A Conversation With Peter David Connelly (The Mona Reels)

In between recording and drumming with a string of Olympia, Wash., bands, like the Real Distractions (a new, top-shelf punk-rock outfit featuring Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail), Peter David Connelly also quietly records his own work under the moniker the Mona Reels. The result? A batch of unforgettable hooks that range from poignant piano ballads and jangly majestic pop to distorted-riff earworms. Late last year, Connelly released his latest Mona Reels record, Without Love.

Connelly has a long career that dates back to his formative teen years in the 1990s, and his musical prowess is not lost on fellow locals. Vail called Without Love “a truly beautiful cinematic pop masterpiece—so brilliant and fully realized,” while K Records’ Calvin Johnson said the album is “layered with gummy coagulations and fluttering fulcrums to defy the most reticent musical maligner.” Not a bad set of Olympia-certified accolades.

The city’s secret musical weapon recently chatted with MAGNET about his life in the Pacific Northwest scene and more.

Your new album is definitely rock ’n roll, but it also doesn’t shy away from pop. What’s the trick to writing a good pop hook?
Connelly: I’m flattered that you would call it rock ’n roll! I don’t really know how to consciously or intentionally write a pop hook, but I’ve noticed that certain songs have something that sticks over a period of time, even if I don’t notice their worth immediately. I’ll write a song and think it’s a piece of shit, and then months later, some elusive quality will reveal itself. Then I’ll relearn it and record it. Unfortunately, the opposite happens just as frequently, when I come up with something that I think is really great, and it really isn’t.

There are a couple of videos for the album. How did those come about?
Two videos, yes. My friend Jolie (Maya-Altshuler) made those. I wanted to try doing a video, and I asked Tobi for a suggestion, and she mentioned Jolie. She did a fantastic job on both of them—there really isn’t anyone else I’d rather work with. She’s also in a great band on K Records called Ribbon Stage, who are far more successful than the Mona Reels are.

You’ve drummed for a lot of bands over the years in Olympia. Did that work help mold your own songwriting at all?
I think any musical scenario that a writer places themself in eventually ends up influencing their music. It’s really out of my hands, and I prefer it that way. Playing drums in other bands has definitely broadened my sense of possibility when it comes to assembling a Mona Reels track—since I often play most or all of the instruments. But unfortunately, the stimuli that inspires me to write most often is a feeling of dejection or frustration. I’m not a miserable guy, but I don’t have too many happy songs. That’s something I’m trying to be more conscious of.

How did the Mona Reels first take shape?
I was just playing an acoustic guitar in coffee shops at first. I didn’t want to be the singer on all of my songs, and I didn’t think it was fair to call it Peter David Connelly if I was only singing half the time. I admired how Stephin Merritt was able to coordinate a group of guest singers to perform his songs in the Magnetic Fields, so the Mona Reels was sort of influenced by that idea, structure-wise. However, a lot of the time I get lazy and just perform the vocal myself rather than teaching it to someone.

You produced Without Love during the pandemic, how was that hurdle and what was your sonic mission during those sessions?
Initially, it was done as an Independent Learning Contract at Evergreen State College, or I was using that as an excuse. I wanted to use the orchestra rooms and the recital hall for their acoustic properties, but virtually nothing was actually recorded there because the campus was shut down as soon as COVID hit. I didn’t even make the album on a computer or tape machine—it was done on a Tascam Portastudio. I don’t recall a specific sonic mission; I just wanted it to be as relatable as possible. It’s a pop record made by someone who is not normal. It’s pop music made by someone with a considerable amount of mental disturbance. [Laughs] It’s not a punk record at all, but maybe it contains more of a punk influence than most piano-based singer/songwriter music tends to have. If you like Todd Rundgren, you might like it.

What are a couple of your favorite tracks on the album?  
The eight minutes ending the first half—with “Sometimes I Wonder Where I’m Going” and the title song—is the most satisfying section of music that I’ve ever been able to accomplish in the Mona Reels. And a lot of it is due to outside help, particularly Caleb Peinado’s gorgeous arrangement on the title song. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard in my life. Thanks, Caleb.

Are there any current Olympia bands you’d suggest people check out?
Most of the bands I’ve been listening to lately are from Olympia. I feel like there’s a lot happening locally these days. There are two projects I’m involved in as a drummer. One is called Null State, and they put out a phenomenal two-song single before I joined the band called “Getting Lost”/“Spinning.” I played that tape to death and would highly recommend checking it out. I’ve also been backing up this young songwriter named Annie Schultz who writes staggering songs. She just completely blows me away. As far as projects that I’m not involved with, I would suggest Thin Veil, Nightmayor, Debt Rag, Kelsey Magnuson, the Cold Sweats, Tyranny Bell and Manic Pixie Dream Boat.

Back in 2015, you released Grown Up So Slow. What number album was that for the Mona Reels?
That was the sixth album. It’s OK now, but I hated it when it was finished. I felt like I had let myself down, and I just wanted to play other people’s music instead, so I did that for a few years. I toured six times as a drummer in 2017 and 2018, mostly in Rik And The Pigs. That was an incredibly fun band, and I’m so glad that I got to have that experience. But I’m not going to allow nearly as much time to pass between Without Love and the next one. There will be another Mona Reels full-length in 2023.

—Rich Tupica

Tour Dates
July 12 — Christo’s Pizzeria, Salem, Ore.
July 13 — Siren Song, Arcata, Calif.
July 14 — Golden Bull, Oakland
July 15 — Antelope Valley Art Gallery, Palmdale, Calif.
July 16 — Love Song Bar, Los Angeles
July 17 — All Kinds Studio, Santa Barbara
July 20 — Alex’s Bar Long Beach, Calif.
July 21 — Permanent Records Roadhouse, Los Angeles