With every pluck of the string, you feel the methodical intentions run up your spine and into your mind. The sound is primal, something that we all have inside us, something that is hauntingly familiar. It takes our hand and pulls us close with a hard jerk, breathing heavy on our neck like a forceful lover. What do we do? Do we submit or do we cling to our preconceived notions? Maybe we should close our eyes and just enjoy the vibrations for what they might be.
The band Alien Knife Fight caught me by surprise. This two-piece “by circumstance” has gotten under my skin or rather I should say, JUMPED under my skin. That doesn’t happen too often honestly, now that I consider myself middle aged. When they say if you aren’t looking for love is exactly when you’ll find it, yah well it was kinda like that. Had I heard of this group before?! It seems like déjà vu. Have I met you before? I seriously had that blank stare look on my face when the name came across my messenger awhile back. I didn’t know the name but that sound… it has caressed my ears before. Let me tell you, I’m now obsessed like you were about your first real adult love affair. This is music that will leave a mark, one that stung when you first got it and most likely will not fade.
Landing in the Austin, TX area by way of Boston, Monique Ortiz is letting that sultry voice fly once again. With her partner and drummer Michael Howard, she is showing what chemistry is in music. Pulling flavors from her previous endeavors in A.K.A.C.O.D., Bourbon Princess and blending in common interests of prog, blues, desert rock, and jazz; something simplistically rich was born. The music is raw but with intention. There is no lofty artistic fringe upturned nose. It is honest, and well… that is what will get you. There is a sense of realism in this pair that has been intended by many, but lost by a shallow and aggressive idealism. And thank goodness Monique and Michael aren’t in the ranks with that segment! Hiding out on their ‘Big Bottom Farm’ and rarely venturing out unless it’s to play or see an occasional band of interest, they are creating an oasis of feeling, spirit, a place where they can be themselves, all within 3.5 acres. Sounds all too good to be true, well it just might be. Other than regionally and a few places out of the U.S., Alien Knife Fight has been relatively unheard of … that is until now!
Monique and Mike currently have a 5 song EP with a BandCamp campaign that they are working on. They have recently also been getting some love from the established artists Scott H Biram and Jesse Dayton. They have invited Alien Knife Fight out on a West Coast tour so they can put their face in front of a ton of new faces. AKF are also garnering the attention of producers and publicists in many rock circles. Maybe the world is seeking out these two whether they are getting out there or not…
I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to AKF singer/bassist Monique Ortiz to see what was up. Take a look at our Q & A about Boston, Morphine, Glass Blowing, new music, tour, and being a female in the music world. Remember, great music is not easy to find and is usually hidden right under your nose. Don’t worry though, if you don’t find it at first… It will most likely find you!
SixX- Have you given up yet looking for that 3rd instrument or is it still elusive? Ha-ha.
Monique- No, I’m always looking for players, always looking ahead. I don’t even really like identifying AKF as a duo because people make a lot of assumptions about duos. You say “duo” and a lot of times people will say things like “Oh like The Black Keys or White Stripes?” or they immediately assume we play the blues or some kind of lo-fi garage rock. No, not like any of that. I’ve been performing in the duo format long before it became “a thing.” I started in 1995, playing solo gigs on fretless bass, with a drummer sitting-in occasionally. When I moved to Boston in 1996 I started Bourbon Princess with drummer Dave Millar. Eventually we became a trio, adding Jonah Sacks on cello. Alien Knife Fight are only a duo by circumstance. Here in Austin, especially when you’re a musician in your 40’s and 50’s, you’ve got to keep working, you have to make money which means musicians here play in half a dozen bands so they can pay the bills. The downside to that is that no one can commit to any one project. We pride ourselves in sounding bigger than the sum of the parts, and it requires some extra gear and pedal dancing that I really would rather not do. It was hard enough just learning how to sing and play bass at the same time. Now I feel like I’m flying a spaceship with all the amps and pedals I use. I look forward to the day when that perfect 3rd multi-instrumentalist comes knocking and I can go back to just focusing on writing, singing, and bass playing.
SixX- Your current project Alien Knife Fight, tell me about it and why it’s so Damn infectious.
Monique- It resonates with people for a variety of reasons. I think a big part of the sound comes from a deeply personal and emotional place, since Mike and I are a couple. We have all heard that you should never get romantically involved with a coworker or creative partner, but in reality, that’s ridiculous because those are the very people who “get” you. Chemistry is so important. Mike and I got together to jam a couple times, and I really fell in love with him through the birth of the project. Neither of us are virtuosos at what we do. Actually, he’s a much better bassist than I am. Stylistically we offset each other nicely because he comes from more of a metal background, and I come from more of a new wave and post punk background. We found common ground in prog rock, blues, jazz, experimental music, and desert rock. We both have very eclectic tastes and we’ve introduced each other to music we’ve never heard before. It’s difficult for me to articulate what exactly it is about what we do that is getting peoples’ attention now, but for me our sound is primal, yet dreamy. It’s dark, but hooky. It’s the soundtrack for the film I haven’t yet written the screenplay for. I’m just doing what I do, and I’m grateful for anyone who wants to listen to it.
SixX- Residing in Boston myself, I know you started in the area with some musical collaborations. How did the area shape your musical journey as you know it now?
Monique- For me Boston is home. There’s an energy, a vibe, to that area that just resonates so deeply with me. Maybe I’m projecting, but even before I moved to Boston I was into a lot of music coming out of there: Morphine of course. I have always been a big Mission Of Burma fan, as well as Modern Lovers, Willie Loco Alexander, Treat Her Right, Scissorfight, and Andrea Gillis, who is a freakin’ force of nature. Even though all those artists are quite different from one another, they all have this vein of grit, take-no-prisoners, take no bullshit, do what we want, be who we are. I suppose one could say that about any place that has shaped them in a big way, but there really is something to the Boston/Cambridge scene that I miss so much. Austin is a pleasant place to live, but it really lacks this sort of fighting spirit that I felt when I lived in Boston. A healthy aggression if you know what I mean. Austin is very slack, almost too laid-back for me. If the day ever comes where I can afford to live in Boston or Cambridge again, I most definitely will. I loved being able to jump on my bike, ride a few blocks down to Toad and catch Jim Fitting stomping on the pew while wailing on the harmonica, or slinking down to the Lizard Lounge where I could catch one of Mark Sandman’s “secret” Hypnosonics shows, where I knew I’d be schooled by any number of killer players sitting in with him. Might be Mike Rivard on bass, might be John Medeski on the Hammond, could be Russ Gershon on tenor, side by side with Dana on the bari. You just never know who would be playing with who on any given night, but you always knew it would be damn good. Morphine inspired me to move to Boston in 1996. Upon Mark Sandman’s personal advice, I got a job at the Middle East and did everything I could to put myself in the middle of the action, and take advantage of every opportunity to experience this incredible community of musicians at work. I’d have to say I got more of a musical education by hanging out in the “Morphine circle” than I ever would’ve in college. My classrooms were the Middle East, The Plough & Stars, Toad, the Lizard Lounge, and Hi-N-Dry. I will always be grateful to the Boston / Cambridge scene for making me who I am.
SixX- You can’t ignore the sound that the Boston band Morphine (and maybe more specifically Mark Sandman and Dana Colley) has flavored your past and current sound. Is it still shaping your music?
Monique- Not nearly as much. I mean life is too short to just do one thing or play one sound. I love Morphine but I also really love desert rock; bands such as Queens Of The Stone Age, Masters Of Reality, Desert Sessions, Eleven, etc. I really love a lot of synthy new wave from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (Japan’s Mick Karn is my single biggest influence for bass). I got so embedded in the whole Morphine / “Low Rock” thing that it actually became a detriment after a while. I got tired of being pigeon-holed and I had written so much music that that sound just wasn’t the right vehicle for. When Mark died, I had pretty much made up my mind that I would take the 2-string slide bass into a whole new direction. There are dozens of Morphine tribute bands out there now, thousands of people going after that “low rock” slide bass sound. I’m no longer interested in that. I mean no disrespect to the Morphine crew by that. I just realized I had so much more to offer, so many new ideas, and things I wanted to try. I knew that the slide bass has so much untapped potential, and I had no interest in doing what’s already been done. I avoid doing Morphine songs altogether, with the exception of playing “Wishing Well” during a memorial concert, and doing a version of “The Way We Met,” which I play on the fretless bass instead of slide bass. I recall sitting on my sofa one afternoon with my first 2-string slide bass, playing along to the QOTSA record “Songs For The Deaf”, and thought “YES! How would Josh Homme play a slide bass? What would that sound like?” I also started playing slide bass to Stooges records and was blown away by how easily I could adapt the instrument to that sound. That was when I realized I had come to a fork in the road: keep doing this low rock thing, or take a leap and see how I can push this instrument in other ways. I eagerly took the path less traveled. I went out of my way to set up my slide bass very differently from Mark Sandman or Chris Ballew. I don’t use the same kinds of strings, or string gauges. I don’t use the same pickups or pedals. I have alienated some fans by following my heart and moving away from the low rock sound, but I wouldn’t be happy and was never going to grow as an artist if I kept doing the same things.
SixX- I used to work at WBCN and The Middle East in Cambridge, and know how rich the music culture is here. Why leave Boston for Austin?
Monique- A damn good question. In short, I had reached a point in my life where I just needed a change of scenery and needed to shake things up for myself. I was in a very dark place personally. I made a lot of really poor life choices in my last few years there and had gotten involved in an affair that damaged several relationships of my own and others, I was burning out on having to hold two, sometimes three jobs just to survive there. I had collaborated with Dana and Larry in A.K.A.C.O.D., on the record “Happiness,” which in hindsight was a totally ironic title for that period in our lives. I am really proud of that record. Unfortunately, the timing on it couldn’t have been worse: we put it out in 2008, when the market was crashing and record labels were folding. The record went pretty much unnoticed and despite all our efforts to promote it, we were only able to land mostly gigs in shitty little rooms, playing to a handful of people or less. I can’t speak for Dana and Larry, but for me it was completely demoralizing. I had lost direction and vision after that. I felt broken in a lot of ways. The only reason I ended up in Austin was because I already had a small network of personal friends there and could easily get a job and an apartment. It wasn’t for the music scene at all. I feel very much like a fish out of water here. The music scene here is nothing like what’s happening in Boston. When I arrived in Austin I felt like it was about five to ten years behind Boston in some genres. I realize that will likely piss some people off. I mean no disrespect to my Austin friends who have lived here for 20+ years. At one point, I had gotten into a conversation with a long-time Austin resident, also a musician, who seemed sympathetic to my feelings. He chuckled and said “well, this is my home, but it IS a town that celebrates itself to the point of satire.”
SixX- You live in a really small town in TX with lots of space. Do you think that has given your music the air and openness needed after coming from the tight cluster in Boston and New England?
Monique- Absolutely. How could it not? I rarely even go out anymore unless I’m performing or there’s that rare local band that I want see. We are on 3.5 acres, surrounded mostly by ranchers and rolling pastures. At night, there is very little light pollution. Mike and I have a ritual of cooking meals together, usually quite late at night, then hunkering down with our instruments and recording. Always jamming, writing, recording at all hours. No one calls the cops on us. To be able to play at full volume, doing whatever we want, whenever we want, then be able to just step out onto the porch, into silence, maybe crickets and coyote, under a blanket of stars is incredible. Sure, I do miss Boston, but living here on Big Bottom Farm with Mike has given me things I would NEVER be able to experience in Boston. We have very little furniture. Pretty much the entire first floor of our house is filled with instruments, amps, and recording gear. It’s heaven to me. When I lived in Cambridge and went up to Hi-N-Dry (Mark Sandman’s loft home/studio) my jaw dropped. I thought “THIS is what I want my home to be like”: instruments everywhere, piano, keyboards, artwork, wood, brick, dust, incense, spirit. Our home has evolved to the point that it really does feel like our very own Hi-N-Dry. Our place is in a terrible state of disrepair because we live pretty much paycheck to paycheck, unable to renovate anytime soon, but I know some day we’ll make it nice. The most important thing is that we have this space where we can truly be ourselves; you can’t put a dollar amount on that. Occasionally, when the Morphine guys come through Austin, they come out here to hang. We also hosted the goth band March Violets. That was a truly wonderful visit. I love them. I really like the idea of our place being a sort of southern outpost for my musician friends. Our dream is to make this place a sort of Rancho De La Luna-meets-Hi-N-Dry. A place where we can record, and host our musician friends. They can stay here while on tour, or do a recording retreat here.
SixX- You also blow glass. How does that art form connect to your music? Is it the slow and molten nature of it all?
Monique- For me it’s just a job. I really have no imagination for the medium at all. I do production work. I make thousands of pipes. Chillums, one-hitters, bowls, etc. It was really hard “coming out” about this to my folks who have been pretty anti-drug all their lives. I really have very little interest in any of it or the whole marijuana culture. The only reason I blow glass is because it’s something I’m fairly competent at, that Mike taught me, that allows me to be self-employed, and work from home; which is essential if you want to tour a lot and be an artist on a professional level. The moment I am able to walk away from glassblowing I will gleefully do so, but it’s alright for now. It’s better than dealing with Joe Public or waiting tables. For me it has no connection to music at all, other than the fact that Mike makes all my guitar slides.
SixX- Now tell me about the 2 STRING slide bass. All the gear heads want to know about it. Why use that set up?
Monique- Because I can. Because each string has the same notes. Because if you can’t play a song on one string, you’ve got no business playing it on 4, 5, 6 or 12….
SixX- You are currently recording a new record, tell me about it and what we can expect.
Monique- Well, “recording a new record” implies that we have a batch of songs that we are going to put out on vinyl or cd. That’s not really the case at the moment, but we do have hundreds of hours of material we are working on. Currently we have next to no support of any kind, no money, so actually making vinyl is not in the cards at the moment. We have considered crowd sourcing but the reality is that we don’t even have enough numbers behind us to raise the money we’d need, and there’s the catch 22 of putting yourself under a lot of stress to fulfill everyone’s premiums after they donate. We’d rather just work hard and save up the money on our own, but it isn’t easy. For now, we’ve taken to recording a few songs, mixing them, putting them out. Record a few more, mix them, put ‘em out. Repeat. Maybe, if we have enough time, make some lo-fi, DIY videos. We do everything ourselves but it’s mainly because we have to. Once we return from touring with Scott Biram, we’ll be working on about a dozen new songs that we cherry picked from years of recording up to now. It is my hope that we will build support and build enough of a fan base from that tour to make crowd sourcing a more realistic option, or (gasp!) maybe a label will take a liking to us, but I’m not holding my breath on that.
SixX- When should we expect it and where can we get it when it’s done?
Monique- No idea. It’s done when we feel it’s done. As far as where you can get it, the best source for everything we do is directly from us, either at shows or through our bandcamp page. http://alienknifefight.bandcamp.com All my other projects and back catalog is at http://moniqueortiz.bandcamp.com. Interest in AKF seems to be growing rapidly and we are being approached by some notable producers and people who we really admire in the industry, so you never know!
SixX- You are going out on tour? Tell me about it.
Monique- We were invited by Scott H Biram to come out with him and Jesse Dayton on a West Coast tour. We were absolutely honored and thrilled. It seems like a bit of a mismatch, but we’re up to the challenge of winning people over. I mean he and Jesse are really coming from more of a dirty blues, and outlaw country angle. I find it really validating and flattering that they’d include us. After all, I don’t know anyone who just listens to one style of music. I think there is some crossover. There is this whole “punk rock blues” thing going on in the UK. Not seeing as much of it here, but we have been described as such. I think just the common ground of Scott and I being slide players and having some blues influence may be enough to bring audiences together. I don’t know, but I dig what he does and he digs what we do, so it should be a good time, and mutually beneficial. It’s an opportunity that Mike and I are really grateful for.
SixX- I don’t see any Boston dates in there? Ha-ha. How come?
Monique- Because we are pretty much unknown, with very little support, and because we’re in our 40’s and 50’s we don’t have a ton of time, and energy, or (disposable income) to spend all day online trying to bust down the doors of venues who have never heard of us, only to basically pay-to-play. Touring is extremely expensive, and there’s a major catch 22 to it: You have to have a substantial following to get into the good, reputable venues, but you can’t build that following unless you get out there, and play a bunch of crappy venues over and over to those handfuls of people. I have booked tours myself but have never been able to get into the rooms where our music would be a good fit. I can’t get most venues to give me the time of day. What’s more, I suck at self-promoting. I either come off as an arrogant asshole, or an insecure little mouse. I’m terrible at representing myself. We’d love to have a booking agent, but again, most booking agents aren’t interested until you’ve already done all the leg work and made all the connections. This year is proving to be different, thankfully. Scott inviting us to tour with him is big. People are coming out of the woodwork to help us, and I am confident that we will be touring the Midwest and East Coast before the year is out. The majority of my fan base is in Europe and South America, but I haven’t been successful in making the proper contacts to get us over there either. I keep trying.
SixX- Since a majority of our readership is female, can you tell me what some of your biggest hurdles have been in the world of music?
Monique- I’m going to level with you. I have very few female friends, and I’m used to being hated by other women. I haven’t experienced much gender-related resistance in any of my work throughout my life. I honestly cannot relate to women who have experienced issues of inequality. I don’t know if it’s because I was raised a tomboy by a mother who was a total hard ass and tomboy herself. I have always hung around guys from an early age. I just don’t really relate to many women at all. I have a very masculine personality. I don’t take women’s rights for granted, but I have very little interest in gender issues overall. I also have a lot of problems with “feminism.” I believe a true feminist doesn’t need to go around labeling herself as such, wearing it on a t-shirt or a tattoo, like some of my vegan friends. The way I see it, if you are true to yourself and actually living by your beliefs and philosophies, there’s no need to brand or label yourself. I actually had a female audience member approach me after a show and criticize me for shaving my armpits. I laughed at her and said “Really?! So, let me get this right. You are judging ME for shaving my pits? Isn’t that as bad as me judging YOU for not shaving yours? Why does it matter?” I was thinking “what bullshit.” These women crack me up, these women who think that whether or not they shave is some kind of testament to who they are. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Monique- I have a daughter, what advice would you give her if she wanted to get involved into music?
Monique- Take as many business and communication courses as arts courses. Even a good legal education would be extremely beneficial. These days, talent and artistic ability simply aren’t enough. You have to have business know how. I have a lot of regrets about not educating myself better, but then again that’s not entirely my fault: when I was in college and art school there was very little emphasis on how to market yourself, or run your band or project as a small business. It was basically “Here’s how to paint! Here’s how to play! Good luck!” and out the door you go. Now there is so much more technology and resources available to young people. It’s incredible. There are people half my age that know WAY more about how to run a business or market themselves than I do, and schools have finally realized that forcing kids to spend a lot of time learning things they’re never going to use or aren’t at all interested in is a waste. I wish I could’ve gone to one of those performing arts high schools. Nothing like that existed where I grew up, but there now seems to be a lot more of that sort of thing. Of course, with our new administration of fascist idiocracy it’s hard to know if things will keep progressing. RESIST!
SixX- What’s next for Monique?
Monique- A cup of strong black coffee, a long run, some yoga, and some quality time with my fretless bass and Sruthi Box.
For more information on Alien Knife Fight and Monique Ortiz:
AKF 2017 West Coast tour with Scott H Biram & Jesse Dayton:
03/23 @ Hoots Pub, Amarillo, TX
03/24 @ Triple Nickle Tavern – Colorado Springs, CO
03/25 @ 3 Kings – Denver, CO
03/26 @ Hodis Half Note – Fort Collins, CO
03/28 @ Urban Lounge – Salt Lake City, UT
03/29 @ Neurolux – Boise, ID
03/31 @ Tractor Tavern – Seattle, WA
04/01 @ Dante’s – Portland, OR
04/04 @ Catalyst – Santa Cruz, CA
04/05 @ Bottom Of The Hill – San Francisco, CA
04/06 @ Alex’s Bar – Long Beach, CA
04/07 @ Pappy & Harriet’s – Pioneertown, CA
04/08 @ Rhythm Room – Phoenix, AR
04/13 @ Three Links – Dallas, TX
04/14 @ Antone’s – Austin, TX
04/15 @ Continental Club – Houston, TX (with Sam Pace, and Hilary York)