I originally tracked down Mona Elliott in the hopes of doing an interview about her time in Victory At Sea, as part of the “Hey, what happened?” series of interviews. But then I learned she’s still putting out excellent music as a duo (with Anar Badalov, formerly of Metal Hearts) named Travels. Mona and I got together at a bar in her current home of Somerville, Massachusetts, and did this interview. If you would like to listen to Travels (and you really should because they are quite good), you can do so here.
You had mentioned in your email about being in school?
Yeah, I’m at Mass Art.
Undergraduate or Graduate?
What are you working on?
I’m figuring it out. I like graphic design. I like video work. I like making art for fun, but this is definitely a whole different animal.
What do you mean?
I’ve never been to college. This is my very first time. So there’s all that happening to me and around me.
Why did you decide to go to school?
I never went. I was on tour all the time. I always wanted to go but you can’t tour if you’re in school.
So you’ve been touring since you were 18?
Pretty much. My first tour was when I was probably 20.
Is it weird being amongst a lot younger students?
It’s exactly what you think it would be. They’re just people, too. There are some really cool people I go to school with and then there are some very young, immature people. But you can excuse it because they’re only 18 or 20 or 25. It’s not weird, really, but I get a little embarrassed sometimes because I’m much older. I just started being okay with speaking up and being myself but for a while I just wanted to hide. Not who I was – I guess it is weird.
Are you ever like, “I hate it! Why am I even there?”
Some days I do hate it there and feel like, “I’m too old for this.” And other days it’s the best decision I’ve ever made and I’ve learned so much.
I was recently talking with someone about my impressions of the Boston music scene and was wondering what your thoughts are on it. Have you felt supported here?
Yes and no. I’m so far removed from it now, honestly, I don’t even know what it means. What scene? Who are they? Who supports me? I guess I don’t even know what that means anymore. I used to feel like I was in a scene and was supported and would play with a certain group of people but it’s not even what I’m interested in anymore. I don’t go out as much – I’m broke. I’m a full-time student and I’m not working right now.
It’s such a big answer to such a simple question. But I don’t want to say no because at times I have felt that way – supported. And in other ways I feel that maybe the community I belonged to, everyone grew up and moved on. So in a way, yes and in a way, no.
It’s weird how it changes over the years. You probably used to care about “the scene” a lot and who you knew and where you fit in and as you get older –
It’s funny – I didn’t even know I cared about those things. I honestly didn’t think I was caring about those things but now I realize it was all just part of it. I didn’t care but in hindsight it was reality.
That kind of leads me to wonder…I was and am a big fan of Victory at Sea and I was wondering what broke up the band.
I was married to another member and we’re divorced.
Ah, ok. So that kind of did it in.
Do you talk to any of the members of the band anymore?
I do. I still talk to my ex. We’re good. We email. There’s a long list of drummers. I’m in infrequent touch with them. And then Taro, our violin player, is in Japan, and we message on Facebook.
So you were married to the bass player?
He was the bass player at first and then he ended up playing the piano. And he plays around quite a bit.
Not just back then, but even now with Travels – what’s your favorite place to play in the city?
I don’t know. We just booked a show for March and we’re playing at O’Brien’s. Every time I’ve gone there it’s seemed like a friendly crowd with not too much smoke blowing up peoples’ asses. It is what it is. We’ve played at PA’s Lounge a couple times and it’s the same way. At this point in time I want to stay away from the rock scene thing. I just want to play and have fun. I want to put out music because I like it.
So I’m not sure what my favorite place to play is anymore. Travels has only played at Lily Pad and that was really fun. And we’ve played at PA’s.
When you were in Victory at Sea, was that your full-time gig?
Well, we’d go on tour a lot and then I was also an ice cream maker. I was doing a lot but it didn’t pay the rent.
What do you mean when you say you were an ice cream maker?
It was just me and another guy and we made ice cream for restaurants around the area.
So do you ever miss the rock and roll lifestyle? Keeping in mind I use that phrase loosely.
No. I think it gave me cancer. Honestly. I know I lived very unhealthy. And when you’re physically unhealthy there’s no way you can be mentally and emotionally healthy. It’s a very unhealthy lifestyle.
How was it unhealthy for you?
I was doing it for so many years. You don’t sleep. You’re not eating right. You’re drinking every night because that’s what you get for free. I was smoking heavily – so was the whole band. You try to quit but you can’t because everybody’s smoking. Even this last one we did – me and Anar are super tame compared to our days in Victory at Sea but every day getting to bed at three and maybe you have to get up at nine and then you’re driving and don’t know where you’re going. There’s the stress of just getting somewhere and wondering if anyone is going to show up – it’s just stressful.
When you start out you just think, “It’s gonna be fun!”
And it is.
Yeah, but you don’t think about all the stressful stuff. So if I say your band name – Victory at Sea – what pops into your head first? Is there some memory that comes out?
It was so long of a time. And considering there were so many different drummers, it felt like a different band each time. Then the dynamic changed and the way I would relate to each drummer was completely different. Our last drummer, Dave, he was like a brother to me. He was awesome. The way I think of that version of Victory at Sea is so different than our first drummer in the mid 90s.
So you mentioned a minute ago that you had cancer at some point?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
Is it in remission?
Officially, I’ll have my five-year – which they consider being cured – in May. May 17th. Which is also a big deal because I’ve been on medication, which I’m very excited to no longer take.
Did that affect what you were writing in Travels?
It did. I wasn’t doing a lot of the writing. I was very shocked and focused on my treatment and getting better. So I feel like Anar did a lot of keeping it going, which is what I needed. It affected me in the sense that I didn’t put my whole self into it whereas now I feel like I am and I can.
But does it affect the actual songs you’re writing?
Yeah. Right after I had cancer my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and she passed away in 2009. And back to back with those things happening made it harder to write lyrics. So right now we’re leaning towards writing non-personal stories.
Does that mean you’re going to write a concept album?
So far it’s about a woman whose son dies. We don’t talk about the son dying, but it’s more about her remembering the things that happened with him. It gets dreamy and you’re left wondering, “Is he alive? Is he dead?” We’ve got three songs so far and they go right into each other like a story. Right now, the new album we’re working on, there’s no electronic drums. We just got a suitcase and Anar is playing it like a bass drum, and a snare drum. He’s playing keyboards with his left hand. I was in the living room the other day and it sounded like electronic drums. So simple beats.
So, you mean an actual suitcase?
Yeah. Travels. Get it? It’s fun. And it was also only three bucks at the Goodwill. So a three-dollar bass drum – not bad. And since there are no electronic drums, the songs are tending to be a little bit longer.
So you’re steering clear of your own illness in the songwriting?
It just seems like some people have those things they have to get all out on an album and other people never want to talk about it.
Well, I used to want to write it all out. But this was just too much.
And I also don’t know if I’m making this up or read it somewhere – I surf the internet a lot – but you and Anar are in a relationship?
How does that affect the songwriting and music?
It’s really good for us because we practice in the house and we’re quiet. I don’t feel like I’m in a band. It feels more like I play music with my boyfriend. This is what we do. It’s something we both like to do. Some couples might want to do what they want to do together and we like to play music.
I always wondered how it was to be in a relationship with your bandmate and you’re trying to write songs about relationships.
We’ve done it and it’s worked out because we get along very well and we’re very much in love. It’s all nice.
You were talking about not using the drum machine anymore. Why is that? I liked the drums.
I did too. Maybe it’ll just be this record, maybe it’ll be for good. I don’t know. For this one we’re just going to see what happens.
So was that a natural progression or something you wanted to force?
The other day we were at practice and I was watching him play this suitcase and the piano at the same time, trying to learn two new instruments all at once and we’re going on tour at the beginning of March and I was thinking, “How the fuck did this happen?” I don’t know. It just happened. There are still a couple songs that we’re going to do on this upcoming tour where we’ll have the drum machine so that we can play the old ones.
I’ve noticed that you seem to take more of the lead on the vocals – is that intentional?
It’s not intentional. I feel it sort of happened over time.
What kind of music have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Blondie and there’s this guy – I don’t know his name – but he’s this Iranian psych rocker from the 70s. And we got a three record thing. It’s so good.
Where did you find it?
Anar was at the record store in Union Square and he saw the cover and wanted it but didn’t get it because it was like 30 bucks and came home and looked it up online and then ran and got it.
What does Anar do for work?
He’s an associate publicist for the MIT Press.
For a minute there I thought you were going to say he was an associate pastor.
Oh, you didn’t know? *laughs*
I thought, well, if that’s the case, then I just came up with a few more questions. *laughs* But I guess otherwise, that should do it.
“Burr Song,” the first track from Travels’ Robber on the Run album.