Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer and arranger Roger Joseph Manning Jr. will have to add ‘Guru’ to his list of titles. While discussing the release of his latest album, Catnip Dynamite (Oglio), Manning waxes philosophical on the virtues of self-reliance and individuality, themes that have more or less defined his career and have equipped him with a razor-sharp focus in articulating his profound musical message time and again.
He is unyieldingly dedicated to his craft, irrespective of the trends in the music industry, and remains committed to charting his own course – exploring different genres and sub-genres within the realm of pop music, as embodied in such diverse band projects as Jellyfish, Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook, TV Eyes and Malibu. There is a distinctly innovative quality to the multi-layered and melody-rich music for which he is renowned. With Catnip Dynamite, Manning pulls all the stops, showcasing his prolific musical talents to create a thoroughly dynamic collection of songs. The album’s current single, Down In Front, is an infectious fusion of British glam rock and power pop — Alvin Stardust-meets-Cheap Trick — but the sound is quintessentially Manning. Glide recently spoke with the artist to talk about his new record.
I’ve got to ask you about the album title. I know that you and your girlfriend have adopted/rescued several cats. What’s behind this unusual name?
She has all these random toys for the cats and most of them have been destroyed and thrown in the trash, but one that she had bought in the last year was this fuzzy cylindrical stick – it’s basically a fake stick of dynamite, like something you might see from a Road Runner cartoon. But it’s all fuzzy and cuddly and apparently, it’s loaded with catnip. I always thought that combination of words ‘Catnip Dynamite’ was so funny. I didn’t want to name the album after one of the songs. I didn’t think any of the songs had a good punch or were sort of like an attention grabber. And a lot of the aesthetics on the record is kind of 70’s, kind of heralding British glitter rock and I thought ‘Catnip Dynamite’, just the words, fell into that vibe, that genre, really well. It just worked.
You’ve mentioned in your website that many of the songs on Catnip Dynamite date back to over twenty years ago. What was the impetus for you to “resurrect” these songs in particular?
Frankly, they wouldn’t leave me alone and what I decided was that, certain ones, usually the ones that were the catchiest, you know, I felt were my best achievement. They would pop up in my head in the middle of the night, or they’d pop up in my mind when I was driving the car or sitting in traffic. About six years ago, I found myself with some time in between projects where I wanted to practice working on the computer and doing home recording and these were the perfect vehicles to experiment on and the more I got into it, the more the song begged to be finished. And the more I finished each song, more songs wanted to be completed. I started remembering all of these old ideas. Basically, the idea of assembling enough of these songs to give out to friends and family seemed wonderful. By the time I had eight tracks, I thought ‘I should just try to do a record! It’s almost done here. I’ve got 80 percent of it.’ So, I just kept going on between the tracks. That’s why for the first album [The Land of Pure Imagination], I worked on it on and off for four years and, you know, from that time all the way back to my college days when I first started trying to write songs seriously, which had been about fifteen years at that point, there was a ton of material. And for all of the projects I was in, like Imperial Drag and all of those other bands, you know, there were a bunch of song ideas sitting around that I loved that I never brought to the table for a variety of reasons, or when I did, my partners didn’t feel, for one reason or another, like pursuing them with me. So we’d move on to the next idea that we both agreed on. [These ideas] just accumulated over time.
The album is very polished and the songs flow seamlessly. There is an equal balance between lyrics and music; one isn’t compromised for the sake of the other. Do you have a songwriting process that you employ?
Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up. Let me start by saying, that I have been very lucky to work with incredible lyricists over the years and I let them take care of that because not only were they going to be singing the song for the most part, but because I hate the process of writing lyrics…it is so challenging, it is so time-consuming and it is just so difficult for me.
Now, that is hard to believe!
Well, here’s what’s even funnier — I don’t particularly care for my lyrics. Now, let me qualify that. When I finish a lyric and when I see it going somewhere and heading in a direction that I believe in, I am very happy about it. I’m like, ‘Oh this is great! I really believe in this. I really stand by it.’ But even when it’s finished and I look at it and I’m proud of it, I kind of go ‘big deal – I like what I did with the music more’. The music always fulfills me. If there were somebody else I could call to write the lyrics and I knew they’d be good, I would totally have that person do it because it’s so arduous a process for me. I was telling someone the other day that I’ve written and very often will write a solid song idea – verse, bridge, chorus – no lyric, of course –in anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. That’s really all it takes. And some of my best ideas I’ve written that fast. The lyric can take me as much as a week! Of eight hours a day, sitting down in front of blank sheets of paper with a pencil – and this isn’t necessarily odd…there are many lyricists who take this much time…and some lyricists only take five minutes.
The lyrics for songs like " The Quickening" [off of the new album Catnip Dynamite], that took four or five days of working all day long, going “This is just hell! This is never going to come together!’ Just getting stuck and then not knowing what to do for four hours – and I had to do that for the twelve songs on the album [laughs]. So, that’s my deal with lyrics. Very often when I write a song, I will sing gibberish and the melody will sit on that gibberish. So, I believe in the melody…a lot! I won’t stop until I believe in the melody and the chords. And then, I’ll put something down on a cassette deck and I may not come back to it for a while. You know, the song "The Quickening" was almost totally written in 1995…that’s how old that song is. The song "Too Late for Us Now" [from the album The Land of Pure Imagination] I wrote that entire song as well as "Haunted Henry" [from Catnip Dynamite] my junior year of college in 1986! That’s how old those [songs] are. All the music that you hear, aside from the physical recording of it, all the chords and melody, I pretty much didn’t change them, they’re as they were from when I was a college student in 1986. The lyric, I didn’t write until 2007! That’s 21 years! [laughs] But the idea stayed fresh in my mind and it stayed vital. And as I was working on it, I would literally flash on college experiences and I would totally be back in my dorm room with my friends, remembering when I came up with those chords and melody, hoping someday that I would still be as excited about the songs and people would get to hear them.
Needless to say, the lyrics are just as intricate as the music to which they’re sung. It is interesting to note, however, that your current album is darker (although it certainly has it’s lighter moments) in subject matter. You deal with topics ranging from the apocalypse (albeit cheerfully) in the song "Living in End Times" to the horrors of war, hauntingly depicted in "Survival Machine." Could you talk a bit more about the latter?
I prefer a writing style, lyrically, that’s fairly open-ended that the listener can read into it what they want. Obviously there’s a loose theme, story or message being put forth but lots of the words, lots of the phrases can have two or three meanings. Where I was coming from with the song ‘Survival Machine’ was from the perspective of a lot of the people who were involved in designing the weaponry, specifically the first nuclear and atomic bomb. And then, all the different outside pressures and coercion as well as their own personal beliefs that got them to harness their brilliant minds for basically creating killing machines. The whole end of the song is about one of those scientists trying to reconcile in his dreams what he felt almost forced to do in his real life and work through the horror of it all, knowing that he had a hand in the deaths of so many people. I can only imagine what that must have felt like for those men and women. Whether you’re behind a desk pushing papers, or you’re out on the battlefield shooting at somebody, you have a hand in killing your fellow man. And never having been put in that situation myself, thankfully, I was trying to fathom what a psyche must go through for that. But, [the song] generally deals with the whole war machine, not just specifically WWII, but the different power circles that manipulate and propagandize and get essentially loving, spiritual people, which is what we are at our core, to deny our humanism and to get so in the head and removed from the heart that we can basically be manipulated to do any kind of horrific deed. As long as detachment is achieved, we can surprise the hell out of even ourselves.
The album’s opening track, "The Quickening" is also lyrically impressive – could you tell us the inspiration behind that song?
With the song "The Quickening," I actually borrowed the term from a writer who coined it. Basically, whether you’re referring to how time appears to speed up as we get into our adult years, or, more globally, there are those that argue that as a whole world populace, we are watching time speed up cosmically — within the cosmos, our solar systems etc. – that’s a twenty book discussion in and of itself. But, I was so fascinated by the term and my girlfriend Charlotte and I constantly joke, especially after being together for 17 years, that time is totally speeding up. The last ten years of our relationship has gone four or five times as fast as the first seven years – we don’t know why, we don’t have the time to analyze the reasons and pontificate such trivialities but when I heard the term ‘the quickening’ I said ‘that’s what we’re always talking about’ so I decided to use that as the thematic point of that lyric.
Do you see Catnip Dynamite as a continuation of your solo debut, The Land of Pure Imagination? You’ve explained that the songs comprising both your previous record and Catnip Dynamite are basically culled from the same vault, so to speak, but there appears to be a theme that threads the two albums – was this intentional?
I could see how somebody could come to that conclusion. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened that way and ended up being an interesting coincidence. Since writing the lyrics of the first record and the current one, I’ve been exploring other avenues of thought, initially as a hobby and then I began to make some really deep, intense, spiritual searching and investigation. This is the beginning of the second half of my life so to speak, if I’m meant to exist in this body for another 40 years as I have up to this point. So, in a way, there are the beginnings — the rumblings and the narratives of thoughts going through somebody having a typical mid-life crisis. And I wouldn’t even call it a crisis; it’s just a changing-over, a re-evaluation, and a reassessment. But, yes, the two albums are essentially parts 1 and 2. Any of those songs could have been mixed or matched, they just happened to be the ones that I grabbed in no particular order that I decided to record next. As far as the timeline, again, some of the songs would have been three or four years old and others are 13 or 14 years old [laughs], and on and on. So, there’s no deliberate [organization] to the songs. You’re basically getting my straightforward pop sound and obviously, I like to genre-hop for different styles, different feels and grooves. If I actually make it to a record three or four with the pop songs, they probably won’t be too far removed from The Land of Pure Imagination and Catnip.
So, we shouldn’t expect a hip-hop album from you…
[Laughs] No. Although, I’d love to have the time to do one.
Well, that’s not exactly unfamiliar territory for you. You’ve released an electronica album in 2008 entitled Robo-Sapiens using your Beck-given nickname, Malibu. You’ve worked with not only hip-hop influenced artists such as Beck for a number of years as part of his band, but with Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, to name a few. You’ve done a lot of remixes for several artists. Do you see yourself revisiting either of those genres [electronica, hip-hop] in the future?
Again, if I had the time, you’d see me do it a lot more. I enjoy exploring those genres of electronic and groove-oriented stuff… everything from adventurous hip-hop and acid jazz all the way to full-on techno. But there’s just not enough time. So, if I have limited time I’m going to stay in the pop realm. That’s what just flies out of me the easiest. It’s the most related to my essence, I guess.
Many people recognize you for your keyboard wizardry. You’ve got a prolific collection of vintage and modern synthesizers in your home studio. What do you look for in a synthesizer? What is your signature synth?
It’d be hard to narrow it down to just one keyboard. Let’s see…. Well, I can say one of my favorite keyboards that I’ve used for a very long time because it’s so expressive –it’s called a clavinet. It’s basically an electric harpsichord. The person who designed it wanted to make an electric harpsichord but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really sound like a harpsichord. It sounds more like a guitar that is not picked but hammered. For instance, when guitar players take their fingers and press onto the fret board as opposed to picking the strings. It sounds like that. Like a giant fret board that you’re hammering and the hammers are the keys and you can get very, very percussive with that instrument; it was very natural for the funk and dance community to enjoy this percussiveness.
People like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder are among the foremost clavinet players. But I like using the clavinet not only that way – it’s very natural for me, I love playing very percussive and rhythmic pieces on that instrument – but I also use it as a fake guitar. You can play it lightly and get “arpeggiated” guitar textures or you can put it through amplifiers and make it all distorted to get a very dense, very heavy sound. You can make it very light and put lots of lush effects on it to make it dreamy. But at the end of the day – you know, I started out as a drummer – that rhythmic part of me gets to pound down on the keys! It’s such an incredibly expressive keyboard! It’s one of my favorites! I would sell all kinds of gear before I’d get rid of the clavinet.
As an independent artist, what were the greatest challenges in getting your music made and how were you able to defy those challenges with your current album?
The greatest challenge to getting the music made was just me. Making the time, cutting enough time into a schedule, to allow for these long hours that are needed when you make records like mine, with this kind of production level which is very…I don’t have to tell you, you don’t have to be a musician or an engineer…my music is very thick with instrumentation, with ‘ear candy’ and that ear candy is time consuming, at least when I do it. So, the biggest challenge then is if you find the time, then have the energy, effort, and desire to get in there day after day with the long hours to do it. I mean it’s still a chore. I love having a great album I can hold in my hand and go ‘Wow! I did this! And people are enjoying it and it makes me happy and proud and I get to share!’ Well, you’ve still got to go in and put in the effort. And that’s the biggest challenge, hands down. It’s not the record making community; the different tides of that are going to be what they’re going to be. I’ve really left that in the hands of the record companies and the people who put my stuff out. I can have opinions of the business side of it – it just starts getting overwhelming and depressing because the whole monetization of music is a troubling notion anyway. It should all be free; it should all be exchanged. Ideally, we should all be on a barter system. “Here’s my music if it’ll make you happy — Oh, you know how to work on car engines? Hey, come and look at my spark plugs and tell me what I need to do and we won’t charge eachother’.
In this age of ‘bling’ and obscene displays of wealth and materialism, you’ve just presented an unusually austere approach to making a living off of your music.
You’re absolutely right – there’s a lot of disgusting materialism out here [Los Angeles] –people worshipping at the altar of capitalism. But it’s like going to Vegas. You can have fun in Vegas if you understand what you’re in for. You cannot take so much of the materialism and the worship of money and the lack of substance and content of that city, that that community provides. You can actually go and have fun and laugh at it and still enjoy the wonderful parts of it. But if you don’t go to Las Vegas with the right attitude, and I’ve been there before in this way, it will depress the hell out of you and I will start a downward spiral into disgust for mankind, specifically Americans and the pit of hell we’ve created for ourselves. I heard someone say the other day, ‘There’s only one country that can bring America down — it’s not China, it’s not Russia — it’s America.’ And that just clobbered me because it’s so obvious and so true. It’s like anything else whether on a macro or micro level, there are so many things that make this country great and so many things that we believe in and that we’ve stuck with, so many things that we’ve persevered through and we’ve come close to our heart’s intellect. But there is always the danger of going overboard and being out of balance — and specifically, falling prey to vapid materialism.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve been exploring different schools of thought and have been reading a lot of books on spirituality.
Not as many as I’d like to have the time for but certainly, especially in the last three to four years, I’ve been studying it pretty hardcore. Just as 10, 12, 13 years ago I was really starting to get heavily into exploring health and diet and balance of the physical, now I’m exploring balance in the emotional and spiritual as it pertains to having this human existence. The more I dig, the more fascinating it becomes the more I want to understand myself, know about myself — and it feeds itself. Like I said, the more you learn the more you want to grow and experience and you realize, well, personally speaking, what a minimal and fractional and compartmentalized life I have been living up to this point thinking I was living a full life, believing that this was what life had to offer. Because all of the adults and well-meaning authority figures around me, that’s what they were doing. So that’s what life is. But what I keep finding out is I’ve only scratched the surface of human potential for myself. I’ve scratched the surface as far as the depths and heights of love, the depths and heights of….everything! I discovered that with diet too [Roger adheres to a fruit-based raw food diet].
What we all think we are condemned to and destined to and doomed to in this body, You know, ‘we turn a certain age and it’s time for our hair to go grey’ ‘we turn a certain age and it’s time for our liver to fall out and our kidneys to harden’. The only reason we don’t ever question that is because we see it happening to all of the adults ahead of us. So, you start to believe it’s your fate, your destiny. And it’s anything but! There’s so much infinite potential, and I know it sounds so cliché and new-age corny, but it’s not just a bumper sticker. I’ve really started to taste that and it’s both challenging and can be scary and overwhelming to realize that in many, many ways I, personally, and a lot of the people I see around me are literally living some kind of lie. It’s a façade. And it’s only because we don’t know any better. If we were more informed, more educated, more in touch with our essence…oh my God! So many things would be different for not only the individual’s life but the community, for Americans, for Westerners, for all the supposed segregations of men/women, of black/white, young and old, it would just all go out the window.
When did you come to this realization?
This is what’s interesting — ever since, I would say, somewhere around junior high
Well, no, not to this degree. But what I started realizing was, ‘I’m having a harder and harder time going along with the crowd because more and more of what they’re doing is no longer feeling fun and exciting and comfortable, it’s feeling adverse. And at first, it was very simple and little things that bothered me. And because they were simple and little, I just blew them off because I wanted to belong like everybody else so I continued to go along with the crowd without much friction. But this feeling never went away and it got magnified in high school it got magnified even more in college. But in college, see, you were then able to find your ‘weirdo’ click or your ‘off-the-beaten-path’ click or your ‘we’re not the popular kids’ group to hang out with. You still had a support structure. But what happens there is you still have another group of like-minded people who also aren’t really thinking for themselves. Although they’re not following what the popular kids are doing or what the God-fearing Christian Republicans are doing, they’re still following another kind of dogma, a belief system that they’ve all silently agreed upon. They’re either mostly on the same political page or they’re mostly on the same atheistic page but it’s just another environment that prevents you from going within and discovering what you’re really all about and cherishing your own individuality.
I’m not saying this isn’t a potentially lonely journey, I’m just saying that if one can discover the joy of standing alone in love of self, and cherishing the very, very ultra unique expression of god-spark — of divine-spark that each of us are, and understanding that none of us are superior or inferior to one another. But, we are all super unique expressions of this god-source that through each of us, through each of our actions is having a different experience. And this is where the notion of ‘we’re all one’ comes into play because, whether I’m talking about President Obama, or I’m talking about my brother Christopher or I’m talking about my former collaborator Andy Sturmer – none of us are better or lesser than the other, none of us have more worth than the other. We are all here expressing in a super unique way our own divinity. We’re all experiencing life in a very different way. The way that you see the world is built entirely upon your circumstances. The lenses through which you view the world, the stories you concoct to provide context, comes mostly from your childhood and the well-meaning, loving adults that you were brought into the world with, whether it was your parents, your grandparents — that whole network — and then you set forth and you experience the world in a certain way. Those influences shape our perceptions, for better or for worse.
For example, the warnings we receive pretty much throughout our lives that ‘the world is a scary place and at any moment, you’ve got to be on your best guard because anything can happen and you’ve got to be ready for it’ — that’s how 99% of us are raised, including myself and this is what can be over-simplified as a fear-based mentality, a fear of scarcity in particular, where you’re always on the defensive and always looking out for number one. This is the very mind-set that instills separation –the illusion that we’re all separate that somehow we don’t all want the same essentials out of life that we don’t all come from a place of love. This isn’t entirely new information but the whole point of some of the things I’ve been exploring, both musically and intellectually, is to challenge and to question all of these deeply rooted stories that you’re not given a choice in. The trick is having the courage, the awareness of what’s really going on and then putting forth the energy — making the effort — to see the inherent foolishness of some of these belief systems.