UNSUNG: Monster Magnet Guitarist Phil Caivano Looks Back On The Band’s Major Label Days And His Enduring Friendship With Dave Wyndorf

Photo by Jeremy Saffer

UNSUNG is an interview series where we speak to the band members you rarely hear from, from the hard rock and heavy metal bands that you love.

When Phil Caivano got an offer from old friend Dave Wyndorf to join his rock band Monster Magnet, the New Jersey born-and-bred guitarist was in a period of flux. Living out in Los Angeles at the time, he was plying his studio trade after hitting pause on his career as a performing musician. “He was like, you’ve been around it so long, why don’t you just join?” he recalls of the conversation. “How could I not play in Magnet? It’d be ridiculous if I didn’t.”

Though Caivano didn’t officially become part of the band until midway through their time on major label A&M, his arrival during the already underway Powertrip recording sessions couldn’t have been better timed. Subsequently, the 1998 LP proved the most commercially successful album of the band’s career, sending the guys all over the world to promote it live on stage while supporting some of the biggest heavy metal acts of the time.

For the better part of the last 22 years, Caivano has been a Monster Magnet mainstay, playing alongside Wyndorf as the group’s second-longest tenured member. After all this time, he maintains that their creative bond remains as strong as their friendship. “We’re like two big kids,” he says. “We’ve never really lost the core of what made us want to do this in the first place and that’s why I think I still enjoy it.”

Something that a lot of Monster Magnet fans probably don’t realize is just how far back you and Dave Wyndorf go. You guys even had a punk band called Shrapnel back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. How did that come together?

The other guy involved with Shrapnel was Daniel Rey, [who] went on to do a lot of great things, be Joey Ramone’s right hand man and producing for the Ramones. So here we were, teenagers in New Jersey wanting to start bands. We were kids playing covers–Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Cheer, a lot of Black Sabbath. Punk rock was bubbling up and it was really cool to see that change. Here we were, playing at high schools and backyard parties.

Then, we find out about this place CBGBs, started going to some shows. They had audition nights, so we packed our shit up and went up there one night. It was a Monday night and we didn’t start playing so close to four o’clock in the morning. We had one original song. No one’s paying attention to us. They’re maybe 10 to 15 people there. Once we started playing an MC5song, a few guys trickled up to the front of the stage like, who are these kids? It was Dee Dee Ramone, Legs McNeil from Punk Magazine, Stiv Bators. Out of that small group of people, there were like six guys who, to me, they were superstars. When we started going to New York, all these guys we were watching were accessible. You’d be playing pinball. The guy putting his quarters on the machine would be Johnny Ramone. Joey Ramone would be sitting there. Johnny Thunders would be walking in the door. It was a magical time.

Dave and Daniel were hanging out with Legs McNeil. They came up with the name Shrapnel. And from there, we started getting cool gigs and playing around. A buddy of mine has a list of everybody we had played with in and that initial year and a half, it went from The Cramps, Ramones, Dead Boys, Suicide. That whole scene was like really, really instrumental in our musical careers.

Between Shrapnel and when you rejoined Dave, you fronted a metal band called Blitzspeer who were signed to Epic Records in the early ‘90s. What was that experience like and what you learned from it that you brought to your work in Monster Magnet?

That was another wave in New York City that I was really lucky to be around. I had moved to the Lower East Side. There was that whole Lismar Lounge scene and the Pyramid Club. All this stuff was starting to happen. At Cat Club, you had bands like Circus Of Power, White Zombie, Warrior Soul, Raging Slab. The bands were all friends, this friendly competition. We were all doing gigs together. I became part of something that was another fun time to be in New York City. With the Blitzspeer thing, we were lucky to do those couple of records. Looking back, we never got the right producer. But that was all fine. It’s all fun. It’s all memories.

What I feel that I brought into Magnet [from Blitzspeer] was, those were the times where I learned a little bit how record companies operate, what they do for you and what they don’t do for you. I learned how to be involved with the making of the records. That’s when I really started to dive into engineering and production and learning about gear. Coming into Magnet, because I was around back in the early days, I really wasn’t really phased by the label stuff. I was more into the music and being in the band. At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters.

You joined at such a pivotal time. 1998 was the year of Powertrip. What was it like being in a band that was breaking in such a big way?

I was living in L.A. during the making of Powertrip and that’s what led to him asking me to be in the band. I was at the studio a lot with him and he was like, I wanna rock, I wanna do a rock thing. A lot of those bands at that time weren’t. He fucking took a swing and he hit that ball right the fuck out of the park with that record. I think Powertrip is a really overlooked record. Dave took some chances on that record that paved the way for a lot of other bands that followed it.

I had never been on a tour bus. It was always like a little bit out of my reach. We went on that first Powertrip tour. I was like a kid in a candy store, man. It was fucking great. We toured with Aerosmith. We played with Page and Plant. The Marilyn Manson tour was out of control. We played with Rob Zombie, opened up for Metallica, toured with Megadeth. It was just like, wow, this is for real. This band is for real.

For those of us who’d caught on by Dopes To Infinity, to see what happened with Powertrip was just mind-blowing.

On the other hand, being a musician can get weird sometimes. We had this whole other chunk of people like, we wish they were still doing Spine Of God. We wish they were still doing Tab. As an artist, to repeat yourself is really boring. Dave already did that, you know? Then. it starts to snowball and it’s almost like they didn’t want to like it. But they did; they loved it. Wyndorf is out there in fucking leather pants, going fucking crazy and setting shit on fire. What was not to love about that?

A few years later, you guys do God Says No. What were you hoping to accomplish with that one?

I think it’s a really misunderstood Monster Magnet record. Yes, it might be a little bit too long. But we had the pressure of like, what are they gonna follow Powertrip with? What’s the next “Space Lord?” Dave is not like that and I’m not like that. With the label, all of a sudden our people in New York aren’t working there anymore. Everything got shifted to California. It became a strange time in the history of the band. But looking at it musically, God Says No was so much fun to make. We set up camp in New Jersey. Matt Hyde came out to work with us in a rehearsal studio that we were using at the time. And then we went out to Vancouver and made this killer rock record, with trippy stuff on it. When I listen to the song “Kiss Of The Scorpion,” that could be on a record that was recorded in the sixties. Dave stayed so true to his garage rock roots. In the industry, it wasn’t successful. But, to me, it was a success because we made the record we wanted to make at the time. The real core fans understand it and they love that record.

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Words by Gary Suarez