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Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Photo: Stephanie Augello / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Small World
Gamblers

Symphonic

25 September 2020

At several points on Small World, the debut album from Gamblers, the Long Island-based indie-pop outfit, wears the sunny disposition of the Beach Boys on its collective sleeve, as jangly guitars automatically conjure up images of summer, sand, and surf. As it turns out, bandleader Michael McManus did grow up near the beach, but this stretch of beach has long been haunted by its history as the place where multiple corpses were discovered throughout McManus' formative years. Raised in Massapequa, a town situated in Long Island's South Shore region, McManus started channeling the social milieu around him into his songwriting at an early age. But if you don't recognize the garish stereotypes, class struggle, and unsavory underbelly of McManus' homeland in the grooves on Small World, that's by design.

Active as a youth in Long Island's DIY punk scene, McManus fell into an obsession with hip-hop production as a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, where he would spend nearly every waking minute making beats. His focus paid off, leading to collaborations with Meek Mill, Das Racist leader Heems and a slew of underground hip-hop artists, culminating in his 2015 rap album Waiting for Carmine (under the moniker Don Miguel). With Gamblers, a project McManus has spearheaded along with a revolving cast of bandmates, McManus and now-departed co-founder Gary O'Keefe set out to bring hip-hop-style song construction into an indie-rock context.

In keeping with McManus' discreet style as a lyricist, the hip hop influence doesn't jump out at you—it's initially difficult to distinguish Small World from the work of a traditional rock band. McManus shed light on his understated approach and peeled back the curtain on how experience and family tragedy lurk between the lines on songs like "We're Bound to Be Together" and "Blood Sport".

The title track of the album deals with your upbringing in the Catholic church and your disillusionment with organized religion, but you were pretty discreet about how you chose to get that across.

Yeah, that's primarily what it's dealing with, but I wanted it to be a little more open-ended. I wanted to express those existential questions, "What does this all mean? And what's our role in it?" I didn't want to speak so specifically that it was going to get in the way of setting the table for the album. We're working on a follow-up EP right now, and I have a song on there that deals in way more detail with why I grew disillusioned with the church, where I'm pulling from and describing specific memories of things that happened that were, frankly, disturbing.

I was religious when I was young. My mother was a religion teacher and a eucharistic minister—someone who administers the host in mass. I ended up being the drummer in the church band during that time that the Catholic church abuse scandal was really breaking. So one Sunday, this priest, Father Dan, who was the pastor at St. Rose Lima Church in Massapequa, took it upon himself to say that we have to find it in ourselves to forgive these priests who sexually abused children. The 5:15 Sunday mass was the most popular one. It was like a fucking concert.

I literally played to hundreds of people every Sunday as a 15-year-old. It was a shitload of people, and more than half the people walked out. I'll never forget it. I was moving towards being a non-believer at that point anyway. I don't think there was necessarily one moment that was a deciding factor for me, but that was definitely part of it. "Small World" deals with that transition, but it's more than that. The song encompasses all the areas that we explore on the album—whether it's addiction, love, violence, or whatever.

That song has just eight lines. Your lyrics are quite economical, but they're also layered. So many artists talk about wanting the listener to interpret the music in their own way, but you leave the door wide open.

I feel very strongly about that. There are certain times in songwriting where it makes sense to use a hyper-specific reference that only a select few people will know. Like, on the song "Do I", I say, "I creep back west onto the Southern State," which is a reference to the Southern State Parkway, a highway that's very well-known if you're from Long Island. But I generally don't use too many of those. The layering of meaning you mentioned also has a lot to do with the hip-hop sensibility behind the production.

Sometimes I view lyrics through that lens as well, where I'm trying to be as real as I can be while also not getting in the way of the melody or what we're trying to do from a musical standpoint. That's not to say that lyrics don't matter—of course, they do. I'm always interested in seeing how lyrics can fit into what we're doing melody-wise and song structure-wise while never sacrificing, saying something that has meaning.

Like with "We're Bound to Be Together", you can say, "that's a cheesy, Beach Boys-style love song". Yes, that's correct, but it's intentional. I used those tropes to serve a purpose, to write about something very horrific—and very personal and real to my family and me—through the lens of bubblegum pop. Nobody would know that unless I explained it, but that's how I like to explore things lyrically.

Because that song's actually a love song where the narrator is expressing their love for a substance.

Yeah, it's a love song from the point of view of an addict as they're entering their high. But if you hear it another way, I don't want to get in the way of that.

People unfamiliar with the area might assume that Long Island is just another set of neighborhoods in the greater New York metro area, but that's not the case.

I feel like I'm a reluctant champion for Long Island. We're the butt of the joke a lot, and that's rightfully deserved a lot of the time. For the first five years of our existence, Gamblers' base of operations was Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We started recording the album in Manhattan—first in Harlem, then in Chelsea—and then we finished in Brooklyn. So we were billed as a Brooklyn band, which we were. I didn't have any issue with that. But I'm back to being based on Long Island now. I was born and raised here, and I've lived in the city a few times, so I have both perspectives to draw from.

It's a complicated place. It breeds—and was founded on—the darkest forms of racism and ignorance. If you look at the creation of a town like Levittown, or the history of someone like Robert Moses, you'll see that. There have been several Black Lives Matter protests over the last few months, but this is definitely Trump-land, and I'd be lying if I said differently. I also have a fascination with its underbelly, like the longstanding presence of organized crime and the case of the Long Island serial killer. It's a very, very fucked-up place, but it's also where I'm from. It's my home, so I have a complicated relationship with it.

It's often stereotyped as a kind of cultural void.

It is. I think that's a perfect way of saying it. It feels culturally void and morally bankrupt. It's sort of like a perfect lie—the perfect American dream, which is, of course, a lie as the great George Carlin once laid out. You have a lot of people living in homes that they basically can't afford. They have multiple cars, but they're tens of thousands of dollars in debt, addicted to pills, etc. Like I'm taking this phone call while driving on Ocean Parkway, a road I like to drive on while taking calls or just zoning-out because it's a straight shot of highway.

But this is also the place where someone was dumping bodies for 15 years. My point is that everything kind of looks fine, but if you look at one or two layers beneath the onion skin, things start to reveal themselves that are pretty scary. It's like there's always something lurking. And it's weird because you're so close to the city, but you might as well be a million miles away. Sometimes I like Long Island, though, because I feel like it's as fucked-up as I am. [Laughs.]

How steeped in hip-hop were you before you started making beats in college?

I'm a lifelong hip-hop fan. It just never dawned on me that I would ever be involved in making hip-hop music. I'm a '90s kid, so it was Wu-Tang, Dre, Biggie, the Fugees. I'm just a fan of music. Most of the time, hip-hop is my favorite genre, but it's always at least in my top two. I get in different moods and go back and forth.

You were deconstructing the mechanics of making beats the same way that someone would make a formal study out of learning jazz scales or something. Why did you become so obsessive about it?

I can't really put my finger on why I got so into it. I mean, it wasn't unlike how I was when I started playing guitar and writing songs, but I do feel like it was more intense for some reason. Maybe it was because I was living alone and isolated. Maybe it was a way of dealing with that. But a lot of the college experiences that people talk about, as far as partying and doing all that shit, I didn't really have that experience. I was just making music. I would study different producers and try to re-create beats from scratch by finding out where a song's sample was from and then rebuild it just as an exercise. I'm not even exaggerating: I would work on this eight to ten hours a day—while I was between customers waiting tables while I was waiting for my next class to start sitting outside the classroom, and so on. It was never-ending.

At what point did you feel like you'd arrived at your own style as a hip-hop producer?

I don't know that I ever got there 100%. You know, as a songwriter, you can look back on stuff you're written and hear the Nirvana influence coming out or The Mars Volta influence or whatever. If I go back and listen to Waiting for Carmine, I can hear that there's a very pronounced boom-bap influence. I don't know that I necessarily found my identity in just a beat-making sense, but you can tell that I made that record. It has my personality in terms of how I make music overall.

So explain how that then became the foundation for Gamblers because it's not immediately apparent.

Well, previously, I'd be in bands where we'd write songs in a room together on our instruments, and then we'd go in and record them with an outside producer. By putting together the Waiting for Carmine album and the many different artists I had to work with, I learned how to actually produce on a human level, and also in terms of wrangling a vision into coming together. But then there was also writing and creating in the studio, where you start with a beat, then you add a keyboard on top, then "ooh, I'm hearing a little vocal hook" and "let me add this guitar lick". So many things are recorded at home and on laptops now, but we're often starting with the sonic foundation first. It was important for me to learn that I could take my songwriting instincts and mesh them with this production approach that inverts the sequence of how a song gets built.

On Waiting for Carmine, you went out to the beach and recorded the sound of water where the Long Island serial killer left bodies. That reminds me of how the Welsh experimental ambient musician and film composer Lustmord has recorded in a slaughterhouse and other spaces that have a history of death. What was the attraction for you? Why was it important that you try and connect to that case through sound?

I don't know what it is. Some of those events were literally a stone's throw away from where I was brought up. So it's personal. Would people know the difference if I'd used an online sample of waves on the Waiting for Carmine track? It probably would've had the same effect for the listener, but even just the fact that I can tell you that we went there at night and it was really dark just adds something for me.

What did you feel when you were out there?

I made sure to take one of my best friends. We make each other laugh. Would I have done it if I'd been by myself? I'm not sure, but I doubt it. I'd have been too creeped-out! That's why I asked my friend to come. But I was in the studio today working on a potential new song, and we heard these crickets outside. It was daytime, and we were debating whether to go out and record them versus getting a sound online, but then we were like, "No, let's go out there and grab real audio in the woods." On the outro of the Gamblers song "There Was a Window", we stuck the microphone out the window of an apartment in Brooklyn, and you can hear a city bus going by. I've just always liked that when you can implement real-life sounds, especially if they're personal and have an actual connection to what you're doing.

Speaking of connections, when you sing the lines "Why's it so hard to see you? / I preach your love, but I can't see you / Where were you when I needed you?" on the song "Small World", you're talking about renouncing an institution and its prescribed version of the truth. That can easily be applied to today's protest movement as if you're singing those words to America itself.

It's kind of disturbing how it fits the moment, but hopefully, that's a testament to writing something that's based on a real feeling that can sustain itself longer than the lifespan of any given time period. That's the upside of writing in that open-ended way. You're not dating yourself. I mean, I'm not happy about what's happening that might make those lyrics relevant, but hopefully, that's a sign that people can hold onto them longer than I could have anticipated when I wrote them.

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