Music

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Asks "Is It All a Dream?" (premiere + interview)

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Tim Manning / Courtesy of ABC Public Relations

Former Jellyfish/Imperial Drag man, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., returns with new EP and reissues of Land of Pure Imagination and Catnip Dynamite.

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. returns with a new EP, Glamping, a collection of four smart, deeply melodic songs that remind us of his prodigious talents. Manning is an historian as much as he is a singer-songwriter as his new release's "Is It All a Dream?" reminds us. He understands the power of bubbling bassline, a rhythm track that forces the listener to move their feet and this song is built upon just such a thing, one that at certain moments reminds us of Ace's "How Long". The lead and backing vocal, the keyboard layers bathe listeners in a warm glow that harkens back to AM radio's halcyon days while Manning's lyrics and production remind us that he is a man capable of not as much returning pop music to a former glory as elevating it to a new high.

He writes wise, funny and emotionally true songs that are consistently great. Glamping contains a quartet of impossibly good songs that highlight these strengths. More than that, they remind us of their composer's brilliance, how easy he makes all this greatness seem. That's been the case across a body of work that reaches back to the late 1980s and his work with Jellyfish, through to his time with the tragically short-lived Imperial Drag as well as TV Eyes and the Moog Cookbook.

Glamping also ushers in a reintroduction of two classics from the Manning oeuvre, Land of Pure Imagination (2006) and Catnip Dynamite (2008), records that sound as up-to-the-minute today as when they were first brought into the world. For Glamping, Manning, who is a longtime member of Beck's band, turned to PledgeMusic, and says that more new music, which has already been completed is not too far in the distance.

Glamping is out now. Learn more.

Tell me a little bit about the music you heard in your formative years.

The same thing as everybody else which was probably AM radio. The Top 20 on AM radio was pretty varied, particularly as we headed into the '80s. You'd hear Blondie, then AC/DC, then Earth, Wind and Fire. It was all over the map. Stuff wasn't segregated and, as kids, we'd didn't say, "Oh, this is a funk band, this is a New Wave band," you either liked the song or you didn't.

What I took away from that time was that the stuff that got peoples' attention had clever hooks and memorable melodic content. Obviously, a good groove and a good lyric was always a part of that. But sometimes you couldn't get it out of your head, even if you didn't care for the song necessarily. It was just the art of hook construction. That's definitely something I've tried to carry over into my own writing over the years. But, obviously, on my own terms and with my own sound.

Because I was the eldest in my family, I had to look to older kids for new music that wasn't on the radio. Whether I was getting turned onto Black Sabbath or Yes and Genesis or jazz fusion, whatever, that came from outside the home. Other kids at school who were older than me. Me and my family, my friends in the neighborhood? It was whatever AM radio was playing.

Were you exposed to theatre music and Cole Porter at some point? Because your compositions have this underlying quality that's locked in with that kind of material.

Around the house, the Promises, Promises original cast recording got played a lot but that was the only one. That was Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But there was lots of Burt Bacharach in my house.

Cole Porter and all the stuff that predated the '60s came from delving into jazz. In high school I became very infatuated with jazz piano. It's not for everyone. You may be fascinated by the ability to improvise and gaining that proficiency on the instrument but if you don't like the literature, if you don't like the jazz standards, you're never going to enjoy jazz. I happen to really enjoy the jazz standards. I loved the classic harmonic movement that was a tradition from the 1930s onward. That's where that expansion takes place in that writing style. I definitely brought that to Jellyfish and continue to decorate my solo stuff with it here and there.

I think that's true of my heroes too. They knew enough to dabble and make use of it when they wanted to. Steely Dan used it all the time because their music is all jazz. All their harmonies built off an understanding of classic jazz, whether that's what the listener is feeling or not. Same thing with The Police. Same thing with XTC. I could go on and on. No one told me that when I was growing up, I'm just thankful that my music education was well-rounded enough so that when I realized I wanted to focus on three-and-a-half-minute radio pop my collaborators had also studied all these styles of pop of the last 100 years.

With Jellyfish, that's all we were trying to do: Put our stamp on classic pop songwriting. Our goal was to make it as timeless as possible. We wanted it to stand up next to all our heroes from the '60s, all our heroes from the '70s, and the '80s as well. We were very conscious of that. Our first record was at the height of hair metal, our second record was at the height of grunge. We had nothing to do with either of those genres. We liked plenty of those groups and sounds but that's not what we chose to write.

At what point did your interest in piano intersect with technology, synthesizers? Was that something that was spurred by the music of the era?

Absolutely. My mom had me taking piano lessons from an early age, which I didn't really care about at all. I just wanted to play drums. It wasn't until high school that I started getting into keyboards themselves. When I was 13-14-15-years-old, keyboards were about to dethrone guitars as the main instrument in pop music. That's because the technology was rapidly expanding. All the synthpop that was happening in the UK was about to hit the United States in the early '80s and I was as fascinated by those sounds and certainly sampling as anybody.

Drum machines were happening around the same time, so a lot of my heroes, like Thomas Dolby, were suddenly these one man shows. These were guys who were writing super powerful, emotional, visceral pop music. I was as excited about that as I was Led Zeppelin or 10cc or Genesis or Queen.

As a kid and with my bandmates we basically had a policy that if it was good we liked it. When everyone was saying that disco sucked, we said that disco was like any other genre: About five percent of it's good and the rest is garbage. We were super focused on who the best songwriters were, who was the most conceptually interesting, whether it was Kraftwerk or Peter Gabriel. We thought the guys from AC/DC were some of the best songwriters of the day. All of that came into play when we would writer our own stuff.

I grew up in the suburbs, even though I didn't grow up with Jason Falkner [Jellyfish], he grew up in almost an identical community that me and Andy Sturmer [Jellyfish] grew up in. The culture was very limited and very controlled and very one-dimensional. We were always hungry for what was going on in England or other parts of the world. We loved bands like The Church, Hoodoo Gurus and all the bands coming out of Australia.

It didn't matter what decade it was from. I got into the Stones super, super late. Small Faces super, super late. But those bands inform so much of what I do and so much of what my collaborators have done. We just had to keep looking under the rocks.

Have you seen the wonderful BBC documentary Synth Britannia?

About 20 times.

Awesome!

It's a Beck band bus favorite. I've watched that with my buddies in the Beck band and by myself lots and lots. It does a really good job of summing up all the influence and importance that music had for us. Almost every one of the bands that they focus on in that thing shaped me as a young keyboard player as well as a lot of the guys that I've ended up in bands with. That's no mystery, though. You're attracted to each other because of the kind of influences you wear on your sleeve and there's certain things you're looking for in the music that you're going to make. Just because Beck's music doesn't sound exactly like Soft Cell doesn't mean that that wasn't an important influence.

As a teammate of his and of the other guys in the band, we've bonded over these things. It's important because that is the exception. Most people were bonding over Run DMC or something. That's totally cool but that's not the case with me and my friends.

That documentary has become my It's A Wonderful Life. If a year has passed and I haven't watched it, I know I have to sit down and see it again.

It really is that gratifying. That whole movement was born out of musicians who were completely untrained. They were basically punks. They'd come from the punk aesthetic. Not being proficient on your instrument was actually an asset because they were trying to say something different than all the trained, schooled, and, frankly predictable, musicians of the day. But what a lot of those British musicians had going for them was that they were cultured and highly educated in arts. So, when it was time for them to make their statement it was all conceptual. Every one of those bands had some kind of aesthetic, some kind of vibe. They said, "We'll get some of the most inexpensive models of synthesizers and drum machines and use them as our sound palette. But we're not claiming to be studied composers."

The joy that we all find in their music is the high artistic goals that they had within the traditional three-and-a-half-minute pop format. That is super, super influential to me. There were so few bands that we had like that in the States.

We did have Talking Heads. They went through many different phases, not all of which I liked, but they definitely achieved their goals with minimal musical education. "What's the focus, what's the goal? What're we trying to give the listener?" Once they figured that out they'd go back in the studio and try to figure out how to achieve that. "What do I do with these instruments that I don't really know how to play? Well, maybe something will come from us trying to copy James Brown. But on our own terms 'cause we're never going to be like James Brown's musicians."

Obviously New York had some of that going on, LA, San Francisco. Little pockets. But a ton of that stuff was going on in England. That really influenced me to no end. It still does.

Was some of what we're talking about what was behind The Moog Cookbook? Because you have this somewhat limited technology and you're exploring compositions that were largely intended for electric guitar but pulling it off. There's humor but you're also really able to break into those songs and point out what made them good, right?

Absolutely. Those records were born for two reasons. One, my partner Brian Kehew and I collected the Switched On albums from the 1960s and 1970s. The Moog modular synth had just come out and it became a kind of craze. Lots and lots of records covered the Top 40 hit parade. I've traveled all over the world and found these records in Australia, England, Netherlands, Scandinavia, whatever the local Top 40 was, somebody did their version on a synthesizer album.

We love those albums and if they're any good they're highly arranged and whoever did them usually had a lot of brilliant arranging skills. But there's always a comedy factor, whether it's intentional or not.

We enjoyed collecting vintage keyboards in the early '90s but music was going through one of its many guitar-driven phases. Keyboards were highly unfashionable. We even offered to play on records and people would say, "No, that stuff is silly. I don't want anybody laughing at my music." We said, "No, you don't get it. Have you ever heard of Tubeway Army?" We really enjoyed the heaviness that those keyboards could have. And the attitude.

Of course the techno world and the club scene was already aware of that. EDM had not happened on the scope that it has in the last 10 years but the only other people who understood the power of these instruments and who were collecting them like us were the people from the underground techno scene.

We actually met a lot of people in that community because of collecting not because we would go to the clubs and dance the night away.

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