Once a band of teenagers, the members of Manatree are adults now, and they’re continuing to evolve and expand their sound as they grow.
With three records under their belt, Manatree’s discography offers a compelling auditory journey of stylistic exploration, production innovation, and songwriting maturation. They’ve been a notable name in the local music scene for over five years now, which is impressive considering that none of them are over 25. Vocalist and guitarist Jack Mayock has been writing and performing with various lineups since 2009; the name Manatree was adopted for the project in 2014.
Drummer Alex Elder joined the band during the recording process of Manatree’s eponymous debut album, which was released in 2015. Their sophomore LP, Engines, released in summer 2018, was written and recorded during a transitional period for the lineup. Bassist Jim Burns came on board about five months before their most recent release in March of this year, the Rough Designs EP. These three now comprise Manatree, and they generate a lot of high-quality noise for a trio.
Their first album, Manatree, has a cohesive math-rock sound, with quick tempos, lively guitar riffs, and straightforward vocals. “Fat Jackson,” the track that’s most exemplary of this style, still holds the record for their most plays on Spotify at around 30,500. But with Engines having only been out for just over a year, “On And On” is in good standing to overtake that title, with almost 11,000 plays already.
In contrast to their most recent records, the music on Manatree was designed to be performed live. Elder points out that Richmond is a very “rock town,” and the industry here tends to revolve around the live show. “Those songs were written for live performance, because that was our appeal, and we recorded them to be a good representation of that,” explains Mayock. But that process left them wanting more.
“You run into issues when you try to do a direct translation of the live sound, and it doesn’t always make for the most compelling music to record,” says Mayock. “But I’m still proud of that album — I still like it a lot.”
The first album is an important part of Manatree’s history, and the way it was created provides context that’s integral to understanding how and why their sound has evolved. With Engines, they did a complete 180 in how they approached both the writing and recording process.
“We became more interested in recording, separately from the live sound,” says Mayock. “A lot of it was done at home on laptops. We’d find sounds, put them together, and then figure out how to reproduce them live later on.”
What’s amazing to hear and see is that they reproduce those electronic sounds with organic instrumentation. Just your traditional guitars, a drum set, a trigger pad, and some pedals – no laptop, no synthesizer, not even a keyboard. “Maybe it’s us being foolishly stubborn, but we’re pretty against using laptops on stage,” says Mayock.
And yet, their live sound imitates what you hear through your headphones with striking accuracy. That’s what makes Manatree so unusual. Sure, I could name about a dozen local projects that are incorporating electronic sounds into their rock music, but how many are doing it without incorporating computers into their live instrumentation? It definitely creates a greater challenge for the band in reproducing material from their more recent albums, but they rise to that challenge without hesitation.
If you listen to the three Manatree albums in chronological order, the evolution of their sound flows logically. On Engines, in addition to the electronic musical experiments on the album, the melodies, vocals and song structures had become more self-conscious, and ceremonious. “The more you make music, the more introspective and self-critical you become,” says Mayock. “Thinking consciously about how the way our music sounds and how it comes across is a big part of Engines.”
The timeline of the writing process for the album sheds more light on the transitions the band were experiencing. The title track, which is mostly acoustic, was written quite a few years ago. “Those songs were written over a long period of time,” says Elder. “‘Backwards’ was written when we were still playing the first album at shows, and ‘Brushfire’ was the last one written [for the album].”
Which makes sense, as “Brushfire” is the most electronically stylized song on the album, and serves as a premonition of their latest release, Rough Designs. “It was what we were becoming interested in, but it still fit on the album,” Elder adds.
Electronic sounds are heavily incorporated on all five tracks of Rough Designs. Part of the reason for this shift in style can be summarized as growing up. “I think how we sound is very inspired by being young in Richmond,” says Elder. “A lot of local musicians are doing the same thing — evolving with the city.”
Plus, the listening habits of songwriters Mayock and Elder have changed as they’ve aged. But the main reason they’ve experimented so much with their sound is that they have the power to do so. Listening to electronic music motivated them to learn how to make it themselves. “Over the last four years, we’ve had a much bigger interest in sound design and artists who focus on sound design as their main appeal over composition, because of the meticulous level of care that goes into designing the beat and creating the sounds that are used,” says Mayock.
There are two ways that Manatree approaches songwriting, and they’re quite different. One is in the typical style of garage bands, in which rhythms and melodies are derived naturally from “just playing music with each other and not really thinking about it,” says Mayock.
But the other way is very different. “Alex or I will be playing on Ableton, a digital audio workstation,” Mayock explains. “We come up with a sound that we like and then usually from that sound, you can get an idea of the melody and emotional context of the song. Then, we start playing around with it in a live sense, to interact with each other and figure out the song’s structure.”
After recording their self-titled album at Montrose, a local studio, and releasing it with Egghunt Records, Manatree went DIY for their next two records. They recorded in bedrooms and home studios, mainly using friends’ equipment. They’ve now started to take that process into their own hands — their next record will be almost entirely independently recorded and produced.
“It wasn’t a statement, working independently. It just worked for our goals and how we were planning to tour,” says Elder. “When you do it yourself, you can release new music often. When you work with a label, you have to strategize. We had new music ready, and we hadn’t put out an album in awhile. Spotify has worked well for us, and we’re touring, so we know people are still going to listen and pay attention.”
“A lot of musicians and songwriters don’t work this way, and I envy them, but it’s hard for us to figure out what we don’t like about our music until we’ve gone through the whole process of recording and releasing it,” Mayock explains. “It’s more advantageous for us as songwriters to release things often, rather than work on a cycle.”
They describe Engines as a team effort, with the help and creative input from friends in the industry. “We learned so much from that experience — from being in control,” says Elder. “We’re still figuring out how to record, but we have a better idea of what we want now.”
Cost is also an important consideration about recording in a studio, and you can’t put a price on the value of learning that process yourself. “It’s an entirely different skill set that’s equally as important,” says Mayock. “Studio recording can be really good for a band that knows what they want to sound like and just plays it, or has a ton of money. For us, it’s more worthwhile to use a similar amount of money to buy our own equipment and spend more time on the process.”
Manatree began working on their next album about a month ago, and they’ve started writing a few songs already. They plan to do all of the recording themselves, with the exception of whatever live drums they want on the album. But it’s not going to be a continuation of Rough Designs — their songwriting process is moving in the opposite direction now, reflecting a different sound they want to create.
“We wrote Rough Designs as we were recording it, and then we learned how to play it live with Jim afterwards,” says Elder. “We realized it’s really hard to take it from a computer to the live setting and get it to sound how we want.”
That doesn’t mean the band doesn’t like Rough Designs; they’ve just learned that a different approach to songwriting and recording will yield better results, both live and in the studio. “We’re happy with the way it turned out, but now we think that for the best quality of live performances we need to write together,” says Elder. “And then record it after we’ve put the live energy into how we want it to sound.”
Their goal for the next album is to find a happy medium between electronic production and live performances. “We want the actual rhythms and structures of the songs to be recorded live, as opposed to using an electronic metronome. And then add any experimental qualities over that,” explains Mayock. “Engines was mostly recorded to a click track, which makes it really easy to synch up with electronic drums. It’s a fine thing to do, but it means that you don’t have the organic rhythms of naturally speeding up or slowing down when you’re playing live. We still want the recorded sound to be an integral part of the song, but it’s just more compelling to play live if it’s something more organic.”
Though he’s the newest addition to the project, bassist Jim Burns echoes these sentiments with his own ideas for the next album. Having been a classical bassist in college, he has a lot to offer creatively now that’s he’ll have a firsthand role in the process alongside Mayock and Elder. “I want to make the live setting more interesting,” he says. “I want that energy and composition of a great live track, but also something you haven’t heard before.”
Burns hopes to bring pedals, effects, and entirely different instruments into play. “My goal is to bring more live bass to the recording process and in turn, bring more of that electronic bass to the live performance. But without the laptops, of course,” he adds with a laugh.
Amidst all the musical transitions Manatree has experienced, the absence of computers on stage is certainly a pillar of their band that they’re committed to. Now that they’re talking about potentially circling back to the performance-driven sound that they formed around, it’s convenient that they never changed the name of the band. But it did cross their minds when they were undergoing those pretty drastic changes in style. “There was a discussion, like, ‘What is the name Manatree? What does it represent? Should we keep it as this body of work?'” says Elder. “In the end, the idea we went with is, what connects your work is the fact that you made it. We like that it shows an evolution of style, and thought it would be cool to see that progression.”
So, what’s next for Manatree? Well, they’re working on new music and they play shows mostly on a month-to-month basis. They’re not full-time musicians — even though they’d like to be at some point — and they have busy lives outside of the band. “We’ve gone through phases of different mindsets. We took time off from school to work on Engines,” says Elder.
Currently, Elder is still in school, and Mayock and Burns have graduated and have jobs. “We do it at a manageable pace for a realistic lifestyle,” says Elder. “We put in enough time to feel like we’re progressing, but also still existing comfortably.”
Even though I can hear the intensity of artistic dedication in their music and the articulate way they discuss it, the trio carries an air of casual calmness that might just remind you of those 15 year-old kids doing it for fun. They’re clearly accomplished musicians, but they don’t come off as tormented, self-consumed artists, and it’s refreshing. They’re humble, and have a sense of humor; with their soft-spoken, deadpan delivery, they come across as quite charming. They’re committed, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, which is important. Because if you’re too serious, it’s just not rock and roll anymore, right?
Top Photo by Jennifer Challis, via Facebook
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