James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis: An Interview
In the wake of their brilliant music/storytelling mash up Aaron/Marie at Under the Radar, I got to catch up with James and Jerome to talk a bit about process at Café Reggio on Washington Square Park South.
JAMES: I don’t think I’ve ever spent time with the ceiling here. Or this one bad light. I’ve never noticed this light, which belongs in a coffee house out of friends.
RYANN: This Christmas light I like a lot.
JEROME: Very strong.
JAMES: The place I spent a lot of time at in Spain was a weird twin of this. A little less kitschy. And more…I dunno. It was in a better neighborhood.
RYANN: I loved the Spanish parts [of Aaron Marie].
JAMES: Oh, the part in Lisbon?
RYANN: But were you speaking Spanish?
JAMES: I was speaking Spanish and Jerome was speaking Portuguese. Interestingly, that entire section in Lisbon we wrote in Spanish and Portuguese first and then translated back into English because at the time Jerome’s girlfriend was staying with him and I had a hard time improvising-
RYANN: You were nervous?
JAMES: Just knowing someone is in the next room listening. It made me want it to be good coming out.
RYANN: So you can understand Portuguese?
JAMES: Jerome’s yea. It’s slow. I mean slower than a Portuguese person. It’s still very good. And he can understand my Spanish. So we just started improvising for hours. Which is why I think it feels more frantic and simple. There’s a lot of stop and start in that section which probably comes from moments when we stopped recording because we forgot the words.
JEROME: I’m glad that we found that way of working. It’s similar to another thing James and I do sometimes which is turn off the lights.
JAMES: When it’s just not working.
JAMES: I used to do that when I was in a band in high school when we practiced. It just puts you in another place. You’re not judging yourself as much.
RYANN: I forget- do you write it? Like do you physically write your shows or do you improvise?
JAMES: We improvise and then we write it down. I think this show way more than other things we’ve done, where the sentences are matters a lot. A lot of the process of rehearsal with Annie [Tippe] and Rachel [Chavkin] was figuring that out. Like the Benjamin section. Because it’s basically just a list of ideas he has and thoughts he has and it could happen basically in any order but anytime I changed it, it didn’t work.
RYANN: So do you guys just have a million audio files?
JAMES: I would guess there are seriously like a thousand hours.
JEROME. And that’s how I write my music too.
RYANN: You know…I love that dead sea scroll part. I think that’s one of my favorite parts. Because the person knew that what they were about to do could be a really bad thing but they were too curious not to do it. And how that relates to the moment- well both moments of Aaron in the kitchen. Aaron writing naked in the kitchen and Aaron seeing Marie naked in the kitchen- it’s the thing of…this could be really weird or bad but what am I going to not do it? Oh and I love this end part too. So they’re brothers?
JAMES: That’s the idea.
JEROME: I wrote that piece- I wrote “my brother”- because I was thinking about my brother.
RYANN: Huh. So it stayed and the two of you kind of became brothers?
The brothers sort of nod and sip their tea.