The arrival of No Mono: A musical partnership for the ages

Images by OKAY PHOTO. — Michael Rees-Lightfoot & Jaz Blom.

No Mono is the culmination of two uniquely talented beings, exploring art on their own terms. Tom Iansek and Tom Snowdon’s approach to making music is, for the most part, driven by curiosity. Rather than fulfilling a target or pre-defined label, they instead set out to experiment with the transcendental nature of sound.

Tom and Tom’s relaxed, exploratory approach to music contrasts with that of their manager (and third member of the Tom club) Tom Fraser. The duo joke that he brings the “12 point plan and three-stage goals for the next 18 months” to the project, while the two of them have just one plan… “No plan.” At the end of the day though, the dynamic between the duo and their extended Pieater family comes together beautifully, and results in music that touches the soul. The debut LP Islands (Part 1) is a long awaited extension of a very special collaboration. 

The exact spot on the timeline where No Mono was forged has been lost as the year “and a bit” has gone by. Formed through friendship and an inclination to explore, the Toms set to work in the studio before deciding what their official musical future was going to look like.

Tom Iansek: At the time we came up with the band name, we basically had this chat and decided we wanted to be a band. Because before that we’d been working on music not really knowing what it was for, what it was going to be. Before that, in terms of Tom and Tom, the beginning point was a few years earlier than that. Which would’ve been…

Tom Snowdown: 2013, February. At a guess – that’s when we started working on that [#1 Dads] track together, as collaborators. We started working on a bunch of songs and recorded heaps of songs, but we hadn’t really spoken about the form it would take – whether it be a band at all, whether Tom would produce it and I would just sing and write stuff, or whatever. That was about a year ago I think. When we decided that our powers combined would make a band – but we didn’t have a name. We went through various names and it was a really painful process before we settled on No Mono.

Much like their calculated and Purposeful approach to making music, the name No Mono resonated for the fact it had depth and meaning. Other cool names came and went – but this one stuck.

Tom Iansek: It’s a play on a Japanese zen phrase, mono no aware, which roughly translates to “the pathos of things.” It speaks about the gentle sadness of everything in life being transient. That sort of beautiful, sad thing caught out attention because we thought it fit nicely with the music that we make; that spoke at a deeper level to what we were doing. I think we really search for the hidden meaning and like to probe that it terms of what we do musically and more broadly with the project.

Tom Snowdon: I would say we really enjoy not specifically concept driven things, but we really like to explore things and not just write for the sake of it. We want to say things and we want to explore feelings and the things that we don’t understand that well.

Snowdon’s band Lowlakes was the catalyst for Tom and Tom meeting in 2011 – They’d been asked to support Big Scary at Ormond Hall during the Vacations era. In the next few years, they’d hang out at CMJ in New York and a couple of times in Melbourne. However, the first time the two Toms actually worked on music together was for the iconic #1 Dads project. Out of a spur of the moment email, ‘Return To’ was born.

Tom Snowdon: Tom had written that beautiful piano line and in some wondrous stroke of the universe he’d thought of my voice for it. I remember at the time writing words for the verse… I didn’t really know Tom at this stage and like some shit joke, he’d sent fake words to me.

Tom Iansek: It was the poem ‘Excalibur’ by David Brent, if you’re a fan of The Office. It’s a work of art in how perfectly shit it is. 

Tom Snowdon: I didn’t really know him that well, so I wasn’t sure if he was being serious. I ended up sending words and told Tom what I’d been sitting on, this feeling of a friendship being gone and in the grave. When I was sketching them, they just kind of flowed though me. It didn’t take long at all.

The early days of No Mono were kept under wraps, detached from any labels, briefs or formality. It was an organic beginning, with the two Toms focused on the creative process in the studio – not necessarily the output.

Tom Iansek: I try to escape the kind of mental, or ‘thinking’ side to it. Trying not to designate what it is before we even know. I guess we’re both very curious about where things might lead and don’t feel it necessary to have it all figured out. The whole project has been really nice like that. It’s sort of been teased out one little morsel at a time. We like working within that. For me, it’s not wanting to jinx it by saying ‘it’s this and we want it to be this’, without giving it a chance to develop. 

Tom Snowdon: I think it’s a really central aspect of the way the project has worked from the start and continues to work; is that we allow it to be organic. Driven mainly by our curiosities and our sensibility rather than our heads. I feel like it comes from somewhere, and it’s almost like in a more intangible sense it’s just this energy that kind of comes through us. We met for some reason and we’re making music together for some reason – I guess we do believe in a sense of fate or something, that it’ll happen. If we’re working on a song and it’s really hard work we’ll generally just move onto something else. It’s least resistance. Not to say that we don’t persist with songs, because sometimes you needs to to to get breakthroughs, that’s kind of a general theme of the work we do together. Enjoying that free exploration.

A big focus for No Mono is to create a multidimensional affair. It’s destined to be a sensory experience for all listeners, no matter their prior knowledge or involvement. The Toms intend on leaving that open for audiences, and are keen to extend the project beyond music.

Tom Iansek: There’s a greater artistic interest. We do have an interest in exploring that feeling visually as well. We’re also curious about where it might lead in terms of collaborations with other art-forms – whether it be dance, film… It’s still early days with the project but they’re both feelings we had and ideas for places we’d like to extend the music.

The visual expression of No Mono has evolved through collaboration with a few uniquely talented artists. Photographers like Sam Brumby, Jeff Anderson Jnr and Katrin Koenning captured the duo’s likeness in their own distinctive styles. It’s a stunning and deliberate expansion of No Mono, in all its illusory glory, into the visual plane.

Tom Snowdon: I think there’s a drop of surrealism that we really love exploring in the music. It walks a line between being in the everyday and then completely otherworldly. That’s the magic in a lot of the stuff we like to make.

With Sam, he’s one of my oldest friends and we both love the organic aesthetic of his photography, and how natural it is in terms of how he practices it. Katrin has this great ability to capture magical things in the everyday, but she doesn’t use any tricks or anything. Jeff’s stuff has that colour of surrealism to it as well, which I think really fits perfectly. But again we didn’t start out and go “we need to work with this person and these people” – it just kind of aligns itself. I guess that’s just part of the journey. 

No Mono’s home is of course, Pieater. A label set up by Tom Iansek, Jo Syme and their friend/manager Tom Fraser years ago. Initially formed to release music from Big Scary, the roster has expanded to host the likes Christopher Port, Airling, Slow Dancer and all iterations of Tom Iansek’s projects – both solo and #1 Dads. For all those that experience it, Pieater is a tight-knit, community-orientated collective.

Tom Iansek: It definitely feels like a little family. When we’re working on a song here, we’ll often ask Chris Port when he’s in to jump on the drums. Jo is often floating around, or if friends are around we’ll ask if they can hop in and play some things for us. It definitely has that family feel, for sure. Which is nice.

Tom Snowdon: I feel very lucky to have been invited into the family a few years ago. Coming into it from the outside, it definitely feels like a bit of a sanctuary. I’ve had other experiences where you don’t feel very safe or part of a community that’ll support you. I feel like it’s such an amazing place to explore ideas and be creative because you’re protected. You’ve got people you really respect and who believe in what you’re doing – it feels like a family project.

It can often feel like the modern music industry isn’t a supportive place for artists. There can be a lot of toxic elements and uncertainty for young artists who are still emerging. The Pieater collective turns tail from a model which takes advantage of art, instead focusing on development and a wholesome environment for musical practice. Something which we no doubt need to see more of.

Tom Snowdon: It facilitates a long term artistic practice I think, which is almost against how a lot of things operate. You might be on a one album deal or whatever, and need to get results really quickly. I feel like the way it works, it feels like it’s an investment. If you’re willing to put work in and really work push to make songs, you’ll be supported for as long as you want to do that. It’s not like you’re out the door after Christmas.

Tom Iansek: It’s interesting, in the first few years of making music every other band felt like competition. Success for one band, felt like there was less success to be had for our band. It can very much feel that way until you’re in it long enough to see that’s not how it is at all. Having that sense of community in what you do, and the well wishing for everyone around you can be a wonderful and supportive thing. You don’t feel like you’re forging ahead on your own on this really difficult path. A lot of people say the industry is really tough, cutthroat and difficult. But, my experience is that it isn’t. It can be really wonderful. It can take a while to earn money from it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a really wonderful, fun, awesome supportive place. I guess Pieater, which we started, is the natural extension of that realisation for all of us, and wanting to give that to other artists.

I think that long term vision is really important. Art takes time to develop. Really great art often needs a career for it to grow and for an artist to find their voice. You can only do that if it’s set up in a long term way, where you feel like there’s time and it doesn’t have to be that this first album breaks all the charts, you can hone your craft and keep at what you do.

While the two Toms’ collaborative relationship dates back a few years, it wasn’t until late 2016 that things really got underway. 

Tom Snowdon: There was lots of material, and it actually goes back to late 2014 when I was overseas with my old band Lowlakes, and the track we’d done had just come out. We had so much fun making ‘Return To’ that we were just sending heaps of things back and forward and having a great time. For me, that was kind of when my band fell apart and I was like ‘alright, I want to start doing something else.’ It just so happened that Pieater took me in and Tom and I started working on music. While not necessarily the substance of the record, that collaboration for new music which would facilitate the writing of the record goes back to about then. In 2016 we had 2 weeks in the old studio in Fitzroy and we just jammed and experimented with heaps of different sounds and wrote so many songs – a lot of them were tracked at the time, just live, with a lot of those parts making it onto the record as the beds of songs. Outside of that, I’d write a lot of stuff at home in my room then we’d record them together here. It was a process of constantly working on material. We eventually had so much material that we had to pick some song to actually finish.

Tom Iansek: In terms of the bulk of the album recording, we had probably 5 or 6 weeks last Summer. Would of been December 2016, here. Then it was just sort of chipping away for a while. ‘Til about mid way through last year. 

For the duo, it was never a case of sitting down in an allotted time period to write a record. While a pointed focus and goal is realistic for some bands, that’s not how No Mono wanted their record to come together. Instead, ideas were explored over multiple sessions with the two meandering around instrumental and experimentation.

Tom Snowdon: With that album that my old band released it was like “alright, let’s just write 12 songs.” Whereas I think for, probably a lot of reasons, this album was really feeling our way through and trying to tell different stories. We would’ve written so many songs and not necessarily finished all of them. Built half a house for so many of them, but then only did the landscaping on 10.

Tom Iansek: There’s two of us, and many instruments to play. We write stuff with beats here and then drummers are called in, then there’s all the different session musicians that eventually come in. It can’t help but be this staggered thing that kind of just sort of keeps going over on itself until they’re all slowly finished.

Tom Snowdon: Part of the fun of this project is experimenting – trying to capture unique voices that make the journey a bit more compelling, rather than just a stock sound. We really put a lot of work and thought into the sounds we use. I feel like that takes a bit of time.

Tom Iansek: I mean, every process has its pros and cons. The big pro of the way we do it is… Inspiration can strike, because we meander around, anything can come from anywhere. Also, if we’re ever working on something and we’re feeling stuck, then we’ll just try something different. We might start jamming. It is nice that you can hop around like that, without the pressure of “well, we said we gotta write all these songs.”

Tom Snowdon: I still think that’s the brightest, most enticing element: The next song, what we’re going to write about next, how it’s going to go. That real excitement we have about writing new things and new sounds is so fun. The record is finished, it’s not even out yet, but it feels like we’ve already gone way past that chapter. That’s the weird thing, for people hearing it, it’ll be like it’s brand new. Really we’ve been right at work on so much new music.The tracklisting and overall theme of (Islands Part 1) is by no means an accident. The record has been methodically designed to flow, building upon a narrative of change with every track. The title itself also bears significance to the theme explored by the album.

Tom Snowdon: The title Islands is really the concept around which we wrote all of these songs. It really explores transition through stages of life and the turbulence of that. Islands was seen as a fitting representation of the sanctuary of certain points… It’s often swimming between land or in water feeling like you’re going to drown – that is the most important and poignant part of those experiences. A lot of things happened in the last 3 years that have pointed towards writing about that. It happened organically; all of the songs started to form around these ideas. In terms of the tracklisting, it took us a little while because there were a lot of other songs that didn’t make it on to this record, as they were quite different in personality.

Tom Iansek: It was difficult because this is our first presentation to the world. We didn’t want to think of it, but there were the questions like, ‘what do we want it to be like? What do we do with these other songs? What’s going to come next?’ All of these little things get caught up. In the end we just wanted it to be as succinct as possible and for it to have the feel of flow. The order that we settled on had the best flow out of any of them.

No Mono have played a handful of shows thus far – including a secret show upstairs at Melbourne’s iconic Gaso under the name ‘No Mongrels.’ With their album tour and launch at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid festival impending, the Toms are busy planning out how they’re going to interpret the record live.

Tom Snowdon: I think the sense is that those concepts are the drive of the record in terms of it’s tone and feeling. That’s something we want to translate. We really believe in the performance being a multidimensional thing. It’s not just us performing the music – we really want to use movement and lights and all of these tools at our disposal to make it immersive and give the songs their most potent character. That’s the kind of shows that we like to go to, so we feel like that’s the best way to experience these songs.

We would love it to be that you walk into a No Mono show and you just check out of reality for an hour. Then, you come out and feel like you’ve experienced something otherworldly that’ll stay with you a long time. The aspiration with our music is to create something that is compelling in terms of its ability to detach from reality.

You can experience that feeling for yourself in the coming weeks as no mono kick off a national tour. The debut record Islands (part 1) is out now.

June 2 – Sydney Opera House (Vivid Festival) – Sydney
August 25 – The Brightside – Brisbane
August 31 – Jive – Adelaide
September 1 – Jack Rabbit Slims – Perth
September 7 – Corner Hotel – Melbourne
September 15 – The Studio – Darwin
September 16 – Monte’s – Alice Springs