“It was my first time doing anything like this. I was just trying hard to concentrate on doing a good job and not screwing up.” Ben MONTERO is recuperating after a lengthy European tour with cult Canadian indie-rocker Mac DeMarco, an expedition which included 11 dates in the UK and Ireland, with four shows in London alone. He gratefully explains from his home in the Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens that it was “an amazing opportunity to play shows like this in front of so many people. I would drink a lot to overcome nerves beforehand, then just be totally exhausted afterward and want to crawl into bed.” The expat Australian musician and visual artist has recently settled in Greece after leaving his native Melbourne and “living out of a suitcase for a few years.”
A short walk from the hustle-and-bustle of tourism hotspots that dominate the centre of the sprawling capital, the shady streets and sun-beaten squares of Exarcheia have long been associated with politics – inextricably bound to a history of socialism, anarchism, and anti-fascism, from its days as a stage for anti-junta unrest in the 1970s to more recent anti-government protests. It is also a haven for intellectuals and artists, whose high-rise post-war apartment blocks sit above countless bookshops, organic food stores, coffee bars and restaurants. “It just felt right to me. I like the buildings, the food, and the pace. Though sometimes I feel like I can’t live up to all that sun.”
It seems the perfect, if unlikely, place for Montero to settle – over the past few years, he has balanced his music career with the cultivation of a colourful online comic series. Already boasting over 80,000 followers on Facebook and 50,000 on Instagram, Montero’s imaginative vignettes follow a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters in a vibrant world of music, food, fun and feelings, capturing relatable moments that highlight universal worries, existential questions, and shared dreams. In one panel, a bright green frog frets as he sips a cup of coffee: ‘Am I holding my elbow too high up?’ In another, a small yellow bird laments his disproportionately large head, complaining that ‘not a hat in the whole world’ will fit. Elsewhere, a harmonica-playing cat introduces a shy turtle to blues music – ‘Play it when you sad,’ it sagely recommends.
Steeped in a nostalgic atmosphere, at once invoking the hipster cool of counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb, the cutesy innocence of children’s writer Richard Scarry, and the sardonic wit of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s comic strip Life In Hell, Montero’s artwork has provided album covers, T-shirt designs and gig posters for a growing international fanbase which includes lo-fi pop auteur Ariel Pink, indie folk singer-songwriter Kurt Vile, tour-mate Mac DeMarco and more beyond. The clearly time-consuming ink and watercolour pieces set Montero apart from many contemporary online comic creators who choose to work with digital tools. “The whole thing, for me, is therapeutic,” he explains. “I like the feel of the pen, and I even like struggling to draw with a dying pen, or the various textural obstacles of the paper, or the bumps from crumbs underneath it.” He robustly rejects the notion of switching to digital media. “I have zero interest really. Firstly; I have no idea how to do anything digitally; and secondly, digital drawings just do not connect with me on any level. With hand drawn things, no matter what the level of skill, it’s always something I want to look at.” Though he clarifies, “this is just personally what resonates with me and certainly not a critique of anything digital,” before conceding, “I’m possibly just trying to live in a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Montero’s musical output has been similarly imbued with a throwback feel, with his 2013 album The Loving Gaze drawing frequently on the inspiration of bygone pop balladeers such as Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters, the California sunshine sounds of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Strawberry Alarm Clock. He cites current influences as disparate as Alice Coltrane and George Michael, from Aussie trip hop pioneers The Avalanches to hairy 70s sex symbol Demis Roussos. “I guess it’s melodic, round, and loud, with romantic muscle,” Montero muses, when asked to define his sound. “Anxious soft rock with lots of primary music radio colours!”
He has been honing this anxious soft rock at Mark Ronson’s Tileyard studios in London for a new album, Performer, working with Jay Watson of Australian psychers Pond and Tame Impala and Grammy-winning engineer Riccardo Damian, whose clients have included such superstars as Adele and Lady Gaga, as well as 2017 Mercury Prize winner Sampha and young British jazz royalty Binker & Moses. “The recording process was a pleasure,” recalls Montero. “It ran so smoothly because there was just the three of us, and our brains were tuned in together about what we wanted to accomplish. Not in a high-brow concept prog way,” he jokes, “just more fun and colourful. I don’t think I’ll ever want to work with the whole-band-in-the-studio approach again.”
This focused, methodical approach has paid off on Performer, which sports confident, concise melodies and a lush instrumentation that recalls the 70s feel-good flavour of Supertramp and Steely Dan, with an unapologetic romanticism reminiscent of Montero’s own visual work. It’s not hard to imagine his cartoon characters grooving along to the dream-pop hooks of lead single Vibrations, and indeed they do feature in the kaleidoscopic animated music videos for Tokin’ The Night Away and Running Race, riding through the night sky in a floating bath tub, staring into hypnotic TV static, facing their inner demons in a spooky claymation forest.
“[It] all just came together pretty naturally,” reflects Montero. “I have a really great band here.” The success hasn’t gone to his head; gifted with an influx of fresh fans picked up during the 2017 tour, and an online audience that expands daily, he has not chosen to rest on his laurels. “There are other shows in the works,” he promises, and though he can’t deny that his newfound exposure is tiring (admitting at one point, “I need a holiday”), the multi-talented Montero is already hinting at further exploits in the future.
There is, however, a caveat. “I need to finish the two books I’m working on first.”
Performer is released on 2nd February on Chapter Music.