MonoNeon is an eccentric cat, even by today’s standards—a forward-thinking bassist with a diverse sound that blends R&B with modern experimental music for tremendous results. One of the final musicians to work with Prince before his death in April 2016, he’s made no secret of the Purple One’s influence on his art. Government name Dywane Thomas Jr., we know him as MonoNeon, that musician with a playful vibe and a cool-as-a-cucumber detachment both onstage and off. His bright Day-Glo detail betrays a softness behind the burly basslines, and after chatting with him a bit, it’s clear he’s become a major part of New Orleans’ Jazz Fest culture in just a few short years.
We checked in with MonoNeon ahead of musicians’ and music lovers’ annual sojourn to the Crescent City, where as part of the after-dark madness, the bassist and producer will take part in a mammoth homage to his former bandleader. The much-buzzed-about show at Maison, which shuts down second Sunday (May 6th) with authority, boasts an all-star cast of funk and soul mavens from the greater Fest family. You can snag tickets for what will be a can’t-miss tribute to Prince during Jazz Fest here.
On the topic of the legendary Minneapolis musician, MonoNeon gets up close and purple about his most treasured Prince memories, and takes us into the studio, onto the stage, and to Paisley Park. We also were sure to ask MonoNeon about another favorite artist of his and find out a few of his go-to J Dillajoints. The bassist was keen to show love to another mad scientist of sorts: John Medeski, a top-flight player that’s also quite at home in the NOLA clubs this time of year. MonoNeon will reunite with the legendary keyboard wizard for another NeonMedeski show during Jazz Fest, and the bassist was quick to tell us why the Medeski, Martin & Wood icon is his favorite Jazz Fest giant.
All that, plus talk of Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Ghost Note, and a whole lot more are discussed during this conversation with Live For Live Music’s B.Getz. Read on below!
Live For Live Music: We all have our treasures when it comes to Prince. I will boldly call him the Greatest Ever to do it. Tell us how you came to know and love Prince’s music?
MonoNeon: Honestly I didn’t listen to a lot Prince’s music ’til I started playing with him. The only two albums I really listened to was For You and Dirty Mind when I was younger. The Dirty Mindalbum definitely influenced me the most because of the minimalism he used in the compositions.
L4LM: Most Prince fans have a personal favorite era, tour, lineup or album. What is MonoNeon’s?
MonoNeon: My favorite era/tour of Prince would be Sign o’ the Times era with Levi Seacer Jr. and The New Power Generation era with Sonny T. When I started playing with Prince, we didn’t play much of his old music. We played stuff from his Hit n Run Phase 1 and Phase 2 albums.
L4LM: How did you end up on Prince’s radar? How did he reach out? What did it feel like at that moment?
MonoNeon: Prince found out about me from my videos on the Internet. One of his former managers contacted me via email saying Prince wanted me to come to Paisley Park. When I first got to Paisley in early 2015, I was hired by Prince to be Judith Hill’s bass player for her band. After that, I started playing with Prince, recording and doing live shows at Paisley Park with him.
When I got to Paisley, I wasn’t nervous or anything—I just wanted to play some music. I did think I was going to have to change my MonoNeon thing when I got there, but Prince obviously liked me for me or I wouldn’t have been there at all. In terms of preparing to collab with Prince, I didn’t prepare. [laughs] Prince just let me play. If he wanted me to play a particular thing, I would do so.
Judith Hill – “Back In Time” (Behind-The-Scenes) at Paisley Park
[Video: Judith Hill]
L4LM: You arrive at and step inside the hallowed grounds of Paisley Park. Take us into your thoughts and emotions as it was happening.
MonoNeon: I remember the smell walking into Paisley. [laughs] The door I walked into when I arrived was in front of the NPG Music Club Room. I really didn’t have any emotion when I got there; I don’t get excited about much. I just knew I wanted to play—that’s all! The first time I met Prince was when he came to Judith Hill’s rehearsal, and he gave me a fist bump.
L4LM: You spoke to Bass Musician Magazine in 2016 about the Prince jam sessions with Kirk Johnson on drums, Adrian Crutchfield on saxophone, and Donna Grantis on guitar. What were those jams like? What was recorded?
MonoNeon: Prince just wanted to get us together and play some music. The rehearsals we had would lead to jams and would not stop till he said, “See you tomorrow,” or “dinner break,” whatever. I would know that he was happy when he walked out of the rehearsal or a jam saying something like, “We should record that,” or say “Mmm hmm.” The studio sessions I had with Prince, Kirk [Johnson], and Adrian [Crutchfield] were in Studio A. I would sit in the control room with P to record—he would be on keyboards. There was a lot of freedom recording with Prince; he would come in with an idea, and we would build on that.
MonoNeon: The “Ruff Enuff” song I played bass on was written by Prince—he played keys and guitar on it as well. He asked to release it on TIDAL under my moniker for some reason. I don’t remember the exact number tracks we recorded, but it’s been said that there’s another track called “Soul Patch” that I recorded with Prince, Kirk, and Adrian that can be heard during the Paisley Park Museum tours.
L4LM: What was “Black is the New Black”?
MonoNeon: “Black is the New Black” was a title name Prince was going to use for the project we recorded together.
L4LM: Feel like sharing any treasured memories you have of sessions or performances with Prince?
MonoNeon: Prince and I played together for the Paisley Park After Dark live shows that were happening before his last tour. We played about six live shows together at Paisley in the NPG Music Club Room; Prince was on vocals/keys/guitar, Donna Grantis on guitar, Kirk Johnson on drums, Adrian Crutchfield on saxophone, and me on bass. Madonna came to one of the shows. Another memory I have was when Lianne LaHavas came to Paisley Park, and Prince, Kirk, Adrian, Donna, and I played just for her and her band after their gig.
Prince, MonoNeon, Donna Grantis, Kirk Johnson – “Stare” – Paisley Park – Chanhassen, MN – 10/16/2015
Prince, MonoNeon, Donna Grantis, Kirk Johnson, & Adrian Crutchfield – Paisley Park – Chanhassen, MN – 11/8/2015
L4LM: Damn. That sounds like some amazing times at Paisley. In that Bass Musician Magazineinterview, you spoke of your last hang with Prince, your last studio session, your last moments with the legend. Obviously, you had no idea it would be the final time. If you are comfortable doing so, can you talk about what sticks with you, what you may have said, or any emotions attached to the man.
MonoNeon: One moment I remember the most was when I was at Paisley with Kirk and Adrian for a photo shoot. I was on stage in the NPG Music Club Room playing around on Prince’s black/grey VOX guitar and Kirk said, “Prince wants you to come to Studio A.” When I got back there, it was me and P in the control room, and he asked me to play his guitar—the VOX guitar with the psychedelic design—along with a track we previously recorded. When I was done playing, I gave the guitar back to him, and he smiled and said, “I am out there in a minute.”
He didn’t come out for the photo shoot, but he liked pictures that were taken that night. One of those photos was used for the “Ruff Enuff” cover—this was in January 2016. I wish I would have told Prince I loved him and thanked for giving me a chance. My time with Prince ended too quickly—it’s something I’m still trying to get over! The last time I was with Prince was February 2016 recording in the studio; Prince posted two clips from the session on his Instagram.
L4LM: New Orleans Jazz Fest is the perfect kind of event for a tribute, such as the Prince show you are participating in on the final Sunday, on Frenchman Street at Maison. What can fans expect from that performance? Is there a particular era or period you are looking to focus on?
MonoNeon: I don’t know what the audience is going to expect. [laughs] I’m just gonna play, and whatever happens… happens! There isn’t a particular era I’m focusing on. We probably gonna be playing songs from each era.
L4LM: Your video series of play-alongs became a part of the cultural zeitgeist. I particularly love “Billions and Billions”. Those appear to reach a lot of fans that may not otherwise hear your work. What’s the concept you came up with for those videos? How do you decide what to play? What are your favorites of that series?
MonoNeon: The concept of the videos with creating music from people talking came from wanting to embrace today’s pop culture in some way. I find videos I can relate to or videos that are catchy or whatever. Some of the favorite videos I’ve done are the Will Smith and Cardi B series; they are fun to develop music from.
MonoNeon & Will Smith – “Discipline Your Mind”
[Video: Mono Neon]
L4LM: Another lost legend that you hold dear is one James Yancey—J Dilla. I think it’s fair to equate Dilla with Prince in the sense of universal reverence, innovation, and their knack for moving on to the next before everyone else got there. What are your earliest memories of hearing Dilla?
MonoNeon: My first experience hearing J Dilla was on the Slum Village Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) project.
L4LM: What are some of your go-to Dilla joints or collabs?
MonoNeon: I love the tracks Dilla produced for Common and Busta Rhymes. What Dilla did on Busta Rhymes’ “Still Shining” track is one of my favorites.
L4LM: How do approach covering Dilla as a live musician? Got any favorite “live” jams?
MonoNeon: My approach is to listen and play. If that doesn’t work, I listen and play again. [laughs] My favorite live jams of Dilla is the Suite For Ma Dukes stuff.
L4LM: People are crazy stoked for Neon-Medeski at Jazz Fest. I also noticed that you are stepping into some big shoes for the upcoming Medeski, Martin, and MonoNeon set at Beardfest, too. You have collaborated with the mad scientist John Medeski many times by now, give us your take on the B3 bully?
MonoNeon: I played with John Medeski before in New Orleans during Jazz Fest last year. It was super fun playing with him, it was funky! Medeski is so free on his instruments, so that’s really inspiring to be around! In terms of looking forward to something, I try not to. I just wanna play. We are playing together again as Neon-Medeski this year at Jazz Fest on April 30th at One Eyed Jacks.
L4LM: Beyond the legends, who’s next? Who in the music scene do you look at and say “That’s my guy!”
MonoNeon: Whenever I get a chance to play with Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, he is always inspiring. He’s fearless with that guitar, I love playing music with him.
Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, MonoNeon, & Ghost-Note – The Drom – New York, NY
[Video: Mono Neon]
L4LM: Please hip us to what’s in the MonoNeon pipeline.
MonoNeon: I recently released a new album entitled, I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-Fi). My new album is available on iTunes, Bandcamp, etc. Also, I’m playing on the new Ghost-Note album called, Swagism—it releases on April 20th.
Ghost-Note with MonoNeon – “Milkshake”
[Video: Mono Neon]
L4LM: Lastly, I’m asking all my Jazz Fest interviews to respond to this famous phrase: Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
MonoNeon: I want some good seafood gumbo!