Interview with Bassist MonoNeon, One of the Last People to Play with Prince

all photos courtesy of Trent Moorman

Interview by Trent Moorman

For the past year, Prince had been playing with a 25 year-old bass player from Memphis known as MonoNeon. He is Dywane Thomas, Jr., a preternaturally talented musician, previously enrolled at Berklee College of Music. When he plays, Thomas’s face is often covered by brightly colored ski masks, he has a manifesto based on Dadaism, and he’s an absolute wraith on the bass.

Prince and MonoNeon had recorded basic tracks for an album, with no release date set. Prince was producing, playing guitar, and keys. The band also features drummer Kirk Johnson and Adrian Crutchfield on sax and electric woodwinds. They released one song on Tidal called “Ruff Enuff.” No news has been given as to what the album’s fate will be.

When asked if there was any information about the tracks he recorded with Prince, MonoNeon said, "I do remember Prince saying he was going to name the album Black Is The New Black. Prince was the one who decided to use the moniker “MONO NEON” for the release of "Ruff Enuff" on TIDAL. I'm not sure when or if the album will be put out."

MonoNeon’s YouTube page is where his experimental jazz and funk skill are on full display. It’s easy to see why Prince would want to play with him. He creates stream-of-conscious bass suites, playing to anything and everything, like a Formula One car race, a woman freaking out after eating a hot pepper, a democratic debate, and Dave Chappelle doing Rick James “Fuck Yo Couch.” MonoNeon’s adaption of the Angry Grandpa YouTube series may be the greatest thing the internet has ever seen and heard.

Prior to Prince’s passing, I had interviewed MonoNeon in Memphis. He’d just finished watching Black Samson, and was eating a Lenny’s sub sandwich:How did you start playing Prince? What is it like playing with him? They emailed me asking, “Do you want to come to Paisley Park and jam.” And I said, “YEP.” Playing with Prince is uhmazing. He is always reaching for something higher in the music. Every time I play with him, either at rehearsals, or shows at Paisley Park, I leave the stage full. Not hungry or thirsty. Just full. It’s constant inspiration playing with Prince.

How are Prince rehearsals? Meticulous, fun, and funky. Are you all writing new material with Prince? We’ve been playing the classic hits material from his latest albums, and anything he brings in. Sometimes we have improvisational jams that may turn into songs or turn into a new part for an arrangement. We are always learning new music and constantly working on how to make things better. We’ve been recording some new stuff. What surprised you about Prince? He’s such a hard-working musician/artist, constantly creating and taking the music higher and higher. To be around someone like that you have no choice but to be inspired and improve. I’m thankful for the experience.

What’s up with your “MonoNeon” concept? I wanted to create something that felt like me. With or without the bass. It came from just wanting to figure myself out, and stages of introspection. I’m either adding things to it, removing things, or just letting things be what it is. The MonoNeon moniker came from my fondness for neon light installations. How would you describe what you do with your YouTube videos. You play to whatever. I really don’t think too deep about the things I do. They’re already there for me, I just go towards them. Everything is intuitive. Shaping myself with anything is what I go for. What’s your process for the videos? Do you notate it somehow? Do you figure out time signatures and keys? There is no writing or transcribing stuff on manuscript, I listen and try to figure out things. I make a lot of mistakes, do a lot of takes and choose what I like best, especially with the speech material. With the “bass and speech” stuff I do at least 4 or more takes. It takes me a while to develop music out of peoples speech. Trial and error is a big part of whatever I do.

What made you want to play bass to these videos?

I wanted to be heard. I wanted people to be aware of me. I wasn’t concerned with whether or not people were going to like them. I wanted y’all to hear and see my orbit of sensibilities - the avant-garde, punk subculture notions, funk, southern soul, gospel, color field, neon, and the microtonal. Since I know I’m not a virtuosic bassist, I’m always focusing more on the concept of what I want to do - the idea. What’s being implied in my playing is more important to me than always wanting to sound good.

What is it about the Angry Grandpa footage that moves you to write music to it? I’m not sure, probably because I want to sound like the way he talks, yells, even farts. I just like it. Angry Grandpa’s speech cadence is pretty musical to me. I’ve been watching Angry Grandpa and KIDBEHINDACAMERA videos for a while. I don’t know them but for some reason I dig the energy they convey with the pranks. I love Angry Grandpa. Fun, crazy dude! Has Angry Grandpa seen your videos of him? Nah, I don’t think they’ve seen the videos. It would be cool if they did though. I would love to record an actual Angry Grandpa & MonoNeon album [laughs]. But with big instrumentation, not just bass.

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Please explain your manifesto based on Dadaism. I love the playful subversiveness of Dadaism. The readymade Dada art by Marcel Duchamp is what inspired my idea of the “Ready-Made Bass,” and the sock covering the entire headstock, and the moniker taped on the body. The MonoNeon Art Manifesto is somewhat influenced by the Dada manifesto. I first discovered Dadaism by reading stuff here and there about John Cage. Please describe your affinity to Geometric Abstraction, and Surrealism art. I want to play to like Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, or Rene Magritte. Just the idea of wanting to sound like a painting or painter always leads me somewhere. Even if I don’t actually sound like some geometric abstraction or surrealism thing. The idea and the endeavor of wanting to sound like these things takes precedence over everything else. Another art movement that gets me going is Minimalism. Anne Truitt’s and Sol LeWitt’s sculptures are pretty happening. Define microtonality. I was introduced to microtonality when met David Fiuczynski. Since that encounter I’ve been playing around with quarter-tone and eighth-tone sounds. Microtonality is playing sounds outside of twelve notes per octave. Dividing the 2:1 into various number of parts, micro-equal temperament. I use my fretless, quarter-tone fretted bass, and keyboard to play microtonal sounds. Why did you leave Berklee College of Music? I just wanted to leave, but I’m glad I went. I met some great people there. Do you have your eyes on any videos or internet happenings that you’d like to play and compose to? I’ve been checking out some old Comic View video. Stuff with Ricky Smiley and Lavell Crawford, I like their speech cadence so I might develop some noise with it. Also I’ve been recording conversational things of my family and creating music out of it. I did a video recently with my auntie and grandma talking. What’s next for you? Not sure what’s next for me. I live in the moment and the now so much I really don’t think much about the future. Don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing [laughs]. What were you in your past life? What will you be in your next one? A neon light installation that glowed on Albert King’s hands. In my next life, I’ll be an after church service fried fish plate.

Trent Moorman is a Seattle-based music writer, and drummer for a ton of local bands, past and present, including Head Like a Kite, Pillar Point, Katie Kate, OCnotes, and many more. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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