Dywane Thomas Jr., aka MonoNeon, is shown here performing with Terrace Martin at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Photo by Ebet Roberts
In the early 1900s, French artist Marcel Duchamp pioneered a concept called readymade art. His works were based around mass-produced objects, as well as “improvements” to acknowledged masterpieces. For example, his piece Fountain is a urinal that he signed and displayed in a museum. Bicycle Wheel is a bicycle wheel mounted to a stool, and L.H.O.O.Q. is a postcard of the Mona Lisa, but modified with a mustache and goatee.
Duchamp’s work was controversial and became a catalyst for Dadaism, an “anti-art” movement born out of subversive artistic expressions in relation to political and cultural status quo. It made a huge impact on subsequent generations of creatives, one of them being our featured artist, Memphis-based bassist Dywane “MonoNeon” Thomas Jr.
Thomas, aka MonoNeon, enjoys exploring ideas within this avant-garde ethos. Duchamp’s readymade art is what inspired him to create his own musical persona, and his musical works are something of a YouTube sensation. On his YouTube channel, MonoNeon takes videos—many of which have already gone viral and usually feature a rant by someone famous like Cardi B, Will Smith, or Donald Trump—and he accompanies them word-for-word on bass. He then loops a selection or phrase, lays down a funky groove, and blows next-to-impossible riffs and fills over the top. He often wears ski goggles and is illuminated by fluorescent-colored clothing, bright wool hats, and an official MonoNeon hoodie. He also hangs a neon sock on his bass headstock, for good measure.
It’s YouTube. It’s odd. It’s ridiculous. And it catches your attention. More importantly, MonoNeon’s bass technique and chops are jaw-dropping. In early 2015, he caught the attention of the Purple One himself, Prince, who hired MonoNeon to work with Prince’s then-protégé Judith Hill, but Prince soon added MonoNeon to his own group as well. MonoNeon played sessions and jammed with Prince at Paisley Park—they recorded an album’s worth of material—but all that came to an end with Prince’s untimely death in 2016.
But the show must go on. MonoNeon keeps busy as a member of Ghost-Note, a band led by Snarky Puppy percussionists Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight. He tours with steel drummer Jonathan Scales, and plays with the New Power Generation, a band of Prince alumni.
MonoNeon is a solo artist, too, and he releases a steady stream of lo-fi, irreverent, off-beat albums—most of which are available on Bandcamp—including his recent full-length album, I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-Fi). His vision and aesthetic are articulated in his own “MonoNeon Art Manifesto,” which he displays at the end of every video (see image), and his idealism is inspiring. The last line reads: “Reject the worldly idea of becoming a great musician…JUST LIVE MUSIC!”
MonoNeon is a man of few words, but in our interview, he opened up about collaborations, low-budget recordings, gear, and his musical relationship with Prince.
When did you first start playing?
I started playing when I was 4 years old. I started with guitar, but I played it like a bass.
Did you take lessons?
No formal lessons. I listened to records and the radio. I learned songs from the radio. I think I was 10 or 12 when I played in my first band.
And then you went to Berklee?
Yeah. I went to Berklee for two years and then I left. That was from 2008 through 2010. I did study microtonal music with David Fiuczynski. I was in his Planet MicroJam and Mahavishnu ensembles.
Did you take private lessons with him, too?
Somewhat. It was more like a hang and I learned stuff. I played with Jack DeJohnette once because of Fiuczynski, too.
TIDBIT: MonoNeon is very prolific, constantly loading new content to his YouTube channel and releasing new music on Bandcamp. In 2018, he released an LP, I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-Fi) LP, and several stand-alone tracks.
Talk about a few of your collaborations, like the work you’ve done with Eric Gales, Judith Hill, and Ghost-Note.
I really haven’t played with Eric Gales—that was just NAMM stuff. I recently opened for him a couple months ago, though. Prince hired me to be Judith Hill’s bass player in early 2015 and then I started playing with him in late 2015 until early 2016. I started playing with Ghost-Note after Prince passed. I’ve been with them ever since.
How do these projects work? Do they give you charts or is it more collaborative?
It is more collaboration or they send a demo of a new song and I learn it.
How did you hook up with Prince?
He found me online. He found out about me from my videos and one of his managers contacted me via email.
Did you record an album with him?
He released one song while he was here. It’s called “Ruff Enuff.” It’s like an instrumental jam thing. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the other tracks. It was released under my name, but it was released on NPG Music.
Was he particular about gear and tone?
He was meticulous in general, but I don’t know if he was meticulous about gear. He just wanted things to sound good.
Did he give you pointers?
He just let me play. It depends. If he really wanted something particular, he would tell me, but in general, he would just let me play.
Did you jam a lot as well?
A lot, especially during rehearsals. Rehearsals usually turned into jams. But that’s what he wanted. He could do that all night.
What instruments would he play when you were jamming?
Either keys or guitar.