"When I started singing, that's when people started to really listen," Zoon's Daniel Monkman tells me over the phone. "And I felt like I had this voice all of a sudden and it almost was scary to hear my own voice too. I was like, oh, I haven't really heard myself before. And it was kind of scary, but I love sharing my culture with people now, and it feels like people are listening."
In 2020, Monkman made their debut under the moniker Zoon with the album Bleached Wavves. Beyond being the first release for the project, it marked a turning point for Monkman in getting sober, embracing their First Nations Ojibway heritage, and finding their voice. All of these ideas play hand in hand. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Monkman witnessed and experienced the harshness of poverty and the consuming, quickly spreading opioid epidemic in their community. Monkman nearly succumbed to it themself before seeking treatment and finding guidance through the Seven Grandfather's Teachings.
While Monkman was making music before they got sober, they were able to approach it with newfound clarity and vision with a mind to embrace Ojibway tradition in the music and their name – Zoongide’ewin (or Zoon, for short). Monkman also began to envision their music under the banner of "moccasin gaze" – reimagining the distortion and reverb of shoegaze music with elements of traditional First Nations music.
KEXP talked with Monkman to hear more about their story, how their Ojibway heritage continues to influence their new music, building community with other artists, and how their work can continue to educate listeners on Ojibway culture and ideas.
Listen to the piece or read an extended version of the interview below.
Audio production by Roddy Nikpour.
KEXP: How did you first get into writing and performing music?
Zoon: I grew up on an Indian reservation called Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and on the reservation we didn't really have movie theaters or like record stores. We just had the community hall where a lot of First Nations artists would just perform for like dance nights or bingo. And a lot of it was bluegrass music. And so that was always just in my life, that music And it wasn't until I was maybe in grade six, I learned about Nirvana just from listening on the radio with my mom while we were driving. And I went to a new school and met this dude named Scott Willett, and he showed me punk rock music. And I started... I was playing a little bit of guitar because my mom did, but it was in grade six when I went to this school that I started learning power chords and really got into songwriting.
KEXP: That's awesome. I heard you mention to the My Bloody Valentine's Loveless was a big record for you that kind of changed your perspective on music. [I'm] curious about that record in particular.
Zoon: Yeah, my mom dated this kind of banker dude who did a lot of acid and he loved Brian Wilson. And while we were driving to Falcon Lake one summer, he was always like, "You got to listen to Brian Wilson, Beach Boys." And I was like, "Yeah, yeah." And then I finally did, and I loved it. But what I wanted was... I love Brian Wilson, but I wanted something contemporary. And in high school, my friend Danny Hacking was... I think we were just at his house and he was like, "Hey, I know you love Brian Wilson. You've been looking for a contemporary kind of wall of sound. You got to check out Kevin Shields for My Bloody Valentine. He's doing the more contemporary wall of sound rather than the Phil Spector." And he showed me Loveless. He put it on an mp3 and he gave it to me. And I went home and I walked home and listened to it. And I remember not liking it at first because I just didn't really understand all the sounds that I was hearing. But then I listened to "Sometimes" again and it just clicked and I was like, "Wow, I get this now. This is like a contemporary Beach Boys." And then eventually I heard Animal Collective and I was like, "okay, they're like contemporary Beach Boys." But that's how I got into Loveless.
KEXP: That's awesome. I mean, obviously, your music also veers into those really heavy guitars, lots of distortion and reverb, shoegaze sort of sounds. And you've described your music as being like "moccasin gaze," blending shoegaze with First Nations music. I'm curious, you know, about that idea and also what appeals to you about these layers and wall of sound that you use in your music?
Zoon: I think before I was a lyricist or writing poems, I was really into sound and it didn't matter if it was guitars or anything, it was just nature sounds. And I remember being in the powwows and hearing the hypnotic sound of a big drum being played by a group of indigenous people. And that always just resonated with me. And when I heard shoegaze music, I just was like, "why hasn't anyone really combined these two things together?" Because they're so they're on the same plane. They exist in the same area and they do the same kind of healing, in my opinion. And it was just like so natural for me to shift into that with my song "Help Me Understand" where I use a big drum – a First Nations big drum – in the track, and then I use open tuning chords and I think that's my idea of Moccasin Gaze.
KEXP: I'm curious about the name Zoon which I understand comes from the word Zoongide'ewin, which means "bravery, courage, the bear spirit." What about that name resonated with you?
Zoon: Well, I've been putting out records since, like, 2005, and I've always just been a solo artist and have gone through different names like Daniel Monkman, Bloom, and Blisters. The last name that I had come up with was Bloom. And it was just kind of like a whatever name, you know? I was about to put out Bleached Wavves and a friend of mine from New York called and was like, "Dude, like, if you want to stand a chance having your name being the top of the search, whatever search engine people are using, you have to change Bloom because there's like 20,000 flower companies called that. You got to do something unique." And it just so happened at that same time, I had just been to a sweat ceremony to get my First Nations name, my Ojibway name. And it was Gide'ewin which is "heart of the drum" and, and in longer terms, Zoongide'ewin and so I was like, "wow, maybe I'll just use my name, just keep using my name." And so that's what I did. But I sort of shortened it to Zoon and just because at the time I wasn't feeling too confident about making people learn how to say the word, but I'm glad that people are saying the full word. But also Zoon is just like calling me Dan instead of calling me Daniel.
KEXP: Yeah, no, I love that. I feel that feeling in your music, that bravery. There are such bold choices in your music. Do you find music to be a cathartic, emotional experience for yourself?
Zoon: Yeah. Music gave me a voice that I didn't know I had growing up in rural areas and then in the inner city. It felt like no one wanted you to talk if you're in poverty. It felt like back in the day they just trying to brush sweep it under the rug that poverty was a problem. I think that translated into my family of feeling like we didn't belong in the cities and stuff like that. And then when I started singing, that's when people started to really listen. And I felt like I had this voice all of a sudden and it almost was scary to hear my own voice too. I was like, oh, I haven't really heard myself before. And it was kind of scary, but I love sharing my culture with people now, and it feels like people are listening.
KEXP: In your music and in other interviews I've read, you've talked about the Seven Grandfather Teachings helping you get clean and refocusing your life and helping you follow your passion toward music. I was curious, could talk about those teachings a little bit and how they informed you as a person and as an artist?
Zoon: I stopped doing music in 2010 and I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I decided to go to B.C. to go to treatment. And it was there that I was in the N.A. and A.A. Program which is very Christian-based, which is great for some people and it helps them. And in my case it did, but I would always hit this kind of roadblock in my recovery where I feel like I couldn't ascend any further, no matter how much I tried. And I was living in Victoria and I talked to a friend who was First Nations and I told him this and he was like, 'You should come to a traditional 12-step program. I think you could really benefit from it.' So I went and I learned about the Seven Grandfather's teachings and... This was the weird part was that in the Seven Grandfather's teachings, there is a teaching called Zoongide'ewin which is bravery. And it just so happened that this elder gave me my First Nations name, which was Gide'ewin and which is Heart of the Dream, but it also is connected with Zoongide'ewin. And so when I got that it was like meant to be. But that's when my true healing happened is when I finally accepted my culture because for so long I was kind of just brushing it away and not telling anyone I was First Nations because everyone thought I was everything but that. But once I accepted myself and practiced self-love, I became, I would say, healed in a lot of ways.
KEXP: I'm curious, you know, going into your first record Bleached Wavves, which you put on 2020, what was the process of putting that together and coming out of this experience like was yeah. What were you putting into that album?
Zoon: Bleached Wavves is a record of that experience of discovering my culture and embracing it. Because when I... "Help Me Understand" was the first song that I wrote for that album. And that's right when I discovered my language, where I came from, my people and that was something that really I don't know how to describe, but it was very profound. I'm still learning a lot of like a lot I'm still learning the language, but Bleached Wavves is basically like a journal of that experience from the first time that I learned where I came from to the very last song where all of a sudden I'm in Ontario and I'm just like reflecting on that whole ten years away from music and getting clean and learning about my culture. And I also did write it pretty quickly, so there's still a lot more to talk about.
KEXP: And that record was shortlisted for the Polaris prize. What was that like? Did that nomination change things for your career where you wanted to go with your art or anything?
Zoon: Well, I knew that the album was very special. Like, I just I knew not only because it touched on recovery and culture, but I just knew that the songs [themselves] were very well-written. And I just believed that it was going to go places and I really hoped that it was going to get a nomination because I just knew that I needed a nomination to breathe new life into the record because of the pandemic. It was like things were just dying off pretty quickly in the press and stuff. And so I was really counting on that. And when it was leading up to when I got the nomination, then I got the shortlist, I felt pretty satisfied. I wasn't too concerned about winning. I really wanted to, but in my heart, I just wanted that extra push. That's all I wanted. That was all I was expecting. And I got that and I was so happy and it did change my career because it gave this confidence that I was doing what I was meant to do. And, to me, that meant everything because before that... Like, I just found my old work card when I was a janitor at this university while I was writing Bleached Wavves and a note from a friend who was working with who was like, "you got to clean the convention hall, got to go to the bathroom to do this, blah, blah, blah." And I just had a reflection of it. At that time it was like so intense in my life. But I had this vision and I was working so hard that I'm just glad that people recognize the hard work that went into it.
KEXP: And you've released two EPs so far this year, the first of which was Big Pharma, which to me feels like one of your most eclectic releases to date with, you know, veering into some folk and ambient, even a little bit of hip hop influence in there. It features a number of collaborators. I'm curious what the overarching idea for the record was.
Zoon: Yeah, my hometown, Selkirk in 2009 to present day experienced, I would say, one of the worst cases of the opioid epidemic. And there was just, it was, it was before fentanyl was very popular. It was like when Codeine and Percocets and stuff like that were the street drug and people were experimenting with that. And I watched it firsthand become something small to where it was just killing a lot of my friends and family and stuff. And, so that was like a big reason why I got sober. And I promised myself that if I ever got a platform where I was able to maybe influence people in a positive way or give awareness that I would try my best to do that. And so with this new kind of platform on my next release, I wanted to talk about those issues, and I wanted people to know where I came from in that it's still being affected by the opioid crisis. And it was important for me to tell those stories and to also just... I wouldn't feel right putting up music unless I was trying to help bring awareness to my communities or even the outside world that... that's just who I am. And I felt great writing those songs. Like they just came out of nowhere. I was just sitting at home for a month, and they just poured out. And, um, and, yeah, it was just like I was nervous about calling it Big Pharma because I didn't want to get shadow-banned by the pharmaceutical companies. But I don't think I was so, it's all good.
KEXP: Yeah, it was an interesting dichotomy because when I hear the phrase "Big Pharma," I'm like, "Ugh, gross." You get a visceral reaction. But then the EP is really lovely and tender. So I don't know, it's an interesting contrast between the music and the title.
Zoon: Yeah, I know [laughs]. A lot of my friends are conspiracy theorists, but like in a joking way. Back in the day we'd joke about aliens and interdimensional angels and just like really goofy stuff. So the title was supposed to be just like a joke from my hometown. "Oh, Big Pharma!" I just put it down as a joke and one of my friends was just like, he's like, "No dude, keep that! That's so cool. It's funny." And I was like, "Yeah, but people aren't going to understand my humor. They're not going to understand that it's actually a joke." And there's some people who thought I was being serious about like "Big Pharma," but it was more of like making fun of them, but also just exposing the opiate crisis that had devastated my community.
KEXP: Speaking of community, every track I think has a different collaborator on it. I'm curious how that came about and you know, the intention of working with so many different people on this record.
Zoon: I wanted to make music for people. I wanted to make music for artists that I really enjoy. And, and I thought Cadence Weapon, Rollie, I feel like whenever he gets a feature on a song, he always just gets like a couple of bars or something like that. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to write a song for him and have him do whatever he wanted to on vocals. And because I come from a world of hip hop, was like the first music that I got into because young indigenous people, they gravitate towards rap because I think because the people are black and we're brown. So it's like we're almost, we're like 75% there. So it was just.. I have a whole album with, of hip-hop beats that I'm just always working on for fun. And that one I wrote that day and I was like, send it to Rollie. He liked it. And all the other artists are just people that I enjoy. And I just wanted to write music for them, stuff that would show their talents. And I also just want to bring up the people around me too. I'm not like I'm some of these artists who are just like just looking out for themselves.
KEXP: Your other EP, A Sterling Murmuration, is also really collaborative. But I understand there's it's a bit closer to home with your hometown friends from high school. These were songs that you wrote together back in school. What was it like coming back to this older material? Did it resonate with you differently than when you first wrote them?
Zoon: It was strange because when I was living in Winnipeg, I was gaining a lot of popularity with actually this moccasin gaze, but before it was called Moccasin Gaze, and all of those records are online that you can look up. I put out an EP 2009 and then I was working on like my debut album that was highly anticipated and, and I recorded maybe like 80% of the record. And then I decided out of nowhere that I was going to go get sober and not put out any music. And so I shelved all of those recordings. And my producer, Riley Hill, who works at a No Fun in Winnipeg, I guess, was responsible and kept all of those tracks in a hard drive summer in his house. And a few months ago when we were talking about maybe new material or if I had anything that was like really well recorded and I was like, Yeah, you know what? I might maybe I'll ask my old producer, Riley. Well actually still producer, he produced Bleached Wavves. But he was like, Yeah, I think I have it. So he, a week later he came back and he was like, Here's all the tracks. And, and we listened to them and I was like, You know what? This is so good that we could just put it out as is. Maybe just mastered a bit, but why don't we just put this out as is? I think it's a great sound and it captures like 2010 some nostalgia for me. And so so we just put it out. We, I think we mastered it a bit, didn't really waste too much time on it. And we just put it out in the world. Just, uh, it just felt like it could be something I wrote today.
KEXP: I was reading that the title is a reference to a flocking pattern birds use to evade predators and share information with each other. Given the close relationships and community behind the record, what did that title mean to you?
Zoon: Yeah. So here in Canada, we have like a bird called a starling, and they're pretty like invasive species. They rob other eggs and they sometimes don't even eat them. They just pick them up and throw them. Like, it's kind of like it's really, really toxic stuff. I'm notorious for spelling things wrong or pronouncing things just a bit off. And so when I sent the record to my designer who was making the album artwork, he read it, he just put Sterling Murmuration and he sent it back to me and I was like, "Hey, I think it's supposed to be Starling." And he's like, "Oh, that's what you sent me, Sterling." And he's like, "I kind of like it." So I was like, "I kind of like it too." Let's just keep it. And then I looked it up and "sterling" is a type of currency. But "murmuration" is just like a flock of birds. And I just love the way that they move in sync together, it's like these weird amoeba things in the sky when you see them morphing. That's always fascinated me as a young kid. It was like seeing a movie or like a sci-fi movie, but in real life. And that always just appealed to me throughout the years. Because we were pulling from my past. I was like, let's pull some more stuff from my past.
KEXP: That's great. Yeah. And you also put out another record this year with Adam Sturgeon of Status/Non-status under the name OMBIIGIZI [Editor's note: mispronounces the name], is that right?
Zoon: No, no, that's all right. At our live performances, we teach people how to say it. But we acknowledge that a lot of language was lost, and our dialects are a little, little off. So, um, OMBIIGIZI is like what 50% of the people say and then the other percent say something totally off. But I think OMBIIGIZI it's close enough to OMBIIGIZI that it's just like... It's the same.
KEXP: That's very gracious. I'm curious about how that project came together?
Zoon: Adam and I, we came together because we felt like we were maybe the only Anishinaabe people who were really identifying as Ojibway and really putting it on the table. We later realized that there are many other Ojibway artists, but a lot of them are just kind of like not really saying that too loudly. And we hope to encourage them to do that. But we always just found solitude talking to each other, and we would always help each other out. I'd call them and be like, How you doing on tour? Are you getting all the stuff you need? Are you resting? And he would say the same thing to me. How are you doing on the road? Like, and if I was struggling with my culture, we would go back and forth and he would teach me language. Adam is like an elder. He knows the traditions and language and is a really positive dude. And yeah, we always wanted to record and write together, but there was just no time with me working my janitor job and then trying to tour my solo stuff and push it and go to meetings in like New York and stuff I just didn't have... we both just didn't have time. And then the pandemic happened and all of a sudden we were all sitting at home and writing songs and it yeah, maybe grieving for the first time in years.
And, so we just started sending each other song ideas and planning and I was looking for someone to mix my album. And a mutual friend of mine connected me with Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. And I had asked him if he wanted to mix my record. And he was like, Oh, I'm actually not really much of a mixer, but I know some great mixers that can help you out. And the following week, Adam and I were sharing more songs and talking about how or who we could maybe get to record us. And I was like, Hey, like, I'm kind of friends with Kevin Drew, but like, you're friends with him because you've you have a history with him. Why don't you text him or call him and ask him if he would produce this record? And, um, within an hour, Kevin messages back and was like, Yeah, I want to work with you guys on this project. Um, I'll give you my studio time next month. Let's get this going. And it was just off to the races then and, and then, you know, I was writing like crazy trying to make this record.
KEXP: When you got into the studio, was there a specific intention of like the music you wanted to create together?
Zoon: Yeah, leading up to it, Adam and I both talked about... We wanted it to be about family. We wanted to honor our family members who had gone to residential schools and who may have not had a chance to tell their story. And both of us .. with my dad and my auntie and uncle who all went to residential schools. And same with Adam's family, with his grandpa, who joined the military and gave up his treaty rights and stuff like that. We really just want to talk about those topics. And while we were recording it... Actually, before we recorded it, I wrote a song called "Ogiin" and it was about my experience with my dad, who shared with me about residential schools. And while we were in the studio is when they discovered all the bodies in Kamloops, B.C. at the residential schools. And for years they were saying that there was... they were like, there's no bodies there, there's no bodies there. And then all of a sudden, all these bodies were being found. And while we were recording, we're like, holy moly, this is what we were wanting to write about. And now all this stuff is coming out like we this is our vision. So it was like it was just given to us, like a big billboard of what with the album was going to be like.
KEXP: It seems like from what I'm hearing you say, that there's so much just community that's been happening to you and creating music. And I don't know, it's just cool to hear about that and how music is connecting you to each other and to your heritage. It seems really special.
Zoon: Yeah, we feel like we're very privileged. You know, I think Adam and I both come from very, um, immense poverty that, you know, going to a guitar lesson was just not the question. And there were so many things that were set up along the way to either kill us off or, you know, put us in a different direction. And so for us to be here right now, having the impact that we have is like, I don't know, once in a lifetime or something.
KEXP: It seems like you've been such a creative streak this year. I'm curious what you're planning next?
Zoon: Well [laughs], I think a lot of people are maybe just jealous or upset, but I ended up recording an album with Lee Ranaldo last month at Hotel2Tango in Montreal with the Medicine Singers and Yonaton Gat and members from Swans. It was a pretty stacked lineup. And I think a lot of my friends are, like, upset or something... But for me, it's just normal.I'm just like that type of person where people ask me to come on board for things. And I've been building a relationship with the Eastern Medicine Singers and Yonatan Gat for the last five years so for them to bring me on board and then Yonatan being like, "Oh, and Lee Renaldo is going to be there too, recording with us.' And I was like, "What?!" It was after a festival, I went to Montreal and in three days we cut an album and it was really intense. And now like we all bonded after that too. So we're all kind of friends. We're in a group chat and Lee just texted me today because I sent him records and he's like, "Oh, I finally got them!" And I was just like... I never thought that that would ever happen in my life. I love Sonic Youth. That's how I got into open tunings and stuff like that. Before I even knew My Bloody Valentine, I was into Sonic Youth. And so for that to be in my life now... And it just turns out that his son, Sage Ranaldo, lived in Toronto and worked at a radio station called CIUT and when Bleached Wavves came out, had it on rotation for like a year and a half. So when Lee was texting, he's like, "Hey, I'm with my son, and he worked CIUT and played your album Bleached Wavves a bunch." And I was like, "What?!" That's such a weird world. I just can't believe some things. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to be like, "Am I dreaming? I don't know."
KEXP: Do you know when that record is that coming out soon or is that down the line?
Zoon: I think our buddy Thor who's in Swans messaged me, was like, "Hey, Danny, we just listen to some of the mixes and it sounds incredible." So I think they're starting to narrow it down because we wrote the album in three days, but it wasn't like song, song, song. It was like we did these long, long, two-hour jams that were just so many little pockets of beautiful moments. So I think what they're doing is just like sifting through, finding other beautiful moments and then combining that all into, say, a song. And that was just the whole process. It was just improvised. And I remember the last song they're like, "Okay, Danny, we're going to move you on guitar and singing and you write a song on the spot right now.' And I was like, "uhhhh." I just remember looking over and seeing Lee with this weird antenna thing with a mallet and his guitar, and then all the other players all looking at me, waiting for me to do whatever I was going to do. And I have I've been in a lot of situations where I feel a lot of pressure and I felt so welcome there that I didn't feel a whole lot of pressure. I was just like, okay, I'm just going to start strumming and whatever comes out comes out. And thank God, while they were all setting up, I tuned my guitar to this really weird open G tuning, and it was just like this weird song that everybody was just jamming. It was so strange for that to even happen in my lifetime.
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