MusicMusic Features

Momophobia Blends Emo-Gaze With Yearnful Melodies

Charlotte power-trio describes their journey of combining musical influences

 

a portrait of band members Santiago Morales and Sam Howard from local punk band, Momophobia.
Santiago Morales (right) and Sam Howard of Momophobia. (Photo by Evan Dennis)

Just because Sam Howard and Santiago Morales named their muscular, grooving, grinding emo-core trio Momophobia doesn’t mean the two musicians and songwriters fear their moms.

“There’s a running joke I always tell people that I’m scared of my mom,” Morales says, referencing the band’s thought-provoking, sometimes head-scratching name.

“We don’t go for one show without [someone asking] how to pronounce Momophobia,” says Howard, who half-jokingly considers launching a Mother’s Day-themed line of merch to capitalize on misconceptions about the meaning of the band’s moniker.

According to the esoterically titled Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, momophobia means “the fear of speaking off the cuff or from the heart; the terror of saying the wrong thing and having to watch someone’s smile fade as they realize you’re not who they thought you were.” 

Though both Howard and Morales agree in doubting that momophobia’s pensive and poetic meaning has any impact on the group’s songwriting, they say so with a hint of second guessing. Certainly, a sense of mistaken identities and fast-changing opinions infuses the band’s debut single “Orchid Skies.” 

As Howard’s grainy bass-led riff propels the groove forward like a rusted gigantic gear grinding, his vocal rips free from the song’s cocoon of layered thrash to unleash a soaring pop lyric laced with the uncertainty and heartbreak of an averted gaze.

Social events don’t feel the same/ I’m always coming to an afterthought/ Showing your true colors/ Hoping you’d fall for me/ You’d never look at me now…   

A chugging bass-and-guitar combo burrows through rippling slashes of Morales’ decaying rhythm guitar before he launches a beautiful yet brutal lead. His guitar chimes, rings and rages, swiftly dovetailing into a shouted, distorted chorus

Why can’t you/ Just see me alive/ So I can see your eyes/ In these orchid skies…

“I’ve had that feeling of disappointing someone by saying the wrong thing, and I can relate to it,” Howard says. “That’s why I like the [band’s] name.” 

 

Howard, Morales and drummer Grayson Gulley bring Momophobia’s mix of spiraling melodies, multi-edged meanings and shape-shifting hard rock to The Milestone on April 21 for a show that celebrates the release of the band’s debut five-track EP Duality of Dreams, which drops April 20.

The story of Howard and Morales

Far from fearing his mom, Howard credits her with instilling in him a love of music.

“My mom is a classically trained concert pianist,” he says. “I still get to hear her play sometimes, and it’s absolutely the best.” 

He started guitar lessons at age 9 and absolutely hated them until he discovered pop-punk bands like Green Day and 21 Pilots.  

“It went from there,” he recalls. “I’ve been in and out of bands since 2019, but I’ve been playing since I was a kid.”

In contrast, Morales didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 13. A self-taught player, he took inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King.

A blues kid growing up, as he got older Morales was drawn to the harder rocking sounds of bands like Smashing Pumpkins, then onto heavier stuff like Slipknot. “I’ve always [resonated] with post-rock.”

Howard and Santiago met at Mint Hill Middle School, where they immediately bonded. The pair, however, never got the chance to make music together. Life intervened, sending them to separate high schools — Independence for Howard and Butler for Morales. 

Howard played in several cover bands in high school, including one called Renegade that included future Modern Alibi guitar player Sloane Letourneau. 

After helping to launch The Sand Dolls, his first band that played original songs, Howard had a falling out with that group’s lead singer. Resolving never to have that experience again, Howard determined to form his own band where he would sing. 

Momophobia playing at Snug Harbor in Charlotte, NC
Momophobia playing at Snug Harbor on February 8, 2024. (Photo by Dan Russel Pinson)

In the meantime, Morales never joined a band, though he played guitar in his church and continued to hone his skills. On New Years’ Eve, just as 2021 turned into 2022, Morales texted Howard and proposed that the two of them launch a band.

“Santiago came over to my house and we jammed once,” Howard says. “He was the best guitar player I had ever met.” 

Morales remembers that their single jam session sparked “a fire in his heart.” 

In January 2022, Momophobia officially launched. Drummer Duncan Brown joined the fold for a year before Seth Brown stepped in, playing off-and-on with the band for the latter half of 2023. Howard notes that Gulley, who joined the band in January, is the band’s first drummer that doesn’t share a last name with Momophobia’s previous drummers.

“He doesn’t have to change [his name] to Brown,” says Morales deadpanning. “We threw away that initiation a long time ago.”

Since Momophobia’s launch, Howard has also played bass with a few other Charlotte bands, including impassioned punk outfit Dead Senate. From August to November 2023, he also played with sludge punk crew Wastoid.

Years before launching Momophobia, Howard had longed to be in a band. Whenever he came across a word or phrase he thought would make a cool band name, Howard would write it down. 

“My only criteria was that it had to be a band name that didn’t already exist,” Howard says.  At the time, Howard was taking bass lessons from musician Karl Gunther, who also local managed bands. Howard pitched his two favorite imaginary band names to Gunther: The Evil I Collective and Momophobia. The latter won the day.

The band is young; Howard and Morales are 19 while Gulley is 18. From the start, Momophobia’s members were faced with a challenge that has stymied far more experienced players, as all three are striving to blend their disparate musical inspirations into a satisfying whole.

“It’s interesting trying to find ways to apply all of our influences together, because we come from different backgrounds in music,” Howard says. The result of that process, Morales says, is a marvelous mishmash.

“With my guitar playing, my inspirations have always been melodic,” says Morales, whose preferences run from intricate players like Guthrie Govan to equally tuneful yet softer guitarists like John Mayer. “I’m not into just noodling [and] technique. I want to make my guitar sing.”

Gulley grew up listening to his parents’ emo and rock albums — bands like Chiodos and Hawthorne Heights.

After beginning drum lessons at 9, he continued for eight years, and now works as a drum instructor himself at Learn Music in Cornelius. When Gulley came to Momophobia, he was used to playing the harder, faster grooves of bands like Silverstein. He currently also plays in a cover band that specializes in hard rock bordering on scream, an aggressive and willfully experimental and dissonant subgenre of emo. 

Howard’s and Morales’ shared love for Queen of the Stone Age raises questions about Momophobia’s genre and classification, especially with a 4/20 release show on the books. Can a power trio that threads layers of soaring pop-rock melodies through thickets of thrash while entwining knotty grooves with yearning vocals be considered a stoner band? Howard emphatically says yes.

“At the beginning of the band I was into stoner-rock bands like Kyuss,” Howard says. “The bluesy side of the music spectrum influenced a lot of my writing.” Morales also accepts the stoner designation.

“It’s because [our music] is very airy,” Morales says of the band’s more ethereal and impressionist excursions. “It’s like looking up at the sky or flying.”

Gulley cites “Mariposa,” one of five tunes on the Duality of Dreams EP, as a stoner (or at least stoner-adjacent) song.

“There is a bridge and a build that are definitely long compared to other builds and bridges you might hear in other songs,” Gulley says.  “It’s an ambient, ‘go-with-the-flow’ groove.”

Crafting a collaborative sound

Just as there has been give-and-take between band members in devising the band’s sound, songwriting has also been a collaborative processes, so integrated that’s it’s often hard for individual Momophobia members to know when individual contributions begin and end.

guitarist Sam Howard playing a show in Charlotte, NC with green neon lights in the background
Sam Howard from Momophobia (Photo by Evan Dennis)

That quality is exemplified by Momophobia’s vocals. How the band members view each song, is what determines whether Howard or Morales sings the lead. The ideal vocal allocation is a 50/50 split, Howard says. If there’s one song that demands Morales’ voice as lead, Howard will sing back up, or vice versa. 

“I find [that approach] interesting and a lot more refreshing,” Morales says. 

The songwriting partners will even write for each other’s voices on occasion. 

“Sam gives me a different palette to work with,” Morales says. “Each time we write songs, it’s never the same vibe.”  

The band’s debut single, “Orchid Skies,” began as a badass bass riff that Howard brought to the band.

“It was something we jammed on, and we all wrote the lyrics together,” Howard says. “We played this house show the same week that we wrote the song, and we finished it before that show.”

It all clicked quite well, Morales remembers. The band came up with the instrumental track in one day, and then took another day to write lyrics.

“It was a very short process,” Howard says. “Later, when we were writing songs for the EP, I was thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t we have ideas coming out as quickly as they did then?’” 

“Orchid Skies” was cut at Knothole Recording Studio where it was produced by audio alchemist Boo English. 

Howard credits Chloe James, frontwoman for psychedelic goth-rock combo True Lilith, with introducing the band to English and his Knothole facility.

 “Boo’s awesome,” Morales says. “We love him.” 

English also produced Momophobia’s follow-up single “Maybe I’m Crazy.” Opening with a recorded phone message and delicate whirlpooling guitar, the sophomore single may be Momophobia’s most spacious song to date. The production puts distance between Morales’ grimy and guttural guitar and Howard’s questioning vocal, which drifts like woodsmoke above a blasted landscape.

a photo of the drummer of Momophobia, Grayson Gulley smiling as he's playing a show
Grayson Gulley of Momophobia (Photo by Evan Dennis)

Maybe I’m crazy, definitely lazy/ And I can’t seem to find myself/ I lost my heart on/ The way down the drain/ and I can’t find the end…

 While Momophobia’s latest single “Prosthetics” was also recorded at Knothole, the melodic, prowling and growling track was produced by Atticus Lane, and not English. Howard met Lane while Howard was working with Dead Senate. Howard and Lane subsequently worked closely on several tracks for Wastoid.

When Momophobia played S.O.S. Fest at The Milestone in November 2023, Lane caught the band’s set. After the show he asked Howard if he could produce Momophobia’s music. The trio jumped at the chance, as they count themselves fans of Lane’s work with Wastoid, Subvertigo and Cosmic Twynk.

“We picked Atticus because of how happy we were with other projects he had been a part of, and we knew he could do our sound well,” Howard says.

“Prosthetics” is the sound of full metal alchemy. Abrasive bass undergirds wailing, warning-siren guitar, which sounds like somebody punched a hole in Morales’ amp. His guitar pivots and curls like a snake charmer’s melody as Howard’s vocals shimmer like heat waves on a highway.

You forgot about me/ and thats all I’ll know/ I never wanted to be your zero/ The night rides/ The evening sun/ Go cry about it/ You’ll have no one…

As a foretaste of the Duality of Dreams EP, “Prosthetic” deepens and broadens Momophobia’s palette. Howard hopes that the single and the rest of Momophobia’s music have a deep impact on listeners. Good music helps him through hard times, Howard says. 

“I like music where I see themes that I can relate to,” he says. “I hope that’s something people can take away from our EP and any of our songs.” 

“With a lot of [Momophobia’s] songs there are themes where people can be like, ‘Yeah, I understand that,’” Gulley says.

“The title Duality of Dreams fits the EP because two of the songs are very happy, and then there are other songs where you’re going through things,” Morales adds. 

He says he treasures music that makes him feel exactly how he imagines the songwriter feels. Morales hopes Momophobia’s music can replicate that feeling and capture complex, sometimes antithetical feelings.

“I want [listeners] to say, ‘I know how that feels.’” Morales says. “I want them to feel at home.”


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