Mono's Ambient-Pop Sound Hits America

Production wizard Martin Virgo creates collection of mesmerizing electronica.

Mono are Martin Virgo as the world has never heard him.

As a member of the team behind Massive Attack's classic "Unfinished

Symphony," producer Virgo crafted a heralded, rhythmic bounce of

electronica, creating the "trance" sound that Radiohead would credit as

fodder for their latest, OK Computer.

On Icelandic enigma Bjork's Debut, Virgo extended the trend, splicing the bottom-heavy buzz with one of alt-rock's premiere female vocalists.

Now, this production master is on his own, forging his own ground and trying to do what he did for these aforementioned artists to make his own brand of popular music.

He's the programming and songwriting half of Mono, whose haunting, keyboard-heavy "Life In Mono" (RealAudio excerpt) appears on the Great Expectations soundtrack. The trancing tune, which glides against the closing credits of the film, has helped catapult sales of the album, which leapt 13 spots to No. 27 on last week's Billboard albums chart.

"Life In Mono" combines James Bond guitar riffs, a trip-hop rhythm, lush orchestration and singer Siobhan De Mare's soft, seductive vocals. It's arguably among the most hypnotic songs on American radio right now.

At barely 18 months old, Mono are touted by some as electronica's next big thing.

After an extended stay in import bins across America, Formica Blues,

Virgo and vocalist De Mare's first album, has recently been released Stateside. It's been a whirlwind year for the band, which earned instant cult status last year when their melodic debut single crept onto American airwaves.

The buzz, so to say, had begun.

Mono, on the other hand, hadn't.

"Even though the single's almost two years old," the 34-year-old Virgo said, calling from a crowded London restaurant, "Siobhan and I didn't even know each other when we made it. There isn't even a great, romantic story about

how we met: I had a friend who heard the music for the single, and he

suggested Siobhan. So, she came down, and she was in."

About 12 months later, Virgo and De Mare released Formica Blues to

critical British acclaim. Now, barely two years after the duo met to record the "Life In Mono" single, Virgo's solo trip is on the verge of explosion. On this night, he and De Mare, in fact, were dining with Mercury hierarchy at a posh London restaurant. Virgo, who carries a cell phone now, shouted from a corner of the establishment -- he could barely make out the trans-Atlantic connection. It was dinnertime and the place was bustling with noise. Virgo shouted above the clinks of silver against china.

"When you're working with other people's material," he said, referring to his behind-the-scenes production work, "you're with their instruments and their ideas. With Mono, we had to have courage -- we had to have our own ideas and our own songs. It was a bit different."

Besides Bjork, Virgo has worked with one-time Massive Attack vocalist

Nellee Hooper, as well as the current Massive Attack lineup, including

vocalist Shara Nelson. Aside from his production credits and love for

American jazz and blues, Virgo said his earliest musical influences came

from his mother. "I've always really been into American music, especially black American music," Virgo said. "My mother was a piano teacher, and she used to play bits of ragtime and blues piano, and when you're young, you weren't

supposed to do that -- you were to sit there and practice your scales.

I grew up loving American music, although I'm not sure how it quite

comes out in Mono."

Still, Mono's music does contain hints of Americana, especially in the bluesy tones of tracks such as "Penguin Freud" or "Hello Cleveland," an extremely jazzy piece that incorporates a be-bop bassline and sprinkles of piano tickles and drum loops. Synthesized guitar snags appear recklessly on the record, as do an array of samples. Virgo said that hip-hop plays an important role in English ambient music. "Right now, I'd say hip-hop is our biggest influence," he said. "The whole history of hip-hop is important -- I think all of Britain fell in

love the first time they heard it. Right from the beginning -- the way

they make hip-hop has been a big influence toward the way we make

records here."

And Virgo doesn't shy away from that.

"All we're doing is exporting to you what we got from America in the first place," he added. "You know -- Detroit, Chicago, jazz and blues ... Electronica has been such an amazing exchange of ideas that I don't think you can ever force anything back. American culture is the most important thing in 20th-century culture worldwide."

Though Mono have performed in America before, Virgo says he looks forward

to returning to the States, especially now that "Life In Mono" has begun

rumbling. With Formica Blues set for worldwide release, plans are

being made for performing the band's music live, which Virgo says will

take some time to perfect.

Once Mono's live performance is set, however, Virgo said it will be time for another album. And though the thickest ice has been broken in creating Mono's freshman effort, Mono plan to spend a lot of time crafting new material, he added.

"I've got an emotional investment into the music that Mono makes which

is far greater than playing on other people's things," Virgo said. "It's very close to my heart." [Thurs., Feb. 19, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]