Photo: Jay Gilbert / Courtesy of ABC-PR

The Lickerish Quartet Take Us on Classic Pop Journey with “Lighthouse Spaceship” (premiere + interview)

Former Jellyfish members combine forces as the Lickerish Quartet for a collection of imaginative songs influenced by one of rock's most creatively fertile eras. Roger Joseph Manning Jr. discusses the group's origins and debut track, "Lighthouse Spaceship."

The Lickerish Quartet will release their debut EP, Threesome Vol.1, on 15 May. The group brings together Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Beck, Air, Cheap Trick, Imperial Drag), Tim Smith (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, the Finn Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Umajets), and Eric Dover (Imperial Drag, Slash’s Snakepit, Alice Cooper, Sextus). All three were also members of beloved cult rock act Jellyfish. Jeremy Stacey, most recently of King Crimson, provides drums on the collection.

The record is the first of three EPs that will see the light of day over roughly 18 months as the group have prepped a dozen tracks for release. Fans of both Jellyfish and Imperial Drag will rejoice at the Quartet’s sound. There are doses of XTC/Queen/ELO-style harmonic structures, flirtations with progressive and psychedelic rock, and tasteful but deeply impressive musicianship.

The EP opens with the whimsical, subversive “Fadoodle” and closes with the prog-like epic “Lighthouse Spaceship”. The latter sounds as if it could have been conjured up by 1970s religious cult bent on creating rock ‘n’ roll that foretold a better life on a different planet. Or, perhaps, it’s the song that Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun” always wanted to be. No matter the musical memories it summons, “Lighthouse Spaceship” ultimately asks us to believe that the Lickerish Quartet are one of those bands that inspire awe, imagination, and fervent loyalty in all who listen. And, of course, the group does just that: Conversion is sudden, immediate, and permanent.

Manning recently spoke with PopMatters about the origins of this latest project, the art of composition, and finding a way to appreciate the masters without losing a sense of originality.

When did this project first come into view?

I remember at the start of 2017, I was itching to connect with people who were likeminded and I wanted to continue in the tradition of a lot of the pop/rock stylings I’d so enjoyed over the years. I do so many different kinds of things, that’s never, ever changed. That’s what Jellyfish was built on. So, I reached out to Tim. I was probably listening to the Umajets record that he and a buddy of ours had put out in ’95 or ’96 that Eric and I had briefly helped with.

We knew that we all had to get together and do something. I just reached out as more of a social call. He lives in Atlanta, but I thought it could work. Then it made sense to reach out to Eric as well. Even though he’s in Los Angeles, he and I aren’t regularly in each other’s lives. It was really about, “Let’s get together and have fun writing ideas. If we have the time and money to record, that’s a whole different conversation.”

At what point did it turn that corner?

The writing went relatively smoothly, and I think we all felt that the ideas we came up with were so strong that it would be a shame to just record demos for ourselves and play them for our wives, girlfriends, and families and call it a day.

I was gearing up to do a PledgeMusic campaign. It was always on my mind: “How can the fans hear this?” They were sending me emails, and I’d run into them on Beck tours. When I say fans, I mean a few people in each town but, worldwide, I knew that was going to be a fairly substantial audience, enough to make music for.

So we started putting wheels in motion, and the goal was to assemble enough material for more than an album. I think Tim came up from Atlanta at least three times just purely for writing sessions. Each one was roughly a week. And then, we started thinking about getting a drummer involved and recorded.

img-290Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

You all write. Was this something where one guy walked in with a pretty completed idea and the others fleshed it out or did you go into a room without anybody having anything?

Everything started with an idea that one of us was confident in. There’s a song on this EP [“Bluebird’s Blues”], and the core idea of that is something I wrote right out of college in 1988. It’s just been hanging out because there wasn’t any room on a Jellyfish record. I didn’t develop it for a solo album, and then pretty soon, 30 years went by.

I said, “I believe enough in this idea that I’ll bring it to the guys. Let’s see what they make of it.” It was mostly a chorus idea and a verse idea. They were excited enough to pursue it. You sit in a room and start chipping away. If something didn’t happen during the day, Tim might say, “I was messing around with this last night and came up with this.” You just keep throwing stuff at it, but that can’t happen unless you’re getting inspired.

The 12 songs we wrote are ideas we believed in and wouldn’t give up on.

Sometimes a piece just has to find the right moment.

There will be three EPs, four songs each over the next year-and-a-half. There are ideas on there that are as recent as 2016-2017, and like I said, stuff that goes back over 25 years.

Tell me about the decision to make these as EPs. Is this a matter of wanting to spread the material out because people don’t listen to albums?

Exactly what you said. Ever since the traditional label model came down, the Internet showed up, and anybody who proclaimed themselves an artist now is one. It’s a traffic jam. No wonder people do absurd, perverted things to get noticed. It might be your only chance to fight for the public’s attention for 30 seconds. EPs and singles are attempts to hold the public’s attention enough to make it to the next one. You string them along. It’s very quickly out of sight, out of mind. You’re not generating cash because you’re not generating content.

The folks that we’re working with and who are helping us get this to the public have that in mind. It makes sense to me: Let’s have these people sink into these four tracks. If all goes as planned, it’ll leave them wanting more.

I love “Fadoodle”. It’s reminiscent of Sparks in a way.

Cool, thank you.

It has a sense of humor, there’s a certain sophistication to it.

That’s the one song on the EP that has a fourth writer. He wasn’t in the room with us. He was a fan of a lot of the work that I had done. Eric and I were touring the Imperial Drag project that we had in ’96. This man lives in Toronto, is very friendly, and approached me about five or six years later to help him write some songs for a record he was doing. He came out to Los Angeles, and we wrote a whole batch of material. That was the beginning and end of it. The rest never came together.

We had a bunch of scraps lying around, chords and melodies, no lyrics. It was one of the ideas I hadn’t been able to get out of my head for years. There was really nothing more than a verse and a chorus idea. I played them for the guys, and one day Eric showed up with this great idea.

He did the largest percentage of lyrics on the record simply because he is, historically, fastest at it. He runs with ideas and concepts quicker than Tim and I do. We eventually get to the finish line, but Eric’s most practiced, more masterful at it.

There’s great wordplay with that lyric; it’s such a colorful, bizarre, out-of-the-ordinary lyric. It helped facilitate the Old World, 17th-/18th-century arrangement. Whether it’s Roxy Music or Sparks, it’s always been intended to have that early playful ’70s sparkle and glitter thing to it. We wanted to have fun with an era of music that we loved but step it up a bit.

Tell me about sequencing an EP instead of an album. Is it still the same process?

It is for me, for sure. Whether it’s a three-minute song or a full-length album, I always want to take the listener on some kind of emotional ride. It goes back to everything I loved about growing up in the ’70s and ’80s with albums. There was nothing more rewarding than going on a long trip or being stuck in traffic and listening to a record from beginning to end.

A good record can take you on a journey. I’ve always tried to do that with anything I’ve ever been involved in for sure.

“Lighthouse Spaceship” is the epic on this record.

It’s the ultimate journey. It’s the longest of the 12 we wrote. The genesis of it is a pretty old idea from the early/mid-’90s. I wrote the basic idea with Imperial Drag, but there were too many ideas in front of it. I brought the basic concept to Tim and Eric, and they connected with it. The ending is brand-new.

We fantasized about having a highly repetitive chord progression that became hypnotic, as heroes of mine have done in the past. It became this long exit from the song in a psychedelic journey kind of way. Having a fantasy about that is one thing, but creating original content that’s going to do that is another. We knew that it had to end a certain way or that it wouldn’t work overall.

It became a labyrinth of do-or-die. That’s part of the fun, but it’s also a headache. We knew the front of the song was solid, but we did not have an ending for several of the writing sessions. It was very frustrating. We thought, “If we can’t find the correct ending, then we’re not going to develop it.” It sounded incomplete for a long time.

Eric got the lyrics together. There’s lots of amazing imagery, but I wondered if it was too absurd. I never want something to be art-for-art’s sake. I want it to be grounded in something. But it came together. Getting there can suck, but if you believe in the goal enough, you can get there.

We all see the finished product but we forget that there was searching involved.

A friend of mine calls writing self-hypnosis. Your heart and mind already know the vibe you’re going for. It’s just a matter of getting the mechanics together. This is what film composers do. If I know that the end of a piece, such as “Lighthouse”, should be dreamy and psychedelic, I’m flying through space because I’ve read Eric’s lyric and know that he’s got some futuristic examples in there, I’ll start painting a mental picture, an attitude, for the music.

There are certain harmonic tools I’ll use to convey those points. They study that in film composing classes, “Go for a major chord here, then when you go to play the minor, that creates a suspicion of a feeling.” They’re basing it off of cliché. They’re basing it off of the last 200 years of classical music and the tradition of film scoring.

It’s based on what humans have silently agreed makes them feel scared, makes them feel longing, makes them feel sorrow, makes them feel agitated, anxious. If you have a goal in mind with your song concept, there are definitely things you can flirt with. It’s not as easy as looking it up in a handbook and saying, “We have to go to C minor, and we have to go to an F minor and hit three A flats,” but there are bodies of work that you can look at.

There are certain cinematic tools I can reference. I’ve studied a lot of my favorite composers as anyone should: Whether you’re talking about the Kinks or XTC or Burt Bacharach or the Damned, The Pretty Things, Bowie. You learn to say, “What did they do to convey this?” You teach it to yourself. But you also say, “I can’t just copy them. Nor do I want to. I want to make my own statement, and my statement is going to be this accumulation of influences.”

Elvis Costello sounds like Elvis Costello, but I guarantee you that he can write down five or six songwriters whose work he learned deeper than anybody. That stuff comes back up through his music. He’s just made a point of creating his own sound from it. There have been moments where I’ve heard Todd Rundgren songs and said, “Wow, that’s just him trying to do Burt Bacharach.” It’s not much of a mystery. He’s using all the same brushes and colors Bacharach would have during his classic era in the 1960s.

Brian Wilson has talked about his love of Burt Bacharach and wanting to write songs like him. When you hear those songs that have that influence, it’s not so much that Brian falls short, but you get almost a simplified teen version of Bacharach. It’s wonderful.

You go for things like that and hope for the best.