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Interview: Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster [Part 2]

Bob Forrest - Thelonious Monster
14 December 2020

Photo by Dimitri Coats

In the second part of this interview with Thelonious Monster founder, and vocalist, Bob Forrest, we talk about the band reuniting, writing Oh That Monster (check out Michael Toland’s review), and all the ghosts that come with friendships that have lasted over 30 years.

It’s pretty amazing that you got the lineup back together.

BOB FORREST: It’s pretty amazing that we’re all alive! As it got more serious and we were recording and I was looking out through a glass window like I had my whole young life, it was the three of them. And I realized the four of us have been in this band since 1984. That’s pretty crazy just to know people for 36 years, that we’re in a room making a record? It was really an amazing thing. It also had a lot of bittersweetness, like, this is probably the last time we’re going to make a record. One of us is going to die, sooner or later. And, how special it was.

The dynamics had changed. For decades the fight was always between me and Pete, the drummer. We fought legendary fights, fist fights on stage. When I met Tom Waits, which eventually led to me recording some songs with him, I was at a Keith Richards show at the Hollywood Paladium – he had that band, the Expensive Winos – and I was peeing at the urinal. I was kind of drunk, and I looked next to me, and Tom Waits is peeing next to me. And I went, “Oh my God, Tom Waits!” Because I’m kind of that way. And he goes, “Oh my God, Bob Forrest from Thelonious.” I was like, “How the hell do you know who I am?” We were zipping up and walking out and he goes, “Me and my wife, Kathleen, love your band. I’ve seen your band three or four times.” I asked, “When?” I would have heard that Tom Waits was at my show. He goes, “I want to ask you something. I saw you one time and you and the drummer got into it verbally. And all of a sudden you jumped over the drums and there was fisticuffs. It looked real. The other guys broke it up and then you guys just went and played another song. Kathleen says that was real but I thought you were just doing that to create a fake thing.” And I go, “No, no, no. We hate each other!” (laughs) “I like the hostility.” That’s what he said. So that’s how it had always been, Pete and I.

This time around, Pete and I have really found peace with each other, we talk all the time, we’re friends. I got along with pretty much everybody because I was just happy to be there. But, Pete and Chris got into it quite a bit. It was just like old times. Me and Dix and Martyn looked at each other and they said, “The only thing that’s different here is that it used to be you and Pete and now it’s Pete and Chris arguing.” Chris, at one point, said, “You can’t use any of my songs. Fuck you guys. You won’t stand up for me against him.” It was the same thing I used to say to them when they wouldn’t stand up for me (laughs). You can be 60-years-old, but when you get in a room with those people who know where your buttons are, and have their own problems, it was real. It was emotionally violent at times.

You’ve been keeping in touch with them over the years? Or was this like sending out the Bat Signal and bringing everybody back together?

BOB FORREST: Pete and I see each other all the time. There’s a gang of like me, Flea, Pete and Anthony, we’ve just always been a gang of four. Me and Anthony are closer and Flea and Pete are closer but we’re all tied together. We go to basketball games, we talk every day. This music school that Pete works at, Flea funded and Anthony’s head of the board, and now we’re doing another music school in another part of L.A. So, we all talk to each other all the time.

And then Chris had moved to France and then to Minnesota and Dix is out in the valley with The Weirdos – The Weirdos tour a lot in the summer time. And then Martyn, he’s like the latest member of Thelonious Monster. I think he joined in like 1990, he’s still not really in the band (laughs). He’s only been in it for 30 years! Martyn and I have kids that go to the same school so I talk to Martyn and I talk to Pete but Chris and Dix I don’t see very much. But when we all got together, it was so nice. And then of all the crazy things, this link to the Chili Peppers. The Chili Peppers were recording two blocks from where we chose to rehearse so they would come by after they were done recording, it was just like it was in 1986. It was crazy.

It would have just been nostalgia and bullshit if we hadn’t written such good songs. I could feel it right away. I don’t know where it comes from – I’m a studier of songwriters and you hear different people talk about it. You hear Bob Dylan talk about it, he talks about writing “Blowing in the Wind” in 20 minutes and I believe it. I’ve had that experience. Paul Westerberg told me one time, I asked him, “What did you write ‘Here Comes the Regular’ about?” and he goes, “I don’t really know. I was always at this bar in Minnesota and I wrote how when the lights go on, everybody becomes a different person.”

How ideas and songs come together – I know the Chili Peppers story. Anthony had always written songs that were about bigger ideas. He’s a great lyricist. He wrote a song called “Green Heaven” on their first album. It’s an amazing political statement and it has one of my favorite lines by any L.A. band ever in history; it says about the nuns in El Salvador being killed and the Iran-Contra`hearings, which is like ancient history and Civil Wars, but, at the time, he wrote, “Isn’t in bitching seeing dead men in ditches?” That the American ideal was that we’re this military/industrial thing and that’s what you do, you just kill people and throw them in ditches. It’s such a great line, he’s always been a great songwriter but he always wrote songs about things that were out there. When they were making BloodSugarSexMagic, they had all these musical songs and he was trying to catch up writing lyrics. I said, “You never write about yourself and what’s really going on inside you. You’re one of the strangest people I know and yet in your songs, you never get to know you.” About three weeks later he played me “Under the Bridge” and goes, “I took your advice and I thought I’d write a song about what I go through.” And it was “Under the fucking Bridge!” The guy is an amazing lyricist.

I’ve always been fascinated by songwriting. I know good songs from bad. I can hear it in the first 40 seconds. There’s just songs, like the White Stripes song, “We’re Going to Be Friends,” Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” there’s magical songs that are written. “God Only Knows,” by Brian Wilson. There’s at least 20 songs by Bob Dylan, one of my favorite is “Everything is Broken.” He foretold, in that song, what America was becoming 20 years before any of us saw it. Songwriting is this focus – I got to be friends with Leonard Cohen and I asked him, because he really labors over songs, “How long did it take you to write ‘Hallelujah’?” And he goes, “My whole life.” So I’ve got to access all these cool songwriters’ takes on songwriting and I realize, you can slop together a bunch of shit just to put a record out, but to write really good songs is hard and magical and mystical. We did it.

There’s like three songs on this record – “Disappear,” “Buy Another Gun,” and “Far Away” – I’ll put them up against anybody. I don’t even know how we wrote them. It was just magical. The “Disappear” idea was, I’m not religious and I’m not sentimentalist, I’m more practical, especially when you’ve been around death as much as me, you just have to come up with a coping mechanism. My idea was, I don’t want to talk about where you go when you die or what happens, I just know that people disappear and eventually all of us disappear. I’m going to disappear. And my kids are going to disappear. I just had this idea that most people are not aware at this point that they will disappear.

I wanted to put up a mirror. It’s obvious I’m going to disappear in the next 15 to 20 years, but so are you, someday, if you’re 20 years old and if you’re wasting your time just staring at your phone and scrolling down, just imagine what it’s going to be like. This is the first generation of kids born with a phone in their hands, they are going to scroll 20 years of their life, their existence on this planet, you should at least climb a tree or brake your wrist or get married and have a kid. Just scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. It’s amazing. I’m not a scroller. I ask people, “What’s in there? What are you thinking is down there?”

Have you ever gotten a good answer?

BOB FORREST: A lot of the kids I work with, they use it as a coping mechanism because they are anxious and depressed and they feel hopeless and helpless and lost. This is on a base level for millennials. How did we create this? I’m the one reassuring them. When Trump got elected, my son and a bunch of kids and then a bunch of clients were saying, “This is the worst thing ever.” I said, “The worst thing that ever happened? What the fuck are you talking about?” I used the 1918 pandemic as an example, that wasn’t a good one. There was this old Louis C.K. bit, “When I was a kid, I was sitting in 3rd grade and they brought a TV in and we watched the President of the United States get on a helicopter and fly away and the night before he said, ‘I quit.’” That was pretty crazy. The Vietnam War. Reagan not allowing AIDS medications. This is NOTHING. Just within my lifetime, let alone the Civil War or the Irish Famine. It just showed how narcissistic and how this time now is the only time that exists and it’s the most important time.

You see it in sports. Like, you hear, “LeBron James is the greatest.” Well, it depends on how you rate the greatest. You say he’s the greatest and that’s a subjective argument but I guess he’s the greatest. But, Michael Jordan changed basketball. He’s 6-0 in the finals. LeBron is 3-8. Without Michael Jordan there is no Kobe Bryant, there is no LeBron James. I asked Magic Johnson who he thought was the greatest of all time and he said, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” LeBron James was not in that conversation. But, if you’re a kid who grew up narcissistic and self-absorbed, and you’re 20-years-old, obviously whoever you watched or you say is the greatest of all time.

Going back to the album, “Sixteen Angels” is the one that really sticks out to me, it seems a bit different than the rest of the album.

BOB FORREST: Chris had that music, it’s kind of haunting. Chris is the one, he wasn’t part of the 2004 record and he wasn’t much a part of Beautiful Mess either. He brought this thing – his favorite bands are the Talking Heads and The Lounge Lizards and obscure Pere Ubu. He comes from Wire, early ’80s, Captain Beefheart, all that kind of weird music. His songs, he played that guitar riff at rehearsal and I was like, “That’s interesting.” And they started doing that jazzy background and I’ve always had this idea of writing a song about this acquaintance of mine who has schizophrenia. It’s not a guy that’s like a friend, he’s just a guy that lived in my neighborhood for years and I saw him all the time and I’d talk to him when he was on his meds and then he was off. He would get arrested and he was homeless. You just couldn’t escape him, at corner of Gower and Franklin, I lived in Beachwood Canyon in Los Angeles. Any time you leave home, you have to drive past this intersection and he was always there, begging for money, pounding on car hoods, sometimes naked, sometimes relatively okay. I would talk to him, his place was next to my dry cleaners. I would see him and I have a mental health and addiction background and I struck up an acquaintance with him when he was sane. I would see him running naked through the street and the cops would be chasing after him and I’d say, “You should get him to Olive View,” which is a psych hospital, instead of taking him to LA County Jail. They knew me and they knew I was an addiction person, so this went on for years. And then he stabbed the girl from CSI. He’s the person in the song – some of the things he said to me, some of the things that I’ve been told by elders through the years about the homeless and the mentally ill.

“You’ll never forget that they have a mother who loves them,” is this what this guy, Tomata du Plenty, the singer of The Screamers, used to say about homeless people. To have compassion, but, it is a little scary if they are coming at you with a knife or if they’re screaming at you or pounding on your car hood. It’s this thing that we live with in Los Angeles. So when I heard that music, I was just trying to be inside this guy’s mind, of all the things that I know about the homeless plight. One of the things he had said was, “People just look right through me.” You don’t even see homeless people, you just act like you don’t see them and that’s what agitates them if they suffer from schizophrenia or they have stimulant addiction. That’s why they pound on your hood or bang on your window as you’re waiting at a stop light.

I worked on it that day and that night I came up with a lot of the lyrics. The next day we rehearsed it and I was singing it and those guys could feel what it was about it, that this was from the perspective of the schizophrenic, drug addict, homeless person on the streets of L.A. At the end, I’m trying to mimic what I would see him do, he would just scream and howl and yell at cars. There was no calming him down. A lot of times I was scared of him. I would see him and he’d be screaming at cars and run around really manic and I would just keep going on Franklin and pick up my dry cleaning. How sad that is, we allow that in the wealthiest nation in the history of civilization?

Is there any lyric on the new album that you’re particularly proud of?

BOB FORREST: There are some that are uniquely me. Like, talking about yourself in the third person. Lou Reed is probably one of my favorite songwriters. He has this thing where he throws in very common sensical talk language into a song, “Walk on the Wild Side” is probably the most emblematic of that. There’s one thing where, I didn’t even mean it to be a lyric, I was trying to come up with what I was going to do in reaction to how insane America is and I want to get out of here and then somehow during a rehearsal I was like, “I’m going to make some dough and run off to Spain.” I didn’t really ever consciously write that down and everybody liked it and was like, “That’s what everybody wants to do.” The question is, can you make dough and will you make it to Spain? I’ve never been to Spain, I don’t really know that much about Spain. I think we probably played there but I don’t remember. But my favorite country in Europe is Holland so I changed the lyric to Holland but it doesn’t sound the same so it ended up Spain. It came off the top of my head. It has this reference to the “Ballad of John and Yoko,” where he’s naming all the places they went to try to get married. I wanted it to have that kind of tossed off line, “Just run off to Spain”.

By writing and recording a new album, do you think this is a new era of Thelonious Monster and like you’ve started a new chapter and you’re ready to write a new record every year for the next couple of years?

BOB FORREST: I think I will. I’m not sure how far Pete wants to go or if Chris wants to do it. Covid certainly affects it. I like being open and honest. I was the right person at the right time when this drug epidemic hit. I’ve done pretty well and am pretty comfortable. Money doesn’t really matter to me. I live very comfortably, I get to stay at home a lot with my kids, but there’s something missing. I’m comfortable so now I want to play music until I die. I bought an RV and I’m going to take my kids on the road as soon as this Covid shit is over! (laughs)

I did want to ask this before we hang up, I am paraphrasing but I read that you said something like, “Being friends with Sammy Hagar means I’ve had to sit through Chickenfoot a few times live.”

BOB FORREST: That’s true. (laughs) But he does do Montrose songs. I had a weird experience. He was wearing a white outfit right before the concert and he was drinking some red wine. I came in the room and he came to hug me and I knocked the wine all over his white outfit. He had to go change. He was so nice about it. So, Sammy Hagar is one of my all-time heroes. Everybody has one. Flea has Jaco Pastorius, I have Sammy Hagar. I had written this song in homage to him, how much I loved him. I loved Montrose, I loved his first four solo records and I’d seen him play dozens of times. I was writing this song about me and my friends being at a concert, at a festival, I guess for modern kids it would be like writing a song about what it’s like going to Coachella. That’s what “Sammy Hagar Weekend” is.

He heard it and thought it was making fun of him. For years, he didn’t want anything to do with it. The Van Halen guys were kind of acquaintances of mine and so when he joined Van Halen and was acting like a rock star or they didn’t like him, I guess he’s not the easiest guy to be in a band with, if you think about it. Montrose didn’t last long, Van Halen didn’t last long. He’s probably difficult. They would play “Sammy Hagar Weekend” when he was being an asshole. So then he doubley, tripley, quadrupely hates it.

So then, all of a sudden Chad (Smith) gets in a band with him and he says, “You know, I’m friends with the guy who wrote ‘Sammy Hagar Weekend’.” I guess the guy is haunted by this song. Chad said, “He loves every one of your songs. He can sing every one of your songs. He loves ‘Rock and Roll Weekend,’ ‘Red,’ ’9 on a 10 Scale’.” He tells him I’m a real Sammy Hagar lover and devotee. And Sammy Hagar is like, “Really? The song is making fun of me.” Chad says, “The song is not making fun of you. Listen to it again and listen to it like he’s not making fun of you. He’s saying it’s a Sammy Hagar weekend, you’re his favorite artist, he’s coming to see you at Anaheim Stadium.”

It was the media, the rock critics, that said it was cynical, a cleaver way of being stupid and young and liking bad music. That’s not how I feel about it. I’ll put Montrose on right now! I’ll put it up against anything. Sammy was like, “Oh my God, I want to meet the guy then.” And that’s when it began this thing. The first time, Chad said, “You’ve got to come, Chickenfoot is playing this thing” and I said, “Are you sure? Because I heard he’s going to punch me if he ever sees me.” I think he actually said that, that if he ever saw the guy that sang “Sammy Hagar Weekend,” he was going to punch him in the face. So I’ve always been kind of scared. I walk in, I’m so scared, to the dressing room and he looks at me and started singing “Sammy Hagar Weekend.” It was the coolest thing ever, one of the greatest moments of my life.

But, yeah, it’s been an interesting journey. Pete has always hated the song. It really was to fill out Stormy Weather. We had all these serious songs but we were short songs. We were getting more and more into drugs and some of the songs we had didn’t work very well. Pete, in the recording studio, said, “Bob has that Sammy Hagar song. Maybe putting a funny song on the record would be good.” So we recorded it that hour that Pete said that, it was kind of this filler, and it’s the only song that ever got played on the radio by Thelonious Monster. It’s the song that we’re known for, it’s the song that people call out for and Pete just hates it. For all our prime, from ’85 to ’93, it was never on the setlist. Pete never wanted to play it. You knew that eventually we’d have to play that song. Now, he’s more at peace with it.

I have a bunch of friends who are journalists, and one of them told me 10 years ago that “we have everybody’s obituaries written. We have Sinead O’Connor’s, we have Anthony Kiedis’s, we have Dave Navarro’s, we have Perry Farrell’s.” I said, “Do you have mine?” and he said, “Yeah, do you want to read it?” I said, “I don’t think I do.” And then I said, “Is Sammy Hagar mentioned in it?” and he said “Of course Sammy Hagar is in it.” (laughs) Depending on what news day it is, if it’s a slow news day and I get the main obituary, Sammy Hagar is going to be in my obituary.

I do have my autographed copy of Beautiful Mess sitting here. On it, in response to me buying you a copy of Stormy Weather on CD, you wrote: “This is my favorite spot on Earth, Echo Park Lake. And I love you because you bought me my own music.”

BOB FORREST: That’s cool. You know why I love that lake? My mom was 15 years old when she gave birth to me. She was 14 when she got pregnant. She was at this thing, close to Echo Park Lake, called St. Ann’s for Unwed Mothers. Her parents used to come and take her – it was only a few blocks from Echo Park Lake – and they’d take her to Echo Park Lake and walk around on Sunday with her. When she told me that, I had always been connected to Echo Park Lake and then I knew why. I was walking around Echo Park Lake in my mother’s belly. How crazy is that?

If you want a full circle, I was involved in a transcendental meditation program and Jason, the guy who was running it at the time, called me and said, “We’re doing this event. L.A. Unified School has given us a school to practice TM at. Would you come down and do it?” and I said “Sure.” He said, “Donovan is coming and a bunch of people,” and I said “Okay.” I had this weird feeling and all of a sudden I realized that it’s a high school for pregnant girls. And I talked to the principal and I asked, “Is this where girls from St. Ann’s home came for school?” and she said, “Yeah.” And I got to tell my story there and play music for the girls there and talk about my mom. It was just so beautiful that it even made Donovan cry.

Want to know the greatest Donovan song? Everybody will say “Cosmic Wheels” or whatever. He had a song called, when I was a kid, and I told him this and he said, “I love that you love that,” it was called “The Intergalactic Laxative.” Donovan is a trip. So many great musicians I’ve gotten to know, befriend, watch and see. Music is a magical thing and I think people have forgotten how magical it is.