Interview Date: 02/13/2008
Run Date: 02/25/2009
Music geeks know well the work of Roger Joseph Manning Jr. As a co-founding member of Jellyfish, he’s easily granted himself a seat in the Power Pop Hall of Fame, while his growing list of session work with top-notch artists like Johnny Cash, Air and Morrissey has made him one of the most sought-after keyboardists working in music today. In between his hectic schedule, Manning somehow managed to finish a new solo album. Catnip Dynamite might have just been released, but its layered vocal harmonies, panoramic production sensibilities, and A.M.-radio-informed hooks have more in common with Jeff Lynne and Utopia than they do with anything you see covered in, say, “Pitchfork Media.” Bullz-Eye had a chance to talk to Manning about the new album, Jellyfish, and even his thoughts on “American Idol.”
Bullz-Eye: First off, listening to your solo work and the material you did with Jellyfish, it’s obvious who a lot of your influences are. You can hear the melodic sensibilities of what a lot of people refer to now as “A.M. Gold” and really, anything with an emphasis on hooks. That said, when you were a kid, did you ever get into say, progressive rock or any non-pop informed stuff?
Roger Joseph Manning Jr: Oh, definitely. Back in high school I got into a lot of the old progressive rock groups. I also listened to a lot of Frank Zappa and all the fusion stuff like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. The really old be-bop music was also huge for me back then. I eventually got into punk and new wave, too. During those years I was open to everything and anything musically. My ears were always opened to hear something different. It was such a great time for that.
BE: Before Jellyfish even got signed, there was a huge buzz about you in Los Angeles even though it was still big for majors to sign the hair metal-type bands. Do you think the A&R guys gravitated towards you guys because you reminded them of a lot of those great ‘70’s guitar pop bands they grew up on?
RJMJ: Without a doubt. We just represented a refreshing option to them at that time. They were around all of those kinds of bands you mentioned and they liked what we represented musically.
BE: Something more musical in a sense.
RJMJ: Absolutely. We were much more melodic and lyrical. Jellyfish also wasn’t afraid to show our soft and vulnerable side in our songs. Of course the Beatles were like that, too. They heard something in our music that they thought could catch on and be sellable. We never became a cash cow or anything, but we had pop or commercial potential. But yeah, we also probably reminded them of the pop bands they liked from their childhood, too.
BE: You’ve done session work with a wide range of artists, from critic darlings to blockbuster acts. In the beginning, were you getting a lot of work because the bands or producers knew you from Jellyfish?
RJMJ: It all started out with the producer Jerry Finn, who sadly passed away last year. He started it, really. He was working with a band that were fans of Jellyfish, and they mentioned maybe asking me but they figured I would say no. Jerry convinced them that it didn’t hurt to ask because the worst I could say was no.
BE: What was the name of that band?
RJMJ: They were called Coward and they had a deal with Elektra. They wrote some great songs, actually. But yeah, they asked me and I jumped onboard. The thing is bands were afraid to call me because they thought that I was too busy being in my own thing and figured I wouldn’t be into doing session work, but I really wanted to. So from that point on, I’ve been busy doing that, and I did a lot of work with Jerry.
BE: I’ve seen your name in the credits for so many albums in the last decade. There’s that older generation of studio guys like Benmont Tench, but then there’s you and people like Justin Meldal-Johnsen who are kind of like the younger generation version of that.
RJMJ: Yeah, that’s very true. I played on a lot of Beck sessions with him.
BE: I know you did a lot of stuff with Blink-182. I think Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge have a great sense of melody, especially on the material you worked on with them. Can you talk about how much involvement you had with the band on the arrangement side of things?
RJMJ: Before the band even started recording, I would sit there with Jerry Finn and fantasize about keyboard parts for the songs. We would try stuff out and see what kind of parts I might play. But once the band started recording and I would listen to the songs so many times, you really start seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I would show them parts I wrote and they would think that it went too far into a certain direction or whatever. But there were also parts I came up with that they just left like I wrote them. So it all depended from song to song.
BE: Let’s talk about Catnip Dynamite. I like to think of it like a great long-lost ELO record. It’s the way an album should be made. It has a beginning, middle and end. There’s a flow to it. I think a lot of the bands from my generation have lost the sense of that aspect to making albums.
RJMJ: Oh, wow! I love ELO, so thanks so much for that compliment. The sequencing was definitely important. I want the listener to go through the album and feel the complete experience of it. I want it to be like a rollercoaster ride, in a sense. But I couldn’t really think of the sequencing until I finished fleshing out the songs and recording them. Then I sat back and figured out the best way to make everything flow in terms of the order. I didn’t want there to be lulls and the songs had to go into each other well, so I’m really happy that you felt that way about the album.
BE: Now, this next question might piss you off a bit. I read that working with Beck taught you to be more spontaneous in the studio. But I have to be honest, these songs sound so immaculately put together. Everything from the vocals to the keyboards sound perfectly executed. Am I confusing what you meant by spontaneity?
RJMJ: No, I get what you’re saying, and I take that too as a compliment. What I meant by that statement was that working with Beck taught me to trust my first instinct on an idea. They are usually the best ones to go with because it’s from your gut. I also learned from working on those Beck records is that sometimes leaving those mistakes and little imperfections works. When you say that Catnip Dynamite doesn’t sound spontaneous, it’s because of the execution in the performances. But yeah, I understand what you mean and it was meant to sound like that, so thanks again.
BE: There are also some fantastic stand-alone songs on the album. If “Love’s Never Half as Good” came out as a single in 1978, it would have been a smash. Did you go into writing that particular song with that kind of frame of mind?
RJMJ: Yes and no, actually. I grew up in that era so when I sit down to write a song, it just comes out like that. It’s not something I have to really think about.
BE: So it’s almost instinctual at this point?
RJMJ: It definitely is. I don’t go into it thinking that I should write a ‘70s-sounding type of song because it’s already part of me; stuff like ELO and Supertramp. Those are the kinds of songs that I love and that era is where I come from.
BE: Musically or lyrically?
RJMJ: Musically. In terms of the lyrics, anything goes.
BE: “Survival Machine” has a baroque feel in the instrumentation and arrangement. It reminded me of some of the Bee Gees stuff off of Odessa. Can you talk about that song?
RJMJ: I’m actually really into the Bee Gees and love everything from the early Beatles-sounding stuff to even the disco period. I don’t really know too much about the records they did in the ‘80s, though. I like Odessa too, but I haven’t heard it in a long time. Yes, “Survival Machine” has that kind of thing going on.
BE: It sounds like the kind of track that would be hard to pull off in a live setting.
RJMJ: Yeah, when I toured Japan last time we didn’t attempt it. It would be too difficult anyway because of how high the vocals are, anyway. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though.
BE: “Tinsel Town” is a criticism about the disposable celebrity culture that Hollywood pushes out, and you even talk about “American Idol” in it. With that in mind, could you ever see yourself writing with someone like a Kelly Clarkson that came out of that machine?
RJMJ: You know, I’ve dabbled in that commercial pop world before. I find it extremely difficult. Guys like Max Martin do it so well. He takes the three-four chord kind of thing and gives it these huge productions. He does a great job at that, and I can appreciate it. I have respect for guys like that who do it so well.
BE: I think a lot of people would love to see someone with the musical reference points you have working with these younger pop singers.
RJMJ: The thing is that I speak another musical language altogether. When I get into a room for these kinds of sessions, it’s like I’m speaking Spanish and they’re speaking French. There are guys who go chasing those types of projects and there is a lot of hustling around trying to get the work. Luckily I don’t have to put college money aside for my kids or anything like that so I don’t have to try and get those gigs. Yeah, money is still important to me like anyone else, but it just doesn’t feel right for me to go for those projects.
BE: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us. I think the new album is some of your best material and hopefully people find out about it.
RJMJ: Thank you, Carlos. I hope so, too. In Japan we went with “Love’s Never Half as Good” as a single because they’re more open-minded over there, for some reason. They dig the rockers but love the softer songs, too. It’s just not like that over here, so we went with “Down in Front” as the focus track since it’s more up-tempo, like Cheap Trick. You only get one chance here to get the public’s attention.