“Do you know… you probably know because we’re about the same age, but do you know who Andy Kaufman is?”
It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in early December, and I’ve just entered the Vanderelli Room, where Donny Monaco is already in the full swing of conversation. Between rapid-fire bon mots, the musician, best known for his work alongside Jacoti Sommes in the rightly celebrated Hugs & Kisses, is finishing early preparations for a short rehearsal with Jordan Tolford, younger brother of Nick Tolford and Monaco’s partner in the newborn duo Hurry Up and Die, which is set to perform at the Vanderelli Room on Friday, Dec. 8.
“Did you ever hear of that guy? Jim Carrey played him in a movie?” Monaco continues, pausing to pull a brown overcoat and a rubber mask from his bag. “So, he used to have this alter ego, and the alter ego would go do comedy.”
“Tony Clifton,” says Tolford, who also produces a rubber mask.
Tolford takes off his glasses, stretches the rubber over his head, and then puts his glasses back on, presenting as a decrepit, frizzy-haired old man.
“Tony Clifton? That was his name? Well, we have our own little Tony Cliftons,” Monaco says. “I’m going to be dressed up like this, and he’s going to be dressed up like that old man, and they both hate each other, and they both want to die.”
Hurry Up and Die takes inspiration from a wide array of sources, Monaco says, including: Statler and Waldorf, the two old men who fling insults from the balcony on “The Muppets”; professional wrestling; comic books; Looney Tunes; Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett; and the frequently cutting words Monaco’s mother would direct toward his father, which he attempted to find the humor in as a youngster as means of dulling the sting her barbs could leave. “I remember all the cruel shit she would say to the old man, bro, and after a while I just thought it was hilarious, like Ralph Kramden and how he would talk to Alice: Pow, right in the kisser,” Monaco said, and laughed. “And sorry to call you bro, dude.”
While there are comedic and theatrical elements to Hurry Up and Die – Tolford described himself as “a theater kid” who logged time in the Chicago improv comedy scene with iO Improv and Second City – the songs the two rehearsed at the Vanderelli Room were delivered absent tongue in cheek, including one number, “Lucifer,” filled with biblical allusions that Monaco traced to his Catholic upbringing.
“You oughta be ashamed,” Tolford croons from his perch at the piano, raising the specter of guilt that everyone brought up in the Catholic faith carries to at least some degree, this writer included. A second song, “Punk Rock Version,” centers on similarly despondent themes – “Sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all,” Monaco sings – before devolving into a faux fist fight that ends with the piano bench being toppled and Monaco laying on his back.
“Some of the more recent songs, you’re expressing some of that anger, or dealing with some of those weirder, darker things you see in the world,” says Tolford, who allows that the collaboration with Monaco helped pull him from a pandemic-driven creative rut, the two making their live debut at the Oracle in Olde Towne East on Halloween. “It’s been creatively liberating to have this space to explore any of that weird stuff that isn’t fun to talk about but might be fun to sing about. … And maybe part of that is the masks? If I don’t feel like it’s coming directly from me, and if these songs are just coming out of an old man’s boil, it can be a little bit more freeing.”
“And that idea matches with the characters,” Monaco says. “If they’re always talking about how miserable the world is, it makes perfect sense we would do the same when we’re writing the songs.”
Monaco says this is a drastic departure from how he approached making music in Hugs & Kisses, which he describes as “more fun” at its core, the group’s sound rooted in Saturday morning cartoons and “all these little vocal noises and Cab Calloway-type shit that I would loop.”
“But I was a maniac in those days. A total maniac. And I loved every second of it,” continues Monaco. “And then it started to kick in. Now, I didn’t do heroin or any of that shit. But I drank and gained a lot of weight and was super depressed. Then my son was born, and I had to change everything. So, I quit drinking for 13, maybe 14 years, and I had so many revelations about myself, my behavior, my depression – where it all comes from. Then, practically overnight I started this new group with Jordan… What’s your name?”
“Yeah, it’s funny. I didn’t know what all Donny had been working on beforehand, but we were all hanging out for my brother’s birthday, and he just asked me, ‘Hey, I’ve got a show coming up on Halloween. Want to come over and play some tunes?’” Tolford says. “I couldn’t ask for a better person to have me come over and play some tunes. And once we started, it just felt right, and we clicked creatively and started to vibe with each other.”
This sense of connection – this deep, person-to-person creative bond – is one to which Monaco has long been drawn, tracing it from Hurry Up and Die back through Hugs & Kisses and into his early childhood years.
“I got pretty lucky, man, and I’ve collaborated with so many great people. And I think about that sometimes. You know how they’ll have those professional music studios and there’ll be all those gold records on the walls? That’s what makes me feel like I had gold records, is that I worked with so many amazing artists,” Monaco says. “It’s a brothers thing, man. I grew up with brothers, so there’s something about that dynamic. It’s like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. I love that dynamic, and it comes from my brother, who’s fucking crazy. But I want to create that dynamic: road trips with your bro, playing music, playing harmonic, laughing. I mean, that’s the dynamic. Oh, you know, and I can hardly play any instruments.”