85 decibel Monks Interview/Review
Tack-Fu meets Grover Beats XL: 5 years in the making
By Cheeni Rao

I probably first met Tack-Fu at a show but was too drunk to remember him. What I do remember is later having the misfortune of getting my wrist broken by him at a play at the plate in a city league softball game, and, afterwards, him handing off the latest CD release ("Tack-Fu Presents: The 85 decibel Monks") to me over a beer at George's Buffet, most likely as some half-assed gruff apology. I still haven't forgiven Tack-Fu for my broken wrist, but that CD played on endless loop in my car for months, and forever made me a fan of Tack-Fu and the collaborative efforts of the 85 decibel Monks.

The latest 85 dB Monks creation titled "Tack-Fu meets Grovers Beats XL" blows the doors off the expectations you'd have from listening to their albums of old. Still driven by an eclectic taste that strives to bring together local artists in pursuit of more than just the perfect beat, the 85 dB Monks has stripped the vocal tracks from the latest album. There's no rap here, no spoken word or remixed audio clips...just the pure complexity that arises from a neo-jazz/trip-hop fusion.

As expected, the release contains a variety of influences, everything from the electric 70's era Miles Davis type jams, to middle east spiced flutes that teleports the listener from the times of the Mughal Empire, and sat him down in front of a mixing board, with a cold 40 oz.. You don't need to be a fan-boy to groove to these tracks before the album drops in 2019. You just have to love sound, because, guided by the 85 dB Monks, you're in for a trip.

It's nice also to see the 85 dB Monks continuing to bring together local talent, pulling from classical, jazz, and folk: Bob Hall of Illinois Johnny Fever, Janette Welch of Orchestra Iowa, U of Iowa Jazz drummer graduate Cassius Goens III, Electronic producers Kent "The Chaircrusher" Williams" & Robbie Reverb make apperances. Former Iowa City musicians Bill "White Tornado" Peterson, Justin Mann and blues artist Dustin Busch also lend a hand. That fusion of talent makes for a collaboration that is uniquely Iowa while never foundering in local sensibilities, and ensures a vitality that makes each track come alive in an album I know I'll have on repeat in my playlist for a while to come.

That's why I was eager to take the time to sit down with Tack-Fu, and the main musical influence on this project Grover Beats XL, and ask them some questions about what fueled the new project.

Cheeni: Grover Beats, what brought you to Iowa City and how'd you get to know Tack-Fu?

Grover: I'm originally from Monroeville, Alabama. I'd lived in Auburn for 20 years and played drums in bands around the southeast, but when my wife finished her PhD and got work at the U of Iowa, we packed our bags for the land of ice and snow. I discovered Tack on Myspace as soon as we settled in, and since he was making cool music, I dropped him an email to see if he would like to work on something.

Tack: Yeah, I get this Myspace message, back when Myspace was still a cool place to connect, and some links to his SoundClick site. This was before SoundCloud became all the rage. I could tell the man was multi-talented and we had similar tastes in music. I thought we could be nice combo if we shared our strengths.

Cheeni: So, where do you guys draw your inspiration?

Grover: That's a long list. Off the top of my head, I'd say Fela, Femi, Miles, James Brown, 70s cop shows, Sonny Sharrock, Decoding Society, Mingus, The Stones, Col. Bruce Hampton, Herbie Hancock, Mike Clark, Elvin Jones, Funkadelic, Merzbow, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares, Osibisa, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, The Meters, Frank Zappa, Quincy Jones. I love music that grooves and really takes you somewhere.

Tack: Good list. For myself, I was inspired by the cut & paste production styles of Stienski, Coldcut, & Public Enemy's The Bomb Squad. The contemporary sampling styles of DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist & RJD2 gave me ideas. Plus, the beat making of DJ Krush, Pete Rock, & DJ Premier influenced my take on drum kits and patterns.

Cheeni: But how does that work out? From your albums, it's clear you guys collaborate well, but you're pulling from influences that make me think you guys would be arguing over every track.

Tack: It's like building a house. I pour the concrete for a nice level foundation, and put up the walls and the roof...that's the drums and bass lines. Grover does the interior and exterior design with his melody, instrument selection, and chord progression, and then I come in with the furniture and carpet with my editing, song arrangement, and mixdown.

Grover: Tack usually sends me the drums with or without the bass. I riff on the keys or guitar until I have something to expand on. When I have something I send it back to Tack. We go back and forth, adding parts until we have a solid track.

Tack: We play to our strengths. I'll go to great lengths to make that beat hit, and to make sure the bass line and drums play well with each other. I have all the confidence in the world that, sooner or later, Grover is going to strike gold with his choices. He'll come up with riffs and instrument options, and then it's my job to flesh it out.

Grover: Tack is groove aficionado. He won't stop till your head and body are groovin'. Tack makes it easy for me to float over the top with something because his beats are so strong. It's really all about delivering a soulful track.

Cheeni: I can feel it. But this release really surprised me and felt like a different sound for you guys. What are you hoping to accomplish with it?

Tack: We want to give fans of the 85 dB Monk production team and folks that have been down with the Tack-Fu sound a new dose of the flavor. We are both proud of this project and this nu-jazz/trip-hop instrumental direction, so that should expand our fan base in that genre. From a business angle, it also opens up more possibilities in television placements. We want that theme song on the new Showtime or HBO television series, the background music to the latest reality TV show, and the 30 second bumper for a national commercial ad campaign. Grover and I get along great, but this is a music business relationship with specific goals in mind.

Cheeni Rao is a University of Iowa Writers' Workshop & Tippie MBA graduate.
Rao's memoir, In Hanuman's Hands (HarperOne, April 2009)
won the Barnes & Noble (BKS) Discover Great New Writers honor in 2009.