Panhandle strummers transcend the norm

A band that is surely on its way to securing a loyal following hails from an unlikely destination. Six hours north of Tampa lays the tourist trap of Destin, where the music scene is stagnant at best and the king of the hill is the best cover band that can please the inebriated masses. Somewhere in the middle of that scene, however, is Free Monica, a young, talented band that aspires to rise above its beach-bar brethren.

Free Monica, a folk-rock trio drawing inspiration from groups such as Dave Matthews Band and Guster, has been in its current form since July 2003, when the group started recording its debut album Matter of Time. The band originally existed as a duo that consisted of Kyle LeMonica and Ben Freidman, both of whom share the singing and strumming duties. It wasn’t until the two long-time friends decided to record their original material that drummer Andy Gagliano joined the band.

“Andy is actually about five years younger than us. He is going to be a senior in high school this year,” LeMonica said. “He’s really young, but he is our drummer.”

Despite his youth, Gagliano, the band’s drummer and producer, is proficient in recording techniques and has built a studio in his parents’ basement. That basement served as the recording studio for Matter of Time, and what started as an acoustic jam session turned into a full-fledged studio production. The professionalism inside and outside the album speaks to the maturity easily seen in Free Monica’s music.

“It just kind of became a big project,” LeMonica said. “We decided to make it more full-band, full-instrumentation and somewhere along the way we definitely wanted Andy to join forces with us in the band and become a trio.”

Slightly before and during that time, LeMonica and Friedman, and eventually Gagliano, started playing shows at a local pizza joint in Destin called The Mellow Mushroom. Free Monica quickly became the establishment’s house band and the restaurant serves as the meeting spot for loyal fans. LeMonica is especially elated when people who come to see the show request original material, such as “Catch Up” and “Silent Desperation,” two of the band’s more upbeat songs.

“We did that pretty much all summer last summer,” LeMonica said. “It really caught on well and gave us a lot of time to perform.”

After four months of recording and another two months of production, Free Monica released their nine-track debut album Jan. 3 and held a release party at the Mellow Mushroom. But then everyone went back to school. LeMonica went back to Florida State, Freidman to the University of California San Diego, and Gagliano to high school.

Since the band members have been in different places, LeMonica has been playing around the Destin area by himself. Friedman will again join LeMonica June 18 at the Destin Commons for their first time together since last summer. Free Monica will play together for the remainder of June, July and August before once again returning to school. They have also been working on more original material that could culminate a winter release of their second album. LeMonica said the new material has a different subject matter, one that will be livelier than the heartbroken melodies that constitute most of Matter of Time.

As for long-term plans, Freidman aims to join LeMonica during his last year at FSU in 2005-06, where they plan to make a serious push with the band.

“We do plan on pursuing the band as soon as we can,” LeMonica said. “What I mean by pursuing our musical career is trying to develop a grass-roots following and see what’s there — give it a shot.”

Free Monica also has tentative plans to make a trip to New York this summer, where a relative of Friedman’s, Steve Eigner, is an established personality in the music business. As for Tampa, the group plans on expanding their range into this area in a few years, but for now the best way to listen to their music is to go to, where their album Matter of Time can be purchased.

“We’ve definitely come a long way. I couldn’t be happier,” LeMonica said. “I never really imagined it to be like this in a year.”