Mellowdrone’s Jonathan Bates, on the trio’s reunion, battling his demons and (the myth of) coming full circle


Mellowdrone today released a new EP, “3,” the latest step in the L.A. trio’s surprising comeback. In a Buzz Bands LA interview, singer-guitarist Jonathan Bates talk about the reunion, and cleaning up his own act.

Mellowdrone released two albums and four EPs in their first go-round between 1999 and 2009. They had their devotees and their difficulties. Their sophisticated soundscapes — brooding and blistering one moment, danceable the next — earned them a fervent cult folowing, but slugging it out on a changing music and industry landscape took its toll.

Jonathan Bates, Tony DeMatteo and Brian Borg parted ways amicably after releasing Mellowdrone’s second album, “Angry Bear,” in 2009. Bates eventually forged ahead with his solo project Big Black Delta, while DeMatteo and Borg slipped away into business pursuits.

The trio surprised just about everybody this spring by releasing two new songs. And today, they issued “3,” a strong new EP with a trifecta of atmospheric rockers that bristle with energy, not to mention harbor a few life lessons.

And for Bates, the Venezuela-born frontman, there have been plenty of the latter. Even while making two Big Black Delta albums, he has battled substantial personal turmoil, including alcoholism. Getting clean and getting Mellowdrone back together happened about the same time for him, though they’re not necessarily related. One thing’s for sure: The reunion probably would not have happened if not for their kinship with the young L.A. band the Neighbourhood (Bates and DeMatteo are credited as co-producers on the band’s latest album).

It was during a Neighbourhood studio session that Bates and Dematteo first broached the topic of new Mellowdrone music, and they’ve been taking baby steps ever since. After today’s release of “3,” a headlining date in October at the Teragram Ballroom will follow.

||| Stream: “3”

In the Buzz Bands LA interview, Bates talks about Mellowdrone’s fall and rise, his own battle with the bottle and how the people you knew in 2008 might not be the same people now:

Buzz Bands LA: Why did Mellowdrone break up in the first place?

Jonathan Bates: I have to drop this anecdote: I think our last show (in 2009), we were playing the Knitting Factory or the Key Club, and we were so bummed out and had been beaten so far down that Brian and I were like, “How do we get out of this?” We were ready to soundcheck, an hour from the show, and Brian said, “I got it! My wife got kidnapped and I gotta go find her.” And I said, “That’s stupid, man. … How about this? She got in a car accident — that’s way more believable.” And he got really excited and said, “Yeah!” And it was Tony who said, “C’mon guys, we’re getting paid, we gotta do this.”

Another time, we had gone down to Long Beach to play the Prospector. We were waiting for them to open so we could load in, and Tony got out of the car. I was in the back playing a Gameboy or something. They jumped back into the car, both of them breathing hard. They had just gotten jumped. … So after a few of these moments, it was like, “Why are we doing this?”

So that’s kind of where we were at. We had gone through so many record deals and had bummed so many people out that it was like, done.

Brian is now an incredibly successful stylist, and Tony is a successful IT guy. So [ending it] was the best for us.

So now there’s not as much at stake personally or financially?

Well, I make a living off of music, so it’s always a little bit different.

It was actually a band that you know — the Neighbourhood — who bought most of Mellowdrone’s gear when we broke up. They used that gear early on, and Tony had been in the studio with them during the first record.

So cut to the end of 2016, and I get an email from Mikey (Margott), their bass player, whom I’ve known since he was 12. He said “We’re gonna start recording again and I wonder if you and Tony could come in and work.” That was it, really. Tony and I are great friends — we spent the better part of our twenties in a van. (During that time) Tony said, “Hey, I’ve been making some music, you wanna hear it?” It was amazing, and I told him, “I’ll sing on it.”

Then we weren’t gonna do shows. Then we weren’t gonna do press. Every step of the way has kind of been … nice, actually.

Was it always in the back of your head that Mellowdrone would rise again?

No, the opposite. It was always, “Let’s not, let’s not, let’s not.” When we would get together for Joy Luck Club-type dinners where it was just me, Tony and Brian, some guy would bring it up, and my question was always, “Who the fuck would care?” The last show we played to I think 300 people, and that was almost 10 years ago. And I was completely wrong.

Was there one moment when you thought that doing Mellowdrone again was the right thing to do?

One of the days was the day Trump got elected. That very day, I had broken up with my then-fiancée, and I was at the height of my alcoholism.

At this point in my life, I just like people who can be themselves.

But that must have felt like a little bit of an escape, then, getting into a studio with a bunch of kids. Was it?

Not only that, but — and I am not a hyperbolic person — the Neighbourhood are the nicest, most cordial, most mannered young men I’ve ever hung out with in my entire life. Especially with each other. One guy would play a part, and another would say, “That’s amazing, it reminds me of this …” Just the kindness and generosity they show toward one another. … It was really nice at that point in my life to be around kind people. At this point in my life, I just like people who can be themselves. It was great gift hanging out with them.

Even more special is that they liked our music. They were like, “Will you come help us make that Mellowdrone sound?” And we were like, sure, if you want two white mopey dudes to come in, you got it.

The “great white mope” — if that’s not the genre on your Facebook page tomorrow, I’ll be disappointed.

(Laughs) Plus, I’m just finishing up a Big Black Delta record, so it’s always nice to have something that’s not necessarily just mine. Sometimes you need a vacation from certain things. Now, Mellowdrone is not just about me, and that’s good, and nobody’s expecting anything.

When you approached making new music, was hard to access the Mellowdrone “creative voice?”

No, because I’m a s synesthetic, I see what I hear. I see colors and shapes. Music to me is like a 3D Rothko painting — Mellowdrone is its own thing. I could show you the three Rothko paintings that are Mellowdrone. And I could show you the painting that would be Big Black Delta. So if I just stay within those parameters I’ll be fine.

Besides, Tony writes half of the music now. Older Mellowdrone it was almost all me, but now I think what makes it better is that Tony writes a lot of the music. Tony lives like in Camarillo and spends his weekends racing motorcycles and playing baseball and doing dude stuff. He doesn’t hang out here. He doesn’t give a shit what’s cool and what’s not cool, what this guy is doing or whatever. He’s just being himself. Again, it’s so nice to be around.

I feel like that’s what it is now: Things that work have to come from a true place. Even if it’s the most basic pop music, it can’t come from a, “Hey, we’re gonna get em …” The things that really bring joy to people will last. I don’t know who, but somebody said, “Don’t judge your own shit — give it 10 years.”

So how does Mellowdrone’s early stuff pass the 10-year test?

Oh, it sucks, I can’t listen to it at all. I don’t think it’s very good, but then I wasn’t a very good songwriter then. That’s just nature.

You have to play some of it, though.

And that was difficult for that last show, going through all the stuff and being like, “Ugh … We gotta play an hour, man.” That was an exercise.

I was drinking a bottle and a half of Jameson’s a day, just to function.

Going backwards again … The last few Obama years, I get the impression they were pretty dark years for you …

Big Black Delta was doing well, coming off the first record, and then my dad died. Then I had a storage unit that contained all my gear [burglarized] and all my gear was taken. Then I had my identity stolen. I had psoriasis kick in, which it turns out was caused by the fact I was drinking so maniacally. I was drinking a bottle and a half of Jameson’s a day, just to function. It ruined this relationship I was in. I now know that I used my father’s death like a child would — you know, OK, now I can do anything I want. And then if anybody questions me, I can be like, “But you don’t know what it’s like …” You know what I mean? That went unchecked.

Also, I’d never gone to therapy, which I go to now. … A lot of us never had a male figure to show you how to behave like an adult man. To face self-worth issues, in a loving way. To realize that maybe the reason things are falling apart around you is because you need to learn how to be nice to yourself.

Was there an ah-ha moment or was it a series of baby steps?

The big one was that day Trump got elected and the fiancée said she was out. I couldn’t stop drinking cold turkey because I’d been so good functioning. When I finally did, I had the shakes and the DTs for about a week. I didn’t baby-step it, because at that point I was like 36 or 37, because I thought, “My life is in complete shambles and I have to do something. I can’t fuck about. I have to really go after this.”

I love booze, man. And I get myopic, so if I get fixated on something I’ll figure the maximum way to do it. We’re gonna drink? OK clear agave drinks are the healthiest … So I became really good at managing my alcohol.

Did you have a network of pals to help you out?

Kind of. The things I had going on was not exactly friends-and-family kind of shit. My friend Cam (Grey, of Uh Huh Her), she’s the one who picked me up when I had the shakes and said, “We’ve got to get you moving.” She took me to the rock-climbing gym in the Brewery, and at the sign-in I couldn’t even type in my name. She was holding me, doing it, putting me in a harness. My friend Cyrus, I basically moved into his closet for a month to get clean. So I was very lucky that way. Fortunately, I was never a mean drunk. You get away with a lot more if you’re a nice guy when you’re ripped. You know, “Yeah, you make me laugh and everything …” And you use that for a while.

There are enablers, too — people who want you to drink …

It’s all about self-worth and insecurity. Being at a bar, being at show, going to Spaceland, whatever — if I didn’t have something in my hand, it’s like I wasn’t allowed to be there and I was afraid the poser police would come through the door and say, “Get out of here.” Even being at a social function or at a barbeque, I’m the guy who’s now surrounded by empty LaCroix cans. I need a “thing” outside of me to tell me I’m OK to be here. So it’s about learning how to deconstruct that, and realizing that they’re not going to all laugh at you, this isn’t that movie. And if they are, fuck ‘em.

Engaging and facing these things have made life worth living again. And when you open up to people, I find that there’s a lot of people who feel the same way, but they don’t know how to put words to it.

It’s the original sin, the thing we believed coming out of the womb. ‘If I just get here, I’ll be all right.’

Are you closer to finding that happy place then?

Not really, because there’s never that plateau you’re expecting — you know, the “when I get here I’m going to be OK.” It’s the biggest myth. Nobody told you that when you were young. But it’s the original sin, the thing we believed coming out of the womb. “If I just get here, I’ll be all right.”

And that’s the negotiation / conversation I keep having to have with myself. It’s, “You’re OK right now. Stop trying to get to there because there doesn’t exist.” And beside, if you’re going to get anywhere, you have to be present.

And everything — at least in this city and in what we do for a living — is set up to not be present.

Has any of this trickled down to the new Mellowdrone songs? Like the one you’re about to release, “Let It Out?”

Absolutely. Being raised as a male in my generation, you’re never allowed to show feelings … to let it out. You know: A man suffers through life and that’s what makes him a good man. I feel like that’s every movie we’ve ever watched. And Tony comes from a very Italian family — he’s one of those dudes that never complains.

The point is, you’re allowed to be imperfect, you’re allowed to suck at things, you’re allowed to not know how to do things. The fear of not being adequate was so strong in me that I had to go to alcohol or, I don’t know, start a band and get in front of everybody and say, ‘Look at me!’ And then not enjoy it.

Finally you ask, “Why the fuck am I doing this? I’m not even having a good time.”

In the early days, you never looked like you enjoyed it.

I looked like a miserable fuck. And it wasn’t until Big Black Delta that it was like, “This is me, bro.” You go onstage and flinch, and then you look and you see people liking it. And you think, “Hey … I can do this?” That was a huge awakening.

That was preceded by some low points, though, right? What happened those first few post-Mellowdrone years?

Well, at first I delivered gear for Vintage King, which was a trip, because I would show up to people’s houses who were fans. Or you’d be at a party, and some drunken kid would put it together and say, “Hey, weren’t you supposed to be something?” At the time, it was brutal. Now I think, I’m glad I got to experience that side of the coin.

There was a point where I did some shows with M83 … and I did some Siddartha / “On the Road” Kerouac kind of stuff. For a while, I thought that maybe music was not for me. I thought, hey I can hang drywall. But the idea that you work and at the end of the day you get paid for your work is completely alien to being a musician. I tried a year of that, of being that guy who was excited about the new flat-screen TV that just came out, or the new Marvel movie. I tried that, it just didn’t work for me.

You think that things are permanent for people outside of you. They aren’t, of course.

And now you’ve come full circle to this — or is it full circle?

One of the best parts of any human story is that you think you know somebody because of one thing. And you think that things are permanent for people outside of you. They aren’t, of course.

You think “2008,” and to us that was just yesterday. But 10 years ago is a whole generation of people.

It’s funny that if you’re not a dick and you’re present, where life can lead you.

||| Live: Mellowdrone plays Oct. 27 at the Teragram Ballroom. Tickets.