The Visions of Matt Mondanile and the Passion of Ducktails’ “St. Catherine”
The Real Estate guitarist opens up about his recording process, his latest solo album, and why he’s always got to keep moving.
At least it’s not humid. The light reflecting off the Getty Center’s marble walls has made the gardens as bright and hot as a welding torch, but there’s a reprieve from what has been a freakishly humid summer in the typically “it’s a dry heat” City of Angels. Matthew Mondanile wants to sit at a table right out in the sun. It’s a fine choice, but he’s not fully prepared for the consequences. “I just wish I had my sunglasses,” he says as his face twists up into an reflexive squint. “I lost them or, really, I don’t know where I left them.” There are no spare shades in my bag. He doesn’t want to move. “This is totally fine,” he continues with his eyes closed. “I like getting some sun.”
That commitment to his ideas, regardless of how big or small they may be, is essential to Mondanile, the man behind Real Estate’s ethereal guitar riffs. When he’s not too busy with that quintet, he’s tinkering away on his own material under the name Ducktails. While the name was just a quick idea that stuck when he was trying to put out his first cassette tape years back, putting together his newest LP St. Catherine commanded all of his attention.
“It took a long time [to finish the album] because I was doing it all by myself and I was traveling a lot with Real Estate. I was trying to write and record things in between tour dates,” recalls Mondanile. “The process was cool, though, because it was me just sitting and listening to this stuff and not really having anyone else hear it. I would listen to [the songs] over and over and over again, which I really like to do.”
That meticulous work ethic helped spur Mondanile on to create the effortless flow of rich layers and thoughtful phrasing of St. Catherine’s eleven tracks. At its base, St. Catherine is the story of Mondanile’s on-again-off-again relationship with fellow musician Julia Holter, who appears a couple of times on the album, including on the stunning “Heaven’s Room.” The linear—and very personal—structure is a new frontier for the artist, whose early releases were built around experimental sonic collages. As with every other aspect of a Ducktails album, that structural shift didn’t just come out of nowhere but was a willful decision by Mondanile himself: “I wanted it to be simple and clear and easy to understand.”
Instrumental opener “The Disney Afternoon” immerses the listener in Mondanile’s warm, idyllic sonic memories of visiting Holter in Los Angeles—where he now lives permanently—as their relationship bloomed. The dreaminess is dynamic.
As St. Catherine rolls on, Mondanile’s self-described “album language theme” adds depth and color—specifically the “melancholic blueish green” wash (as he calls it) of the LP sleeve—to his story of love and loss. Raised as a Catholic in New Jersey, the artist’s nostalgic appreciation for the art and stories of the faith seeped its way into his creative process for this album: “I think that [religion] is a great language to use as metaphor—like heaven and hell for example—and I tried to use religious imagery to explain the [intended sound] of the record. It’s like if you were walking around here, through the botanical garden or the museum, and you wanted to have that be the sound of the record. You use metaphors to explain that. I thought it would be cool to try and have a [religious] language theme running throughout the record as a guide through the sound of the album and the lyrics. So, here, to explain romance and love—specifically falling in love—I thought that felt like an angel taking you up to heaven. I just thought that was cool.”
“I wanted it to be simple and clear and easy to understand.”
Mondanile is open about the heartache that spurred him to create St. Catherine, but he’s not afraid to hear or perform these very personal songs. Or, at least he’s pretty sure that he’s not. “I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately,” says Mondanile after a long pause. “Because sometimes you get embarrassed or shy when you’re singing certain lyrics, but I feel like a lot of music is really personal and really sad, so it’s fine.” There’s conviction in the way that he ends that sentence, but he wavers slightly as he thinks again about his stance on living with St. Catherine out in the world. “No one really hears what you’re singing and takes it personally like you would anyway, so I think that it’s OK.”
It’s easier for Mondanile to make peace with the multiple layers of sensitive information that come alive each time St. Catherine is played once he admits that he’s kind of already over the LP. “I’m happy that it’s out and it’s done. I got it, I finished another one, and now it’s time to work on the next one,” he says. “I get tired and bored of things fast, so even now, I’m bored of [the songs] because I’ve heard them for so long. And it just came out! So now I have to try to make it interesting or something.”
After completing a goal as massive as pushing a breakup album out into the world with grace, it shouldn’t be hard for Mondanile to reinvent St. Catherine on a nightly basis for himself and his fans. Either way, he’s got a couple of hours to figure it out before he hits the stage here. Hopefully the heat will die down by that point, but even if it hasn’t, the crowd will be cooled by Mondanile’s own deliberate sonic shade of melancholic aquamarine. FL