Interview with Dywane ‘Mononeon’ Thomas Jr by Kilian Duarte… There is something to be said and honorable about those individuals who take creative risks in the modern music industry. For whatever the outcome: good, bad, shocking, or predictable, the individual committing the feat is undertaking a risk few seldom dare to venture upon.
Luckily, in the case of the above Mr. Mononeon, the risk has proven to have made him one of the most intriguing, mysterious, and talked about bass players coming up in the community today. With a persona that is truly one of a kind: bright colors, costumes, avant-garde compositions, ridiculous chops, and a sheer endless supply of online content, Dywane has transformed himself in his own way into one of the most easily recognizable young figures in bass today.
The first time I met Dywane was my junior year at Berklee. I had heard rumors of a new left-handed freshman who could both groove his ass off and had monster chops. With a pension for wearing a Spongebob Square Pants hat and a reputation among the gospel musicians as being the ‘cat they got on their jams every week.’ After a while we ended up jamming in my dorm room, and even though he was amp less, I could tell he played with maturity far beyond his years (partly due to him having played since he was 4 years old). Tasteful and restrained he showed promise. Every year we see each other at NAMM, and each year I see him coming out with something original and a little mind bending (in a good way).
The art world would be nowhere without the eccentric entrepreneurs who try and shake things up a bit. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years Berklee bass freshman will be rocking neon orange for good luck with the music gods.
For those of you who may be hearing about you for the first time, where did the persona of “Polyneon”, and now “MonoNeon” originate?
Everything I do is inspired by my love for color theory and visual arts, particularly 20th century avant-garde art movements. I am always reading and learning about various visual art movements and visual artists. The origin of the “Polyneon” (now known as “MonoNeon”) persona and abstraction began when I started reading about Dadaism as well as Surrealism and Pop Art. Avant-garde visual arts have a big influence on my personal attire, inspiring me to wear high-visibility clothing, clothes with bright color schemes, facemasks, baseball chest protectors, etc. During my reading of Dadaism I started embracing the idea of introspection and eventually stopped thinking about the worldly idea of becoming a great musician… thinking about the worldly idea of becoming a great musician became overwhelming so I am happy I departed from it.
Yes, my dad (Dywane Thomas Sr.) is a bassist and my grandfather (Charles Thomas) is a jazz pianist. I began playing bass at 4 years old and am self-taught. My grandma’s living room was my practice room, I remember practicing along with songs that played on WDIA 1070 radio station, all the southern soul/blues songs. When I think about it my entire family influenced my musical foundation. In the early 90′s, my family use to have house parties and the music that was blasting on the stereo was stuff by Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Womack, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, etc. That sound is always going to be part of me. Another important part of my development as a musician was playing in church; it was always the church pianists/organists that I learned the most from.
You are heavily influenced by both minimalist composers and by many visual artists, how did you come to incorporate both into your music?
Well I just began seeing and hearing a connection between sound and visual things…. I guess! When I found out about John Cage that led me to various experimental things including visual arts. Cage is my primary influence for a lot of the avant-garde things I do. Some of the visual artists that inspire me are: Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and many more. The inspiration I get from paintings and sculptures is not always immediate, it usually takes me awhile to find ways to use a painting/sculpture as inspiration for my bass playing and compositions. One of my primary goals is to possibly combine the sounds of John Cage and Mavis Staples, Iannis Xenakis and Bobby Womack, and Stockhausen and Albert King, etc. in my bass playing and compositions.
You have recently been releasing a great many cover videos in a diverse group of styles, what spurred the sudden burst of productivity?
The initial reason I began releasing and posting videos of myself playing bass and other things is to “see and hear my own vision”. I am doing my best to find my voice in every genus of music, so that’s why I like playing anything (for an example, playing a Toni Braxton cover then playing bass over a Morton Feldman song.) I JUST PLAY… play my bass to anything. I want my life to be audible when I play; I want to play the way I live. I am not much of a bassist, but I am making sure my personality is heard in my playing.
I am actually right-handed, but play left-handed (a right-handed bass upside down). I’ve been playing that way since I was 4 years old and I am not sure why I play left-handed when I am right-handed. I cannot play a conventional left-handed bass, only right-handed basses flipped around. Playing this way allows me to use heavy string bending on the top strings, something I love to use.
What is the “Readymade Bass”?
The “Readymade Bass” is inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s found art/readymade works, particularly the “Fountain” (1917) and his parody of the Mona Lisa. Readymade art is created by choosing an ordinary object/item, modifying it, and making it a piece of art. So I took that idea, made it practical for me and created the idea of the readymade bass. The primary characteristics of the readymade bass are the ordinary sock covering the entire headstock and the name “MonoNeon” (formerly “Polyneon”) taped to the body of the bass. Other mundane items are also placed on the bass: colorful duct tape, bandages, cloth, and etc. All of this is a result of reading about visual arts and finding a personal way to apply to my life.
What were some things you picked up while playing with Dave Fiuczynski?
I met David Fiuczynski during my brief stay at Berklee and it was life changing in the most down-to-earth way. Fuze is the reason why I love using microtonal sounds and eastern melodicism. Before I left Berklee I played with Fuze and Alex Bailey (drummer) in LA at The Baked Potato and that was the greatest gig I ever played. They allowed me to be myself, Fuze was aware of my southern soul/blues and funk foundation and he wanted that sound with what he was doing. It was a very honest experience. I also began listening and reading about other microtonal composers (Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Julian Carrillo, and etc.) because of Fuze.
How did your collaboration with the Gospel Chops Company develop? And what was it like filming the DVD?
The founder of GospelChops, Gerald Forrest, asked me to be part of his production for Bass Sessions Vol.1. It was amazing to be featured on the project. I am thankful Gerald gave me the opportunity to be heard. I was nervous but I made sure I played my butt off….hahaha!! All the guys featured on the project (Gouche, Bubby, Janek, Turtle, Damian, and Hadrien) are great people!
What got you into using Gamakas in composition?
My use of gamakas in my playing is influenced by listening to the string players and the singers of Indian classical music. Sundaram Balachander (veena player) and Sultan Khan were two of the musicians I began listening to. I am always listening to raga performances, embracing various inflections I may hear to apply to my playing. One singer I’ve been listening to now is Ustad Amir Khan, I have been trying to grab some of the inflections he sings and play it on my bass.
You have been involved with EBS for a few years now, what lead you to prefer these amps?
I was introduced to the EBS company at NAMM 2008 by my friend, Jackie Clark. Everybody at EBS are great people and supportive. The amplifiers and cabinets are powerful stuff! I am not really into gear though, I just plug-in and play!
What are your plans for 2012?
I just want to continue writing my own vision and read it. I don’t care about being the greatest, the best, I JUST WANNA’ LIVE MUSIC! I was telling my mother recently that some people like what I am doing and some people dislike it, but I cannot live my life trying to figure why that dichotomy exist… I just have to continue doing what I do!
About Kilian Duarte
Kilian Duarte is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and is an active session and live bassist operating out of the Boston, MA area.