Musical Musings of a Maintenance Man

By Ashley Owen

Mark Monette leaves the trash behind and enters the studio

Photo of Mark Monette playing drums by Ashley Owen

Mark Monette’s chirping walkie-talkie echoed throughout the deserted classroom in the Physics building. “I have to keep it on because in case something goes wrong, I’m technically on the clock,” he explained from behind black-framed glasses.

Monette works for Syracuse University in Business and Facilities Maintenance Services for up to 40 hours per week. But on Sundays and Mondays, he swaps his walkie-talkie for a pair of drumsticks. Monette plays drums for three bands: Teaching Robots Fear, The Historical Society, and More to Come. He has worked with more groups than he can count (literally), from traditional rock to experimental sound waves. He purchased his first drum set at age 17 and taught himself the fundamentals of rock, basing his techniques on his musical heroes like Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer from the Smashing Pumpkins.

“If you want the world to be a better place, you’ve got to do something,” he said. “There’s always been something inside of me that let me know if I’m going to be able to convey anything to the world, it would be through music.”

Relish the Tilt, one of Monette’s previous bands, combined instrumentals with clips from old-school radio shows. The band looped short phrases for listeners to seriously consider, even if only a few understood the message.

While fame in the music industry has appeal to many musicians, Monette isn’t looking for stardom. “I’m not a spotlight guy at all,” he confessed. “I can understand that being a performer, you’d want some degree of attention, but I just want people to pay attention and be affected.” He doesn’t play drums to pay the bills – he plays because he loves to.

Photo of Mark Monette and his bandmates by Ashley Owen

He satisfies his drumming fix with weekly eight-hour band practices in Fulton, N.Y. A towering barn with peeling red paint sits on 160 acres of land in Fulton, alongside two sloping farmhouses and smaller sheds. Many local performers, including Monette and his bands, have practiced at the Barn, which doubles as a concern venue. Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling dimly lit up the basement, illuminating parts of a rusty swingset bent beyond repair, musty couches that could have been inhabited by living creatures, and a makeshift bar in the corner.

The band members must ascend a treacherous ladder-staircase hybrid to access studio space, with steps so narrow Monette suggested climbing sideways. The next floor was emptier, with residual hay covering parts of the floor. A Ronald McDonald head peered down from the loft where bats darted across the expansive ceiling.

Jokes and lighthearted banter reverberated around the plywood box of a studio space, which was comfortingly small with bright colors and cigarette smoke swirling in the air. Monette and the rest of his band, Teaching Robots Fear, sat behind his drum set and messed around with complex beats as the rest of the band tuned up and broke down chord progressions, with John Roll on bass and Mike Kennedy and his wife Jen both on guitar and vocals.

Inspired by the bands Tool, Trans Am, and Uzeda, Teaching Robots Fear hovers somewhere in the realms of “angry folk” and “progressive female rock,” a testament to Jen’s moving vocals, according to Monette. The instrumentals swelled, filling the room; Monette’s percussion carried the crackling guitar riffs, traveling bass, and raw melodies.

“Mark is a really freaking talented drummer and he’s able to find his niche in any band,” Jen said. “Playing with him has expanded my musical interests and what I paid attention to in music. And his use of cymbals really sticks out to me.”

Monette spent the past year building the room into a proper studio along with John Roll and Glenn, the former owner of the Barn. But it’s still very much a work in progress. “Mark really made it a workable space,” Jen said. “He gave it much better acoustics and rewired it completely.”

Monette has been the driving force behind the operation and has carefully planned how to rework every corner of the studio space. “I want that to be my recording space from now until forever,” Monette mused. “If I’m going to put it down and call it mine, I’ve got to be able to say it’s good.” He even installed interchangeable surfaces on the walls so that the acoustics of the room fit perfectly with any instrument.

Monette’s musical endeavors have become powerfully emotional experiences for him, allowing him to exert his full energy and continually challenge himself. His day job changing lightbulbs and picking up the trash provides him with a steady income and the opportunity for a college education. “The result of your efforts is often dependent on your intentions,” Monette said. “We’re all human and I don’t need the spotlight. I do what I love and I can’t ask for anything more than that. JM