Dr. Monika Demmler (photo above by Franz Bauer) is an honest-to-goodness, doctorate-wielding singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who integrates her research interests directly into her music. And btw for anyone who’d prefer to skip this critic’s further musings and get straight to the interview with Dr. M.D. (which includes song-by-song liner notes, generous provided to accompany her latest LP, Princess!) you’re invited to scroll down past the jump.
Without or without the additional context, Princess is a fulfilling listen if you enjoy down ’n’ dirty rock ’n’ roll incorporating elements of Krautrock, shoegaze, psych pop, protopunk, and overall organ-riffing-garage-rock groovitude into the mix accompanied by Patti Smith-meets-Marianne Faithfull style vocalizing. All in the name of re-aligning your chakras and satisfying your soul. And if you wanna get re-aligned in person, simply head to the The Mint this Saturday night (7/15) and you’ll be well taken care of…
About a month ago your loyal musical correspondent was lucky enough to catch German-bred, LA-based Dr. Monika Demmler playing a live set at Brooklyn’s Our Wicked Lady and while the whole set was killer there was a point late in the set that stood out where Monika locked eyes and locked into sync with co-guitarist Jonny Polonsky as they both dropped to their knees in a shared state of rapturous supplication as smiles spread across their faces as they rocked out in tandem…
…improvising a series of escalating riffs that built to an ascending chordal climax anchored by the rock-steady groove of their rhythm section and at the risk of sounding a bit new-agey (hey, this is the LA blog after all!) it felt as if waves of perfectly-tuned-to-the-universe love energy were pouring forth from their instruments…
…which maybe that’s exactly what was happening seeing as Dr. Demmler a.k.a. Stony Sugarskull (explained below!) is an honest-to-goodness doctor and not must tho’ to be clear not a medical doctor but rather a PhD “who channels her research in metaphysics, philosophy, and ecological sound frequencies into her musical artworks” according to her homepage…
…alongside an interest in biophilic healing effects and acoustically transmitted love frequencies and if theoretical physicists like Michio Kaku are right and the universe really is one big symphony of vibrating strings, and if one likewise subscribes to the findings of cymatics…
where geometry, and architecture, are viewed as essentially music frozen in time, to paraphrase Goethe, and where both music and architecture “solidify the intangible emotions and memories of people through time”…
…and whatever skepticism one may or may have about Solfeggio frequencies—a set of 9 electromagnetic tones reputed to have the power to heal and raise consciousness; including the 528 Hz frequency which is said to resonate with the solar plexus chakra and thus to promote love, balance, and harmony—it’s practically inarguable that, for the vast majority of humanity, music is capable of strongly impacting one’s psycho-biochemical state of being (i.e., how you feel) as if attuned to certain aspects of our humanity not to mention the surrounding world…
…which makes sense given how it’s an empirically proven fact that the vibrational frequencies of the human body—brain waves in particular—constantly respond to, and impact upon, the various overlapping frequencies found in the world around us including, of course, sound waves, and what’s more, there’s a natural tendency for the frequencies of these multiple vibrational oscillations to move towards a state of synchronization with one another, all the way from the micro/molecular/cellular level to the macro/cosmic/interstellar level…
…and when it comes to macro level synchronization there’s the well-known Pythagorean concept of “the music of the spheres” that analogizes musical harmony with the ordered, harmonic movements of celestial bodies and also the regular rhythms of biological processes (the perfectly balanced interplays between emission/absorption of oxygen and CO2, respiration and photosynthesis, for instance) whereas climate change and global environmental crisis are the dissonant outcomes of the Anthropocene having reached a point where we’re out-of-sync and unmoored from the natural rhythms of Nature…
…and if only humankind had heeded Nikola Tesla back when he proposed that “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration” then we’d probably be better off currently but at least we can always turn to music to get us back in tune with the universe, not to mention with each other, or as Dr. Monika Demmler puts it in her dissertation: “restorative life-energies are perceived when a musical text resembles the structures of an ecosystem”…
…a conviction that’s led Monika Demmler to take her theories from the page to the stage, where kickass rock ‘n’ roll is also an exercise in applied ecomusicology seeking to summon “restorative life energies” and if Monika and her band’s Our Wicked Lady performance is anything to go by there must be something to the notion…
…cuz despite only having rehearsed for the first time earlier the day of the show, the band of pick-up musicians seemed to instantly fall into sync with one another, locking into one mesmerizing groove after another, clearly on the same or similar frequencies, sending out healing vibrations to those in attendance… (Jason Lee)
Monika Demmler: vocals, guitar, zither
Kristian Bell: bass, drums
Franz Bargmann: guitar
Alex Tower: synths/keys
Colin Dyer: keys on tracks 1/2/5
Dr. Monika Demmler on her early musical journey up to the near-present:
I always played music from when I was a kid. I wanted to study music, but I couldn’t because my main instrument wasn’t a piano. l played zither. But it’s like piano in that you can see everything you’re doing clearly and understand the theory. At the time I didn’t realize quite how important music was to me.
I became a bank clerk. I wouldn’t say I liked it but it was interesting at times. Then I decided to go to back school, got a Masters in teaching for English and History. I taught high school for years and then received a scholarship to study in US, met a professor who specialized in blues and hip hop philosophy. It fascinated me so much that I ended up writing a master’s thesis on blues and jazz.
After receiving a scholarship to write a PhD I began working with a professor whose specialty was ecology and literature. I combined music philosophy with ecology and African-American music. First I moved to London for a period of time and started playing music again since the music scene there was so greet, and then moved to Berlin which is such an artistic and free place and started writing my own songs. That’s when I released my first album, Lioness, in 2020.
Sometimes I think it would’ve been great if I’d stuck to music when I was younger and not done all these other things. But now I’m glad it all happened like it did. I want to keep bringing together my scientific pursuits with my music.
On moving to Los Angeles…
I moved to LA last year in May, after I finally received my artist visa following the pandemic. Immigration was shut down almost entirely during that time even though I was here before it started. When Covid first hit no one knew what was going to happen so I thought I’d better go back to Germany. But the long-term plan was always to move here to LA because it’s always fascinated me in musical terms. Plus I love being near the ocean, the mountains, and nature in general.
I went to the Cruel World Festival in late May at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was amazing, so fascinating. All the artists were so powerful. Saturday night was supposed to feature Siouxsie and the Banshees and Iggy Pop. Iggy Pop got through a few songs and then suddenly the power was cut. Iggy didn’t know what was happening at first. The entire night was cancelled out of fear of lightning. A storm system was moving through but it didn’t end up being that bad.
Suddenly we were in a sea of thousands of people all trying to call an Uber at the same time. We hadn’t to walk a long distance before even trying to find a way home. The next morning I got a message that the guitarist in my band, Sammy Warren, had died. It was devastating. He’d suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke a few days earlier on his way into to see The Cure in San Diego.
On experiencing loss and playing New York City…
I couldn’t bear to go to the festival anymore and missed Siouxsie and Iggy playing their rescheduled sets. He was also part of the Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates, backing up the famous experimental musician. Sam helped to save three lives. His heart and both kidneys were donated to ailing recipients.
But still I was very sad. We had a memorial last Sunday and played a gig with the band he put together. He was known and loved in the scene for being so supportive of everyone and was a true believer in the power of music.
I was scheduled to play in New York City and didn’t want to cancel the show. He wouldn’t have wanted me to. I hadn’t been to New York in years and had never played there. I was very nervous but somehow we got some musicians together and, wow, when we were playing it was like it all just happened on its own. As if all the right spirits had been brought together. It was amazing.
I’m still full of positive energy from New York. The people at Our Wicked Lady are amazing. And all the other bands. Everyone was so nice and were so amazing on stage. I’ll never forget it.
On the power of music…
My goal is to music that helps relieve pain, anxiety, and depression. When I came across research on sound frequencies I wanted to apply those theories to my own music. Both Lioness and Princess are based around the idea that every song utilizes one healing technique or another.
It’s all an outgrowth of my dissertation [Biophilia and the Aesthetics of Blues, Jazz, and Hip-Hop Music in African-American Prose Fiction] where the goal was to look for ways to heal society following the breakdown of of capitalistic systems. Building a new way for humanity to survive.
I plan to call the next album Love Bomb and to base each song around universal love frequencies. It’s like Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to his daughter: “If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer. Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet.”
The antidote to the atom bomb is the love bomb—recovering the rituals the once linked human beings to nature. It’s necessity if humans every want to be healthy again, as a species, in mind, body, and soul, in the midst of technological advances. Thanks to my research I’ve discovered how Greek used ULF’s to heal people.
During the Dark Ages much of this knowledge was lost but in the past 50 years or so it’s been rediscovered. And it’s been preserved by Buddhists all along. I’m still working on capturing these frequencies on the guitar that are in that certain frequency. You can see the hidden power of music in how it helps people who have Alzheimers for instance—how they can temporarily recover their mental and physical faculties through music. We should make use of all that power.
Song-by-song liner notes to Monika Demmler’s Princess LP, released in late 2022…
I don’t believe in dirt
Dirt under the carpet
Unless it’s a flying carpet
I am a Princess
Video directed by Jean de Oliveira. The title track was originally released under the name “Stony Sugarskull.”
Stony Sugarskull came into existence in a bar about 10 years ago—an alter-ego that was tongue-in-cheek at first. Later I realized it was also about being aware of your own potential and sharing that mindset, having the courage to reinvent yourself. But I’ve outgrown it now and decided to go back to my given name.
“Princess” for me expresses the idea that human beings can become their own princesses–their own idealized beings–if they heed, and respect, their own emotions and experiences. The Robin Hood imagery is about fighting for social equity.
“TOO GOOD”: https://open.spotify.com/track/4cxbt02jG4ngSgRbfTlNZ0?si=37bd51ce2f3a411e
It was all too good to be true
All the waiting had an end.
When the tiger kissed the mouse.
And the flower smashed the glass.
I collected lyrics for “Too Good” over the course of years. It turned out to be my favorite song because it wasn’t planned out ahead of time. “Too Good’ was recorded in the UK, in the countryside, and we didn’t have time for many takes. Kristian set up his drums in a great big hall. It sounds really big and powerful. Then Franz gets this perfect Krautrock groove going, but balances out the repetition by going crazy on the guitar.
We’d played together a lot as a two-piece and then moved over here. Having that familiarity, unexpected things happen in all the right places.
We could’ve hitched a balloon.
We could’ve flown a kite.
We could’ve saved the turtles.
We could’ve flown like water.
This was written the night a really good friend of mine died, who used to always say “cutiful” to things. He was from LA, a real true artist. We had a special connection. And then I got a phone call telling me he passed away. It was at the height of the first Fentanyl crisis, a whole wave where a lot of people died. I hurt so bad I just started playing guitar and came up with this song. “Cutiful” is dedicated to him.
I’m flying high
I’m looking for the flowers
in the garbage can
surrounded by a coat of magic fabric
This song is about fighting for love, fighting for what’s good in the world. It’s not about H.P. Lovecraft, but about love power and “love craft.” Love is like a craft that you work towards. And in Germany, it also means power.
You’ve got to learn that when someone does wrong to you, you don’t do wrong back. You send love back. That’s love craft.
“PUNKY TURTLE”: https://open.spotify.com/track/53eUr137TgsBPNbyf9oqGN?si=bfd408d33fc74537
I love talking to you
I love talking to you
In my memories
My favorite animals are turtles. This was the last song I wrote for the album, days after my friend passed away. His last words to me were “punky turtle.” I have an old turtle that I had posted a photo of on an Instagram story. He left a comment: “punky turtle.”
There’s also some lines in Sanskrit. Taken from a prayer to save the world.
I love the drums on this one. They’re really heavy, inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Kristian, who produced the album, also plays drums. It’s so magical when things fit perfectly together. Lock into sync. You don’t have to talk about it or explain it. We spent 14 days together recording the album. The songs weren’t even finished going in, not all of them. You have to be open to change. New ideas constantly came up when we recorded.
Franz Bargmann is on guitar here. He came over from Berlin. Alex Tower plays synths, and Colin Dyer is also from Berlin. He did the piano parts on three songs.
She walked in the house of darkness
She was looking for something special
This one is tied into how I ended up in Los Angeles. I was in a serious car accident in 2015 on my way from Berlin to Munich for my doctoral defence. We were on the Autobahn and got hit by a truck with my in the front right seat. I was laid up for months, close to a year. After that, I really started to become a musician. It made me realize that life is so short.
I received money from the insurance and decided I wanted to use it to go to the States. The first place I visited was Austin, and the Levitation festival. It was there I met a band from Los Angeles who said you’ve got to come here. I had no idea what to expect. I’d been to New York City but never to LA. They invited me and I accepted. It was first time I’d been in a car again since the accident. The drive took 24 hours.
I felt free with some money in my bank account and no job waiting on me back in Berlin. When we got to LA it was night. We walked into my new friends’ house which was dark. The lyrics “walked into the house of darkness / seeking for something special” are based on this. I entered with my friend Domino. The house was dark and just about empty. We lit a candle, that’s all awe had for light. I walked from the darkness into a room and the first thing I saw was his brother’s ashes in an urn.
This is all what the song’s about. The line “she couldn’t find it” is based on how we’re all constantly searching for something, instead of valuing what we already have. In other words, focusing on what’s missing instead of appreciating the good things we already have in life.
“LUXURY MADNESS”: https://open.spotify.com/track/2C7TKpMGcbQ4CFyNBOMNAK?si=caed3e82282f4520
I want to send you to paradise
but I’m currently out of order!
Compared to past eras we live in a luxurious time. Any place where I’ve lived, most people have food and a roof over their head. But even for those who are so lucky, there’s a kind of madness happening now. Humanity has become so “advanced” yet we’re still dealing with wars, pandemics.
We’re living in a time of extremes. At the same time there’s lots of great things happening, there’s more awareness than ever of all the bad things. We need to make this planet a better place for humankind. “There’s a mock in my democracy” was a lyric that just fell into my head. But it gets at how there’s always bad lurking in the good, and vice-versa.
“The future of separation / the past of alienation / distraction without reflection / distraction without resurrection / unblock the future” refers to all the craziness around the pandemic. “I want to send you to paradise / but I’m currently out of order.” This is a fun one to play live with all the back and forth in the vocals.
“BOOK OF DREAMS”: https://open.spotify.com/track/5A4uRT130um7uk8ytr67mI?si=d2e92af94ec34b22
I have a book of 1,000 dreams
I’m gonna live them
I’m gonna catch them
I’m gonna keep them in my jewelry
A dreamy song.
“TIME FLOW”: https://open.spotify.com/track/1ZAWifFTPfRCkNNb5l8aqb?si=e30a7c93cbed4f0e
Like a coward running so fast
Like a spiral in unstoppable creation
A song about time itself, about time always moving forward with no means of reversal or return. Time becomes my currency ‘cause time is short on earth. I wrote all the guitar parts first. But this was one where a lot of new parts were added in the studio.
Can’t keep up
I wish I would be in transit
This is a song about living in a transitional period. We still don’t know what the next 10 years are going to look like at all. In a way, I’m excited to be part of it. This moment in human history.
My parents’ time, growing up in postwar Europe, was relatively stable. This era is the total opposite. Human beings are traumatized from the pandemic. There’s a lot of anxiety in the air. It hit everybody. We have to tackle the root problem and look at our role in it. It produces this sense of “Can I trust myself, my actions?” You become insecure, but it’s not all negative.
The isolation made people focus inward, bringing up feelings we’d push down otherwise. A lot of us were trapped at home, alone. It opens you up to a new dimension. Spirituality becomes more important. You realize your deep connection to nature, even when it’s traumatic–becoming more aware of ourselves, our intuition, and how people used to survive in the distant past. It’s a form of bodily learning.
“KAFKA DOLL”: https://open.spotify.com/track/4h1rHLXast5EsqfA2nf3bM?si=5317f685b23849ee
A thousand dreams
have been deferred
Cure my heart
Cure my soul
This one sounds like a love song at first. It’s based on a story involving Franz Kafka, where he helps a girl who’s sad because she lost her favorite doll. He ends up teaching her a lesson about letting go when it’s time to let go. Life is giving and receiving. As human beings, we’re a part of nature too. And nothing can last forever. Everything is in motion. In relationships, sometimes you have to let go.
I learned to play the zither before the piano. Took loads of lessons when I was a little kid, playing jazz and classical music. That’s what you learn in Europe. The latter mostly. Bach and Mozart. My mom loved the zither. She wanted to learn herself but didn’t have time. So her dream was for me to learn it.