Mono Puff

From This Might Be A Wiki
Mono Puff (from left: John Flansburgh, Steve Calhoon, Hal Cragin)
Promotional photo, 1996

Mono Puff is an alternative rock band formed by John Flansburgh, Hal Cragin, and Steve Calhoon. The band has released two albums, 1996's Unsupervised, and 1998's It's Fun To Steal. While the band was only active from 1995 until 1998, they have never officially disbanded. The group was a side project for Flansburgh, away from They Might Be Giants, and is defined by its varying musical styles and emphasis on collaboration.


Formation and Unsupervised (1995-1996)[edit]

Flansburgh created the first Mono Puff EP, John Flansburgh's Mono Puff, as a Hello Recording Club release in 1995. Though it included a few collaborators, it was essentially a solo release. On October 7, 1995, Hello Recording Club hosted a showcase event for artists that had released on the label. Flansburgh decided to form a band for the show. A later press release detailed the event:

In 1995, Flansburgh mounted a showcase for Hello artists and put together a one-off Mono Puff line-up with drummer Steve Calhoon of Skeleton Key, Hal Cragin of Iggy Pop's band and Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers. That spectacular gig led to a record deal and the release of Unsupervised, in between TMBG projects, a year later.

Flansburgh explained in a 1996 interview: "I had a bunch of songs that I had put out through the club that I had wanted to record in a more full-blown way. I got together a band to do the songs at a "Hello" showcase in NY, and recorded the bulk of the record [Unsupervised] a couple of weeks later." Viola recalled forming the band with Flansburgh in a 2011 interview: "It was me and John who started the thing. [...] He brought [Cragin and Calhoon] on board, and they were amazing."

The group's first full-length album, Unsupervised, was released in 1996, and featured the core lineup of Flansburgh (guitar, vocals), Calhoon (bass) and Cragin (drums). The album included re-recordings of the initial EP's songs, as well as new material. The majority of the album was recorded over one weekend in October 1995, and was mixed a week later. It was released on the independent record label Rykodisc. A number of guest artists are credited on the album, including Viola, who was heavily featured throughout. Viola was only credited as an additional musician, rather than a core member, as his record contract had a strict exclusivity clause.[1] Flansburgh later stated: "My original intention was to get back to more electronic stuff with [Mono Puff], and then it turned into this twin-guitar thing with Mike Viola."[2]

The album spawned one single, "The Devil Went Down To Newport", for which a music video was also produced. The song was released as a 7" single and as a CD extended play, which included two non-LP tracks and a slower, funky remake of the song. The band supported the release of the album with a short five-show East Coast tour in mid-1996,[3] as well as an appearance on NPR's All Things Considered.

In a 1996 interview from after the release of Unsupervised, Flansburgh described his intentions for the project:

Usually people do side projects when they're really dissatisfied with what they're doing in their primary thing, and that's hardly the case. I had a bunch of extra songs, and I was interested in doing things on a different scale. In an established band, you're not paranoid if you think people are watching you. Critics track your career, and people compare your current efforts to your previous efforts. One of the nice things about a side project like Mono Puff is it cleans the slate. It's relatively free of associations. I can do a lot of different kinds of stuff.

Expansion and It's Fun To Steal (1997-1998)[edit]

Mono Puff started to play live shows semi-regularly in late-1997, mostly in New York City, and the band's line-up began to expand. Flansburgh: "Playing in New York, we keep the line-up loose, take advantage of all the great talent that's out there."[4] More performers started joining the band onstage, and the group became more of a collective. This expanded version of the band was often referred to as the Mono Puff Syndicate. By 1998, the core members of the group were Flansburgh, Calhoon, Cragin, Joe McGinty on keyboards, Phil Hernandez (as DJ ***** Spicy) on percussion and samples, and Robin Goldwasser (as Sister Puff) on vocals.

Mono Puff had recorded two more EPs for the Hello Recording Club in 1996 — The Hal Cragin Years and The Steve Calhoon Years. These were later combined, along with new material, to create their second album, It's Fun To Steal, released in 1998 on Bar/None Records. The album saw an evolution in the band's sound from the guitar-heavy alternative rock of their earlier work, to a more wide-ranging, genre-blending style that featured an emphasis on R&B and funk music. Flansburgh commented on the album's direction in a 1998 interview:

It's very much a groove-oriented record. For my entire life, I've been a big radio listener, and I've always been into soul music and R&B stuff. [...] It's a little less lyric-driven and a little bit more relaxed than a lot of the Giants stuff. This record, we really went to great lengths to try to create something that held together as one thing. It holds on to a vibe for the whole record.

The band continued to play live shows frequently throughout 1998. Their last known show was on November 7, 1998, after which Hal Cragin moved to California. Though the band has not released new music since 1998, Flansburgh has stated that they have been on hiatus,[5] with various obligations and geographic distance as barriers. In mid-2020, it was announced that Mono Puff would release an EP in 2021 to be initially distributed via the They Might Be Giants Instant Fan Club, their first new release in over two decades. It was mentioned a few times after the announcement,[6] [7] but the direction of the project changed, and Flansburgh decided against releasing it under the Mono Puff name: "it's as much a set of sketches, demos and experiments and doesn't spotlight any other musicians."[8]

Flansburgh explained where the name "Mono Puff" came from in a 1996 interview: "The name comes from an experience I had at the John Coltrane Church in San Francisco. There was a little girl there with a single puff of hair in a perfect circle on top of her head, and I thought it would be called a Mono Puff." Flansburgh has also mentioned soul performer Betty Wright as an inspiration for the name, "who had one monolithic puff afro above her head."[9] Mono Puff often covered her song Girls Can't Do What The Guys Do at live shows.



Mono Puff has featured a shifting line-up over the years, but Flansburgh, Calhoon, and Cragin have appeared on every Mono Puff release, with the exception of the initial Flansburgh solo EP. The other "core members" listed were major players on either of Mono Puff's full-length albums. The "guest artists" are musicians that either performed with the group live, or are credited on studio recordings.

Core members[edit]

Guest artists[edit]

External links[edit]