Artist Interview: ManDancing
Posted: by The Editor
The Good Sweat feels at once like both a natural next step for ManDancing and a total reinvention. It retains the melody, warmth, and intimacy of Everyone Else while supersizing everything; the dynamic contrast of a song like “broken” from that record informs all of The Good Sweat, and the result was one of last year’s best albums. The album blew me away even as a fan of their previous work – so much so that I had to reach out to the band months later to talk about it. I had the chance to sit down with vocalist/guitarist Stephen Kelly, guitarist Ben Petty, and drummer Thomas DeVinko to discuss some of the unexpected influences on the record, what the future might hold for ManDancing, and Jersey’s best donuts.
How different was it writing The Good Sweat compared to your previous record and EP?
Stephen: If there’s any line from the first record I think it’s the songs I present. I think they tend to have a certain vibe or feel to them. Aside from that it feels like we were trying to do things that were different from what we’d done before, primarily.
Ben: We all kinda individually found a direction of where we wanted to go creatively from our own influences – cause we’re all influenced by entirely different things. That allows us to make the most of where we were and let that come together. It made something cool that I don’t think we would’ve done had we not been so open to each others’ influences.
This was more collaborative than the first record, right?
Stephen: This was much more of an intentionally collaborative effort. On the first record the songs would be the skeletons I would give to the band, and they’d play around them, so to speak, even the EP. On this one, we all came to it with an equal say.
So did you all have a consistent vision for the record before you sat down to write it, or did it come together while you were writing?
Ben: Yeah, we had no choice but to let it come together organically. We can owe a lot of that to the collaborative nature of the process. When you have a band that starts as a singer-songwriter project but slowly evolves into more of a band effort a lot of changes happen and we had to let them happen and not force it.
You said everyone has different influences. Where do you each pull from when you’re writing?
Stephen: I go through periods when I’ll be enamored with a specific artist for some time. One of those was Mike Posner, who I didn’t anticipate putting out a cool record. During a lot of writing, at least the second half of this record, a lot of Mike Posner jumped out to me. But there’s always bands like mewithoutYou, even this band Listener I love. There’s certain influences that stay with me. It’s not that I had specific influences that lend themselves to a specific style of writing, but I certainly was inspired by artists that I didn’t expect.
Tom: I think making this record, which took us quite some time, was really great for all of us. It’s not necessarily doing what those artists who inspire you do but it’s doing those artists justice. I guess for me, it’s coming from The Mars Volta, Zach Hill, Hella, math rock type stuff, blending that with my love of really out of the box contemporary jazz. Like, “how do I blend those and still support a great song in a more typical song format?”
Ben: Letting you guys answer gave me a minute to help me think of how to answer as concisely as I can. A lot of stoner rock and stoner metal, a lot of post-rock, and honestly a lot of new age and world music. Not that you can hear that necessarily in what I play in ManDancing, but that’s where I’m coming from.
Tom: I think you can see it a bunch. I try to go for world music too. Afrobeat is kinda in “The Good Sweat” a little bit, and even Cuban rhythms in the way you play your guitar. It’s very two-beat rhythmic stuff, and we kinda line up on that.
Ben: That’s true.
I did an interview recently and the guy I was talking to said something really interesting, that a band’s first record is just whatever happens when they first go into the studio, and their second record is when you start to get a feel for what the band actually sounds like. I’d be curious what you all think about that.
Stephen: That’s a bit difficult for us because the band formed through and from our first record. That record was primarily me and Ben in a basement with a revolving door of characters that came in to record other instruments. That’s also when Tom came in, halfway through that, played a bit on the first record. The person we got to mix it ended up joining after the fact. I think we were trying to figure out what Mandancing is during the writing of The Good Sweat.
Ben: He makes a really good point. I remember hearing somewhere something like, “You have your entire life to write your first record, and like three months to write our second.” That’s maybe a more old school thing but it rings true for the most part. In our case we had three years. As a fun note that relates to that I’ve also heard any band whose first record does well, the one after always bombs. Maybe that’s part of that process. But then again Steve loves bands like mewithoutYou, and every record’s like a completely different sound. It’s almost a different band. Steve loves that idea, and we’re all open to moving around. It’s a big question. Gimme a week. In that regard I guess let’s be thankful for our lack of success.
So then have you been following the reception to The Good Sweat?
Stephen: As much as we can be. It’s been tremendous, really heartwarming.
A lot of the songs have somewhat similar structures. I think of “Kenlock,” “Wall Spot,” “Coffer,” all having distinct movements that build on each other. Was there any kind of theme in writing the music on the record?
Stephen: I have a history of writing songs that are searching for a cathartic moment. I use the song as a search engine to get where I want to be. It’s a selfish way of writing. That’s I think why each song seems to have these intense movements, so to speak.
I’m really curious what “river, jungle, waterfall” means in “RJW.”
Stephen: The best answer I can give is that I don’t know. What I find enjoyable about writing is words show up and in the moment I don’t know the reason, but they stick. And after the fact I look back and see what it means. That line can mean any number of things to me but when I was writing I wasn’t sure what it meant. I wish I could tell you “it means this,” but I’d be lying. The music I think made those lines come out. It feels very landscape. It has a Lion King feel. Whatever that means.
“Perch” has the Puff the Magic Dragon reference and soundclip. What’s the relation of Puff to that song?
Stephen: I had the lyrics half written, and I finished the night before we recorded and for some reason Jackie Draper came to mind. He’s a kid full of fear and self doubt, and the song’s kinda about self doubt. When we were in the studio recording the lyrics – Ben, wanna tell this?
Ben: Steve was recording the bridge and we’d never heard that part because like he said he’d just written it. He laid down a take or two and I was like, “You still workshopping this?” and he was like, “Yeah, sorta.” so I asked if he minded if I tried something and he said, “Sure.” I told him when we get to the bridge back away from the microphone. As he was tracking the rest of the song I pulled out my phone in the control room so we have to be quiet. I pull up the Puff the Magic Dragon animated film from the ‘70s, where the clip is from, and without actually being able to hear anything ‘cause we have to be so quiet, I find a place where it’s just dialogue. I have the volume on one, hold it up to my ear, just make sure they’re talking. But I have no idea what the dialogue is. I pause it, we get to the bridge, Steve steps away, and I run up to the microphone and hit play. It was that exact sample. It was the perfect time. Tom started screaming. He got so excited he had to go away.
Tom: The beat came in right when it ended. Like an hour and fifteen minute video and you found the perfect fifteen seconds.
Stephen: The Jackie Draper reference was just a moment of spontaneity and the movie clip was total happenstance.
There’s a line in “Kenlock” where you sing, “I’m working on a call to Seiichei to tell him that we made it.” What does that refer to?
Stephen: Seiichi’s been somewhat of a mentor to me my whole life, my older brother’s best friend growing up. He’s someone I’ve looked up to my whole life, also a songwriter. I think when I wrote it it was one of those lines that just made sense. In a very direct way it’s just the idea of touring all the way to California. My band’s gonna get to LA and I’ll call him and tell him we made it. I know it’s cliche to say but I’d rather leave it up to interpretation. I know how it makes me feel but not necessarily what it means. It makes me feel like there’s something worth working towards.
Are there any songs – or even moments – you’re all proudest of on the record?
Tom: For me it’s the groove after the quote in “Perch.” I’m very proud of that. One of those things you look back and you don’t remember writing it and you have no idea how you did it but I love it. It’s funky, mathy, but has a pocket. It feels like me.
Ben: I’m proud of the conciseness of “The Good Sweat.” I’m always battling you guys like, “There’s too much shit going on.” I’m proud of – the intro is chaotic but that’s cool – but it’s a concise, well-orchestrated song.
Stephen: I think you’re great and I love you for that. I don’t know if I can think of a moment I’m proudest of. I’m proud that we showed up every Monday. The song “GloveSweat” was essentially put together at the studio.
Stephen: I wanted to go into that song just having been done in the studio on an acoustic guitar. I’m proud that idea worked.
Why’d you all decide “The Good Sweat” would be the title track?
Stephen: We may have had the title of the record first and then just wrote the song.
Why’d you decide on that title?
Ben: Some of us in the band work manual labor jobs. I think the idea of good sweat has the idea of putting good work in and that’s what we were doing writing.
Stephen: And then “GloveSweat” is kinda the opposite. I wrote that after a really rough patch of depression and was just sorting out my life.
Ben: It’s a different type of sweat, when you’re fighting in a situation where you have no choice.
Stephen: Good sweat is when you’re fighting for something you wanna fight for.
Ben: There was a point when Steve and I were working together, and the record, and how much work it all took, having a sweaty day. The sweat was coming from a good place.
I really like the album cover, especially going back to the whole Puff the Magic Dragon thing. How did you come up with that?
Stephen: Ben. That’s your answer. The chimes showed up when I moved back to my parents’ house after a taxing relationship. I didn’t plan to move back to my parents’ house. They let me in and those chimes were right out my bedroom window. The chimes felt special to me. I know I wanted them on the record. We’d taken a picture during our shoot and originally were gonna photoshop it into a painting I’d done which was supposed to be the cover. We had disagreements every step of the way til Joe at the label said we need a cover now. Ben proposed the idea of just using that picture of the chimes. We were all like, “Honestly that’s it.”
Ben: They’re on the record too.
Stephen: Yeah, the song “GloveSweat.”
There’s another line in “RJW” I wanted to ask, the line about “all the things Ariel said.” What sorts of things did Ariel say?
Stephen: Ariel would say things that just remind you how good this was.
I was also interested in “Poplar Mobus.” The shortest song on the record, the only instrumental, I was just curious how that one came to be.
Ben: Remember way back when I said, “There’s too much shit going on”? “Poplar Mobus” was originally the end of “RJW.” I was like, “We should delete this,” and everyone was like, “Fuck you.” It was a point of contention for a week or two so then compromise – it’s its own song. That’s what that is. Me and Steve, we like to make up fake names.
Stephen: It’s fun.
Ben: “Poplar Mobus” was one of them. We thought it’d be funny to call a song that. And then we did.
Is there anything else ManDancing is planning for the near or distant future?
Stephen: We were thinking maybe a coffee and t-shirt deal.
Ben: We’re gonna be working on a music video for another one of the songs on the record soon. Another video coming down the barrel somewhat soon.
Stephen: We’re also writing again. Made a tentative plan to have a writing retreat in March, see what takes.
Ben: We just got laptops.
Stephen: Yeah, we’re not a modern band.
Tom: We wrote that record mostly from memory.
Stephen: Yeah, and the occasional voice memo on a phone.
In a decade when tours can happen again, what songs are you most excited to play?
Tom: “Pancakes” is really fun.
Stephen: “RJW” I’m sure there’ll be moments to explore within.
Last one. I know you’re all from New Jersey, so have you ever been to the donut place Montclair Bread?
Stephen: Oh yeah.
Ben: I always say my favorite donuts in the world are Krispy Kreme jelly donuts.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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