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The Reigning Monarchs, wearing black sweaters, ride surf punk

October 04, 2013|By Melissa Kaplan

There aren't many instrumental surf punk bands working the professional music circuit these days, and that's just one of the things that sets the Reigning Monarchs apart. The North Hollywood band has been playing in punk and comedy enclaves for the last five years and have been amassing a loyal following by keeping a very Southern California genre alive.

The other distinction that makes the group stand out?

Its frontman, Greg Behrendt, is better known for co-authoring the bestselling "He's Just Not That Into You" than his guitar chops. He started the group in 2008 with producer-guitarist Michael Eisenstein, former guitarist for the alt-rock powerhouse Letters to Cleo.

LISTEN: "Black Sweater Massacre" by The Reigning Monarchs

Last week the two released their sophomore album, "Black Sweater Massacre," a work funded entirely by fans through crowd-funding platform IndieGoGo, a Kickstarter alternative that artists find friendly. The Monarchs asked for $10,000 to pay for their new release; the fans ponied up just less than $30,000.

"There are a lot of rockers around now still, and they buy music," Behrendt says. "And this is the kind of music that has all of that. Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And we’re making music for those folks and anyone else."

The album offers a driving punkabilly blend mixed with ska, reggae and lounge music. For all the throwback influences, the Monarchs are hardly a heritage band; the songwriting strongly reflects a wide range of influences. Still, it's retro enough that Quentin Tarantino is likely to call them at any minute for a soundtrack deal.

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But what the Monarchs really want to be is a TV house band. "Like a West Coast, surf punk version of the Roots," Eisenstein says. "A band that people can get down to, that can do whatever you need them to do."

Einstein and Behrendt began collaborating in 2007, when Behrendt came in for guitar lessons. He wanted to record a song and use it as the introduction music for his stand-up set. The two eventually ended up playing and recording together. "We liked surf guitar, but not necessarily all [surf] music," Eisenstein says. "We wanted to take the sound of surf guitar and make it the basis of a punk rock band. And then we classed it up."

Bassist Dave Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta joined the band in 2010. 

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Invoking the original surf era, the Monarchs also experimented with matching outfits. "I was bound and determined to be in a band with a uniform," Behrendt says. White tennis gear and sweaters was one choice (which wasn’t an arbitrary choice, as they did talk tennis).

But they finally decided on a look that wasn't quite so Ken doll. "There's a way to look cool and look middle-aged," Behrendt says. "So eventually, I just told everyone to wear black, and I had this sweater that had an R on it. And Mike is so handsome, he looks good in anything." They still wear these sweater getups today.

Performance and presentation is something the two know about. They are in Los Angeles, after all. When they play live around town, special guests are known to join the band: Nora Jones, Aimee Mann and Rhett Miller have all taken turns as Monarch vocalists.

As for supporters, Dave Grohl has been sporting a Monarchs T-shirt, and Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black are tweeting about the new release. But the real support has come from the fans.

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Websites such as Bandcamp have been wholly receptive, placing the group in the punk category for  lack of a "surf" drop-down option. The Monarchs are glad to fulfill the need.

"A few bands notwithstanding, I just don’t hear a lot of bands that are rocking out," Eisenstein says. "Some of them make some very nice music, technically classified as rock. But it’s not rocking."

And the band's loungey vibe means not having to traverse a sweaty mosh pit at a rock venue to enjoy it.

"We're building a sweater army, I suppose, of people who don’t want to actually get in a fight,"  Behrendt says.

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Melissa.Kaplan@latimes.com

Twitter: @msculprit

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