Zoon on Temp Job Tantrums and the Life-Altering Influence of Beck and A Tribe Called Red

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

"The guy stopped everything and was just screaming at me. He's like, 'You're going to use the bathroom!?'"

Photo: Vanessa Heins

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 24, 2023

In any other year, Zoon's Daniel Monkman would likely have spent the months surrounding their acclaimed debut album, Bleached Wavves, on the road. This was in 2020, however, and even as accolades rolled in, Monkman was stuck at home in lockdown, spending time looking inward.

It was a time of introspection that yielded the sophomore album Bekka Ma'iingan. "Bekka" is the Ojibway word for "slow down," a direct reference to how they spent that year, while "Ma'iingan" translates as "wolf" and is an expression of self-identity, as Monkman learned at their father's funeral that they belong to the Wolf Clan.

"My dad had just passed away," Monkman remembers. "Then, in the beginning of the pandemic, my friend who was sober got CERB and all of a sudden had this money. He bought drugs, and unfortunately there was fentanyl in it, and he passed on. I wrote a lot of songs about him. This album was just about reflection."

That meditative time resulted in a tender, sonically swooning LP full of spacious new age soundscapes, ascendent strings composed by Owen Pallett, six-string abstractions from Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo on the ambient piece "Niizh Manidoowig (2 Spirit)," and occasional moments of fuzz-drenched shoegaze that convey the artist's careful study of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.

In keeping with Bekka Ma'iingan's spirit of self-reflection, we asked Monkman to look back on their life and career by answering the Exclaim! Questionnaire — a conversation that touched on getting yelled at for going to the washroom at a temp job, a new album from side-project OMBIIGIZI, a former Exclaim! editor who gave Zoon their worst review, and the life-altering influence of A Tribe Called Red and Beck.

What are you up to?

I'm working on a new OMBIIGIZI record, and currently working on some live shows with the Medicine Singers, Lee Ranaldo and Yonatan Gat. Last year, I was invited to a recording session in Montreal at Hotel2Tango with the Medicine Singers and Yonatan Gat. Maybe a week before, Yonatan Gat shared with me that Lee Ronaldo would be at the recording session, too. So we all got together: Thor [Harris] was there, and Chris, who's the bassist for like St. Vincent. And some of the Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] people like Becky Foon. And Jessica Moss was there, too. We recorded an album, and I didn't really know what was going to happen. But a few months ago, I went up to New York to Yonatan Gat's studio, and we listened to the music and it sounds really good. They're hoping to put it out next year in the fall, and so right now, I'm just helping them out with getting a Canadian agent. They're gonna start booking a package deal, something like that. That's all kind of in the works.

OMBIIGIZI started a new record maybe six months ago. We went to Nyles [Spencer]'s studio — the Tragically Hip's studio in Bath. I had some new songs that I wanted to show them, and we ended up recording those songs, but then we ran into some stuff with the label [Arts & Crafts] and they weren't willing to put more money into the second album, because technically we signed a one-album deal. But they're really interested in the songs, and I'm almost 100-percent sure that they'll put out the next one. We recently got some funding, and so now we're going in to finish the whole thing off.

What are your current fixations?

I just worked on a documentary called The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. I just finished that, and before that, I was really jumping into film scores. Really studying them and listening to documentaries — listening to the music in the background. I would pick a scene, listen to it and watch it and be like, "What is the music doing for this reveal?" or something like that. And so I've been really into that. And listening back to, say, the Blade Runner soundtrack, which was something that really influenced me as a young person. So mostly, film scores are what I'm really into, because I find a lot of freedom in that. It allows me not to have to tour and be stressed about all that kind of stuff — even though these days, we have a lot of help with touring. Adam [Sturgeon] works really hard in OMBIIGIZI as more of the tour manager.

I saw the movie called 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and I've been reading Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon — mostly just because I've recently become friends with Lee [Ranaldo], and I really want to dive in and get some more influence and understand his band more. When I was younger, I loved Sonic Youth and Nirvana, but I wasn't really much of a musician back then. Now that I solely based my practice on open tunings, I kind of study them now.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert and why?

I saw A Tribe Called Red play in 2017 at Echo Beach, just before I decided to start doing music as a career. I was on the fence about doing it, and jumping back into the Wild West. I hadn't seen powwow music in that way before, especially live. I had been to powwows, but not an electric powwow. Something about that — well, actually, a lot about that — was really inspiring and made me feel like I could do it, too.

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

Can I say two things? Recording Sewn Back Together with Adam Sturgeon, Eric Lourenço, Andrew McLeod, Nyles Spencer and Kevin Drew. And for the second one, I would say recording the Medicine Singers' second album with Lee Ronaldo and Yonatan Gat. Both experiences pushed me to the limit as a singer-songwriter, and both experiences have helped me grow. I wasn't used to collaborating, and that showed me a new side of it.

What's been the worst moment of your career so far?

I think the worst decision I've made was not being collaborative. I see now that that held me back in my formative years as a songwriter, like 2007 to 2010. I wouldn't allow people to write with me, and doing the OMBIIGIZI record and the Lee record made me more open to the idea that I might not have all the answers.

Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?

I would say Adam Sturgeon. Adam is not only such a great songwriter, but also is a knowledge keeper, and a true what we call ogimaa, which means leader. He's been at it for a long time, and he doesn't make very accessible music, but he's stayed true to it for a while. I feel like now, more than ever, his music is just really important. Especially when you see his song "Genocidio" live, you're just like, "Wow." Compared to, say, other Indigenous artists who are political, but their music is more soft. I get what they're trying to do; it's to make it accessible so it can be played anywhere so people get the message. Whereas Adam doesn't hold back.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?

I think, early on, I should have maybe stopped playing music when I was more under the influence. I think it did a lot of damage to me by not stopping and really taking a good look at myself. It put a hold on a lot of growing that should have happened, but, instead, I thought I'd be okay. Now that I'm in healing, whenever I see an artist struggling, I'm always like, "Hey, music isn't everything. You have to take care of yourself." It's a lot of sacrifice to make that decision, but you're always rewarded.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

I wrote an album in like 2007 called Gloves [with the project Blisters]. The first song that I wrote for it, I think it was called "Snail" or something like that. It was my first time attempting to write a song after listening to Beck's Mellow Gold. I was just like, 'Oh, I could just write about any weird little thing." And so I wrote this song about this snail travelling from one side of the yard to the other. It's just some silly song. If you go to the radio station in Winnipeg, CKUW, and you go onto the website, if you type in "blisters gloves," you can see the album that I made, because they have an archive of it. That was the first song I remember writing. I actually wrote more before that — a lot of punk songs. I put out a couple punk records with my friends early on, but I don't remember writing those ones.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?

When I think of Canada, because I'm First Nations, I think of broken treaties. But I also think of beautiful lakes.

What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?

I've been very fortunate that a lot of people have spoken highly of my music. But there was this guy named Michael Barclay, this author [and a former member of Exclaim!'s editorial team], who just absolutely hated my debut album, Bleached Wavves, and couldn't understand why people would like it. If you type in his name [into Google] and then put in "zoon bleaches wavves," you'll be able to see what he says. I can't remember exactly what it was, but I think one of his quotes was, "I can't believe that people like this sound." He said that the title track, "Bleached Wavves," made him feel sick. I actually find that so good, and I can't wait to meet him one day. I want people to be honest, and if that's him being honest, that's great.

What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

I think it was Nirvana's first album [Bleach]. Or I think it might have been that [greatest hits] album they put out in 2002, and it had "You Know You're Right" on it. And then I bought their first record [on CD] because I really liked that song "About a Girl." I was like, "Oh, it's not on their most popular one [Nevermind]." I didn't have the internet back then. Someone was like, "It's off the first one."

What was your most memorable day job?

Oh my gosh, I've had so many weird temp jobs. It was while recording Bleached Wavves, at the height of not knowing what to do in life, or if music was going to work out. I hadn't even played a show yet under the new name and I was just trying to pay for the sessions. I was living in Hamilton, and I found this temp agency that finds you jobs. I started working at this big factory that had all these conveyor belts, and on the conveyor belt would be, like, rubble — just garbage. My job, where I was standing was, as [the rubble] is coming up, to dig through it and find the microchips. I would stand there and I would find little pieces of green microchips. When I found one, I would pick it up and put it in a little bin beside me. Then someone would come pick up that bin and they would extract a little piece of gold from the microchip.

The conveyor belt never stopped, and it was at an angle looking down. Part of the training was them teaching you how to not do rapid eye movement, because the person said, if you do the rapid eye movement, you're gonna get dizzy and pass out. So you can't look at the microchips — you have to almost instinctively find it. I was just like, "What?!"

So I tried it, and I was pretty decent at it, but I lasted two shifts. The first one, I needed to use the bathroom, and [there was] this guy — he wasn't my boss, but he was more like the boss's servant or something. He wasn't a manager. He was just like me. He got paid just as much as me, but the manager just didn't want to do his job, so he got one of us to do it and enforce it. I tried to use the bathroom, and the guy stopped everything and was just screaming at me. He's like, "You're going to use the bathroom!?" He's like, "If you use the bathroom, we have to stop everything and we'll have to wait for you to go." And I was like, "That's fine, dude. You're gonna have to wait because I'm gonna use the bathroom. I'll be back in five minutes." He was so furious. I just remember being like, "Wow, this is insane that people have to do this every single day." So that's a job that I'll never forget.

If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing instead?

There was a time in my life when I wasn't really doing art. I think I would probably get into activism, because, when I wasn't doing music, I was working for the NDP. My best friend's mom was a project manager at the location on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, MB, and so I worked as an assistant for Niki Ashton during one of the federal elections that she was nominated for.

How do you spoil yourself?

I've never been used to spoiling myself. I've only started to make money in the last year, and so I sometimes I spoil myself by just resting. That's the one thing that I don't get enough of that I can't really buy.

What's the best way to listen to music?

For years, I would say with headphones, and then I was working with a producer in New York and we listened to music at a studio and it was just blasting. I felt like that was so good. So maybe really loud with good speakers, or with headphones.

What do you fear most?

Falling back into addictions.

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

I would buy myself a house. A big enough house where I can fit my family and friends and have some kind of compound where we can just play music and take care of animals. Somewhere where it doesn't snow — I don't know where that is.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?

One time when recording the OMBIIGIZI album, Gord Downie's wife [Kaya Usher] showed up and showed us how to tread water in the pool. We just treaded water in the pool and then played basketball. I think that was the weirdest one, because I just didn't expect any of that.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?

I would like to meet my grandpa on my dad's side. I spent some time with him when I was younger, but don't really remember any of it. So I think it'd be really nice to just have dinner with him. I think we would probably eat bison burgers because it's traditional.

What is the greatest song of all time?

I really like that song "Loser" by Beck. That song changed my life. There were so many genres just in that one song that it sparked my creativity. Before that, I was into the Beach Boys, and I could have named a couple of Brian Wilson songs [as the greatest], but I always felt like it wasn't attainable. Brian Wilson spent millions of dollars recording some of those albums, but when I heard Mellow Gold, I realized that he made that album for next to nothing. It pushed the boundaries and it showed me that I could do it, too.

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