Overseas interviews are the worst — time differences, noisy lines, incorrect numbers with no hope of directory assistance…

The first number I dialed to reach Siobahn de Mare, vocalist for British duo Mono, ended up being a fax number. As I was calling from work, where I have no incoming calls, the following half-hour was a tense slow-motion dance of quick conversations with their publicist and waiting for the correct number to appear on my pager. Correct number in hand, I dialed England — on the wrong line, rendering my cassette an untranscribable dial tone, followed by a half-hour of the mantra “If you’d like to place a call, please hang up and try again.” Following is some freshly-remembered (this all took place about ten minutes ago) paraphrased comments from Siobahn…

Mono started as an experimental collaboration from de Mare and Martin Virgo. Thrown together by musical acquaintances who thought they’d work well together, the duo (not even named at that point) first recorded in what Siobahn described as “a cupboard.” Though neither was committed to that particular project beyond its creation and recording, things became more permanent after a music publisher at Chrysalis had played a demo tape for her boyfriend, who worked at Island Records. A fierce bidding war ensued. Oblivious to all this, Siobahn was off in Los Angeles on vacation, while Martin was fending off advances from A&R people anxious to cash in on Mono’s sound. Eventually the nameless duo (working title: Tremelux) got signed to England’s Echo label. The album is being distributed in the US by Mercury.

de Mare admits that if those events hadn’t happened — if there were no Mono — she would still be involved with ten or twelve other musical excursions. Intrigued and influenced by a bevy of classic soul singers (“not the stuff they call R & B these days,” she derisively sniffs) and pop composers of the ’60s, de Mare enjoyed involvement in several projects where she got to use her voice, an instrument that’s clear, pure and coyly innocent. It works quite well with Virgo’s penchant for Bacharach-like melodies and cinematic orchestration — a combination that after Portishead’s success brings the old dollar signs into most record exec’s eyes.

Taking a casual approach, de Mare works as the perfect foil to Virgo’s obsessive nature — “he’s what you’d call an anal retentive. I would show up and want to sing my part from top to bottom and leave… Martin would be saying ‘wait, wait, where are you going?’ Most of my input was critical, while Martin would spend hours in front of the computer perfecting matters.”

Which is not to say that de Mare doesn’t contribute musically to Mono. A lack of music reading or writing ability doesn’t stop her from dictating bass lines or high hat patterns into a portable tape recorder, anymore than a lack of classical voice training prevents her from hitting the notes with soul and accuracy. A related incident which took place while recording clearly illustrates Siobahn’s impromptu musicality: “I was playing piano in a very avant-garde style — I don’t know how to play the piano at all — while another band in the studio, Orbital or the Orb, I’m not sure which, was watching from the upstairs glass window. I didn’t know they were watching, but they decided that they needed me playing on their record, until it was made clear that I didn’t really know how to play… “

It’s inevitable that Mono will be receiving more than their fair share of Portishead comparisons, though the resemblance is only superficial. Both bands use distinctive female vocals, thoughtfully crafted rhythm tracks and a cinematic feel to drive their music, yet while Portishead achieves a film noir feel, Mono’s results are more swinging London than midnight rendezvous. It’s easy to see that both band’s works are the results of similar influences, rather than a copycat syndrome. Even de Mare is puzzled by the comparisons — “Beth and I sing in completely different ways.”

Regardless of differences or similarities to others, Mono is quickly establishing itself, lately by having their music featured in the TV trailers for Great Expectations. The band has plans to come stateside and tour with a full band, if they can afford it… at this rate, they soon will.

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