The River Monks and “The Mysterious World” | Feature Interview

As we can all clearly hear, there are five syllables in “always,” and four in “gray.” As for “snow”? Well, let’s just count:

“Sn-ow-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.”

17. Yes, there are 17 syllables in one “snow,” at least in the song “Of Snow” by The River Monks. Hear them start to fall at 3:42 in a refrain off the ornamented folk band’s debut album, Jovials.

It’s OK, you can take a breath.

But consider this corollary: If the Iowa-based, but slowly scattering, group is getting this much mileage out of solitary lyrics, perhaps that efficiency translates to their tour vehicle, too.

The River Monks drive their six word-stretching voices through Nebraska this week, with two planned stops: Thursday, March 27 at Vega in Lincoln, and Friday, March 28 at O’Leaver’s in Omaha.

When asked where his propensity to elongate vowel sounds originates, frontman Ryan Stier digs up the tree and follows its earthen tendrils back a few centuries.

“I would say that the real roots of that idea are coming from an old music style called recitative,” says Stier, who earned a guitar degree from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. “But it’s a style of music I think of as kind of Bach-era, or maybe Mozart rather, where he would write a part and instruments would be accompanying, and then all of a sudden, they would hang on a note, and the singer would basically show off.”

Of course. That’s what I would have said, too.

Throughout Jovials, released in March 2011, Stier and company — all musically trained through college — append note after note to the ends of words in true melismatic fashion. And occasionally, there aren’t even words. Just melodies to “garnish” the song, to use Stier’s word.

He says the trend continues on The River Monks’ forthcoming record, Home Is The House. Citing the song “Only Son” as an example, he stresses that his lyrics are full of actual words, yes, not just musical exhalations. It is true, though, that those musical exhalations have become a bulwark of The River Monks’ sound.

“The song has plenty of content, but then there’s this recurring wordless melody. It’s kind of like an emotional cry, all six of us singing,” Stier says. “A good friend of mine, I showed him this song. As he was listening to the wordless melody part, he said, ‘That sounds so much like The River Monks.’”

Rightly so. Although Home Is The House is officially released on May 20, 2014, the band will offer advance copies of the CD at each of this tour’s concerts. Traveling through 10 states in addition to Iowa, from Minnesota to Nebraska, The River Monks are now in a good position to question where home is, as the actual distance to each member’s physical house fluctuates.

Stier says the song that named the album paints a similarly wayfaring character who starts out with nothing. While the track had existed visually in Stier’s mind before, if only vaguely, the scene in a photograph friend Jordan Oster snapped in China seemed to match the environment Stier imagined, pixel-for-pixel.

“When I saw that photo, I thought this is what the setting of the song sounds like: a home sitting on a hill, looking out over this vast, mysterious land,” Stier says. “It would make sense for you to stay in this home, but the album also questions whether that’s the right place to live. Should you go out into the mysterious world and see if there are other places to live?”

The photo now emblazons itself on the cover of Home Is The House. Far from the foggy, terraced hills of China, home for Stier is still in Des Moines. The River Monks’ band name finds its etymology in that city’s history after all. According to one origin story, when the French settled near Des Moines, they saw monks trapping fish in the river. Thus, the name they gave the river was “La Rivière des Moines,” or “The River of the Monks.”

Stier’s other original bandmates, Joel Gettys and Nicholas Frampton, called Iowa home when Jovials was released. Since, Frampton has moved to Nashville, and Gettys plans to move to California by the end of the year. The three members who have joined the band since Jovials remain closer to Stier with Drew Rauch staying in Des Moines, Tommy Boynton being an hour away in Creston, Iowa, and Mallory Heggen living in Council Bluffs.

With its far-flung members soon to be farther away, Stier says The River Monks still plan to gain ground across the West Coast and throughout the Midwest by playing multiple tours this year. Having been forced to record Home Is The House in discrete chunks, when the band could gather, songs needed to be more fully fleshed-out so as to not waste recording time. It was a fine learning exercise, Stier says.

“We’re going to be spread across the country. We might have figured out how to be efficient.”

With their first single, “Beasts,” already out, a complementary music video on the way, and one more song-and-video pair to come before the new album’s release, well, that efficiency is telling.

The River Monks will make the most out of every mile and every word.

Michael Todd is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Where does an Iowa/Nashville band master its album? In Omaha, with Doug Van Sloun, of course. Reach Michael at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.

Michael Todd (@michaelsedits) is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Reach him at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.