The pandemic shut in artists and forced them to rethink things. For James Montenegro, his rethinking led him to craft music with a new outlook—completely by himself … for now.
Dead Talk Back, a solo project by Montenegro, released a self-titled debut album on Aug. 3. The Bandcamp bio describes the songs as “synth-based mood music,” but those moods stretch from end-of-the-world disco on “Motavia,” to last-transmission-from-a-spaceship somberness on “Somnambulism.”
“The project itself is more or less an outlet for me to get my music out,” Montenegro said during a recent phone interview. “I had gotten to a point where I was collaborating with certain artists. Collaborations come and go, and it’s all well, but I wanted to do something that I knew was strictly my musical baby. Whatever collaborators come along, we’ll be fine, but at the end of the day, this is something that’s mine.
“The album itself came from a lot of what I was feeling, as I’m sure a lot of people were also feeling, toward the end of 2020. The world’s been an interesting place for the last year and a half with the pandemic, all sorts of political upheaval and a lot of social changes in the quote-unquote cultural war that we seem to be engaged in here in the Western world. There are also a few personal things, and I thought, ‘What better way to express it all than what I know best? Music!’”
Venus and the Traps, Montenegro’s former group, was selected by Independent readers as the Best Local Band in the Best of Coachella Valley 2016-2017 poll. Since focusing on a solo endeavor, Montenegro has faced his share of challenges.
“I’d say the main struggle would be trust: I had to have total trust in myself,” Montenegro said. “I had ideas, and I couldn’t bounce them on to someone else and have them bounce back with their ideas or criticisms or alterations. I had to tell myself, ‘This is the sound I’m making, and I just gotta trust that it is the sound that I want, and that it’s good enough to put out into the world.’”
Montenegro explained how Dead Talk Back marks a change in his sound.
“When I was in Venus and the Traps, I started playing with Edgar Hernandez, who was in The Kathys, and they had a more-dark sound to them, or at least a sound that had a little bit more sorrow and its tinge,” Montenegro said. “When I started hanging out with Edgar, we noticed that we had a lot of bands that we liked in common, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, or The Cure or Bauhaus, and they’re a little darker, a little more bizarre than what we were playing. We started playing around with what would become this three-year obsession that I’ve started to have with creating something that would be more of a gothic, dark way of music. This is something I’ve been thinking and dreaming about for a while.
“I’m usually making something that’s more psychedelically tinged—something that others would probably call indie rock or alternative rock. I’m not really sure what the catch-all objective definition of those terms are, but I know people just kind of label that for anything that’s not classic, blues-driven rock.”
Montenegro recently debuted Dead Talk Back in a live setting at Bart Lounge in Cathedral City.
“I’d have to say, the crowd appeared to be pretty receptive to it,” Montenegro said. “I think people will take any change in music and will accept even really dark and moody music as long as you let them trust you, because they’re in the passenger seat, being the audience, and they need to trust their driver. If you can tell them that you’re getting them from point A to point B, and they’re not going to be witnessing something so bizarre and alien that will turn them off, they’ll go along with it. That was actually pretty nice—and it’s just nice playing live in general.
“It’s always a hard sell when you’re doing something that’s eclectic, that people can’t really pinpoint. Some people will cherry-pick what their favorite moment of the set is, and then walk away. If you’re doing something that’s an established genre, like goth music or dark wave or post-punk, you have a very definite crowd for that. In a way, I’m fortunate enough to be dabbling in music right now that already has a clear-cut audience, but at the same time, it also creates an expectation. When you get onstage, you tell yourself, ‘This has to be a good show, because how many times have they seen these kinds of acts?’ I definitely put a few months of preparation into it, and I think it paid off.”
While the show was a success, there’s still room for improvement—and that involves bringing more people into Dead Talk Back, Montenegro said.
“I need to put together a functioning live act, because most of my live act was based on backing tracks for the rhythm,” Montenegro said. “I was fortunate enough to be working with Alec Corral, who provided a lot of the guitar work and a lot of the effects, but I knew that I needed a live bassist and maybe even a live drummer or at least a drum-machine programmer just to give it that good live feeling, because you can tell the difference between a show that is all backtracked, and a show where there’s the possibility that there might be some departure from what’s already established within the song. What I’m doing right now is trying to piece together a live group that can fully envision what I want plus have room for those musical departures within the confines of a setlist.”
Montenegro said people should expect the unexpected when it comes to Dead Talk Back.
“I’m working on another set of music, and it’s definitely going to be a little more on the electronica side,” Montenegro said. “I’m a big fan of electronic music and ambient music, and this project is where I really just want to explore all of the different music genres and musical stylings that I like, and see what I can do with them. Even though I have this darkwave album that I’ve just released, and it’s probably going to flavor the image that people have of me for some time to come, it’s probably not going to be the one genre that I stick around in for a while. I recorded this in the springtime. I’ve just spent the last few months mastering and preparing it, so I’m kind of, for lack of a better term, over it, in terms of the genre trappings. I’m already moving into something a little more beat-driven, a little more dance-driven, so this is a thing that’s going to be evolving.”
For more information, visit deadtalkback.bandcamp.com.