Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. Talks New Projects, Jellyfish, Working with Beck, and More
Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. is an artist who in fact needs no introduction, but we'll give him one anyway: If you've been listening to popular music for the last 25 years, it's much more likely than not that you've heard Roger's playing, singing, compositions, and arrangements. His formidable résumé of solo and collaborative work is impressive not only for its sheer depth, but also for its quality, boasting an array of eclectic names including Beck, Air, Ringo Starr, TV Eyes, The Moog Cookbook, and - of course - Jellyfish. Roger was kind enough to speak at length about some of his classic recordings, work methods, influences, and future projects.
Bobby Weirdo: You’ve said in the past that you’re working on a new, crowd-funded solo album. Is that still moving along?
Roger Joseph Manning, Jr: It’s definitely moving along. Unfortunately, I can only work on it in between all my paying gigs. It’s a snail’s pace, but I’m now about three-quarters finished, and I’m very excited about it. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can’t tell you when it will officially be finished. At that point, I’ll begin the crowd-funded campaign.
BW: Does it have a title yet?
RJM: No [laughs]. That will probably come from lyrics and so forth. I’m not in that art direction/promotional mode yet. I’m in the music-only content mode. Once it’s in the can, I’ll get to have fun and get creative with the presentation of the record.
BW: Is it going to be along the lines of Catnip and Solid State Warrior, or is it going to be different territory?
RJM: I would say it’s the same territory in that it has lots of different pop styles that I enjoy exploring, but it has its roots in 60s and 70s classicism as far as pop songwriting goes.
BW: Speaking of classicism, a lot of people have asked you about gear, but are there any actual piano players and keyboardists that have been a big influence on you?
RJM: There are a lot of obscure jazz guys. When I think of pop and rock piano players, Thomas Dolby for sure. Rod Argent is a wonderful keyboard player and has his own style. As far as rock guys -- Billy Preston and John Paul Jones.
BW: You touched on jazz players. Anyone in particular?
RJM: There are lots! I’ve enjoyed James Williams, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Richie Beirach, Bill Evans, Lyle Mays.
BW: As long as we’re in the realm of jazz, did you grow up playing with jazz bassist Larry Grenadier?
RJM: No, I wish I had. He was a friend. He was a few years younger than me and my friends. A saxophone buddy of mine in high school had befriended him. Larry lived way across the Bay Area – he was about 45 minutes away from me and any of my musical friends. We went and saw him play a couple times. Larry was a jazz protégé and was so good that he was already playing well above people our age. He was playing hardcore jazz even then.
BW: When you’re composing, are you sitting at a keyboard, a different instrument, or with studio gear? Is there a process?
RJM: Well, I used to just sit at the piano, which seems natural and obvious. What I discovered, though, was that I was proud of what I was writing, but they were all slow tempo ballads and medium-tempo songs. I realized that was because you don’t have to be as physical with the piano. There’s not as much movement required as when you’re standing playing guitar, playing drums, or even just walking around.
You can go on a walk and hum a melody to yourself, and a lot of that melody has to do with the pace of your walk. So I tried to write as an exercise even on the days I didn’t feel like writing, and those were the days I would often get the most interesting ideas. Most of my interesting ideas have come from not even having an instrument in front of me. They come from me walking around, trying to imagine what kind of song I would love to write, but haven’t written yet. Or listening to an artist who inspires me and getting in that head space.
It was like that for TV Eyes , the project I did with Jason [Falkner] and Brian [Reitzell]. A lot of the contributions I brought to those writing sessions were done in a hotel room in Japan. I was on tour with Beck, and though I love Japan, I was bored out of my mind. I had already walked around, seeing all the sites, and there was lots of time in between shows. I decided to stay in the hotel room and come up with ideas, and I would just imagine the songs, feels, tempos, and attitudes I wanted to create and bring to the guys in the writing sessions when I got back from Japan. I had a little toy keyboard to use for pitches, but I wouldn’t use it as a writing tool. I would lie down, jump around, or dance around the room. Fortunately, nobody could see me acting like a complete lunatic. I wanted something very physical.
So I’d say of all the songs I’ve presented to the world over the years, over half of them were written away from the piano, with a guitar strapped on, or simply just walking around or dancing around while imagining the pitch. I hum melodies to myself, and I’ve been doing this long enough that I can kind of hear the chords that would go under the imagined melody. Then after I have the general concept in my head, I’ll run over to the keyboard and fill in the blanks with the chords. Lyrics come way after I’ve already finished the song structure.
BW: I’ve spoken with Jason about your TV Eyes days, and he said that you guys both had collections of public access and other odd video tapes, and that you even projected some of those at the TV Eyes shows. On your Malibu album or TV Eyes album, is the visual component part of your composing process? I get a sense on songs like “German Oil” that there’s a sort of French, cinematic vibe.
RJM: You’re absolutely right. I think some of the songwriting moments I’m most proud of are evocative, and put the listener in a head space visually and emotionally right away. The Malibu record is deliberately highly sexualized in that 70s/80s German disco kind of way. It’s very much inspired by nostalgia for Giorgio Moroder and 90s French electronic and dance music. In the days before Youtube, you were fortunate if you could get turned on to international music like that – both past and present. I discovered the worlds of Serge Gainsbourg and a lot of classic 60s and 70s French pop – France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Polnareff…the list goes on and on. I have the French band Air to thank for introducing me to some of the more obscure stuff, and a lot of it was just word of mouth from friends, hanging out with the guys in Beck’s band, and Brian Kehew - my partner in The Moog Cookbook.
A lot of what I was exposed to came from Brian’s swapping rare video with people around the world. It was a very long process, and you had to trust these strangers you were swapping tapes with, but in doing so you [would come across] not only amazing musical footage, but also pop culture footage from international TV shows you would have never seen here in America. I was absolutely inspired by that stuff musically.
A piece of music should put the listener in an emotional head space, whether it makes you want to dance, is sexualized, comes from a place of aggression or melancholy, or joy. Some songwriters are quick at conveying that, and I love when it happens in a three-minute pop tune. But I also love what happens when you listen to a fifteen-minute progressive rock song by bands like Genesis, Yes, and early Todd Rundgren. Those artists absolutely transported me within seconds to their environment and world. And I was always fascinated by the fact that progressive rock bands like these, or a punk band like the Damned, or Thomas Dolby or the Smiths, had rhythm sections: drums, bass, guitar, a singer, maybe a keyboard player, and maybe a second guitar player. Four to five main instruments. That process fascinated the hell out of me, and still fascinates me.
I love taking that instrumentation and transporting the listener, as opposed to doing it the way a film score would do it. Its job is to do put the listener in an environment, usually with an orchestra, exotic instruments, and lots and lots of human beings. Rock and pop can do that with just a handful of human beings and very little instrumentation, so I continue to try to bring that to my solo work, collaborations with friends, and even when I’m hired to do an assignment and fulfill someone else’s vision. That’s the real joy for me in this process.
BW: With high-profile projects like Air or Beck, has your involvement been collaborative, or have they been situations where you knew you were being hired to perform something specific?
RJM: Both artists – and Beck particularly – are artists I’ve worked with a lot, and I continue to work with Beck. Both are prolific songwriters, so when they invited me into the picture, the song ideas were fleshed out already. On certain things that I worked on with Beck, he already knew what he wanted for the instrumentation and what he wanted the keyboard environment to be about. Then on other stuff, like a lot of the Morning Phase album, he pretty much had guitar and vocal songs, so the other musicians and I really fleshed out what the instrumentation, parts, and colors would be like. Of course he always has final say, but he wanted that music to be more open-ended and interpreted by his friends. But none of us is in a place with either artist where we’re contributing songwriting.
Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend album was little more open-ended. They had loose chord progressions and melodies, but they also welcomed our input regarding sound design and parts, and that was a lot of fun. I wish I could have made more records with them, but it was a bit challenging to do that with them being all the way over in France.
BW: This is kind of obscure, but did anyone in Jellyfish play Nintendo? You and I are talking about connecting music to influences outside of music, and the Jellyfish song “Ignorance is Bliss” is pretty epic. I’m thinking the timeline on this was around Spilt Milk since there’s a banjo and harmonica on the track, but I’m not sure. How did it come about? It’s actually the only song on the album that directly addresses Nintendo.
RJM: You’re absolutely right. It came to us right as we started demoing for Spilt Milk. So after we finished touring Bellybutton, there was about a five, six month window when we started writing and doing the demos for the next record that you probably heard when they were released. We tried to write a song for Robert Zander at that time, we wrote some songs with a singer named Danielle Brisebois, and we were auditioning guitarists and bassists, because Jason and my brother [Chris Manning] had left the band.
We got offered to contribute to White Knuckle Scorin’, which was meant to be centered around the characters in the video games. While we were the age of first–generation video gamers, that wasn’t much of an interest to me or any of my friends. We were aware of it because it was such a cultural phenomenon when those first-wave arcade games like PAC-MAN, Missile Command, and Centipede hit. We thought it was really cool that pinball games had come such a long way, but we were into music. But Andy took it upon himself to make sure the lyric was relevant. He loved the challenge of creating a lyric that expanded upon the story line and characters of that Nintendo album.
BW: Speaking of those demos, you did an amazing job of channeling Ringo Starr on the “I Need Love” demo.
RJM: Thanks! [laughs]
BW: It’s remarkable, and I wanted to ask if imagining someone else singing one of your songs, or creating a backstory to them, is a technique you’ve used elsewhere for composing, or was that a one-off?
RJM: It does help me –especially if I get inspired by another artist’s music, or a particular feel, like a shuffle or something. It’s very natural for me to get into character and get out of myself. I don’t think, “I’m going to be Elton John for the next hour,” or “I’m going to be David Cassidy for the next hour,” but I think what happens is that if I start messing with chord progressions or melodic shapes, I might unconsciously go into some style of singing and do these imitations.
Now, sometimes they’re overt. It helped me to impersonate Ringo when I was coming up with song ideas to collaborate with Andy on. That was easy and fun for me to do, and frankly I think it helped me get into an area that maybe Ringo would be more interested in than not. Andy certainly had me do some impersonations and characters for some of the lyrics he wrote on Bellybutton and Spilt Milk. So, it’s something I’ve always naturally done, and I have to be careful because I have no interest in doing impersonations of everybody when I’m doing a solo record. Ideally, my unique version of this comes out the other end, and everybody who has inspired me comes through one filter when I sing my songs. I’ll make references and borrow arrangement ideas from classic records of the past we all know and love, but ideally I’ll always put my twist and take on it, and I think that’s what Jellyfish did.
BW: Your dad was a Catholic deacon, and you grew up Catholic. Is it true you played for a time in a Christian rock group at your church, and did you bring any of that background into your adult musical life?
RJM: It’s funny – I was just talking to someone about this the other day. I absolutely was raised in the Catholic Church, and though I took it for granted at the time, my church had an amazing group that would play most Sundays and sing us through the church hymnals. They were fairly young -- made up of college students, and I think the oldest guy was maybe in his late thirties. It was three or four guys and a woman, and they were always singing lead vocals together. They would share lead vocals or harmonize together, and I just thought this was how every band was. Like the Beatles, I thought everybody sang all the time, as opposed to there being a Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant frontman. I loved watching them harmonize, and they had an incredible blend, because you can have three great singers, and it doesn’t mean their voices are going to blend and sound good together.
Now, to set the record straight, I never desired to play with them, nor was I ever in a Christian rock group of my own. By the time I was proficient on my instrument I was going my separate ways from the Church, so that was the last thing that was going to happen [laughs]. But one of the younger college students in that group, who may even have been talked about in the Jellyfish biography that just came out, was named Pat Hagerty, and he would invite me to come in after school. He would sometimes go into the church and practice by himself, because you could sing through the big PA. He invited me to come hang out with no agenda – just jam with him. I think, unbeknownst to me, my mom might have encouraged him to do that. He was really patient, and we would play through Elton John or Doobie Brothers pop songs. That was the first time I was able to hear what my voice sounded like loud through a microphone, and it was really exciting and intimidating. I didn’t know what to do with that power, and it scared the hell out of me. But he was very encouraging.
I don’t know what we didn’t do it more – I remember we did it a few times one year, and then that was it. I was probably too scared, because I was overwhelmed by the whole process, and I certainly wasn’t writing my own songs. I was playing other people’s songs, and I thought that’s what you did. It never occurred to me to write something, because that’s what adults did. That’s what people who had spent years and years playing music did. I had this weird belief that you were only able to write songs if you had studied piano, guitar, or singing for twenty years. I didn’t understand that some of my favorite musicians and pop stars in history were virtually untrained and self-taught, and had barely been playing an instrument when they decided to form a band with their friends, and a few years later were on the radio. So I shied away from creating my own music for years, and that continued when I started playing jazz, fusion, and more advanced styles of music. I thought it was all about studying your instrument, which I enjoyed, but it had nothing to do with songwriting, because I was playing other people’s songs.
BW: Can you clear up once and for all that the photo people are persistently thinking is of Wendy Carlos is in fact of you? I think you’re hanging over a Moog.
RJM: Yeah, a friend started that as a joke! The picture is very soft focus, and was taken during the video shoot of “Boy or a Girl” for Imperial Drag. My hair is long and I’ve got a woman’s shirt on, so it’s fairly effeminate. But anybody who knows their Moog history at all should know [it’s me]. There are plenty of pictures out there of Wendy Carlos, and we don’t look a thing alike. It was really funny when someone posted that, though how it’s been circulated as Wendy Carlos is beyond me [laughs].
BW: While we're on photographic history, I know it was mentioned in the Jellyfish biography that you brought gear into the studio for the iconic Spilt Milk liner notes photo. I’ve always been curious, though, if what is portrayed in the picture – the play equipment, unusual instruments, and bed - had anything to do with the actual studio environment during the recording of that album. Was that the vibe, and were those things in the studio anyway?
RJM: No. That’s a very large room at what was Ocean Way's studio where you would record orchestras and things like that. Our engineer-producer Jack [Joseph Puig] enjoyed the mixing board in there, so we were doing a lot of overdubs and preliminary mixing in that room. We were very much inspired by the inside of Queen’s Jazz album where they did that – they took a photo inside the Montreux studio. We wanted to take a picture like that, but make it more colorful, psychedelic and surreal.
The stuff that actually made it into that picture is only a fraction of what we wanted. We wanted it even more trippy and surreal, the way a lot of the Bellybutton art is, with fake trees and a lot of Hollywood props. We got some of that happening, but nowhere near what we wanted. And then we just started throwing whatever vintage equipment in there that we could get our hands on. We owned almost none of it. It was rentals from friends, and I’d started collecting keyboards at the time, but anything that’s juicy in there is probably not mine. A lot of it was used on the record, and we just tried to have as much fun with it as possible.
And all of that stuff cost us. To rent any of that for a day – even a bed or a plexiglas piano that requires movers – adds up really fast. We started spending our art budget as fast as we could.
BW: And working with the budget while still creating the product you wanted was, from what I understand, always something that plagued Jellyfish, right?
RJM: It plagued every band. What plagued any band even more was then making the money back. Jellyfish was always in the red because like a lot of bands, we took what we could get to make our art, and then worried about paying it back later. Well, back when people actually still purchased product and record companies and artists made money, you had to pay your debt back to the record company first, and then once you passed that and broke even, you started being able to pocket everything.
So back then, all the bands that were getting signed – Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, The Black Crowes – had to go gold to make money. Gold was 500,000 copies which was a shit ton of units. But bands were doing that if they got airplay and decent MTV exposure. They could clear 500,000 units within six to nine months with a minor hit. So, for example, I don’t know if Radiohead cleared gold on their first album, but they certainly did by their second album. You could just keep building on that, but Jellyfish never did.
We sold decently, had OK radio airplay, and great MTV airplay, but it didn’t connect with a large enough audience. It connected with a small or medium audience, and that was great. Fans like yourself and around the world have supported to this day, but it’s never been a moneymaking endeavor. I’ve made money as a freelance musician, mostly playing on other people’s records and doing arranging, which I’m very thankful for. But when it comes to Imperial Drag, TV Eyes, and Jellyfish, we didn’t make money.
There was some publishing money that came in, because back then you could sign a publishing deal and get a fairly large advance. For example, Andy and I fortunately didn’t have to have a day job after Bellybutton, because the publishing deal gave us living expense money. That freed us up to spend our time creating Spilt Milk. That’s one of the reasons Spilt Milk is such a bigger, more expansive enterprise. We had the freedom to stay at Andy’s place, experiment, and really try to realize our dreams. And you can hear it on those demos. It took us five months to demo that record, and we weren’t even finished. Songs like “Brighter Day” didn’t have a demo – we just had a loose idea. I remember Andy still finishing the lyric for "Brighter Day" as we were driving to the recording studio to sing it.
But I’m very thankful that we got signed and got to record at a time when there were much more generous budgets to record with. A band like Jellyfish wouldn’t get signed now, if not [already] financially lucrative. Nobody would take that risk, but even if they did, no one’s got large enough funds to make the kind of record you hear with Spilt Milk. We’d have to do it with samples, and we’d figure out ways to do it, but it wouldn’t be the record you know.
BW: What’s in store in for Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. in 2017, ’18, and beyond?
RJM: I continue to play and arrange for people’s records, which is always fun. I just played keyboards on the new Killers record, and I’m collaborating with Brian Reitzell on pop pieces for the TV show he’s working on called American Gods. The director wants to use guest vocalists, so I’ll leave that as a surprise for the viewers. Beck will be touring in July and his new album will be coming out this summer most likely. There will probably be five solid months touring with him between 2017 and 2018, which I love. Jason and I will be involved in that, which will be great. I’ll be continuing to work on solo album #4, and I’ve even been in conversation with Tim Smith and Eric Dover about a side project, but that’s just in the conceptual stage. The next thing will definitely be the solo record though.
BW: This has been great, Roger. Thanks so much. I could talk with you for days, so hopefully down the line we can connect for part two.
RJM: I would love that.