by: Thomas D. Mooney
The River Monks, a five-piece folk outfit from Des Moines, Iowa, are playing Bar PM tonight (March 20). They’re currently a few weeks in on a tour with a few more to go. They’ve been in town a few days and we caught up with lead vocalist Ryan M. Stier outside a recent house show they were playing.
New Slang: First off, you guys are from Iowa. How do you think that’s had an influence on your music?
Ryan M. Stier: I think quite a bit. The music scene, when we started making music, was still very young there. There were a couple of really rad bands. Like The Envy Corps, they toured around with The Killers around in Europe, so they definitely have made a name for themselves. And The Poison Control Center is a band that has just toured relentlessly. But style wise really, we started making our music and then all of a sudden it seemed like a whole bunch of folk artists kind of exploded on the scene. It was awesome because it was the perfect timing for us since we were able to play a lot of shows with those bands and build up a great folk scene in Iowa. And of course, we write a lot about our families, and friends, and our loved ones. That kind of thing. We have this one song about the first day of spring in Iowa, which is just this awesome day because winters in Iowa are just so brutal. The first day of spring, it just seems like everything wakes up. I think our state has a lot of influence on us. Our name is The River Monks. Des Moines means the monks in French. The story goes that these monks used to trap fish on this river which is now known as The Des Moines River. And these French folks came by and observed these monks and named that river La Rivière des Moines and the city that eventually formed around it became Des Moines. We’re pretty proud to be from Iowa. It’s not a huge scene, but it’s pretty great for what it is.
NS: You guys are obviously playing folk music, but I hear a subtle twee-pop influence in there as well. Like Belle & Sebastian, The Polyphonic Spree thing here and there too. Has that been an influence or anything?
RS: Oh yeah. We definitely take from several different genres of music and artists. We all listen to a varied mix. We’ve been listening to a lot of Blitzen Trapper lately. I think our newer stuff is in a different direction. I mean, you’re going to tell it’s the same band from our first album to our second album. But it’s definitely moving in a direction. It’s a little bit heavier here and there. We want to kind of bring the energy up a little bit. But yeah, we definitely listen to Belle & Sebastian. We always get compared to Fleet Foxes. Mumford & Sons. That kind of thing. Those are bands that we obviously listen to and that’s the scene we’re most often pooled with.
NS: There’s a lot of simple, “small” sounds that you guys create. And you guys have a lot of instruments up there that you guys will pass around (banjo, accordion, trumpet, ukulele, etc). It seems like a lot of the songs have these small elements in them that eventually build into something bigger. Like on one song, Joel (the drummer) had this bag that he was just lifting and letting it fall on his knee.
RS: Yeah. I think the bag is like filled with little sleigh bells and buckeyes. Like the nuts or whatever. We like to experiment a lot. Our first album was definitely experimentation. We kind of wrote it as we recorded. A lot of times, it was just like “can we pull this off live?” We weren’t really sure. Eventually we just kept working at it and it worked out that way. But yeah, we definitely don’t pigeonhole ourselves in as being two guitars, a bass, and drums. We like to experiment with seeing how much we can do at the same time. Music should be fun. And we have a lot of fun.
NS: A big part of The River Monks puzzle piece is the harmonies. How did you guys decide you were going to do five-piece harmonies?
RS: It definitely kind of evolved into five-part harmony. We started off a lot more simple I think. A big influence on us from the beginning is this band called Good Old War, a band from Philadelphia I believe. They’re a three-piece band but they have a really nice three-part harmony. In the beginning I think we just thought “yeah, let’s try this out. It’s a nice sound. We’ve got three voices–we started off as a three-piece band. Let’s just go with it.” Then we added a bass player so we started doing the four-part. And then Mallory, our fifth member. This is her first tour with us. Just kind of threw her in there in there as well. So yeah.
NS: Another important element in the songs it seems is silence. There’s often part where there’s more silence than music. Why is that an important element for you guys?
RS: Yeah. I think it’s because–that’s an interesting question…I think sound and silence are both equally important parts of music. If you have a lot of sound all the time, it just becomes noise. But if you add silence or really soft parts to a song and then all of a sudden, all the instruments come back in, it makes things more interesting and can bring certain parts out. It’s not like in the beginning, we’re like “let’s have a bunch of silence here” or anything but it ended up happening as we were writing these songs. We’ve definitely learned that it’s an important part of music.