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In a nondescript office park near the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, a rock & roll army has taken over an empty room. With bland carpeting, fluorescent overhead lights and a nearby row of cubicles, it's a far cry from the idealized band room of shag carpets and tie-dyed wall hangings. As befits their surroundings, the band members take on a workman-like role in preparing for rehearsal. The drummer is fiddling with monitor mixes while the guitarist is at his wit's end trying to fix the bugs in his wireless pack. The singer listens to his iPod in a trance-like state, mentally preparing to inhabit the songs. Blue painter's tape outlines the dimensions of a stage, and the band's stage manager is poring over schematics for light rigs and trusses while discussing the finer points of pyrotechnics.
This is not your average band practice – and El Monstero is not your average band.
For twelve years, El Monstero has trotted out its large-scale tribute to Pink Floyd, playing the band's well-known songs and deeper album cuts with both microscopic precision and a flamboyant stage show. Past years have included costumed actors, Broadway-worthy stage maneuvers and an appreciable amount of razzle-dazzle.
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The band began as a lark when bassist Kevin Gagnepain and his bandmates in the popular St. Louis band Stir desired to play some no-pressure cover-song sets in between tours. Called El Monstero y Los Masked Avengers, the band recruited their friend Mark Thomas Quinn to take the stage for a few Pink Floyd songs. The response was so great that the band soon incorporated all of the epochal Dark Side of the Moon into the sets. The first full-fledged Pink Floyd tribute show took place in 1999 at Mississippi Nights, and since then the annual event has regularly sold out multiple nights at the Pageant.
In a review of last year's opening-night show, RFT writer Shae Moseley remarked on the often-overwhelming stagecraft: "Each year, the spectacle becomes a little bit more ridiculous. In fact, the sheer amount of lighting on stage last night bordered on overkill. It was an amazing display of candle power, but at times there were so many lights pointed out into the crowd that the audience was blinded. It didn't take much away from the show, but it made one wonder how much longer a venue the size of the Pageant can hold this ever-growing monstrosity."
During the late-November rehearsal described above, the members of El Monstero seemed to agree with the sentiment. This year's show, titled "Beyond the Wall," takes a much more intimate, stripped-down approach to the music. A temporary stage will be built on the Pageant's dance floor, and around 100 fans will be seated on the main stage, which offers a literal behind-the-scenes view of El Monstero's performance.
Randy Noldge has been the band's stage manager for the past six years, and he said that members were initially hesitant when he suggested radically altering the stage set-up. Since former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters just brought his theatrical production of The Wall to the Scottrade Center in October, Noldge felt that trying to compete with that would amount to a "high school musical play." Instead, the focus will return to the music.
"We're still gonna have all the visual stuff that goes along with the show," Noldge says. "I just think that by bringing the band closer, out into the audience, it takes away some of the 'we're the band on stage, you're the audience out there in the house' [vibe]. The last couple of years, the show we've presented has been a fairly dark show. It's been very militant, with The Wall theme running through a lot of it. This year, I think we went for more of a happy, trippy, psychedelic experience. We're gonna lighten the mood a little bit."
Mark Thomas Quinn, who plays guitar and takes on Roger Waters' vocal parts in the show, was also ready for a change from the Wall-heavy influences of year's past. That double album and the ensuing tour and film are rich in fascist, Oedipal and totalitarian themes, and as Quinn took on the role of the protagonist Pink, he felt as if he were beginning to lose himself in the character.
"For me, [actually] doing the Pink part, I'm in a better state of mind about doing it lately than I have been in previous years, just because I think I went into this method-acting thing where I was so much into the part, emotionally," he says. "I would actually get into the role of Pink so hard that I would physically get sick. So, I'm in a much better state of mind about how to approach that. I would just actually get depressed to make myself into that character."
Quinn also saw that it was becoming harder to improve on El Monstero's big-time spectacle. "How were we gonna top it? More lasers? More bombs? More pyro?" he notes. "This is the year we are concentrating on the music."
For the members of El Monstero, there is often a strange disconnect between playing from Pink Floyd's songbook and perusing their own musical passions. Nearly every member of the seven-person band still plays in an original band. For instance, guitarist and singer Jimmy Griffin leads the Incurables when he's not playing in a host of other bands, Gagnepain is a member of Shooting With Annie and plays alongside Quinn in the cover band Joe Dirt & the Dirty Boys, and keyboardist Bill Reiter performs with LucaBrasi. For drummer John Pessoni – who, along with Reiter, was a member of the Urge — approaching these songs takes a different kind of musical discipline.
"For me, it's a pretty gigantic disconnect," Pessoni says. "It's almost like I have to morph into a different person to play like this. It's the absolute opposite school of any way I've ever played in my life: real slow and deliberate and quiet. It's so dynamic, and I've always just bashed away."
In addition to playing someone else's songs, the band has to contend with the inherent lack of ego that is required for a job like this. The fans may be cheering and singing along, but it's clear that the audience is there because they love Pink Floyd but not necessarily El Monstero. "They're there because they love the music, and they might like you – 'Oh, that guy's cool!' – but anybody could do this gig," says Griffin. Pessoni seconds that thought. "We're all interchangeable. This is an animal with its own legs."
El Monstero has been able to fill the Pageant many nights in a row thanks to a dedicated fan base, which often lines the sidewalks outside the Pageant when tickets go on sale, and with the support of KSHE (94.7 FM). St. Louis' "Real Rock Radio" station has been a supporter of the show from the start. Gagnepain remembers meeting with KSHE on-air personality Favazz to drum up support. "We couldn't afford to buy any advertising, so I got with Favazz and said, 'How can we get some ad time without paying anything up front?' And we just worked out the deal with them where they kind of partner with us on the show, and in return they pimp the holy hell out of it."