Zen and the art of Monkeyclaus maintenance

Zen and the art of Monkeyclaus maintenance

In 1995, on a couch in Boston, Peter Agelasto sat up suddenly and said, “Monkeyclaus! That’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!” He then went to India to try and figure out what that meant.

Going bananas: Matthew Clark (left) and Abel Okugawa (right) behind the boards for a recording session at Monkeyclaus. Bands occasionally let their inner animals out to participate in a live recording/interview/social event, dubbed a "Monkey Session" by founder Peter Agelasto. 

“Monkey” refers to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and “Claus” refers to Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. Peter tells me that his Greek surname means “One who doesn’t smile,” and this is the worst misnomer I can imagine. Right now Peter Agelasto, founder and CEO of Monkeyclaus, is doing nothing but smiling as he tries to explain to me just what it is he’s doing out here.

What’s a "Monkeysession?" Take a listen:

"Monkeysession" Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities, NPR style piece:

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Listen to songs by various artists recorded in the Monkeyclaus studio:

Thanksgiving by Abel Okugawa and Loren Oppenheimer

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"Dead Bird on My Shoulder" by Bobby St. Ours

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"WW4" by Casa de Chihuahua

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"Plaguebreaker" by Horsefang

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"Aguas de Fonte" Jose Maria & the Clinch Fado Boys

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Courtesy of Monkeyclaus – Thank you!

Let’s be more specific. By “now” I mean April 30, 2007, and by “here” I mean in Nelson County, past Nellysford, down the road from where Agelasto spent much of his childhood. Ten years ago, with the help of 100-plus volunteers, he built the small, wooden, barn-like structure that is Monkeyclaus Recording Studio. With at least one-quarter of it made from recycled material, it’s all golden wood and carved sculptural details. The area where the band plays has translucent plastic panels that let in sunlight and make you feel like you’re in the open air. The recording equipment is awesomely complicated; with high-tech mixing boards and brand new computers, all encased in unfinished wood and adorned with monkey statues.

Already a recording studio, Monkeyclaus will soon be a record label, too. It also calls itself a “music distributor and social movement.” Since its birth in 1998, hundreds of bands have been through to record, from Portland, Oregon’s Jackie-O Mother Fucker, to Charlottesville’s own Sarah White. There are plans for expansion; a covered loading dock, a concert stage and an outdoor movie screen. Not unexpectedly, Monkeyclaus want to develop wind and solar power and eventually get “off the grid.”

Today Skeleton & The Kings of All Cities is here from New York for a “Monkey Session”—a freewheeling, multimedia, hanging-out kind of thing. To date there have been only five Monkey Sessions, and for a band it’s an incredible opportunity, more than the average pay-to-play experience. A band gets to professionally record their songs live in the studio, and then the music (plus video footage and an interview) is posted on the Monkeyclaus website (www.monkeyclaus.org). For free. Plus they get to hang out in the mountains for pretty much as long as they want. (In 2001 the band Cavesluts from Shenzen, China, stayed for 352 days.) What does Monkeyclaus get? “Content,” which they can sell and syndicate.

Peter starts talking when I first step into the office above the studio, and he never really stops: All day we engage in a careening conversation that pauses as we each wander off and resumes in the general vicinity of where we left off as soon as we run into each other again. At first I think he must be a little bit mad, with his shaggy hair and swashbuckler’s goatee. He talks about “The law of fragmented supply and demand.” He has a cat named Mad Kong who was, he says, born dead. He quotes Albert Einstein and wonders about the power of the “Imagination Economy.” What in the name of all that is holy is going on at Monkeyclaus?

It’s more than just recording music, obviously. After a “wandering Holy Man” told Peter, “You need to get involved in the Internet” he got his first e-mail address. Eventually he entered the post-Napster music world, part of the “Web 2.0,” what Peter calls the “web of participation.”

To talk to Peter Agelasto is to approach the Zen idea of the mind as a chattering monkey. Not that he’s hyper, he just has a lot to say about how he’s trying to create a new way of delivering content to an audience, a new way of joining musicians and music lovers. “Meaning comes from community,” he says. “What I’m looking for when I go online is a connection.” Peter’s magic formula is DIY (Do It Yourself) + DIY + DIY = DIT, Do It Together.

There’s a lot of talk around the Monkeyclause office about how what they’re doing is similar to what Sun Records or Stax Records were doing in the ’50s and ’60s—exploring personality, showcasing talent and letting bands become like family.

Enough talking, it’s about the music and by late afternoon the band is really getting into it. The Monkeyclaus recording engineer, Abel Okugawa, leans back in his chair, barefoot, staring at the controls in front of him. The drummer sweats. The singer bends at the waist, his head tremoring slightly. What else attracts bands to this place?  “The sound,” Peter says.

Which gets us to the matter of wire. Peter takes me into a side room and rifles through bins, pulling out bits of wire from the 1930s and ’40s, wire wrapped in silk, in wax, wire hand-braided from copper. Each one has a different sound, a different way of shaping and transmitting noise, and he likes to splice and plug in those different wires to see what new effects they will give.

People who dream of making things are usually obsessed with ingredients: think chefs with eggs or carpenters with wood. Peter dreams of new ways of transmission. And so, wire. And sound.

I consider how sound is relative. The sound that the band hears is passing through the microphones, into the soundproof recording booth, through all the machines, and then back out and into their headphones. Inside the glass booth, I am listening to an entirely different version of that sound, running along different wires, through different machines, to different speakers. And all of it is being run through tubes, diodes, chips and compressors. No one is listening to the actual sound, the sound in and of itself, which is somewhere down below the little engineer’s booth, in the large room of wood and sculpted foam, crawling out of the plastic windows and disappearing into the surrounding sunlight.

At the end of the day, Peter walks me out to the porch to say goodbye. “Let me leave you with this,” he says. “C-VILLE Weekly is 32 miles from Monkeyclaus. Monkeyclaus is 27 miles from space. Monkeyclaus is closer to space than it is to C-VILLE Weekly.” He pauses. “But I don’t want people to think it’s hard to drive out here.”

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