I recently heard from a friend on Facebook that the band Tripmaster Monkey was to be playing a reunion show in Rock Island. I heard of it the day before the event, so wasn’t able to make it, but the news prompted me to give another spin to their 1996 Sire records release Practice Changes.
I considered myself a fan of Tripmaster Monkey in my later high school years. I probably gave them more leeway than I would have a similar band that didn’t happen to be from my home state and didn’t play my hometown regularly. But their self-produced cassette EP Surrealean Junk Machine caught my ears enough to get me to turn up and pay $3 to see them play for a dozen teenage kids at most in a tiny College Hill coffee shop. The singer climbed the PA speakers and the band put every ounce as much energy into the set as if it had been on a summer festival stage, and for that I was grateful and became loyal. And they plainly had a gift for penning soaring anthems.
It was with some excitement that I heard of their major-label signing. Around 1993 it felt like Tripmaster Monkey, House Of Large Sizes, and scads of other little-known college-town rock bands were finally getting some long-overdue recognition. I went off to college in Ames, saw Tripmaster a few more times there, tried to turn as many friends as I could on to them. I bought the 7” single of “Shutters Closed,” the EP, and the full-length. Then it seemed like I didn’t hear much from them for a year or two.
In 1996 I was back in Cedar Falls and visiting my favorite local record store. My favorite clerk at this store was Aaron Curtis. In fact, I had tremendous admiration for him: he was a few years older than I and had played drums in some notable local bands – Fat Bertha and the Loveshakers, Fist Puppet, Mondale. As music fans, he and I shared a love for all things loud, dissonant, druggy, and fucked up – Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, just about anything on Amphetamine Reptile – but he knew his stuff much more than I did. When I started self-releasing my own homemade tapes of noisy weird shit, I would always give him his own copy in exchange for his personal critique of its contents. He was working on that day, and I asked him what the deal was with this new Tripmaster Monkey album I noticed on the New Releases wall – I’d heard nothing about them having anything new in the works, and the cover art was uncharacteristically stark and abstract. Aaron signaled his approval of the album and put a copy on to play in the store for me. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. In that place, at that time, to my ears, it was something groundbreaking.
And yet, I didn’t buy it. I was chronically short on cash, and eventually the CD disappeared from the wall and I forgot about it until a few years later, after the band was broken up, when I ran across a copy and bought it. Was it really as radical as I remembered it from that one hearing? As it turned out, for an album released on a major label in 1996, yeah, it was. And it made me revisit their earlier material and appreciate it all over again. I became a fan again and stayed one.
One gets the feeling that there’s quite a story behind Practice Changes, one that will probably never be adequately told beyond the band’s inner circle. In the early 1990s Tripmaster Monkey were one of dozens of young bands combining cranking guitars, anthemic hooks, and literate college-friendly lyrical imagery to get swept up by a major label during the Summer Of Grunge. Their 1994 Sire debut, Goodbye Race, produced a very modest hit in the prototypically grunge-pop “Shutters Closed,” and the obligatory quirky video, but Tripmaster Monkey seemed to have all but disappeared by 1996 when the follow-up appeared with little fanfare.
The title, Practice Changes suggests that Tripmaster Monkey wanted people to know that their creativity had been moving in directions unfamiliar and unexpected even to themselves, and that this album was the product. The 20-second opening track, “Car Song Chorus,” is appropriately a shock – a distorted recording, seemingly made on a handheld cassette machine, of four lines worth of rough acapella harmony. This slams right into the majestic guitars of “Beyonder,” a sound reminiscent of The Rising Tide-era Sunny Day Real Estate, except four years earlier, louder, rawer in production, and with choir-like vocals.
Lyrically, Tripmaster Monkey had always celebrated that time-honored young-American ritual, the road trip, but “Car Song Chorus” is an unusual presentation for one of their paeans to the automobile. Were these young men getting burned out about the road? A song title found later in the album, “The Last Road Song Ever (To Be Continued)” suggests something about their outlook was different. And there are other signs of a new cynicism and/or maturity – “Colts,” otherwise one of the poppier moments on this disc, opens with the lines “What’s that you said about how we are all the same / That could work I guess, if you want to try it” – Chris Bernat seemingly singing in answer to the Chris Bernat of two years prior that sang Goodbye Race’s “Roman Catholic Haircut.”
Sonic surprises are all over Practice Changes – unpolished production, Casio keyboards, strings, occasionally silly backup vocals, and three tracks of what sound like excerpts from boom-box recordings of the band’s rehearsals, presented seemingly as evidence of how “practice” had in fact “changed.” “You Make Me Cry” and “Spinning To Unwind” take things a little ways into ramshackle indie-folk territory, and the queasy “Shirley On Pills” jumps between lounge-swing verses and a bluesy stomp chorus before capping it off with a chugging metal outro. Tripmaster Monkey seems to have been determined to screw with people’s expectations on this album, yet with all the freewheeling experimentalism, the songwriting that got them to this point was still very much present. While many of the new elements here foreshadow indie-rock records other bands would release in the following years, it’s a bit of a puzzler that an album like this managed to get released on a major label in 1996 – less of a wonder that said label didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it promotionally.