The Story Behind Monster Magnet's Dopes To Infinity
Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf takes us on a trip with their classic Dopes To Infinity album
It was 1995. Grunge was wearing woefully thin and nu-metal was lurking just around the corner. Someone needed to blast a hole through this wall of mumbling self-pity and sexless whining, preferably using a giant raygun full of drugs, naked women and mind-bending space rock anthems. So, who you gonna call?
At a time when grunge was king and introspection ruled the roost in the rock world, Monster Magnet’s three- dimensional space-rock proselytising seemed to appear from nowhere, like a slowly descending alien mothership illuminating the Earth below with blazing beams of shimmering colour. From the acid-fried sludge rock of their Spine Of God debut onwards, the New Jersey crew were on a singular mission; to make rock’n’roll dangerous, deranged and exciting again. Raised on a diet of Stooges, Sabbath and kitsch B-movie bad trips, band founder Dave Wyndorf had a unique worldview that cut through the post-Cobain fog like a laser through lard. Even on Superjudge, Monster Magnet’s major label debut and the album that introduced them to a mainstream audience for the first time, there was little evidence that Dave or his cohorts had any interest in going with the flow. This was wildly psychedelic and subtly malevolent rock music designed to scratch an itch that had been ignored for a long time. By the time they arrived at their third album, Monster Magnet were ready to stake a claim for rock’n’roll immortality, and the intensely driven Dave knew exactly what was required to pull it off. The album was going to be called Dopes To Infinity and it was going to be huge, in every sense.
“I’ll never forget it,” he recalls today. “It was like, ‘Alright, I wanna do everything on Dopes… that I didn’t do on Superjudge.’ Superjudge was a really annoying- sounding record with a lot of mid-range stuff. On Dopes… I wanted to make a kind of smooth, ethereal kind of rock record. I wanted the whole thing to have that really consistent sound. I want to be able to put on this record and be instantly transported to the land of Dopes To Infinity and I’ll never wanna leave that land! I didn’t want it to sound like a random collection of songs. I really wanted to make something that was completely different from everything else out there.”
To realise his dream of making an album that would exist in its own self-contained world of sonic wonder, Dave knew that he needed to choose a suitable location for the recording sessions. For the second album in a row he settled upon The Magic Shop in New York City, a low-key but well-respected studio that couldn’t have been more perfect for creating that Dopes To Infinity vibe.
“It was a dream studio,” says the singer. “You get the feeling that a lot of really great stuff has been created here and it’s not time to fuck around. You walk in and you do your job. I was totally into it. You walk in that place and it’s all shiny red, with deep carpets. It’s small but it’s got an old 48-track board that looks like the control panel in the old Starship Enterprise. I’ve been to bigger studios but not better ones. It’s one of those places where you feel like you’ve got something to do. It’s not some California bullshit.”
Having written what he describes as “a varied bunch of songs”, Dave was determined to ensure that the new album flowed naturally and took the listener on a wild but coherent trip through rock’s outer limits. In stark contrast to today’s some- what fraught relationship between major label and band, in the early 90s Monster Magnet’s bosses at A&M were happy to let the band indulge themselves to achieve the desired result and, drunk on creative juices, Dave threw himself wholeheartedly into the task of creating a masterpiece.
“The record became a total mission for me,” he admits. “It didn’t take that long but it seemed like it took forever because I was always making shit up as it went along. I’d go back to the hotel room and draw diagrams and crazy stuff. It was right at the dawn of digital sampling and all the samples sounded like shit and I wanted real instruments, so I was renting real Mellotrons, and they’re a huge pain in the ass. They’re huge instruments and they have to be tuned constantly. Everything was a tuning nightmare. I was tuning the drums with a guitar tuner! Ha ha ha ha! It was nuts. It was a real weird experience for the guys I was working with too. They’d never done anything like that before. We were working from four o’clock in the afternoon until eight in the morning and the poor engineers had just about had it, like, ‘What do you want now, Dave?’”
Listening back to Dopes To Infinity now, it’s remarkable how densely textured these comparatively straight-forward rock songs ended up sounding. Everything from the lurching, Sabbath- inspired riff-up of the title track through to the claustrophobic squall of Ego The Living Planet and on to the pulsing comedown mantra of Vertigo is fit to burst with ideas and sonic quirks, all of which contribute to an overall sense that this is the sound of an imagination running riot. Dave was doing whatever it took to fully realise his sonic masterplan.
“At one point I was out in the street with a long cable and a microphone, while I had the engineer bang on a metal postbox with a crowbar,” laughs Dave.
“I wanted a metal sound. Nowadays you could get a sample but then the samples sounded like shit, so he’s out in the street banging on this postbox and I’m saying, ‘This is gonna be great!’ It was adventures in audio! I just wanted to put more stuff on everything. It was all about more, more, more at that point.”
Of course, even though the record company were happy to let Dave have a free rein in the studio, they were still primarily in the business of selling records. With that in mind, the news that Dopes To Infinity was destined to sound like something beamed in from another planet set alarm bells ringing in the A&M offices.
“I remember the record company saying, ‘Would you please try and make it sound at least like something people might recognise?’” says Dave. “I think the guy was just trying to tell me in his own way that I could do myself a lot of favours if I could just buckle down and write at least one song for the masses. I kinda did it with Negasonic Teenage Warhead. I guess that was my answer to him. It’s not hard, you know? Nirvana songs just sounded like Boston to me, like More Than A Feeling. So I took one of those riffs and wrote the whole thing in half an hour.”
Arguably the song that broke Monster Magnet into the rock mainstream, Negasonic Teenage Warhead made its first appearance in demo form on the soundtrack of a critically lauded but largely ignored independent movie called S.F.W. that came and went in 1994. By the time the song was re-recorded for Dopes To Infinity, it was clear that it was the only song on the album that had meaningful commercial potential, and so it was chosen as the album’s first single and plans were drawn up to film a video. In keeping with the album’s general air of creative excess, the end result is one of the more insane videos you’ll find on YouTube. In fact, it was even more bonkers than Dave Wyndorf had originally intended.
“What a crazy time that was!” he cackles. “I hired this director, and I called him up and told him what we wanted. ‘Okay, so the band’s on asteroids, we’re flying around and doing all this crazy shit, then there’s a giant woman and we drive through her naked legs, the end! It’ll be cool!’ I said that the asteroids could be real cheap CGI, right? So I give this guy the plan and then I go off to Europe to do a press tour. I come back from Europe and we go right out and shoot the video. The director didn’t understand that I’d specified CGI and he had physically created these fuckin’ enormous asteroids on hydraulic lifts at the Universal Sound Stage in California. That’s where they shoot fuckin’ Star Wars and shit. I walk in and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I’m in big fuckin’ trouble!’ because now we’ve got to pay for all this stuff! In the end we did it and it was completely overdone and ridiculous and I was happy. Until I got the bill! Ha ha ha!”
Despite some minor success with Negasonic Teenage Warhead, the Dopes To Infinity project manifestly didn’t bring Monster Magnet the kind of world-bothering fame and fortune that record company executives had been hoping for. Nonetheless, it cemented the band’s reputation as the undisputed masters of psychedelic hard rock and frontrunners in the burgeoning space and stoner rock boom that was having a particularly large impact in Europe.
No one else was making records like this at the time, and as bongs were fired up and minds were blown across the planet, Dopes To Infinity was increasingly being chosen as the soundtrack of choice. It even grazed the UK album charts, peaking at number 51, and was sufficiently well received that Monster Magnet were able to start making plans for their next record free from the threat of record company interference. Meanwhile, Dave looks back on his first no-holds-barred audio adventure with mixed feelings but self-evident pride.
“It was shit! A total disaster! Fucking horrible! Ha ha!” he roars. “But seriously, it was somewhat close to what I wanted, but when it was over I kinda thought I’d gone a bit too far. It’s such a world of its own that it doesn’t have much dynamics inside of it. It’s not emotional enough. That’s where Powertrip came from. It had to be more emotional and I had to separate myself from being a producer and a singer. That’s the one problem I have with Dopes…, that I was a producer first and a singer second. Live and learn, man. It’s still a fuckin’ cool record.”