Punks, beboppers and hip hoppers aside, most music artists would rather not be pigeon-holed into a genre. They don’t even like talking about labels, let alone sticking to one.
Daniel Monkman, on the other hand, is all for categories. The Anishinaabe musician created the genre “moccasin gaze,” which introduces First Nations drums to gauzy, distorted shoegaze rock.
“I meet so many people who either hate the term moccasin gaze or love it,” Monkman says while browsing vinyls at Toronto’s Tiny Record Shop. “One friend said I should depart from it altogether.”
The 31-year-old Toronto-based indie artist, who makes music under the alias Zoon, has a new album out this week, Bekka Ma’iingan. It follows up 2020′s critically acclaimed Zoon debut effort, Bleached Wavves. With recent mentions in The New York Times and on NPR’s All Songs Considered, Zoon buzz is building in the United States.
Though the publicity photos being used to promote the new record rate a 10 on the glam scale, in person the slender, long-haired musician wears sneakers, jeans and a red lumberjack shirt. Monkman, a Manitoba native, has a fragile, open and soft-spoken manner. It is the mien of a sensitive, vulnerable artist who stopped making music in 2010 for a period of years involving attempts at rehab. “I was trying to clean up my life.”
In 2017, a sober Monkman was working as a janitor at McMaster University in Hamilton, sneaking into closets to send out music files from a laptop computer. The reception from the Canadian indie label Paper Bag Records was positive. The label’s president hadn’t heard anything like “moccasin gaze” before. Nobody had, really.
“I was immediately hooked into what was happening,” says Trevor Larocque. “I thought Daniel’s creative energy and voice needed to be shared with the world.”
Critics like to praise artists who “transcend genre,” but is that really a big deal? Thomas Edison did not transcend the candle, he invented the light bulb. Henry Ford did not transcend the horse, he invented the Model T automobile. Should we call Monkman an inventor? Well, if the moccasin fits.
“It was always about the artist’s search to do something new,” Monkman says. “What am I going to bring to the table? What will be my stamp in time?”
Classic shoegaze, pioneered by bands such as Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, typically allows the musicians to lose themselves in a woozy wall of noise and mumbled vocals, with no deep lyrics or tricky music that might distract. Disengagement is the point. Monkman’s music, on the other hand, is all about connecting to an Ojibwe heritage and reconnecting with the music world after years of being away.
“It was natural. I remember thinking, ‘I think I’m really on to something. I have to keep going.’”
Though the making of Bleached Wavves was plagued by delays, a shoe-string budget and broken equipment, it was shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Monkman’s music career, which began with the promising Winnipeg-based band the Blisters, was revived.
There is strong psychedelic component to what Monkman is doing. The best psychedelic rock – think Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon – takes fans of the genre out of their minds for a while before returning them back home safely.
Bleached Wavves was Monkman’s journey and the listener’s trip. The same goes with the new Bekka Ma’iingan, which translates directly from Ojibway to “slow down” and “wolf.” Slowing down had to do with making it during the COVID lockdowns. “I had nowhere to go,” Monkman says. “I watched the world completely slow down.”
Wolf refers to the Wolf clan, to which Monkman unknowingly belonged. It was revealed after the musician’s father died recently. “My dad went to a residential school, and he didn’t talk about culture.”
An album of elegant ambience and medicinal reverberations, Bekka Ma’iingan represents a continuation of a journey. The death of Monkman’s father is marked by Ashes in a Vase, while A Language Disappears is an impressionistic response to the death of Indigenous culture. The latter song’s tune, not the lyrics, carries the message.
“For the melody, I pictured an endangered species of bird calling out in its own language, hoping to hear something back,” Monkman explains.
The album features contributions from high-profile artists including Owen Pallett (who composed the string arrangements) and Arcade Fire associate Mark Lawson (who mixed the album). Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo played on Niizh Manidoowig (Two Spirit).
The universe of collaborators keeps growing. Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew produced last year’s Sewn Back Together by Ombiigizi, which is comprised of Monkman and singer-songwriter Adam Sturgeon. The Zoon EP Big Pharma, also from 2022, featured Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Polaris Music Prize winner Cadence Weapon (a.k.a. Rollie Pemberton).
“There’s a pastoral element to Daniel’s music that you don’t hear in shoegaze from the 1990s,” Pemberton says.
After our interview, Monkman looks around the store and zeroes in on Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, a 1980 album by Laraaji produced by Brian Eno. “If you want to hear just one ambient record,” the musician says, “this is the one.”
Monkman is aware that Eno basically invented ambient music. Game recognizes game.