Born on the internet and taken in by Prince, MonoNeon has grown himself into one of the greatest bass artists of our time
Undeniably funky, boundlessly prolific, and certifiably viral, there’s never been a bass hero quite like one Dywane Thomas Jr., more massively known as MonoNeon. In fact, it’s the dichotomy between those two names that is the key to our latest root revolutionary.
Dywane is the son of a Memphis bass player, inspired by his dad, deeply steeped in the distinctive soul and blues of his hometown, and later doused with formal and informal jazz and improvisational training at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The result is a playing style packed with Pastorius-size personality and swagger that never nears overplaying, thanks to his pocket-minded precision. It’s the kind of feel that has led to calls from Prince, Ghost-Note, Medeski & Martin, Ne-Yo, Mac Miller, Nas, Bootsy Collins, Judith Hill, and Jacob Collier.
MonoNeon is equally brilliant. He’s a colorful, Dadaism and readymade art-influenced solo artist who somehow figured out how to tap into the power of the internet to become a pop culture sensation. Mono’s path to YouTube and Bandcamp superstardom includes wildly popular videos featuring fingerboard interpretations of celebrities speaking, and 24 solo albums. Those double-dozen discs have blossomed from microtonal, avant-garde instrumentals to funky, bass-led confections showing off his burgeoning producing, multi-instrumental, and vocal skills, to soul-revealing songs with timely, socially relevant lyrics that have established a clear musical voice.
Which brings us to the dilemma that sparked it all: a burning desire to be heard, while being painfully shy. “That was my whole incentive for putting out videos and records,” admits Mono. “I wanted people to know me before I even walked in the room. Not in a big-headed, arrogant way, but because I have social anxiety — though I’ve gotten better. If people know who I am beforehand, it kind of breaks down that wall a bit. I don’t have to introduce myself.” That last sentence is certainly the case some 11 years after his first album and video. As we try to pry ourselves from the incessant grip of covid, Mono has already released four fertile records (and three singles) in 2021: Banana Peel on Capitol Hill, Gospel According to the Little Green Man, Supermane (featuring Ledisi), and Basquiat & Skittles Album. Though long on musical creativity, MonoNeon is a man of few words. Still, he was a willing participant as we bombarded him with questions.
Memphis Soul Stew
Born on August 6, 1990, and raised in Memphis, Dywane Thomas Jr. was inspired by a range of the city’s signature sounds.
What was some of the first music you heard?
A lot of southern soul and blues. That’s my true foundation — artists like the Bar-Kays, Bobby Rush, Johnnie Taylor, Ann Peeples, and labels like Stax, Hi-Records, and Malaco Records. A lot of it was because my dad [Dywane Thomas Sr.] is a bass player and played on some of that stuff; he gigged and recorded with Pops Staples and Mavis Staples, Denise LaSalle, Rufus Thomas, the Memphis Horns, James Carr, and J. Blackfoot. I also heard music from the Baptist Church, being around my grandma and aunties. The title track of my Supermane album is my Baptist Church influence coming out the way I feel it. And I have to mention the influence of early-’90s Memphis crunk/gangsta rap; I heard that music because my cousins used to babysit me.
Dywane Thomas Sr. and Memphis Horns’ “Desire In Your Eyes”
How did you get to bass?
When I was four years old, my dad gave me an electric guitar. I flipped it over and started to play bass on it [left-handed]. My mom tried to get me to flip it back and play it the right way, but my dad said, “No, leave him alone.” I remember playing some funky stuff on it because I was trying to mimic my dad, who I had seen onstage. I wanted to be just like him. He’s a Memphis legend, and at the time he was playing a purple Japanese bass, a Tune Bass Maniac.
At what age did you get a real bass?
I think around eight or nine. It was an Ibanez Soundgear 4-string. My mom got it for me. My dad had moved to Europe because he was working over there, but my mom saw what I was doing and fully embraced it. I don’t know how she knew just how serious music was to me, but I guess she figured it was in my blood.
How did you learn to play the instrument, and who were your main influences?
I learned by watching my dad and others. I was plucking with my two fingers and slapping like he did. But because my dad moved to Europe early on, he didn’t really get to teach me directly. I got to revisit his playing through records and videos a little later. Otherwise it was people like James Alexander from the Bar-Kays and local bassists I saw on Beale Street. I was also playing along with records and a local Southern soul radio station called WDIA 1070. Later, it was Victor Wooten with his percussive slapping and double-thumbing, plus Marcus Miller and Anthony Jackson — all the pioneers and greats who came before me — listening to them and eventually getting away from them to pursue my own style. But I would say I got my funk from my dad and also my grandfather, Charles Thomas, a jazz pianist who played with Ron Carter and Billy Higgins.
At age 12, you joined your first band.
I got associated with the Stax Music Academy when they first started and built the school. There were some guys there and we started a band called South Soul Rhythm Section. I was writing little compositions for them, too, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing (I think I was 12 years old). I was also playing a lot in church, and that’s what really shaped me as a bass player. I was learning from piano players and organists.
I decided I wanted to go to Berklee to be around other musicians and soak in that vibe. I got there in 2008, and soon after, I met [guitarist] David Fiuczynski, who deeply inspired me. He helped me and changed me, and opened up my mind to a lot of things. I was in his ensemble. Another key person was the late bassist Lenny Stallworth; he was a faculty member and a doubler who played with Maceo Parker, Roy Hargrove, and Kenny Garrett. He made my Berklee experience more fun. He reminded me of my dad a little, because he was from Mississippi, so he had a Southern vibe. I stayed for two years. I went to classes the first year, but I really didn’t go to classes the second year; I was just working with Fuze and wanting to be around him. When I met him at Berklee, that connected all of those elements for me. His ideas and his concepts are amazing.
How big of an impact did Fuze have on your early abstract projects?
Well, I was familiar with microtonal music, but I wasn’t using it in my stuff yet. I was aware of John Cage, which led me to learn about realism and Dadaism. Putting a sock over the headstock of my bass was from learning about the French artist [painter, sculptor] Marcel Duchamp, who was part of the Dada movement with his readymade art. But when I met Fuze at Berklee, that connected all of those elements for me. I started hitting more of the visual art stuff because Fuze is into fully experiencing music. He was also creating chords out of microtones; he was into the Arabic and Turkish system of Maqam [or Makam] scales and intervals. But I didn’t have a scholastic or theoretical understanding behind my use of microtones. I just loved the sound; it opened me up to writing more weird shiet. It wasn’t that it related to the pitchiness of the blues or any kind of vibrato. I just found it interesting to have more notes within the octave.
You began putting out videos as Polyneon while you were still at Berklee. How did you proceed after leaving Boston in 2010?
I got back home to Memphis, and that’s when I really began my push to be seen and heard through videos and recordings. That was the concept behind my colorful clothing. It’s like a construction worker: You can see him from far away, but the outfit is also a blanket over the real person and what he’s going through. Eventually [in October 2011] I changed my name to MonoNeon because I got bored with Polyneon.
When you see MonoNeon playing live, the first thing you notice is his hands. They’re imposing in size, they’re relaxed, and they move effortlessly, leading you to believe he can play anything that he can think of. That’s an essential aspect of his style: spontaneity. He’s musically trained, but he reacts in the moment and just goes for it. “I second-guess myself a lot when I play, but it goes away immediately. It’s just part of my process.”
You started playing upside down and lefty from the start. How does that influence your bass lines, melodies, chords, and solos?
I do a lot of string bending, so having the higher strings at the top of the fingerboard lends itself to that. But I’ve really never thought about how it affects the way I play, my phrasing, or my note choices. For slapping, I use my thumb for the slaps and my fingers for the pops, like a standard bassist. Marcus Miller saw me at a NAMM show and said that it kind of makes sense, having the lowest string closest to the floor. My finger plucks are normal, alternating two fingers; I do a little tapping; and from listening to Anthony Jackson and African music, I got into plucking with my thumb while muting with my palm. That led to my exploring fingerstyle technique, which enables me to have an idea going on the lower strings that I can answer on the higher strings, like counterpoint. I play guitar lefty and upside-down, as well.
How did you end up on the 5-string?
My first 5-string was a black Warwick Rock Bass, way back when I played in my first band in Memphis when I was 12 or 13 years old. I wanted to get the lower notes I was hearing everywhere in music at the time. I’m glad I did, because when I started playing in church soon after, they wanted that B string. But I’ve always used standard tuning; I’ve never tuned down or differently. When I was at Berklee there were a lot of guys playing a 5-string with a high C string, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Do you practice?
Not a whole lot, because I’m always playing. But when I do, I try to focus on things I can’t play — to break through whatever that obstacle is between my imagination and my hands.
What’s your concept for groove improvisation?
I think it comes from wanting to sound like John Cage and Albert King combined. Like, my manifesto says, “Having the avant-garde stuff at the top and the groove and the funk stuff and the blues stuff on the bottom.” It’s pretty abstract.
Do you have a specific soloing approach?
It’s pretty much all improvising to me, and always based around groove. I try to do some of the lead, upper-register solo stuff, but it’s not really in me to solo like a horn player or whatever. Honestly, I just play what the moment is. Sometimes I sound good and sometimes I sound like garbage, but either way I’m gonna’ own it!
Let’s talk tone. The growl of your Lakland bass is pretty distinctive.
Some of it is the strings. I like to be about halfway between new and old strings. I’d let them stay on longer, but my G string usually breaks, so I change the whole set. I like that Anthony Jackson, grand-piano-bass-string sound where you can hear all the overtones. I also dial in different tones with the pickups and change the tone based on where on the bass I’m plucking. Sometimes I move my hand near the neck to get a Moog [synthesizer] sound or to simulate an upright sound.
What do you listen to when playing with drummers?
The whole kit, generally, and especially the hi-hat, snare and bass drum — the standard method. Just listening to nuances.
How did you come up with your playing-to speaking-voices concept?
That was inspired by Frank Zappa, Hermeto Pascoal, Andy Warhol’s pop art, and John Cage’s experimental spirit. It’s a lot of fun, and doing the speech-to-music thang helps me come up with songs.
What’s the key to your method? Is it a matter of identifying pitches and note durations?
It can be that, but it’s more about the phrasing and the rhythm. The key is, you have to keep listening to it over and over. Like, you talking now, I don’t hear any notes, but if I record you and listen to it repeatedly, then I start to hear them. It takes a lot of time to retain it and get it under my fingers, but it’s a cathartic process.
Who are your main guitar influences?
Prince! Being around him, his rhythm guitar playing just blew my mind. I started practicing rhythm guitar more because of him. I also love Cornell Dupree, Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Hiram Bullock, and Bobby Womack — I recently dug deeper into his guitar playing.
For MonoNeon, every note he utters has its basis in the groove and grooving. Is it any wonder he’s in high demand as a sideman?
How did you connect with Prince?
He found me online through my videos, and one of his managers contacted me via email. First he hired me to play with Judith Hill, and then I began playing with him. Looking back on it now, it’s kind of weird to think that I was there with him, because that was Prince! But at the time I wasn’t thinking that way; I wasn’t nervous or scared. We really didn’t talk much. He gave me dap and asked me if I wanted some water. We were just playing music. We did six or seven Paisley Park After Dark shows and he told me the gig was mine. The last time I was with him was February 2016, about two months before he passed. His passing still kind of messes me up.
Did you have any bass intensive moments with him?
No, we never talked about bass. He never mentioned any other bass players, and he never played bass around me. He just let me play whatever I wanted, for the most part. I remember one time I was playing this song called “Stare” [HITnRUN: Phase Two, NPG, 2015] and I was adding in-between stuff in the bass line, and he said, “Just keep it clean. Don’t add that ghost-note stuff.”
What was the biggest lesson you learned from playing with Prince?
It wasn’t so much learning from Prince when I was with him; it was more about being inspired. Playing with him put some kind of fire in me to work on becoming a better songwriter, trying to write honest songs. And as I mentioned, he made me want to work more on my rhythm guitar playing.
How did you connect with Medeski and Martin?
I don’t know how I got that gig; I guess the power of the internet [Chris Wood was on tour with the Wood Brothers]. They wanted to create some sort of power trio, and they asked my manager, Eric Gerber, and I said yes.
Were you familiar with the band, and did you try to bring some of Chris Wood’s approach?
I was familiar with them from having watched some of their videos on YouTube, and I knew Fiucz used to work with them. But I didn’t have to deal with Chris’ bass lines, because the gigs were highly improvisational. We didn’t send each other songs to learn; we just got onstage and played. I just tried to groove and react to what they were playing.
How did you come to join Ghost-Note?
I’ve known Sput [drummer Robert Searight] for a while, but I got associated with Ghost-Note because Sput asked me to open for them in Memphis — it was me and a Memphis drummer named Anthony Knox. That was my first time seeing them, and the second time, they asked me to come and sit in with them. Ever since then, I’ve been associated with them, touring and recording. I think the first tour I did was after [bassist] AJ Brown, who also plays with Snoop Dogg, got sick or injured and Sput asked me to sub for him.
Is your approach any different in that large ensemble?
Nope — it’s groove first and foremost. Listen and be sensitive and be myself. They really embraced me after Prince passed, because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my gig gone.
Do you have charts onstage with them?
No; I memorized their songs and I’ve written for them, too. I don’t like to read onstage. I think the last time I read charts on a gig was for Kirk Whalum, and I made myself read for that just because I wanted to do it. Kirk sent me the tracks, but I wanted to read. It’s been a while now, but I can read charts for a gig. I’m not gonna be great at sight-reading, but I’m not gonna look dumb, either.
How much are you playing on Ghost-Note’s latest record, Swagism [2018, Ropeadope]?
I’m on pretty much all of it, along with AJ. I’m playing bass, guitar, and baritone guitar, and I wrote the song “Milkshake.” “Smack ’Em,” by Sput, is me and AJ together. And I take a solo on Nate Werth’s tune, “Trifelife.” All of that music was written on the spot in the studio [The Parlor Recording Studios in New Orleans]; nothing was charted out. I played my Lakland bass and the guitars they had there.
How did Whateva The Fyucks come together?
Through the internet. Actually I met [keyboardist/composer] DOMi through Sput; she used to sit in with Ghost-Note. And I met JD [Beck] through Sput, too. We got together to play, and I guess I’m sort of the leader, but I let them do whatever they want. I tell them just groove, lock in, and do whatever you want. A lot of the music is improvised, but we each contribute songs; their songs are a lot of J Dilla-influenced instrumentals. DOMi has a cool arrangement of the Flintstones theme.
How would you describe your role in that band?
Like the other bands I play in, I try to be the pulse and the foundation. I can do all that other fancy stuff, but I just like groovin’. It can be almost too much freedom in this trio because they’re so rebellious, uninhibited, and fearless; that’s how they are offstage, as well — they’re crazy. I love being around that. Every time I play with them, it forces me to think of things I wouldn’t usually think of, musically. We started the trio just to book shows and have some fun. Hopefully we can make a record at some point.
A cool, crowd-pleasing part of your playing in the trio is your peek-outs using a DigiTech Whammy pedal.
I’d been using a Whammy pedal for a while, but when I played with Prince, that led me to use it a lot because they built me a pedalboard with a Whammy and a fuzz pedal in it. Prince really liked the Whammy pedal, so I started using it more. I was watching him use it, and that influenced me to incorporate my own little thing into it. When I use it with JD and DOMi, it’s kind of stepping away from the groove for an instant to play these little maniacal bursts of funk or whatever. I can hear the audience react to them.
You recently won a Grammy for your work on Nas’ “All Bad” from King’s Disease. How did you get the call to work with one of the legends of hip-hop?
I was at Anderson .Paak’s studio recording bass on some tracks, and “All Bad” ended up being one of them. I’m truly thankful to be part of that album. It was my first time winning a Grammy, for being part of King’s Disease — very cool!
Singing, Songwriting Supermane!
Though he’s a bona fide bass hero, MonoNeon has wisely pursued the path to artist. He’ll lift you up by marrying an old-school bass line to a techno beat, but he’ll knock you out with his profound message and impassioned vocals on “Breathing While Black,” “We Somebody Y’all,” or “Invisible.”
How do you compose? Is there a common thread?
Lately my focus has been on the lyrics. I’ve been putting random thoughts in my songs. Usually I’ll sit down on my computer and write a groove, but recently I’ve been starting off with words. I hear melodies, too. The melodies usually come when I’m recording: I have the mic in front of me, and I try to figure out how to convey the words. I primarily write on guitar; there aren’t a lot of keyboards on my albums — maybe some sparse, synth-y parts. Sometimes I play a little synth bass from my MIDI keyboard or the keys on my laptop to add that timbre to the recording. Sometimes I save the bass part for last. And I kind of force myself to write B sections in songs, to have a contrast with the A section.
How about the lo-fi aspect of your recordings?
I think that came from not knowing what the heck I was doing when I first started recording, and I started to like it. I like the sound of old recordings, because I grew up on them. I was just listening to some old Staple Singers records. I like that raw, monophonic sound.
Often you’ll have a guest musician or vocalist on a track.
Sometimes I want to do things on my own; other times I want to introduce some of my friends. I’m very cool with collaboration if you bring something to the table.
Supermane was both a departure and a leap in the sound of MonoNeon. Did you have a different mentality going into it?
Not a different mentality. I just wanted to write and record some songs like usual and put another album out. The only difference is I was working with another songwriter/producer. His name is Davy Nathan, and we wrote and recorded everything at his home studio. Davy really pushed me out of my vocal comfort zone, and I appreciate him for that. Hopefully we can make another album together. I also reached out to Ledisi via Instagram and asked if she would do a duet with me for the album. I sent her the track [“I’m Done with the B-S”], she dug it, and she sent back her vocal files. I love her voice. I’m still on cloud nine knowing that I got to sing with Ledisi!
Your vocals have been taking the spotlight on your last few albums. Who are your vocal influences, and how have you evolved as a singer?
Honestly, I kind of don’t like my singing, but I want to sing, and I feel like I have to sing now. I’m enjoying the journey of writing and singing songs. My favorite singer is Mavis Staples — I’m an old soul. So, along with her, my vocal influences are Bobby Womack, Rance Allen, James Carr, Otis Clay, Johnnie Taylor, and O.V. Wright, who I’ve been hooked on lately. They all have that Southern-soul vocal inflection. I have to credit Sput [Searight] for opening me up to singing live, because we did a Ghost–Neon show at the New Orleans Jazz Festival a few years back and we played all of my music, so I had to sing on some of it. That got me used to hearing my voice on a mic in front-of-house, which is a freaky experience.
One artist that you cover and improvise over regularly is J Dilla. How much did his music impact you, and what is it that you love about his work?
The bass in J Dilla’s music was and still is revolutionary. If it weren’t for J Dilla, I wouldn’t understand the idea of subtleties and nuances in playing bass with a drummer.
What was the inspiration for your latest record, Basquiat & Skittles Album?
The inspiration came from an interview I saw on Jimmy Kimmel Live! when Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall were on promoting Coming 2 America. Eddie started talking about how much he watches my videos, and he said I’m like Basquiat and Skittles. I took that idea and made an album thang around his description of me.
Tomorrow Never Knows
What lies ahead for MonoNeon is as unknown as the next bass line he plays, song he writes, or record he puts out. “With the future, I think about it, but I don’t,” he says.
Given the praise you’ve received from Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, John Mayer, and a bunch of other celebrities, how does it make you feel to be recognized on that level?
It’s cool as hell. It keeps me wanting to create more and more. I definitely did not know Eddie Murphy was a fan of mine. Love ya, Eddie —check out Basquiat & Skittles Album!
Which artists have been inspiring you lately?
I’ve been listening to H.E.R. a lot. She’s a bad MF and an incredible musician. I’m also listening to and getting inspired by Stockhausen, Bobby Womack, Captain Beefheart, Rev. Milton Brunson, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Whenever I start writing new music, that’s when I listen to other music to get some sparks going. I love Earl Sweatshirt’s storytelling, too.
Do you have current bass favorites?
I really don’t listen to other bassists much. Anthony Jackson is always my favorite; that dude is a monster. There are some young guys I like —this dude Joe Cleveland, who lives in L.A. He’s a badd bass player; he has a great space presence. He plays with a lot of pop artists [Mac Miller, Taeyang]. I also dig my friend Jackie Clark here in Memphis [Angie Stone] and Tom Barney on Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature [2000, Warner Bros.].
Do you have any advice for independent artists?
Find something that not only relates to you but relates to other people. That can be difficult. But once I started doing the mimicking of peoples’ voices on bass, it kind of connected me to pop culture in a small way. You have to find your niche, which is hard because there are so many people doing so much shiet. Still, you can pretty much do everything on your own thanks to the power of the internet. It’s just a matter of believing in yourself, and going at it hard, every day.
Do you have any future goals?
I’ve never thought that way. I’m not the type of person to write down my goals. I just go and do it. A dream gig for me would be Steely Dan. I’d also like to work with Outkast, if they got back together. And I would like to play on movies and write film scores — or at least cartoons or commercials. I love blaxploitation movies. Mainly, I want to continue doing what I’m doing while continuing to improve it and cultivate it … make it bigger and better, and not sell myself too short. I don’t feel like I’m popular; I’m just doing my thing. But I am most thankful for all the love and support I’ve been receiving. I’m going to keep posting my music until social media and the internet shut down! –BM
Basses Lakland Skyline 55-01 and 55-02, Fender American Professional II Precision Bass; Sandberg MonoNeon Signature 5-string; Spector Euro LX5; 2014 Callowhill microtonal bass (35″ scale); fretless Fender Jazz Bass (he removed the frets); 2015 Fender Precision; Ken Smith 5-string; 3/4 acoustic bass (“I’ve played my upright on my records, but I tend to get tired and my back starts hurting”); Yamaha Revstar guitar
Strings Dunlop Super Brights Nickel Wound (.045–.125)
Amps “I like EBS, TC Electronic. I’ll pretty much use anything as long as it has enough headroom.”
Effects DigiTech WH1 Whammy (“It’s the red 5th generation guitar pedal — I never leave home without it”), TC Electronic Helix Phaser, EarthQuaker Spatial Delivery, Danelectro fuzz pedal from Prince
Accessories MacBook Pro; Universal Audio Apollo x4, Universal Audio Twin Solo, and Apogee JAM interfaces
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