesmerized just by his humanness. I think musicians, like Bob Dylan, I’ve met most all of them and they’re like these special gifted people and we’re now a society that says no one is special, we’re all special. I just think the rock star thing is obsolete, it’s a thing of the past.

And that community of the artist and the band are a shared experience. We were drunk a lot of the time and I had seen a video of The Who playing at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and Keith Moon passed out and they just got some guy to play drums. That happened to us a couple of times, where the band doesn’t want to play any more or they are too drunk or pouting and they left and we just get people out of the audience, “Do you know how to play guitar? Come on up. You can play ‘Smoke on the Water’ at least.”

I have a daughter in high school and a daughter in college and they didn’t get anything from me in terms of listening to music. To your point, I don’t even know if they know who Jack White is.

BOB FORREST: I don’t think people do.

My daughter in high school loves Harry Styles and all the offshoot solo careers of the guys in One Direction.

BOB FORREST: He’s a rock star but there’s something about being a songwriter and the pirate-like atmosphere that rock and roll was and it’s just a thing of the past. It’s a thing in movies or a thing that rappers rap about wanting to be. Danny Brown, this rapper I loved 10 years ago, he wrote a song called “I Want to Die Like a Rock Star.” It’s so strange that now, the information that young people get about this era of Led Zeppelin, the Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, KISS, they are getting it from rappers who know more about the history of rock and roll than middle class white kids. It’s very interesting to me. When Danny Brown wrote that song, he had all the right peoples’ names in there. Like, how does this kid know all this and my kid doesn’t?

It’s interesting times and part of why we wanted to make a record was that there are people who do care about music, certainly not on the scale that it used to be about rock music. I’ve had a lot of magical moments in music but watching the Pixies play for the first time in 10 years at Coachella was a mesmerizing experience. You could see the joy they had. Me, Anthony (Kiedis) and Flea were sitting on the ground on the side of the stage and Kim Deal kept looking at us smiling, like, “Can you fucking believe this? The last time we played it was half-filled at a 500-seat place. And there’s 40,000 people here.” So, there is an audience for music, it`s just not the way it used to be.

I wanted to say something to those people that still care because I think a lot of musicians have lost their focus on talking about issues that are in our daily lives. Part of it might be capitalism, they’re scared thinking that half of their audience will be alienated if they had an opinion.

Music distribution is so different these days and has been for a while. When I interviewed you in 1993, I couldn’t go on the internet and sample your stuff. I had to go to a store and I had to put that $15 risk into buying a CD, but that CD then became THE CD I listened to because I put my $15 into it and I listened to it front-to-back, front-to-back 300 times. Now, it’s like I pull my phone out of my pocket, pull up Spotify, every week I’m bombarded with 300 new releases that I can go check out for my $10 a month subscription.

BOB FORREST: Isn’t it crazy? I have Amazon Music. I love this girl Jade Jackson, she’s a songwriter from here in Southern California. I was saying that I can’t wait until her second album comes out and this friend of mine was like, “Dude, she’s got like four albums out.” I was like, “Really?” So I go on Amazon last night and I click on her name and it shows all of her albums. And then it tells you, it’s so interesting, the algorithms or whatever, then it tells you similar things to her, that if you like her, you’ll like this. And I discovered this other girl. I’ve always had this appreciation of girl singer/songwriters from Joni Mitchell back in the day all the way to Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, we covered one of her songs. Then I heard this other girl, Nikki Lane, and she’s amazing … she’s amazing, that girl. And Margo Price is amazing. I do this thing where I’m like, “Why is this not a revolution? All these great, empowered young women songwriters.”

There’s so much great music but then there’s so much other shit to sort through. You also don’t get to ride along with the band anymore. I was a Replacements devotee from the first time I saw their faces in a picture. I was like, “These are guys like me!” They never came to L.A. then, on the Hootenanny album, they came and I saw them. There was only like 40 people there, I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was a transformative experience to watch this band. But they weren’t very good, you know what I mean? And the great thing about The Replacements is that while he (Paul Westerberg) became a master songwriter on par with Dylan and Neil Young, they never were very good. (laughs) I saw them probably 40 times and there was only one time that they played their own songs relatively close to their songs on the record. But yet they were so inspiring. I don’t think (these days) you get a chance to play at a club if you’re not popular and successful. There can’t be a Replacements anymore. So, we’ll see what happens.

This is something my friend Mark Kates told me, he’s a genius in the music business – he’s the one who signed Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Beck – he said, “In the ’90s, people will rise up like a modern day Wolfman Jack or a modern day Real Don Steele, he was a DJ here in Los Angeles, where that person has such great tastes, and they know music and it’s in their soul and they love it and they live it and they breath it, those people will be the conduits of what’s good, tastemakers.” It never happened. It became that Pitchfork website. It’s so mean spirited, just being mean about people. The meanness has risen up in our society, I don’t know why the digital disconnected humanness allows this darker side of the individual who’s spilling out their opinion or their narrative. I’m just shocked by the meanness. The meanest thing ever said about me was, I think, in Spin magazine when our second record came out. The guy didn’t like my voice and said I sounded like the father on some TV show, the one where the alien comes and lives with the family. What was that called?

Alf?

BOB FORREST: Yeah. Alf. He said my voice sounded like the father on Alf. And I remember cringing. You get so excited to go buy a magazine or read it at the newsstand and it’s got your record in it and they are reviewing it and I read it and over the next few days I watched Alf and I was like, “I do kind of sound like that. He’s kind of right!” (laughs) But that was the meanest thing ever written about me, not that I’m ugly or stupid or this mean-spirited stuff that I then experienced because I was on a TV show (Celebrity Rehab). I was never a digitally-aware person, or a social media person, then we started this TV show in 2007 and somebody told me that I should have a Facebook thing so I could see what was going on. And the things people said about me were just so mean and so vulgar and unwarranted and unnecessary. I saw it in 2007 and was like, “I don’t want nothing to do with this meanness.” And it’s only gotten worse.

I always tell the story about why I left social media, it was about two years ago. My daughter was about 3 and she got obsessed with Michael Jackson. She was just loving it and the joy when I’d put on “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five here in my office, she’d dance around and I’d videotape and put it on the internet. And people would say, “How dare you allow your daughter to listen to that pedophile?” I kind of ignored it but it got meaner and meaner to the point where I started reacting to it, “It’s just a little kid liking Michael Jackson, it’s not like a political statement. It’s not a pro-pedophilia statement.” And this women literally said, “I hope your daughter gets molested and maybe you’ll learn.” What kind of human being says that about a 3-year-old child?

The way society has gotten, rock and roll is over in a place where nobody knows about, where your daughters don’t know about, where the kids I counsel don’t know about. But it is still precious to millions of people and that’s why I wanted to make a record for those people. If it’s not present on the internet and it’s not the most popular or number one, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. Jack White exists and he showed the world a couple of weekends ago. Tame Impala is amazing. Ryan Adams is amazing. The Chili Peppers are amazing. There’s a lot of amazing rock music, just because it’s not number one, because it’s all hip-hop and K-Pop and Harry Styles, doesn’t mean that it’s not a valid, important, meaningful, spiritual art form.

(In the second part of this interview, we talk about getting the Thelonious Monster lineup back together to record a new album after 16 years apart and about the song Thelonious Monster is most known for, ”Sammy Hagar Weekend”)