Major and the Monbacks
To tell the story of Major and the Monbacks, you have to go back to before the eight members of the Norfolk-based rock group were even born—to the earliest days of fraternity rock, Stax records, West Coast sunshine pop, East Coast beach music and even to the indigenous Norfolk Sound. All of those musical influences, and more, collide into the band’s infectious throwback style.
“Monback is a variation on ‘come on back,’ says bass player Cole Friedman, who helped start the Norfolk group with his fraternal twin brother, Neal. “And I guess Major could be any or all of us.”
Live, this young band works up a potent energy. The Monbacks’ “hype man”/percussionist Tyler West conducts the pandemonium behind tall bongos while Neal Friedman sits and sways behind the keyboard, all smiles and elbows. Bassist brother Cole bends strings along with guitarists Michael Adkins and Harry Slater, while Michael’s brother Bryan Adkins keeps a confident beat on the kit. Saxophonist Nate Sacks and trumpeter Aaron Reeves blast and blare on the sideline, integrating swing, Junior Walker and KC & the Sunshine Band into the sonic stew.
In the past few months, the Monbacks have released their debut full-length disc to positive reviews, opened up for Huey Lewis and the News at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion in Portsmouth—“our biggest audience yet,” says Cole Friedman—made a splash at Suffolk’s inaugural Lava Festival, and kept local fans happy on stages at O’Connor Brewing Co. and Harborfest. But they’ve also logged thousands of miles on the road, playing venues from Tennessee to New York City to Vermont, and have the busted ride to show for it.
This is the dark side of being in a touring band. Coming back home in early May from their first tour promoting the new album, the group’s Chevy van started wheezing and died, leaving the group stranded overnight in a Sheetz parking lot off a remote North Carolina off ramp.
To the rescue came Brian Friedman, Cole and Neal’s dad. “We all had to mobilize on that,” Brian says. “Normally I’m just a fan in the cheap seats. The boys manage their own affairs, make their own calls, but if there’s ever a dilemma, we want to make sure they’re all safe.” (The van has since been fixed … and has broken down again.)
It was 2008 when the Friedman brothers and Tyler West formed a Larchmont group called the Yolks and started playing music in Neal's wood-paneled bedroom. Michael Adkins joined them on guitar starting with their first show as Major and the Monbacks at the 40th Street Stage in Norfolk, a regular hangout. “It was the go-to club for the high school youth in town; they didn’t serve alcohol,” says Cole. “They let us have free reign over it.”
When the members went away to college, the band continued on as a weekend affair, playing mostly fraternity parties. “We had a different drummer and keyboard player,” Cole says. The group would often integrate Neal’s original songs into the proceedings, but their set was a rowdy amalgam of the Beatles, Wilson Prickett, The Strokes, My Morning Jacket and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” by Sam and Dave. They called it “old school party pop.” Folks began comparing them to other retro-minded outfits such as Birmingham, Alabama’s popular St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
The early logistics were fascinating to dad Brian Friedman, watching the group evolve. “It was eight boys in the band on six different college campuses in three states, stretching from ODU, William and Mary, University of Virginia, James Madison University all the way to Wake Forest and NC State.” The members would meet up somewhere on a Thursday night, he says, play a weekend full of gigs “and go back home Sunday night to being students again.”
They experimented with the sound, tried out different sax and trumpet players to augment the guitars. In the beginning, according to Neal, the horns made their music “sort of ska.”
One thing about their live show was prevalent from the beginning: Energy. Percussionist Tyler West says that his nightly goal as the group’s "hype man” is to engage, even provoke, the crowd. “Back when we were a [crappy] garage band, I had to do it to distract people from the music and how bad it was. Now I try to rub off on everyone. I try to have such a good time on stage that people in the audience feel awkward if they aren’t dancing as hard as I am.” He laughs. “I guess I’m the band’s Flava Flav.”
The turning point came when roadie, guitar tech, and tagalong Harry Slater officially got onstage. “That was when things got serious and original music started flowing out,” Cole Friedman says. “Harry joined the band on guitar and pushed Neal to the keys, and the kinds of songs that Neal started writing on the keys is what pushed the Monbacks forward to the more soulful rock ’n’ roll stuff.”
“They do a lot of gigs,” says Chris Mara, recording engineer and co-owner of Welcome to 1979 Studios in Nashville. “And a lot of big bands like that write songs that don’t stand on their own in their studio; there’s enough people on stage to get the audience engaged and sometimes the songs can take a back seat to that. But these guys are writing really good songs and harmonies.”
The Monbacks’ self-titled debut disc, recorded by Mara, is a rollicking mélange of vintage pop, rock and white boy soul, an organic extension of their sing-along live show. With tunes by Neal, Harry and Michael, the 10-song set is packed with catchy hooks and vocal lines that extol warm days, dark secrets and girls named Annabelle. “Somedays” features a Billy Preston keyboard and a testifying melody—Neal wrote it when he attended William & Mary, pounding away in the basement of the music department “until my fingers went numb.” One particularly jaunty tune is called “Be My Baby” and is straight out of 1962—it was the first song Slater ever wrote, a tribute to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” hits. Elsewhere, “Sunshine” sounds like the Young Rascals during their psych-pop phase, and the contemplative “Magnolia” seems a spiritual cousin to America’s “Horse With No Name,” with mournful horns.
To capture these sounds, the group chose Mara’s large, 8,000-square-foot studio in Nashville—a former record pressing plant—largely because it felt like home. “The live room where we recorded had all of these wood paneled walls and wooden floor,” Neal says. “Just like my bedroom where we used to play.”
“All the wood, all the surface areas have been there a long time, it’s got an old soul,” Mara says of Welcome to 1979. The sessions were recorded on analog tape, instead of Digital, using ribbon microphones and vintage gear. It’s Mara’s specialty—and that fit into the Monbacks’ throwback aesthetic (the disc has just been released on old-school vinyl. For this band, that seems only fitting.)
New drummer Brian Adkins had just come aboard so they slogged through heavy practice time before the sessions. “We were rehearsing every day for a month before we went in there” says Slater. “We basically holed up in a demo studio in Norfolk and locked these songs down,” echoes Cole Friedman, who also handles the band’s booking. The Monbacks funded the recording through a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $11,000.
For a big-piece group, the Monbacks seem unusually democratic. The whole band pitches in on arrangements; most members sing or add harmonies. They often swap instruments onstage. During the recording session, Mara recalls, “every band member kind of weighed in on decisions, and I respect them for letting everyone have a voice. There’s no dictatorship in this band.”
Neal and Cole were already acquainted with the recording industry. Friedman is a longstanding name in area music circles because of Birdland Music in Virginia Beach. Their grandfather Thomas bought the record store in the late ’60s from none other than local producer Frank Guida, and it’s been the region’s leading independent music retailer ever since. The twins’ uncles Barry and Bob run the place now. “Working at Birdland was my first job when I was in the eighth grade,” Neal remembers. “I worked two months over the summer and was paid two CDs a day.”
“Being around music like that was invaluable,” Cole says. “The old school soul and rock ’n’ roll stuff that my dad and uncles would kind of push on us, it really influenced us, I think.”
With months of gigs lined up—in a van that works, hopefully—brother Neal is clear about future objectives. “I’m for all of us making a living playing our music. That’s the ultimate goal. But in the short term we’re planning on touring until September, then we’ll talk about recording again or doing some kind of live album. Me, I want to record a second album.”
To that end, the guys have already started previewing new songs onstage. “I’m really looking forward to the next record,” says Chris Mara in Nashville. "I think the Monbacks learned a lot this first time through and were eager to learn. I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with next.”