There are a plethora of factors that go into making a band successful, but when you really start the discussion of what makes a band prosper, you’ll find yourself circling around three tangible attributes associated with a truly great band.
There are a plethora of factors that go into making a band successful, but when you really start the discussion of what makes a band prosper, you’ll find yourself circling around three tangible attributes associated with a truly great band. The first is obviously pure musical talent, followed closely by true uniqueness that sets them apart from the pack. The final, and oftentimes most overlooked, attribute is a tough work ethic, driving the band no matter what happens. Plenty of Richmond bands have these qualities in varying amounts, but no band currently exemplifies all three of them more than Those Manic Seas.
Their indeed-unique lead singer, Kilroy The Stillness–a towering mannequin delivering his vocals from the screen of a television that sits atop his shoulders–has become the element for which they’re best known. However, anyone who has seen this band live knows the close-knit quintet has talent and backs it up with an insane work ethic. For example, take a typical rehearsal day. Drummer Daniel Medley toils away custom-fitting a new trailer he purchased off Cragislist to make their gigs that much easier. The rest of the members fuel up on tacos and intently discuss ways to improve their songs, talking with such focus that they nearly forget to swallow. When the time comes to play, the band crams into an intimate top-floor room that most moody teenagers would complain about for being too modest. The close confines surely drive the band, even if some members are dangerously close to getting knocked out by a bass headstock.
Photo by Eric Carlson
In the background as the band rehearses restlessly is a large whiteboard full of working song titles and abbreviations, all surrounded by incomplete thoughts hastily added before they were lost forever. That frenzied writing makes up the band’s upcoming eleven-song debut album, due out in the spring on Angry Pirate Records. Despite that spring release, the band still has some ground to cover to finish their first LP. “The record’s about halfway done, and has really been an arduous process because of scheduling,” bassist Todd Baker explained. “We could have gotten the record done if we didn’t have day jobs, but once we got everyone in the same location, it was really straightforward and ideas started flowing.” The schedule wasn’t the only hard part in Baker’s eyes, as he expounded upon what most musicians go through with each new release. “Trying to capture that sound and those feelings was just as hard, and that’s what’s most important: capturing that energy and portraying what we do live. We had to find that groove for each song, but you just have to get there with some hard work. No song is the same. One song might take a crazy amount of takes, while the next one only takes one.”
For those who’ve been following the band over the years, it’s easy to understand why Baker says that no Those Manic Seas song is the same. It’s something guitarist Chris Westfall was also eager to talk about. “I know I started out wanting the songs to be straightforward,” he said. “Later on, it became apparent that there’s not a sound we have. I want to develop an identity, but I don’t want to let genres or influences scare me away from trying something new. This led to us having such a large spectrum of songs.”
When prompted more about the songwriting process, Medley hunched forward to detail it. “No song is written the same way as another. It always starts off with someone [having] a well-rounded idea they like. And we’ll go piece by piece from there in a completely different way than we did the last song. I’ve always said, when someone says we sound like this or that band, that’s when I’ll change how we write a song. I want to evolve and change. I don’t ever want to get to a point where someone says, ‘Oh, they sound like The Killers.’ That’s not what I’m aiming for at all.”
As the topic of the record’s theme came up, Baker was quick to chime in. “Change and loss make up the theme, really. So much has been lost and gained.” That somber yet optimistic thought accurately sums up a band who’s gone through a lot of lineup changes in their career so far. While constant lineup changes often mean death for groups (locally or not), Those Manic Seas have turned it around into a grand step forward. In under six months, the band went from searching for a guitarist by offering free beer to having two equally talented guitarists eager to add their own personal style into the mix. “We’ve never been a five piece,” stated Medley, “but we’ve always liked the idea of a five piece, to add that extra bit. We’ll be adding some stuff like synths, but we’re also going to keep it open-ended so we can have some surprises later on.” Guitarist Drew Rollo added that while the expanded lineup is fun, it not as easy as it seems. “We’re still figuring it out. The only thing we know is that we have two lead guitars, not a rhythm and lead. We don’t want to just stack upon each other. It’s not as cut and dried as that, but we definitely want each guitar to be its own identity.”
Unlike other bands, Those Manic Seas are pretty candid about their influences on the record, mostly because no single artist influences their whole sound. “We all listen to different sounds, and none of us really push a band on someone else,” Medley clarified. “We just let our individual influences come through in our playing and see where it takes us.” Those individual influences are astounding: Medley cites Mutemath, Grouplove, and Band Of Horses as inspirations, while Westfall is eager to discuss Gorillaz, Little Dragon, and even local band The Trillions. Rollo gushes over Warpaint and the post-metal scene, and Kilroy finds inspiration in a static frontman, such as James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.
On the other hand, Baker’s influence seems to touch on a much bigger idea. “I’m a huge fan of Broken Social Scene,” he said. “I love how big they sound, and I like to capture that feeling. We have a lot of space in our songs. All of our instruments are very big for that. We get up there and it’s just five parts, but it sounds big. We could be a lot more than a five piece.” That thought really resonated with the rest of the band–even Kilroy silently approved–and it’s definitely true. While the band could have more members, or have a lot more going on in each song, it’s important to keep it stripped down in order to make the spaces in the songs stand out. The musical world would definitely be better off if more bands embraced the “less is more” concept, and Those Manic Seas takes that concept seriously in both songwriting and live performances.
Photo by Brynn Rollo
“We like short sets,” Baker detailed. “We like to leave people wanting more. Less is always more. My favorite compliment is ‘I wish you guys had played more.’ I’d rather that happen than see people start walking out, checking their watch, or pull[ing] out their phones. If I look out and I see someone is on their phone while I’m playing, it lights a fire in me and I play a lot harder.”
The band’s live show is definitely one of the stronger ones in Richmond. It’s not just in the pure spectacle of Kilroy’s stature; it’s in the infectious energy that flows from each member of the band and latches on to the entire audience from the first snare hit. As they discussed the way they approach live shows, the band’s “five dollar” concept quickly became the focus of the conversation. While the concept can be explained as simply as “you could have spent that five dollars on anything,” Daniel Medley went into detail about how it really shapes their live shows.
“There’s so much going on around town, especially on the weekend, and people have a lot of options. So we need to give people as much reason to come to our shows as they can,” he said. “It’s all about value. There’s so many bands that I’ve seen, and while they were good, I could have stayed home and listened to their record and had the same reaction. We want to be more than musicians; we want to be entertainers. I want to create an emotion. [I] want people to experience it, and go home with a story. ‘I went and saw this band with a different type of lead singer. They played some great songs and then they brought a cymbal out into the crowd and I ended up with a drumstick.’ We want our set to be a manic ride, and we want to force the audience to challenge their relationship with the band during live shows.”
The band’s always looking for new ways to improve, whether through vigorous rehearsals or just by finding new ways of getting their name out there. They are quick to extol the virtues of Instagram, and eager to test the waters with SnapChat. Even a forum like Reddit has proven worthwhile, as a post made in the subreddit entitled “We Are The Music Makers” led to fans from different states ordering vinyl records. There are even aspirations of doing a documentary on next year’s tour, perhaps in an episodic fashion.
Photo by Eric Carlson
The group has also tried out guerrilla marketing lately. “We rented a projector and drove around the city projecting this subliminal type video on walls of the city outside of bars,” Baker explained. “People were taking videos and pictures, so it was definitely getting attention. It brought out a lot of people to the next show, and was pretty good for us, even if it made a lot of people mad.” Baker considers the band’s home base in a relatively small city like Richmond an advantage. “Richmond is a great testing ground for new ideas,” he said. “People are still a lot more open to things, even if the scene can be stuck in their ways too much. No BS! [Brass Band] playing in an auto shop recently works. And even My Darling Fury set up in an alleyway on First Fridays for a killer set.”
Despite the band’s remarkable talent, unparalleled creativity, and definite hard work, it seems as if the group is under-appreciated in Richmond’s thriving music scene, oftentimes left as an afterthought when listing some of the top bands in the area. “People like who they like,” said Baker. “But it’s also because we sound so different, and a lot of what we do is different than everyone else.”
Medley wasn’t quite sold on being under-appreciated in the city, but did agree that the band doesn’t really fit into Richmond a lot of times. Giving his view on the Richmond scene, Medley said, “It’s not big enough for how cliquey it can be. A lot of local bands will continue to play with their friends and their friends’ bands, and it’s hard to break into those pockets.” Medley finds the segmentation frustrating, as it can prevent bands from reaching the wider spectrum of the city’s music scene. ”You’re getting all of these good bands that are playing with the same bands over and over, and you end up playing to the same people.”
Those Manic Seas may be excellent musicians, but they didn’t grow out of a pre-existing segment of the local scene, so they’ve had to work especially hard to carve out a niche for themselves. “Our favorite place to play is Balliceaux and it was really hard for us to get into there,” Medley commented, “because the booking agent is picky, for all the right reasons. We mostly got in through a mutual friend so it goes back to the ‘who do you know?’ thought.” The band is not above using what connections they can make, but the connections they really want to make are with new fans. “We’re always looking for the next band to play with, because their fans have probably never seen us, and it’s a good chance to wow a new pocket of people.”
Of course, it’s ultimately going to be hard for a band to not have its detractors with a lead singer such as Kilroy. “The Richmond audience are just fantastic people, but they do tend to be cynical and skeptical at first,” Baker noticed. “People who go to shows are very critical. When we’re setting up and they see our singer is different, we definitely get those looks. They’re thinking too much about it though, because once we get going, everyone seems to really get into it and overcome their doubts–which is something we definitely strive for.”
Richmond is still a very big part of the band. Their fantastic music video for their 2013 breakout single “Headache/Heartache” perfectly captured the house show feel that Richmond is well-known for, and the local music scene definitely drives the band to get better. “I listen to a lot of The Trillions’ stuff to push me as a guitarist,” Westfall adds. “There are just a ton of talented musicians in Richmond, and it forces us to be better, because we want to be taken seriously with our band structure. I know when I see another band doing well, like White Laces, it just really makes me want to find that next level.”
For those who’ve seen the band lately, it’s pretty safe to say they’ve found that next level. Under-appreciated or not, 2015 is shaping up to a big year for Those Manic Seas. With the release of their first album and the promise of their cross-country tour, even a stone-faced figure such as Kilroy will have a hard time hiding his delight.
This article is taken from the Winter 2014/2015 print edition of RVA Magazine, out now! Look for copies available for free at your favorite local Richmond businesses. To read a digital version of the full issue, click here.