If you’ve ever read a comic book, particularly one drawn by Jack Kirby, then you already know how the story arc goes. The likeable stooge accidentally tumbles into a vat of some groovy-but-deadly chemical. Let’s say acid this time, because it works perfectly for our tawdry tale. Sparks fly, lightning flashes, and Mr. Nobody turns into Captain Awesome.
He gets a really bitchin’ outfit, some muscles, and a sexy moustache. Chicks dig him, dudes want to be him, and sinister forces – usually agents of some cloak and dagger government agency or faceless corporation – try and bring him down. He recruits allies, forms a crack squad of super-dudes, and they conquer all enemies, saving the day with grace and ease. And then… well, then the hero faces his biggest foe, ever: himself. And that fragile Achilles’ heel bleeds crimson ink all over the pages. So it was with our hero of the day, Monster Magnet engine-beast Dave Wyndorf.
After the success of Magnet’s 2004 mind-blaster Monolithic Baby, an album and subsequent never-ending tour that threatened to drain the Earth’s resources of porn stars, sweat and over-amplification, the band finally stopped plundering long enough to get back into the studio in early 2006 to record the all-important follow-up. And then, in late February, something quite shocking happened. Magnet mainman Wyndorf, who had been publicly sober for a decade, overdosed on prescription medication. For the first time in over 15 years, the great and terrible Monster Magnet ground to a very sudden halt.
“Dude, that was fuckin’ crazy. Holy shit.”
Again, you’ve read the comic books. You know the hero makes the resurrection at the last minute. But even though this story has a happy ending, it still gets pretty dark in spots.
“I fell into a horrible habit of taking sleeping pills when we were out on the road. I swore it would never happen to me. I haven’t even gotten high for years. I’m not a party guy, I don’t drink, all I do is work. Work, and live my life. But I was touring so goddamn much, and going back and forth to different parts of the world, that I just went to my doctor and I was like, ‘I want something that’s gonna put me down like a wild animal’. I just couldn’t sleep. My voice would go out, and I’d feel tired. And I was just like, ‘I wanna fuckin’ sleep, man’.”
Dave Wyndorf takes another long drag from his cigarette, a rather minor vice in the realm of the drug-rock king. Besides this small infraction, he’s once again drug-free, has been for a year. He beat those demons soundly. He went and finished that record, too. It’s a triumphant war-whelp called 4-Way Diablo, and he couldn’t be more proud of it. But first, there was the bad trouble.
“So this doctor says, ‘Okay, welcome to the world of Benzodiazepines’,” he continues. “If they think you know what you’re doing, they will give you enough drugs to kill yourself. Guess what? I knew what I was doing. It was dangerous, but I knew I could handle it, and I did, for a good two years. But eventually they caught up with me. I just went from taking the medication as prescribed to taking it more and more. The next thing you know, I’m stuck. Stuck in this horrible situation. So instead of asking for help, I’m like, ‘No, I can do it myself, it’ll be cool’. But it’s not cool, it’s worse than fuckin’ heroin, this shit. It’s like taking half a bottle of Xanax every pill. It was horrible.”
As the band continued on with business as usual, Wyndorf’s addiction quietly escalated. He attempted to kick cold turkey, but his efforts were futile. Recording of the album halted while he struggled to get a grip on his problem. Meanwhile, his bandmates were left in the dark.
“They didn’t even know, really, what was wrong,” he says. “They knew something was wrong, I mean, I lost a lot of weight and looked terrible, but I just tried to get off them again without telling anybody, and I just couldn’t. I mean, it’s just like the movies. I never had trouble kicking anything before, so we book a tour. I start taking the pills more and more. At this point I’m taking enough pills to tranquilise a goddamn volcano, but I’m only sleeping two hours, if that. So I took a bunch, went to sleep for a while, woke up a couple hours later not knowing what was going on except that I wanted more pills, and I took a whole bottle. Like, 100 pills. And then… well, I ended up in the hospital. That was the grand finale. It was really embarrassing. I think that was my biggest problem with it. It was like, you should have your shit more together than this, dude.”
Despite the drug’s potential soul-sucking properties, at this point in the story you may be thinking that a prescription sleeping-pill addiction seems a little anti-climactic for the singer of a band whose first demo from 1989 was titled Forget About Life, I’m High On Dope. But despite an infamous adolescence as a self-proclaimed ‘drug athlete’ and low-rent weed dealer, Wyndorf claims that the band’s image of chemical excess is the result of a life-long pop-culture obsession, rather than the documentation of a seedy lifestyle.
“I’d already given up drugs by the time we formed Monster Magnet,” he tells me. “That’s the funny thing about all of this. I’d had my time with them and it was just like, enough already. Someone was just asking me, ‘How can you promote Satanism and drug abuse, but you don’t do any drugs?’. To me, it was just the height of hilarity. I thought it was really funny, all the drug stuff. But then again, you have to look at the times. It was 85 or 86 when we started it, and I just thought of it as punk rock. All the people in the old saloons around here were old punk rockers and it pissed them off to no end. I just grew my hair as long as I could and grew a beard, and was like, ‘Yeah, Satan! Fuck you!’. I never thought that anybody would ever be into it, so I didn’t think this was any way to be, it was just like a weird project for me that turned into reality.”
So just how did this ‘weird project’ start? Well, like many weird things, it started in New Jersey in the mid 1980s. The sleepy suburban town of Redbank, to be exact. Wyndorf’s druggy teen years were spent as the lead-screamer for a glam-punk band called Shrapnel, who wore army fatigues and sang songs about getting blown up in ’Nam. He’d been out of the band for several years and was working at a comic-book store when he got his first guitar.
“So it’s 1985. I’ve got the guitar, and then I bought a Tascam four-track, and totally went berserk with one-finger fuzz leads. That was good enough for me. I had a microphone, one string and a fuzz box, and I thought, ‘This is fucking awesome, look what I can do!’. So, I started writing songs.”
Meanwhile, two local record store clerk friends of Wyndorf’s, drummer/vocalist Tim Cronin and guitarist John McBain, were jamming together in an experimental noise-rock band called Dog Of Mystery. And soon, worlds collided.
“I started bringing my stuff to those guys, and we started doing real songs,” he explains.
“At first, we were just trying to contain the jam, just trying to contain the craziness at something less than an hour per song.”
Initially, Wyndorf played guitar in the band, but eventually became the frontman. They tossed around a host of potential names, including Love Monster, War Hippy, and Airport ’75 before settling on Monster Magnet, the name of a devil-headed magnet toy Wyndorf owned as a child. The band’s chief influences were Hawkwind, the Stooges, Black Sabbath, obscure 70s acid-rock bands like Dust and Sir Lord Baltimore, and every scrap of sensationalised trash-culture junk they could get their hands on, from superhero comics to disaster flicks.
“We were like ersatz art guys, we were like art students that didn’t go to college,” he says. “We were just mutants, total fans of everything. I was rock’n’roll, and I knew that stuff, but my actual inspiration was just a constant flood of crazed images that was coming out of the comic books I was reading, and my love for all things sensational. I just love sensational stuff, I love old pulp magazines and comics, movies, all that stuff.”
After two outrageous demo tapes and a freely-freaking self- titled EP on tiny German label Glitterhouse, Monster Magnet signed to US label Caroline Records, and in 1991 released their first album, the infamous Spine Of God, ground zero for the stoner rock movement, and still one of the most excessive debuts ever unleashed. Songs like Pill Shovel and Zodiac Lung mixed eye-bulging, buzz-droning doom-metal with sneering post-apoc punk rock and lyrics like a beat-poet gone screaming mad. It was so cool it made grunge sound like disco, and it wasn’t long before this unlikely gang of Satanic drug punks were scooped up by major label A&M, a move that Wyndorf says was largely the result of keeping eyes wide open.
“You really gotta look for your opportunities in this business,” he says. “You gotta slide in there when it’s time. We slid in there because there was that little window. There was buzz, there was indie cred – Soundgarden was likin’ us and we hooked up with them – and we just signed when the buzz was happening.”
A&M released a slew of Monster Magnet albums – 1993’s Superjudge, 1995’s Dopes To Infinity and 1998’s Powertrip, the latter of which produced the band’s most enduring hit, the infectious Space Lord. The band went from underground sensation to mainstream rock stars. They began touring, mercilessly and relentlessly, particularly in their stronghold, Europe.
“It was incredible,” Wyndorf says of the band’s late- 90s heyday. “All I can say is that I’m really lucky to have seen this stuff and that I got to participate in it, in my own weird kinda way. And this was during the days of nu-metal, too, when a lot of people were saying that real rock was dead. Rock may have been dead, but you could have fooled me. When you’re touring, when you’re playing some festival in the middle of the woods in Germany and there’s 25,000 or 30,000 people, completely rocking out… that’s pretty fuckin’ cool.”
And so, our heroes reigned, touring with rock monsters like Metallica, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, crushing the nu-metal hordes under their boot heels, and enjoying all the spoils of victory.
“I always liked doing all the big rock tours. Like we did Aerosmith, we did Van Halen for a week-and-a-half. It’s surprising on these big tours, there seems to be a certain attraction for women, it doesn’t matter what their age is, for that kind of thing. Be it nostalgia or whatever. All I know is that there’s 22-year-old girls walking around loving rock. That’s the way it is in Europe, too. Europe is so much better. Honestly, that’s my biggest problem with drugs. I always knew it was a crock of shit. You know, getting high and getting drunk is gonna make everything better. It didn’t. But I did know that excess is fun. What I picked for my excess was women. You pick your poison. This is what I wanted to do since I was 13 years old, it was like, ‘What, you can get laid all the time?’. That’s like, the ultimate thing. So that’s what I picked. And it’s been incredible. Rock’n’roll really works in that fashion. It’s the angle. If anybody’s in high school and they want to get laid and they’re looking for the angle, rock’n’roll’s it.”
And so it went. But every rollercoaster must stop at some point, and when Monster Magnet’s 2000 album God Says No failed to match the success of its predecessor Powertrip sold close to a million copies in America, A&M’s love affair with the bull gods officially ended.
“You get to a point where you sell almost a million records and you can’t sell any more, and they wonder what the hell is wrong with you,” Wyndorf says. “For that stuff to sell more then 30 copies, that was a fuckin’ miracle to me. It was like, ‘This is great!’. So I just rode that sucker until it ended.”
The band continued to tour, but it wasn’t until 2004’s suitably monstrous Monolithic Baby, released on the band’s new label SPV, that they made their official return as the reigning kings of interstellar dope metal.
“A lot of people gave me shit about that one,” Wyndorf says. “They thought it was too rock. But that’s impossible. You can never be too rock.”
They scored a hit with road-sex anthem Unbroken (Hotel Baby), fuelled in part by a video that featured porn starlets and tons of cash, and the steady climb to the top started anew. And so did the bullshit with the sleeping pills. Which neatly brings us to our happy ending.
“So I went to rehab at this place in Tennessee. But it was really God-ed out, you know?”
I do. I’ve been to rehab 10 times myself, but that’s a story for another day.
“I went there for like, 10 days, and then I left because it was a little bit too spiritual for me, and I was looking for… I just wanted to get this rot out of my system. I had to put my brain back together. So I just read. I didn’t talk to anybody, I stayed home and read book after book. I read biographies of old Hollywood celebrities, I read classic novels, tragedies, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Last Exit To Brooklyn, I was jumping all around from really sweet stuff to nasty stuff. I was reading three to five books a week. I don’t know if I knew it at the time or just figured it out later, but that’s how I started to put the numbers back together in my head. And then slowly, I finally came out of it. It was hard, but what are you gonna do?”
Indeed. So our wounded hero healed. He went back to the studio and finished the work his friends had begun. The result is the stellar 4-Way Diablo, the band’s most psychedelic record in a decade, a fistful of 60s fuzz-punk and a bulging codpiece full of screaming 70s freak’n’roll. It’s the return to form you’d hope for, but would never really expect, from this embattled band.
“I was really not into it when I first went back to the studio,” he says, “because I wasn’t happy with my songs, I wasn’t happy with my writing. But a lot of that came from the horrible depression that comes with the Benzo thing. To tell you the truth, the happiest I’ve been in a long time is when I started that record. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I do!’. I don’t tour, touring isn’t my whole life. I actually make music! So, it was a lot of fuckin’ fun.”
As to the future, while the Magnet is alive and well, don’t expect them to continue criss-crossing the continents. At the moment, Wyndorf is happy at home in New Jersey, living with his six-foot tall Swedish girlfriend (“You ever see the original Producers? That’s my girlfriend. Oola.”) and planning his next musical projects. “I’m officially declaring a less crazy life,” he says. “It’s like, I can either write, or I can ride around in a bus. I wanna write.”
Even as 4-Way Diablo hits the shelves, Wyndorf is already working on what may prove to be a very surprising follow-up.
“It might be bizarre, perverted singer-songwriter stuff. I’d like to have a weird Elton John vibe. That’s what I’d like to, like the early Elton John stuff, written around piano, something where the lyrics really come through, and the vibe is set without massive volume. Lots of places to duck and swim around in, lots of places for the sound to bounce off of, and you won’t wear out your eardrums.”
And that’s where our story ends, with our hero at the piano, his blonde girlfriend standing proudly behind him, his legacy secure and his future bright. But it would not be a proper comic-book ending without some words of wisdom from our wizened protagonist. Oh mighty space lord, why do chicks dig dudes with long hair and loud guitars so much
“Dude, it’s because they sense a free spirit. That’s the big difference between, like, art rock or dweeb rock versus complete cock rock. People will laugh at the cock rock stuff, saying it’s dumb, but the reason that girls go for it is that there’s this I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to it. And people fuckin’ love that attitude. People love that kind of confidence, they love it. Even if you have to fake it.”
This was published in Classic Rock issue 115.
What was Monster Magnet’s performance at Download like. Read the review here.