Family Album: Secret Monkey Weekend

Jefferson Hart and his daughters make up this rock band that turns inside jokes and sweet memories into music.
by David Menconi | photography by Taylor McDonald

A lot of families mark the passage of time with photo albums. But the Hart household in Durham is doing that with a different kind of album: a 12-song collection of music called All the Time in the World that’s out this month. It’s the first full-length album from Secret Monkey Weekend, a rock trio made up of Jefferson Hart (a local musician who worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until his retirement a decade ago) and his adopted stepdaughters, 19-year-old Ella and 14-year-old Lila.

The opening song “Honey Num” started out as a nonsense phrase drummer/singer Lila was saying at age 6. “Fascist Blood Baby” is a song that bassist Ella came up with last year based on a villain from one of her favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“One day, they were both singing, Don’t kill me, fascist blood baby,” recalls Jefferson, who sings, plays guitar, and has led groups including The Ruins and Ghosts of the Old North State. “I said, That sounds like the chorus of a song, and they wrote most of it on the spot.”

True enough. Secret Monkey Weekend’s roots go back several decades, to when the girls’ mother, Laura Hart (an archivist at UNC’s Wilson Library), was Laura Brown. She was married to Matt Brown, a much-beloved member of the local music community.

Brown played drums in various ensembles, including the country band John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff, as well as a duo with Jefferson called Matt Brown and his Drums of Renown. Jefferson grew close to the Brown family, meeting Laura and the girls when they’d come to shows. “Ella got to know Jeff from going everywhere with her dad,” says Laura. “And then came Lila, who would be hiding behind her dad as a toddler.”

Ella’s first public performance came at age 6, when Jefferson invited her up during a Drums of Renown show to sing The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” 

Then came a cruel turn of fate, when Matt died of a heart attack in 2012. He was just 42 years old, and his death left family and friends bereft.

“It sucked and has shadowed my life ever since,” John Howie Jr. says of his passing. “Literally not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about Matt.”

But in the aftermath, something unexpected happened: Laura and Jefferson became more than friends. They married in 2015, a turn of events chronicled in the album’s closing song “Laura Jo” (You’re my best friend/And I love you…), and soon, Secret Monkey Weekend became part of that unexpected happy ending. 

Jefferson taught his new daughters a few rudiments on drums and bass, and they burnished their skills with lessons, practice, and hard work. About six years ago, they christened their trio Secret Monkey Weekend — an inside joke, after a headline they’d seen in a 1967 issue of Tiger Beat magazine. They started playing shows covering the likes of The Beach Boys, The Ramones, The Cowsills, and George Jones, alongside the occasional original song. At the time, Lila was still young enough that she had to sit in a booster seat in the car. 

Novelty trappings aside, the girls back up their father’s guitar as a sharp rhythm section with Lila as a singing drummer. Highly listenable, All the Time in The World is made up of rock and pop that lands somewhere between Americana and college radio.

“The big surprise to me was just how good Ella and Lila were,” says Don Dixon, a friend and the one-time R.E.M. co-producer who produced Secret Monkey Weekend’s album. “Ella wrote really good bass parts and executes them very well, and Lila hits the drums perfectly — unbelievable touch and consistency.”

In addition to Dixon, Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby from North Carolina power-pop legends The dB’s are among the North Carolina notables who made contributions to All the Time in the World. The album was recorded last October at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium recording studio in Kernersville, with cover art that recreates a famous mid-1980s photograph of Easter’s legendary Winston-Salem band Let’s Active. And the girls’ late father is a major presence throughout the album.

“Matt and I were married 20 years and I went to a lot of gigs,” says Laura. “Maybe it’s because I want to hear it that way, but hearing the way Lila plays drums, there’s a direct connection to the way I’d hear Matt play. It takes me back.” 

A decade after his death, pictures of Matt Brown still adorn the walls of the family home, and All the Time in the World is dedicated to his memory.

“He’s still with us, either talking about him or when we play music,” says Ella. “It feels like he’s always there.” Adds Jefferson, “I wonder what he’d think, and how proud he’d be. It feels like he’s looking down, aware.”

The title track emerged from a conversation between Jefferson and Lila four years ago. After picking her up from school one day, he asked when she wanted to have band practice and she said, “Anytime, because we have all the time in the world.”

“That got me choked up a little bit,” Jefferson says. “In truth, we don’t have all the time in the world, and this family’s history attests to that.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.