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Electric Scissors, Planters, Truck Horns and More Inspire the Work of Money Mark’s Isolation Jams

See how musicians are using their powerful medium to bring communities together on "Southland Sessions" S1 E5: Musical Expansions in Quarantine. Watch now.

Money Mark’s boundless imagination manifests in a multitude of forms. The musician, known for his integral role in bringing some of the Beastie Boys’ most energetic moments to life, has also lent his singular touch to enhancing the output of Beck, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Quintet, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Linkin Park, Seu Jorge and many more. He is an innovative sonic explorer whose unfiltered enthusiasm gives birth to transcendent concepts bursting with positive energy.

At the onset of COVID-19, Money Mark launched a video series called “Isolation Jams” as a direct response to this unprecedented universal crisis. These short-form Instagram videos are beacons of solidarity — gifts for quarantined minds seeking stimulation. The often-humorous and always inventive posts encourage viewers to engage in self-care, community upliftment and creative pursuits. A natural-born maker, Money Mark constructs handmade instruments from all manner of materials in order to bring his visions to life. Evident in his “Isolation Jams” is an insatiable curiosity and the pure joy to be found in letting artistic processes unfold.

With a personal goal of producing 100 Isolation Jams, Money Mark paused the series at number 79 following the murder of George Floyd. He has since refocused his efforts to honor the victims of police brutality and join the voices protesting racial injustice. Money Mark’s Black Lives Matter Instagram posts vibrate with the same inventive energy as his Iso Jams while shining light on another vital social issue. For this KCET Isolation Jams survey, Money Mark shares how his ideas manifest and lends encouragement for those seeking to develop a fulfilling practice of their own.

Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark
Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark

Frosty: What are Isolation Jams and what was the seed of the idea?

Money Mark: I saw Common post something from Audre Lorde, "Joy is a form of resistance," and I thought this is a perfect time to spread love, joy and positivity through the internet. I called them sound poems and tried to do something every day that pertained to that day, so it was very topical — waking up, reading the news and creating from there. And the dogmatic rules were: I was going to use my iPhone 7, keep it under 60 seconds, not do any overdubs and keep it live. Then all of a sudden, people started latching on to it — lots of children were watching. I felt proud of that. It was kind of therapeutic for me. I got into this routine and was looking forward to it. When I went to sleep at night I was like, "What is tomorrow going to be? I have to make something good out of it." I'm committed, this is my cultural contribution to the COVID quarantine. 

March 15th was my first Isolation Jams post. On March 12th, I got a call from my son Moniko, "Berkeley is shut down, and I've got to come home." I said, "Don't get on a plane, and don't get on a bus. I'm going to drive there." I was still talking on the phone jumping in my car. So, I drove all the way to Berkeley and on the way back we stopped in this little town where there's great Mexican food off the 101 Freeway. That city had not been locked down yet, and there was a thrift store next to the restaurant, and I bought these electric scissors. They have high speed and low speed and I was like, "Wow, these are great tones." The pitches were relative and musical. That was a fun little discovery that I didn't think was going to work and it totally worked. It's probably my most popular post so far.

Money Mark encourages everyone to “cut out hate in this world” with music made from electric scissors, bongos and kazoo. 

Frosty: How do your skills as a maker come together with your artistic impulses to birth these videos?

Money Mark: Early in my life I thought I was going to grow up to be an actor, so I studied theater and music in school. The essence of theater is to create a world — build it from scratch. You have to learn almost every craft — carpentry, painting, working with plastics and miniatures. I love working with my hands and building things out of simple ideas. I love the full circle of completing it. Getting something from one little idea to where it has its own life is really exciting. Inspiration is the key. It goes from your brain into your body and hopefully moves into your spirit and then you get so moved by this idea that you act on it. That circle — imagining, being inspired, and then acting on it, becomes like a loop of energy.

Frosty: One of the things I love about the Iso Jams is this idea of transcending limitations or finding power within the limitations.

Money Mark: In quarantine, I have a bunch of musical instruments sitting around. My Framus guitar had two strings on it, and I said, "I'm going to make a song from two strings on a guitar. And I'm going to make a song about this two-string guitar. And I'm going to make a song about this two-string guitar but also make it a love song. And then I'm going to make a song about a two-string guitar, and make it a love song and also make it about, 'We can do this together if we put our minds together.'" It's so powerful that you can get something that simple and just keep folding it into itself. It just grows, like cells mutating — splitting and splitting and splitting. We can do this constantly.

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Frosty: Are there other underlying themes that you hope break through?

Money Mark: My father was Japanese American and my mother was Mexican American — both Americans, but because they were a biracial couple they couldn't get married in the south so they had to leave their families in Texas and migrate to the north. I was born in Detroit, a melting pot of art and music. There was rock and roll, R&B, funk and jazz. I just kind of picked up on it. My parents were both into music, and my mother is from a musical family. She was named after Lydia Mendoza, one of the heroines of American music. Injected in her music is full-on social-political speech. It's so powerful. I've always had ideas about social justice in my music. I can't remember when I've written a song that didn't have even a tinge of it — even the love songs and ballads. Three days before George Floyd was murdered there was a post on liberty, freedom and justice that I created with this three-string guitar, and I put some wood pieces on my little keyboard to create a bass line for it. Iso Jam #68 because 68 reminded me of 1968, one of the craziest years of American history, and so I decided to make this post about freedom, liberty and justice. You see, that's how it worked in my brain. That little guitar had three strings on it. So one of them was liberty, the other was freedom, the other justice. Everyone in the world is multitasking right now so I was doing this multitasking thing where I would play the bass line and the guitar and sing the vocal. 

Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark
Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark

Some of the collaborations were just pure entertainment. I really enjoy making those because it was mostly for me. The themes kept moving around but those were like little breaks from the real super interconnected themes. On Jam #22 I just sing, "Number 22, Isolation Jam number 22," because I was kind of lost and couldn't figure out what to do that day. And my friends texted me, "That's my favorite of all of them. We sing it all the time!"

Frosty: Some of your Iso Jams have been covered or sampled. You're inspiring people to actually take action. It's a positive feedback loop coming right back to the source.

Money Mark: One of the posts was for the moment that Greta Thunberg graced the cover of Time Magazine. On that day, I saw the news and decided to create this piece about our planet. Very simple, that we have to take care of the planet and take care of ourselves. I think taking care of ourselves is kind of the underlying theme of all the Isolation Jams, but taking care of our planet is one of the most important things for humanity. Making that song happen, and then having this 14-year-old, young person, Gigi cover it and repost it, made me cry. It was like, this is so awesome. I guess she had never sung before and was so inspired by the song and told her father, "I want to sing this song." So that was pretty special. Then take that to the next extreme, Mike Shinoda from the band Linkin Park took one of my Isolation Jams and made a full song from it. I'm proud of that too. I prescribe mostly to people really being engaged.

Frosty: Is there a Black Lives Matter-focused video that you'd like to shed light on? 

Money Mark: The rake one is interesting. There were dandelions in my yard but the landlord wanted me to cut them down, and I was like, "Hey, there's these little tiny finches that I've never seen before that are eating the seeds in the dandelions. If I cut those dandelions I'm not going to see those little birds anymore," but I was instructed to cut them down. So, I was cleaning up the debris, making songs with the rake, and was like, "Wow, I can move the rake on the ground but what if the ground moves?" And then I thought, "We have to add some Latin vibe to it." Learning about cumbia and what it's really about, you know, having your feet in shackles. All this history is kind of injected into it. 

Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark
Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark

Frosty: On a recent Black Lives Matter-related post, you included a Thoreau quote, "There's no remedy for love, but to love more." Empathy is a powerful but often overlooked part of protest movements. 

Money Mark: It's not going to take a lot to get me on the front lines but I would rather be in the back with the peaceful protesters most of the time. I want to create beauty and joy and some levity. We don't always have to have this be one-dimensional. We can go through all of the emotions. We can make bread, and we can hold shields if they're shooting rubber bullets at us. Maybe a big piece of bread, the bullet will go inside of it. There you go. 

Frosty: Day-old.

Money Mark: Yeah, let's use the day-old. We'll make big circles, put handles on it. I like that! I think that with Isolation Jams, I'm highlighting something that just gets overlooked. People without voices can have voices through other people. It's fully apparent that this is part of the job of artists right now, to give voice to the voiceless. And it ties in with empathy, because you're not even going to hear that voice if you don't practice empathy. Then when you do hear that voice, it can be amplified. I hope that's what everyone takes away from these Isolation Jams is that every little thing you do makes a giant difference down the line.

Top Image: Money Mark | Courtesy of Money Mark

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