Experimental pop duo Robbie & Mona: “Just don’t call us surrealist”

Strangely beautiful music from an in-between space

Robbie & Mona gave us the track for this issue’s flexi disc, the excellent ‘Tina’s Leather’. Become a subscriber to get yours.

“We live through it all the time, even right now,” says Ellie Gray. “It’s what you and I see but don’t necessarily notice because of habit.”

Ellie is trying to describe a surreal reality, when your life, indeed everybody’s life, takes on the hallucinatory quality of a dream. “Surrealism can be everyday as well, in the small things around us,” she adds.

“Just don’t call us surrealist,” interrupts William Carkeet, ‘Robbie’ to Ellie’s ‘Mona’. “We need to find another word for it.”

It’s easy to see how that word has been associated with them. As Robbie & Mona, Ellie and Will fall effortlessly between the cracks of existence, journeying through smoky jazz and bold electronics to enter an otherworldly space all of their own.

“There is definitely an association with the ‘surrealist’ term which we don’t like, but analysing what dreams are and what is reality and those differences is a big part of our music,” says Will. “[‘Surrealism’] makes it sound such a cliché and like a fantasy,” laughs Ellie, with breathless emphasis on the fantastical. 

I’m sitting in front of the enigmatic duo to discuss the release of Tusky, their extraordinary follow up to debut album EW.  “It was our attempt at making a proper record this time,” explains Will. “The first was exploring what we could do together and was quite abstract, throwing loads of things at the wall and seeing what stuck. With Tusky I guess it’s an attempt to write actual songs and ballads. It’s a mixture of our tastes with the experimental side clashing with the ’80s ballads we love so much.” 

“We’re like a sponge, and when you squeeze that sponge what comes out represents you,” counters Ellie, pleased with her analogy. It makes good sense as the two blend seamlessly together to create an original sound palette. “Ellie and I listen to all forms of music, from classical to noise to Drake, so all of these genres find their way into our ears,” says Will.

This astonishing range can be heard on their latest single, and album opener, ‘Sensation’, a seductive track whose lush soundscape is as delicate as it is epic. It’s certainly an ambitious statement to draw in the listener, and both Will and Ellie have gone on the record to say it acts as a hymn, praising the sensual feeling that music can have. 

“I have recently been thinking about the territory of sound,” Will tells me. “The idea that the territory of silence is taken up by the church and God, so to be closer to God is to be silent. This track felt like an attempt to reform the territory of what sound can be, and take that back into the realm of art rather than God.” This kind of spiritual exploration is a pretty bold way to open your album, but it’s something Ellie wants to tackle in more detail: “I go through phases where you listen to music casually and generally like it, but then you listen another time and it really affects you, in a way that feels ineffable. Words can’t meet it – it’s just in you.” 

The pair were moved so much by a Lou Reed bassline that it inspired them to write ‘Sensation’. “That power and way of moving you doesn’t have to be through anything dramatic,” says Ellie, “it can be through texture or a song, whatever really. It is our interpretation of what people who connect with their god might feel and we wanted to acknowledge that feeling.”

If Robbie & Mona’s debut EW was a remote, almost clinical record, then Tusky has a distinct sense of warmth created by live instrumentation and collaboration. “We were less like robots and more sentient and organic, much less shy to bring that forward,” Ellie recalls. “I have really enjoyed having Campbell Baum and Ben Vince as saxophonists on this record, I just think it brings something else to our world.” 

Good friends Baum (from the band Sorry) and Vince (who plays with Housewives and Joy Orbison) bring a playful feeling of uncertainty to the album that Will was keen to capture. “It was improvised [in the studio] and then I would edit it to make it flow better. A lot of the album I would say is improv. It was nice to have friends on it – part of the reason we do that is that it’s a sentimental thing, more than practical. I mean, it’s convenient that our friends are great musicians, but it’s also to look back on in later years and remember, a frozen-in-time audio memory.” 

Overall, Tusky feels like a constant unravelling of secret after secret, with Will extremely careful in his production and placement. “I’m glad you notice,” he laughs. “There is a very specific sample in the song ‘Tina’s Leather’, for example, but it’s a sample of something on a song that comes later on the album called ‘Mildred’. The chorus of ‘Mildred’ is sampled and fucked around with loads and when you listen to ‘Mildred’ it might make you feel like you have heard it before, almost like nostalgia. When I talk about it, it sounds really conceptual but when I actually look back at making it, it was more organic.”

Another exquisite detail is the feature of rap artist Monika (of London collective Nukuluk), also on ‘Mildred’. 

“We love Nukuluk,” says Will. “They’re an amazing band, and every time we see them live when Monika does the screamy rap thing it really pulls on your heartstrings. It’s not like any rap I have ever heard before, it pulls you into that emotive world. It felt with ‘Mildred’ there was potential to have this on top – because of the BPM it’s kind of a drill track already, so I thought this could really work and bring some emotion that people wouldn’t expect.”

“It almost adds an eccentric turn that goes to another peak as well, takes you somewhere else,” Ellie continues as Will picks up again: “The unexpected is a wonderful thing to explore in audio terms, to catch someone off guard is an interesting thing to do. I am glad it comes off.”

Driven by aesthetics as much as sonic examination, Robbie and Mona’s distinctive handprints are across everything, from music videos to live staging and art direction. “We are control freaks,” chuckles Ellie. 

Will concurs. “We can’t just let someone else do it – it’s pretty hard for us but we find we have to influence everything about our own work. When we play live we need it to be a specific way otherwise we get really upset, we need it to be dark, smoky, good sound, everyone needs to be fucking quiet! With our videos and overall look, we get pigeonholed as ‘Lynchian’ as well – and as soon as something gets labelled like this it becomes one-dimensional and an audience may not take as much time with it, as they already have an exact notion of what it is we’re doing.”

Robbie & Mona do adore adore David Lynch, though, and also operate in a similarly transcendental space to the auteur director.

“In your lucid mind you can’t actually explore that [non-material] reality as when you can when you are making art and music,” says Will. “Our work is an attempt to explore a dream state within a non-dream state – if you know what I mean.” After spending some time with Robbie & Mona, I think I do.

More info on our Robbie & Mona flexi disc

Exclusive to Loud And Quiet subscribers, this month’s limited edition flexi disc is Robbie & Mona’s ‘Tina’s Leather’

Robbie & Mona: “The first initial spark of ‘Tina’s Leather’ came whilst we were sat on a beach on Ios island in Greece listening to the Betty Blue soundtrack by Gabriel Yared. Ellie at this time wrote in her diary: The sparkle of the sea harmonises with a petrol glamour and a 1980s mystery in the synthesiser. I want to make a song of this feeling. 

The story goes, Tina is a ghost, remembering her death where she jumped out the window during a holiday in Greece. We wanted to make a song which both lyrically and sonically told this story. 

“It was the last song we wrote for the album so it kind of feels like it is the exploding dying star of the record universe.” 

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