Born to be a Player
By Willie G. Moseley - Vintage Guitar Magazine Dec. '01 Issue
The biting snarl of Michael Monarch’s Fender Esquire was one of the trademark sounds of Steppenwolf’s earliest material in the late 1960s. Monarch was only 17 when he joined a latter-day incarnation of Sparrow, Steppenwolf’s precursor, and his no-frills riffing is heard on the anthems “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” among other tunes. The guitarist was the second original member to leave the band, but he never gave up on his musical aspirations. Over the decades, Monarch played with other notable musicians, and since the mid 1990s, has been ensconced in an all-star aggregation named the World Classic Rockers, which includes another ex-Steppenwolf member, Nick St. Nicholas, as well as guitarists Denny Laine (VG, March ’97) and Spencer Davis (June ’96). In an recent one-on-one with Monarch, we elicited the perspective of a guitarist who was propelled into international stardom at an age when most guitarists his age were probably playing Harmonys, Kays, etc. in garage bands.
Vintage Guitar: You came to public notice at a very early age...
Michael Monarch: I was born in the downtown area of Los Angeles; my family moved West over time until we ended up near Calabasas in southern California. I took piano lessons from about age seven to 13. I switched to drums for about a year and a half, then to guitar around age 15. I played in some local bands – I can’t remember the names – and started hanging out on Sunset Strip in the mid ’60s.
It was pretty wild. There were a lot of clubs from Vine Street to Doheny; maybe 20. It was at a club called the Galaxy, next to the Whiskey a Go Go, that I first saw a band called Sparrow, three members of which I would later join to form Steppenwolf.
I would say Jeff Beck and Hendrix, early on. I loved the Yardbirds. I added Danny Gatton and Albert Lee to my favorites later on, and Eric Johnson and Junior Brown as well. There are so many great guitarists, but I like the mixture of technique, gutsy attitude, and off-the-wall licks that all of the guys I mentioned have.
Was the Fender Esquire your first instrument?
My first guitar was a semi-acoustic Guild; next was a Mosrite solidbody. I think I wanted the Mosrite because Danny Weiss, the original guitarist for Iron Butterfly, had one, and he was my favorite local guitarist. Next, I got a Fender Esquire. It was one of the earliest ones, maybe a ’52. I used that guitar on the first Steppenwolf album. I replaced it with a Fender Strat that had an Esquire neck, and I kept that guitar for a long time. I now have a custom Fender Strat, and I still use a Tele neck on it. I also have a custom Telecaster which I use on and off, mainly for recording; I really like that guitar. Billy Asher of Guitar Traditions, in Santa Monica, helped me set it up, and he made a custom neck for it.
How did you get involved with Sparrow?
Sparrow had three Canadians and two German immigrants – John Kay and Nick St. Nicholas. I met Nick first, and he introduced me to the rest of the band. They were staying at the Tropicana, which was an infamous motel near the Strip. Sparrow started in Canada, signed with a Canadian label, and had one album. They moved to Los Angeles, and were playing there and in San Francisco. Actually, when I met them, they were in the process of breaking up. Nick was going to form his own band, and Dennis, the guitarist, wanted to write more commercial songs; he seemed to be going off in another direction from the rest of the band. That left John, Goldy, the keyboard player, and Jerry, the drummer, without a guitarist or bassist. I joined them, along with bassist Rushton Moreve, and we played for a short time as Sparrow.
The early days of the band were pretty bleak, including the gear you used...
I think I had one stomp pedal – a gray box with a red button and “Distorto” written across the top. It just made distorted sounds, and was very uncontrollable. We used to rehearse in John’s garage in Hollywood. We’d stand around an oil trap with all the amps, drums, and Goldy’s Lowery organ all pointing in at us. This was in the middle of summer, so it was just a little warm in there! I guess it was worth it; John’s neighbor, Gabriel Mekler, heard the band rehearsing and happened to be a producer. He got us signed to Dunhill Records.
Did you use anything besides the Esquire on the first album? “Born To Be Wild” and “The Pusher” have some interesting tones.
I used the Esquire on the whole album. On those songs, it went through a Fender Concert amp; volume way up. We recorded onto a Scully eight-track, through a custom board with A.P.I. EQ, along with other assorted vintage gear. It took about a week to record at American Studios in Studio City.
“The Pusher” was written by Hoyt Axton, and had the phrase “God damn the pusher man.” While that’s relatively tame by today’s standards, weren’t there some concerts that authorities shut down because of that tune?
Yes, that song was actually an anti-drug song, but because it started off with “I smoke a lot of grass and pop a lot of pills,” then went on to say “God damn,” I guess it rubbed some people the wrong way.
Didn’t the band have an endorsement deal – or at least a special relationship with Rickenbacker?
For a while we did use Rickenbacker amps, and John used one of their guitars. I went to their factory and picked out a strange-looking guitar I used in some publicity photos, and in a video. I also got a pedal steel, but never really learned to play it well.
Nick St. Nicholas joined the band prior to your departure.
After the second album, we were touring in the Midwest, when Rushton heard a prediction that California was going to slip into the ocean. We were going to play on the West Coast, but he decided not to come back, so we had to get a new bass player, and we asked Nick to join.
The guitars in the intro and instrumental break of “Magic Carpet Ride” also have a unique sound.
The intro was just me beating up on my guitar with the amp turned up. I did it twice, and they used both tracks. It’s very explosive-sounding, but it’s just a guitar. The instrumental section was John and me, trading back and forth. He was playing slide, and I was doing single-note volume swells. His slide playing was pretty nice back then.
You participated in the making of VH-1’s “Behind the Music” episode. How do you think it turned out?
I thought it turned out okay. It focused a lot on John’s point of view, but after all, he was the lead singer. I thought John went off the deep end about his feud with Nick; I didn’t think that was too cool. That band had a lot of success, but it all came from the first few albums; the original lineup. I don’t think John should get all the credit for our popularity.
What’s your perspective on why you left the band?
I was the youngest in the band, and at first I was just happy to be playing. As time went on, I wanted to express myself more creatively, but it was difficult. There were a lot of egos, and when push came to shove, it was, “Either he goes or I go.” Let’s not forget that this was 1969 and ’70; everyone was going through changes.
Talk about your subsequent musical ventures.
After Steppenwolf, I worked on building a studio in my house. I had a lot of musician friends coming over to play; some of the guys from Little Feat came by a few times. I was also thinking of starting a new band. I ended up selling the house and moving to England in ’73, and I started a band there backed by the Robert Stigwood Organization. The drummer was Herman Rarebell, who later went on to play in the Scorpions.
I met Roger Glover from Deep Purple, and worked with him on projects he was producing, the idea being that we would form a band. That got put on hold when he got sick, so I came to America, where I met Michael Des Barres. We put together a band called Detective, with Tony Kaye from Yes on keyboards, and got signed to Swan Song. We released two albums in the late ’70s. When that band broke up, I met Andy Fraser from Free, and started working with him. He’s a great songwriter and singer, and it was a good experience for me to see how he approached writing. Next came my own band, called Monarch; just local gigs.
Then something strange happened; I was messing around with country music, and went to a club to hang out. They were teaching a line dance class, and hardly anyone was around, so I got up and learned it. To make a long story short, I learned the partner dances, and started competing and winning. Country dancing led to swing and Latin dancing. In 1998, my partner and I won the Southern California Swing Dance Championship, came in second at the state championship, and seventh at the U.S. Open, which attracts competitors from all over the world. Who says musicians can’t dance?
Songs like “Born To Be Wild” appeared in movies, beginning with Easy Rider. But did you ever do any recording specifically for movies?
A lot of songs I played on or wrote are in movies and TV – the Steppenwolf stuff, of course, and Detective had a couple of songs I wrote that were on “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I’ve also done some work for independent movies; things like The Girlfriend from Hell. Not a major release, but a cult favorite.
What about the rest of your current gear?
For amps, I use Marshalls live. I usually have a delay pedal on for slap, and a graphic EQ for boost. Right now all of my guitars have EMG pickups, which are great for recording – no buzz or hum. Recording amps can be anything from a Marshall to a vintage blackface Fender Princeton to Line 6 Amp Farm.
How did the World Classic Rockers get going?
The original lineup was Nick, Denny Laine, Randy Meisner, Bobby Kimball, and me. On drums, we’ve had Carmine Appice from the Vanilla Fudge, Bruce Gary of the Knack, and now, Ron Wisko, who played with Foreigner in the ’80s. Spencer Davis is part of the band, too.
There’s a big market for this band in the corporate world. We started it in ’96, and it’s still going strong; we play great venues all over the world. We played in Monte Carlo, the Bahamas, Bermuda, South Africa, Ireland, and all over the U.S. and Canada. We play Hawaii often. We also do the fair circuit, but corporate shows more.
We play the hits everyone in the band has been involved with. The Steppenwolf hits, one or two from Foreigner. Randy does “Take It To The Limit,” “Already Gone” and “Take It Easy” from his days in the Eagles, Fergie Fredriksen from Toto does “Rosanna,” “Hold The Line” and “Africa,” Spencer does “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m A Man” and Denny – who was the original lead singer of the Moody Blues, does “Go Now” and songs from his days in Wings. It’s a great show, with a lot of history behind the musicians. No N’Sync or Britney Spears, but you can’t have everything!
Your primary Tele-style guitar has a vibrato with a wide, flat arm...
It has EMG humbuckers with a split-tap on the lead pickup, and that’s a Kahler tremolo bar. I customized the bar for a better feel by enlarging it with heat shrink tubing. I really like the Kahler; it has a very responsive touch – better than the Floyds or stock Fenders, especially for small inflections or nuances. The Floyds are really better for dive bomb effects.
What other instruments do you own?
I have a G&L bass and a Guild acoustic. At one point, I had a large guitar collection, including a Gibson Flying V and Les Pauls, but over the years I’ve just kept the ones I really like to play.
Let’s talk about your new album, Guitar Bazaar. Why’d you opt for an instrumental release? Had you heard any of the IRS “Nospeak” albums in the late ’80s?
I opted for an instrumental CD because my singing sucks! It really started as just some fun in my studio; a collection of eclectic instrumentals from balls-to-the-wall rock to modern funky R&B, with elements of jazz and Latin mixed in, and plenty of “ear candy.” It’s gotten some really good reviews. I don’t think I’ve heard any of the Nospeak series, but I remember reading about it.
How much of the album is “machinery?” Some songs sound like they have musicians; some sound like certain parts are processed.
The CD was recorded in my studio. I played everything, including bass, keys, and drums. For bass, I used a Peavey and my G&L, along with synth or sampled basses from my main keyboard – a Kurzweil 2500 SX. The drums were all played on a drum pad set, triggering samples. There are very few loops on the CD – some percussion – but every drum, bass, horn, or keyboard part was played.
My favorite tracks are “Latin Manhattan” and “Bits & Pieces.” “Bahama Mama” is named after a drink served in – that’s right – the Bahamas! “Toastin’ Jam” is an instrumental I used to play in my own band, Monarch.
What about your other recent recording project, It Feels So Real?
Yeah, well, it started out a songwriting project, mainly pop/R&B songs. I was working with the same singer on most of my recordings, and when I found that there was enough good-sounding stuff finished, I decided to call it an album. The music on that CD is quite different from what you might expect from me, it’s more keyboard-oriented, with a guitar here and there. I played and/or programmed all of the instruments with the exception of the horns, which were played by Rick Arbuckle. Julie Griffen is the singer.
How long do you envision World Classic Rockers continuing?
Well, when it’s not fun anymore, or the gigs run out that’d be a good time to quit, but it’s actually good fun playing with this group of musicians. We span the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; we’ve become good friends, and there’s a lot of talent left in those old bones!
Michael Monarch has been at the pinnacle of guitar stardom with his playing on Steppenwolf’s early rock anthems, and has continued to hone his craft. He’s still staying active as a member of the World Classic Rockers, and his own recent recordings show that he’s still sincere about continuing to improve his abilities as a professional musician.
For more, see Monarch’s website at michaelmonarch.com.
This article originally appeared in VG’s Dec. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.