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Davis Conversations with…Kyle Monhollen

Kyle Monhollen

Kyle Monhollen

Davis Conversations is a feature series at Davis Life Magazine presenting profiles of local folks who impact our community. Today, we meet Kyle Monhollen. Kyle arrived in Davis in the spring of 1999 and has been instrumental in elevating the local live music scene as a co-founder of the Davis Live Music Collective, a volunteer-run group with the stated mission “to curate, organize, host, and promote diverse, high quality concerts in Davis, CA.” He sat down with Davis Life Magazine on a February morning to discuss the collective, music, and living in Davis. The interview was comfortably conducted outside. In February. Thank you California.

– Getting Here –

Davis Life Magazine:  Where did you grow up?

Kyle Monhollen:  In Kentucky, about an hour north of Lexington and just south of Cincinnati. The town was pretty small. At the time we thought of it as being suburban, but everyone had two acres of grass around their house. Our house backed up to a legitimate farm. When I was 13 we moved out to the country on some property my family owned. No one around and very wooded.

DLM:  Did you go to college in your home state?

KM:  Yes, in Lexington. At Transylvania University.

DLM:  So not the much bigger University of Kentucky many associate with Lexington. How crazy is the celebrated basketball passion there and specifically the UK-Louisville rivalry?

KM:  Yeah, it’s a big deal. Could definitely be a source of conflict within communities and even families: “You’re going to dentistry school where?!” I remember growing up with people who didn’t live near UK or have any real connection to it, but everything they owned was Kentucky blue.

DLM:  When and how did you settle in Davis?

KM:  I came to Davis from San Francisco with my wife Amy in the spring of 1999. We were newly engaged and renting an apartment and separate art studio in The Mission in San Francisco…when the dotcom boom hit. Our building was being converted to lofts with considerably inflated rents. And besides getting priced out, the culture of the neighborhood was changing with the boom. A great little dive bar around the corner from our place was being replaced with a Blowfish Sushi, and little warning lights started going off for me. It was also just timing. I had just finished graduate school and was working, and we were hitting those mid to late 20’s ages where we wanted to settle down and move out of the city; ultimately the city moves at such an intense pace that just doesn’t fit who I am naturally. Having come directly from Boston to San Francisco, it was a lot of city living and I was ready for a change. Amy started the teaching program at CSUS, I got a job at UCD, we were married in 2000, and we eventually bought the house here. The rest quickly became life as usual.

DLM:  How much did you know about Davis before moving here?

KM:  I had been to Davis just once before moving here, and I was suffering from the flu, so I didn’t really see much of it. I knew it was a college town and distinctly remember thinking it would be way more conservative than San Francisco so I wouldn’t fit in, and soon realized that wasn’t the case at all.

– A Love for Music –

DLM:  What was your first concert? Who played, where was it, and how old were you? Any distinctive memories from it?

KM:  The Beach Boys at Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati, OH, in 1984. I had just turned 11. They were playing a ballpark tour, going on after major league games across the country, so my family and I had already seen a whole baseball game. I’m sure it was my mom’s idea, both the game and the concert. Dad is a little bit country, mom is a little bit rock and roll – and a sports fan. I remember it being loud and bright. Our seats weren’t great so the band looked small and far away, but I still remember thinking they were old. Wasn’t one of them already dead? But thanks to my mom I knew almost all of the songs. All in all it’s a great first concert.

DLM:  Funny, I saw the same tour after an Astros’ game in Houston that season. Do you play any instruments or sing yourself?

KM:  Publicly? No. I grew up with piano lessons, school music programs, and singing in choirs, and I enjoyed all of it – even practice. In high school I chose sports over music, but I’ve always been a dedicated car and shower singer. We have somehow amassed a collection of musical instruments at home, none of which I really know how to play. There are a dozen people in Davis who have heard me sing, and I’m happy to keep it that way. I freaked out for my last birthday and bought a drum kit, so I’m teaching myself a bit here and there, but don’t look for me on stage anytime soon (ever).

DLM:  Is it an unfair stereotype to assume because you grew up in Kentucky that you like bluegrass?

KM:  It’s funny; I hated country music until I went to college, but it was default setting for everyone I grew up with. A lot of my friends were into hard rock – it was the 80’s so a lot of hair bands – and it was also a time when country started getting really bad, moving from the traditional sounds to basically pop music.

DLM:  I blame – or credit, depending on your perspective – Garth Brooks specifically. His pop-country in the early 90’s was massively popular, the record companies and radio stations noticed, and it totally changed the direction of that genre.

KM:  Agreed. So I’d never been a country fan, and my college roommate for sophomore year was hard core country…grew up on farm, total ag guy, and we had real arguments on music for the room. We knew we had to find middle ground. And it was Steve Earle. It was this totally eye opening experience: real bitter punk edge with country twang. Then I moved from there to some Townes van Zandt, John Prine, and others.

DLM:  And that whole vein drove the new hot label of the last decade or so: “Americana,” with Uncle Tupelo and their offshoots.

KM:  Right, I was in a car with another friend during the college years, and he put in a single off Uncle Tupelo’s “Still Feel Gone.” He turned it way up, and we just sat and listened. And I specifically remember this moment of illumination…OK, that’s what’s happening for me now. Fast forward and I’ve been to Hardly Strictly for ten years straight and wouldn’t miss it. The sound just resonated with me.

DLM:  Americana in a way reminds me of the British Invasion, when you had bands like the Stones basically interpreting American rock and blues they grew up on back to us, and now you see the same with acts like Mumford and Sons playing a close cousin of Americana and taking off here.

KM:  It’s interesting: Let’s play British pop with banjos and see how that goes.  It’s fun to see it get popular. And then you just wait for the backlash, which Mumford bears the brunt of now.

DLM:  I feel like I get into musical ruts with same songs on my playlist. How do you discover new artists, not necessarily for DLMC but just for your own personal taste?

KM:  There is some reliance for me on digital algorithms like Pandora and Amazon.

DLM:  People who liked this also like…

KM:  Right, and it’s scary how frequently right on that can be. I think ideally the best way to find stuff is to ask someone you like and whose tastes you respect. I posted something on Facebook not too long ago when I was in one of those ruts and in a mood where I just needed something to rock my world…something to vibrate me on a cellular level. So I posted and asked for suggestions. And I got so much great stuff. Some of it I knew already, and some other stuff that was new. With all the platforms today it’s easier to listen to music but harder I think to filter it down to what I really want.

DLM:  What’s your most recent music discovery that struck a nerve?

KM:  Royal Blood. They’re kind of along the lines of Queens of the Stone Age…heavy, crunchy guitars but still got this kind of sexy rhythm to it. Just listened to it again and might not be my thing for too long, but that’s ok.

DLM:  As someone with a passion for diverse, eclectic music, is it tricky to walk the line between being a connoisseur who appreciates all music…and being a music snob? Or asked another way: if one of your daughters creates a new Pandora station seeded by One Direction and Justin Bieber, is your first reaction – (a) “It’s not my thing but there is some aspect of art in all music,” or (b) “Noooooo! Part of me is dying. You’re not to leave your room until you listen to this Blitzen Trapper collection all the way through.”

KM:  It’s funny that you cite Blitzen Trapper. My kids know all the words to “Furr”…and hate Justin Bieber! It’s definitely a balancing act. I tend more toward option (a), trying to keep an open mind and remind myself that I used to listen to pretty suspect acts growing up. We do a pretty good job of taking turns at our house. Everyone can (hopefully gently) express their opinion about what’s playing, but you can’t turn it off. So I get Blitzen Trapper and they get Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons – partly because they have recognized on their own that Katy Perry is inappropriate for kids but Matt and Kim are awesome.

– The Collective –

DLM:  What was your catalyst for co-founding the Davis Live Music Collective (DLMC) in September 2011?

KM:  DLMC initially formed around a desire to support and grow the amazing shows happening in backyards and living rooms around town, and to share the financial, organizational, and promotional responsibilities assumed by hosts eager to put on bigger shows.

DLM:  What do you remember from those initial conversations…where do you start?

KM:  We were seated around a table saying: can we pool our resources and build a venue? And the immediate answer was no.

DLM:  Because of cost?

KM:  Sure, and because it would be somebody’s job. Who among us wants to run a venue, which is essentially running a bar in order make money to sustain yourself, and we all have regular jobs.

DLM:  That can’t work as a side project for anyone.

KM:  Right, and it’s just not a viable model anymore. Look at what’s happening in Sacramento.

DLM:  It’s been a tumultuous year for live must spots in Sacramento…Marilyn’s on K closed after 15 years, along with the Witch Room, Assembly Music Hall, and Luigi’s Fun Garden. That’s a big combined hit.

KM:  And of course Luigi’s also briefly had a place here in downtown Davis too for pizza and live music that didn’t last. The live music places are attached to the whole restaurant and bar model, which is incredibly volatile; if you open one, your odds of success are really slim. There’s just so much competition for entertainment dollars, and live acts are traditionally a tougher sell. So to open a new venue, you have this blind faith “If you build it, they will come” approach, and there’s really no evidence to support that. So DLMC opted to take a different approach: work with what you’ve got. Make sure people come out to wherever the show is.

DLM:  So it’s really more about promotion.

KM:  Yes, it’s a key part of what we do. It’s booking and promotion and also hosting and doing all of the organizational stuff to make the show happen. We function in the industry as a talent buyer. The idea from the beginning has been to assemble a group of live music fans dedicated enough to put a little time and money into supporting a few really good shows every year – shows we wouldn’t see in Davis otherwise. We specifically set out to curate a diverse roster of artists, to provide a very personal, positive experience for both fans and artists, and to at least break even on the cost of every event.

DLM:  By ‘diverse” I assume you’re trying to cover a lot of different styles. Have you been able to achieve that goal so far or are there certain genres the shows have gravitated toward so far?

KM:  Not as much as we hoped so far because we are still relatively in early days, and it’s a matter of success begetting success. We had good luck with a couple folk rock bands early on. Our very first show was Jolie Holland and Sea of Bees. It was successful and formed a positive relationship with Jolie and her agent and word spread that way. So then it becomes insular with that circle as you’re recommended for more of the same. So you really have to actively go and out and look for something else.

DLM:  But with the challenge of getting enough people to attend shows, it also can’t be so off the beaten path and avant garde that no comes either. Is it a balancing act?

KM:  There is. The overarching goal is to pepper things in there that really build a sense of trust with the community – not just with our members – so when they see ”DLMC Presents” on a flyer, it’s a reliable brand…even if they haven’t heard of the band, they trust in the quality of the DLMC name and its endorsement.

DLM:  For you personally, are there any favorite genres…or any that you really just can’t take?

KM:  We need to do a solid punk show. And enough members in DLMC are into it, and there’s a good history of it in Davis. There was great pop-punk scene here that was tailing off about the time I was arriving, but I think there’s still support for it if we get the right card. For the other half of your question, I won’t be booking a reggae show based on personal preference. But if it’s an artist that’s original and bringing something new to town, I can definitely get behind it.

DLM:  Besides bring more music to Davis, is providing a platform for Davis-based musician also a specific goal of DLMC?

KM:  When we book a show, we try to pair the headliner with a local act that fits and makes sense with the lead act as a chance to introduce them. As we were planning our very first show with Jolie Holland and Sea of Bees, at the last minute someone sent us a YouTube video from DHS student Camila Ortiz performing a cover of a Sea of Bees song. We ended up booking her to play an opening set of 5 or 6 songs, and she blew everybody away. The two questions that we got asked by everyone after the set were: (1) when is the next DLMC show, and (2) who was that girl?

DLM:  Do you have any favorite venues in the area to watch a show?

KM:  I love The Palms in Winters, Sofia’s here in town, and Harlow’s in Sacramento. And I love the events we do here at the Vets Auditorium. Ultimately it just has to fit…the right crowd with the right acts in the right space. That’s when it’s magic.

DLM:  Is there a minimum age for DLMC shows?

KM:  Just depends on that venue and their rules. Some at G St where 21+ and other places that are all ages. Music Fest is great because you can mix and match day time shows for all ages and shows after 9 for older

DLM:  What is target DLMC membership you’re trying to hit to sustain a specific ongoing level of activity? Is there some membership threshold you feel it’s important to achieve?

KM:  We try to keep it right around 20 members, and we’ve been right around there for a couple years. Each member represents a guaranteed set of tickets for every member-supported show. So if you have 20 members and each is responsible for 5 tickets, you’re guaranteed at least 100 people showing up. And that’s typically already half or a third of the room depending on the venue. Then you can sell more to the public. There is nothing sadder than when you have a great quality show and no one shows up.

DLM:  How can other music lovers in Davis get engaged with the collective through social media, membership, or other options?

KM:  Anyone can connect to DLMC through the usual social media outlets. We’re online at davislivemusic.com, on Facebook and Twitter @davislivemusic, and we have a station on Spotify showcasing nearly all of the artists we’ve hosted – including performers at the Davis Music Fest, which we’ve co-presented since 2012. The best way to connect is to come to a show.  There is no better way to get a feel for how we do things than actually being there – it’s the unique live music experience we’re after. Fans who like what they see can get involved with DLMC without financial commitment by volunteering at a show doing everything from posting flyers to taking tickets and helping provide hospitality for artists – especially for the Davis Music Fest, which relies on a team of about 80 volunteers every June.  Membership is one step better, providing the collective with the support we need to book and host shows while offering members an opportunity to weigh in on who they want to see on stage.

DLM:  Where are the best places to learn about upcoming shows?

KM:  I think Davis Dirt is the best general calendar in town, and our stuff will always be on there. DLMC’s Facebook and Twitter accounts provide a regular stream of information, and the DLMC home site is really the best place for the detailed nuts and bolts about our shows and artists.

– The Artist. And his Beard. –

DLM:  The DLMC site offers merchandise which I believe was designed by you with your 2407graphics operation. Did you start that as a commercial outlet for your art and design, following the old job selection axiom to do what you love?

KM:  Something like that. My background is in fine arts and teaching, but I’ve always loved good design, especially where it connects memorable images to pop culture. Since the collective runs on volunteer power, everyone pitches in where they can. I started my involvement by offering to artwork for the group and our events – logo, ads, flyers, posters, tickets. I started getting requests for projects outside of the collective and 2407graphics was born.

DLM:  What’s your scope or audience at 2407 – does it tend more to artistic clients, or getting into corporate work as well?

KM:  More heavily weighted to local creative types, artists, or those who have appreciation for it, especially those across the services spectrum. I do see this in some ways as more of an artistic than commercial enterprise. I can adapt my design to ensure you get something you want. But it also has to be stimulating to me and push me creatively, so we can meet halfway if needed. I usually try to keep a couple projects going at the same time – one I’m getting paid for, and one I’m donating, or at least getting paid less for where it’s more for the satisfaction than the money. I do really like the idea of working with and supporting local folks. It’s an important part of the town.

DLM:  As an arts instructor at Sierra College, which student-voted achievement at Rate My Professors are you more proud of: the 4.4 overall rating (above the mean on the often harsh site) or the chili pepper rating for hotness?

KM:  Holy cow, is that still a thing? I always looked at that like the comments section in the newspaper – probably better for one’s faith in humanity to ignore it completely. If I can make my course engaging enough to get a classroom of 19-20 year olds out of bed for an 8:30am studio art elective I feel like I’m doing alright.

DLM:  As we’ve crossed paths over the years, your beard has continued to evolve. What is the official chin to beard tip measurement today?

KM:  I think you have to buy me a drink before asking me that. I’ve had a beard the better part of five years and I never thought to measure it. 2.25” inches, chin to southern terminus.

DLM:  Are there seasonal drivers for the fluctuations in length, or is it purely arbitrary and unpredictable?

KM:  It’s been around that for a while, but I trim it back a half inch or so from time to time as part of regular grooming. So, arbitrary – more personal than meteorological.

DLM: What do Amy and the kids think of the beard?

KM:  At this point, they won’t let me shave. Amy was resistant initially but came around. The last time I shaved was New Year’s Day 2011 or 2012, and the clean-shaven look lasted a day. Haven’t shaved since. As I was turning 40 and wanted to shave it, I was told by the girls, “No, you may not.” It’s funny – the last time I shaved, I had this existential crisis as I looked in the mirror and wondered who that guy is without the beard.

– Life in Davis –

DLM:  What do you like best about Davis?

KM:  Having been here for 16 years now, it’s this interesting mix with my circles. I have met a lot of great friends who have grown up here and are 2nd and 3rd generation Davis, so by comparison I feel like I’m still learning things about life here. Then there’s this whole other crop of people and friends for whom I’m an old timer and who I can help out. Unlike my previous big city life, I get this real sense here of community, an emotive word that means different things to different people.

DLM:  How about the opposite question: if you’re Mayor for the day, what you would want to change or improve about life here?

KM:  I’ll go with a safe answer: unlimited parking and free ice cream for everyone.

DLM:  What is your ideal date night in Davis? Any favorite restaurant or other spots or activities?

KM:  The girls have to be at a sleepover so there’s no subconscious pull to get home to pay the sitter. Drinks at The Davis Beer Shoppe, movie at The Varsity, dinner at Village Pizza and Grill. Or maybe just the Beer Shoppe. Simple is better.

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