John Seman: The Story of Monktail
JS: It was in Pennsylvania, right in Pennsylvania. In '99, I moved to Seattle, and Mark came the year after. We started playing together and we met a few people. We met [pianist] Stephen Fandrich and [guitarist] Stephen Parris, and we met them through a mutual friend of Mark's. Mark lived in Boston with a guy named Sean Owen, who I think was in the graduate program at the New England Conservatory. He is from Seattle, from Oak Harbor, and he grew up with Stephen Parris. He went to Cornish and was an undergrad with Stephen Fandrich and this host of other Cornish performers. So when Mark came out and met me and introduced me to Sean, Sean introduced us to all of these Cornish musicians. But he left right away to go to London where he got his doctorate in musicology.
Meanwhile, we were here now, Mark and I performing, and we started practicing with Fandrich and Stephen Parris. I met [saxophonist] Bill Monto, we lived in the same apartment building, and that was one of the first groups here-Deal's Number. It was Bill Monto, Mark Ostrowski, and myself, Bill Monto on tenor sax. And there was also Floss. We met [saxophonist] Izaak Mills, who was a Cornish student, but we met him at the record store that Mark ended up working at. So this music community started blossoming. There were about six or seven of us, and once again it was the same story. It was Mark and me with this guy, Mark and me with that guy. We started recording, and many of the recordings, whether it was Special O.P.S., or it was Shit Orange Horsey, or even Deal's Number, a lot of them were first recordings, like, we met these two guys, let's go record, and that would become a band. The concept of what we were doing over all started rearing its head again like it did in high school but now we were serious. We wanted to get gigs. I had already gotten Monktail.com back when I was in college.
AAJ: Monktail.com in the nineties? You had a website?
JS: Yes, 1996. On it was mostly some recordings from that band Open, as well as our free jazz trio which was called Yeast. Now nobody went to it. I would put stuff up, and you had to go to the library to go to the computer and look it up. But I had it registered then, and once I was in Seattle I started posting daily improvisations. I didn't really know anybody before I met all of the Cornish folks, so it was just sitting there with nothing too good on it.
We started tossing names around like Collective, and our model was absolutely the AACM [Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. "Creative music" seemed like the most open term to use, versus "strictly improvised" or "composed" or somewhere in the middle. I remember we were sitting at The Deluxe on Capitol Hill and we started writing it all out. We wrote out a charter with Mark and I as co- founders; I would be the director and he would be like the president or something. We had a board with Monto and Fandrich and Parris and Izaak. We started putting together email lists and we started promoting gigs.
The first Non Grata gig was like August 9, 2001. I remember it was at the Arts and Nature Festival. It was Fandrich, Stephen Parris, Monto, Ostrowski and me, and I remember because I had brought the newspaper and we started doing conduction. I conducted Fandrich, who is an accomplished singer, singing and vocalizing this short Sunday Seattle Times article about President Bush and what a dip shit he was. When he would give speeches at night he was apparently very tired because he was an early morning kind of guy and there were all the little slips of tongue. There had been so many in this last month during his first seven or eight months in office and this article had compiled them. Fandrich would read them in a funny way and we would play a musical tag, and it was very humorous. It was several short weeks after that that they didn't make fun of the president for a long time.
AAJ: That was before 9/11.
JS: Yeah, exactly. It is totally meaningless, but that is why I remember the gig. So my role in Monktail is as gig booker, band wrangler, bassist, producer-I have produced five albums on the Monktail label: two Floss, Non-Grata, OPS, and Deal's Number, not all by myself, but I was the antagonist, the antagonizing producer-and the website, and the email list, all of that kind of promo and gig stuff.
AAJ: Now you have also done some organizing of festivals. Can you talk about that?