Since co-founding San Francisco rock band Jellyfish in 1989, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. has evolved into a seasoned veteran of the pop music world. He played an integral part in many well-known bands (The Moog Cookbook, Imperial Drag, TV Eyes) ranging from power pop to indie rock to electronica. Over the past several years, Manning toured the world as the keyboardist and vocalist in Beck’s backing band, landing him a worldwide fanbase and solidifying his career as a respected musician in the industry.
Between all his collaborative projects over the years, he’s rarely had time to focus on his solo career. For 2018, Manning released a four-song EP as his first solo work in nearly a decade. Glamping is a collection of four romantically-written psychedelic-pop ballads that showcase his wide range as a vocalist and lyricist. As a new-age performer with old-school tastes, Manning is influenced by the traditions of legends like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, combining his great imagination and dramatic arrangements with sophisticated musicianship and instrumentation to create original and timeless pop music.
In order to find a system that works around his busy schedule, he chose to release Glamping using PledgeMusic, a campaign platform that does all the work of distribution and connecting fans without all the usual trappings of a label. We spoke with Manning about building a song up from its bare bones, ignoring mainstream pop trends and the freedom of going solo.
mxdwn: Glamping features collaborations with a few musicians and includes heavily layered instrument tracks. Which parts are all you and what was done in the studio?
Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: Typically I sing all my own backgrounds for the vocals, which I really enjoy doing. But this time I was looking to not only speed up the process — because it takes me a very long time to amass all those vocal tracks. The people I had in mind have very different voices from me so I was hoping it would add up in a very cool way and fortunately it did. A gentleman named Bleu McAuley, who’s a very talented singer/songwriter in his own right, and Cecilia Peruti [of Gothic Tropic] who actually sang backup with me in Beck’s band. So I used Bleu on a lot of the songs and Cecilia on a couple and yeah, it went really well and I look forward to using them again in the future.
mxdwn: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be with?
RJM: Well, that list is a mile long but I would have to actually figure out a way to reach out to them. You know, and have something really specific in mind. I don’t wanna waste their time. I’d love to work with Andy Partridge from XTC — and again, that would be me as a fan just like, “You guys have any time to screw around?” And you know, I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan; those people are like, high-art jazz musicians to me. In other words, I’d be more interested in what I could learn from them and if we actually got a song out of it that would be a bonus. But I’d love to just sit in a room with them and learn from all their experience.
mxdwn: Your solo work gives you the opportunity to focus on being a vocalist. What is that like for you, and who do you draw inspiration from as a vocalist?
RJM: I’m definitely aware of my voice’s strengths and weaknesses; I do like singing. I try to push my voice into realms that aren’t…I try to envision my goal first and then figure out how my voice is gonna get there second [laughs]. So that is particularly challenging sometimes. There are some things I can get quickly and other things I just have to break out the tools for, try over and over until I fix the tuning and stuff like that. At the end of the day, I just want to get to the finish line.
Quite a few of my heroes seem to have been born naturally with these incredible voices with a wide range. Not only vocally but just in his approach in general, Todd Rundgren’s solo stuff has really been inspirational to me. Because he’s admittedly not a very schooled or trained player, very self-taught, and he’s been the model of, “If you want something done right you gotta do it yourself.” I really like what happens when his personality is put into his recordings. I admire a huge range, huge control. The kind of heavy melodic singing that Paul McCartney kind of showed everyone how to do.
mxdwn: You talk about how you enjoy building a song up from the initial acoustic demo to a big arrangement with many tracks. How do you know when a song is done?
RJM: That’s a great question. So for me, that puzzle, after I know I have a solid idea, after I come up with the melody on guitar or piano like you were saying—I get that touch skeleton, and if it’s working and exciting me in that phase then I know that the arrangement and flushing out the production is just a matter of time. I kinda just jump in and start throwing ideas at the song. I keep what I like, discard what I don’t and it’s like a sculpture. Sometimes that comes very fast, more often it takes weeks and weeks. There are things I’m always looking for and that’s creating the drama that the lyric and attitude of the song built into it already and using the endless range of instruments that we all have now with samples to get that information conveyed. So, I love that process. It really takes a lot of tenacity and determination to stick to it, but I just keep chipping away at it and that’s part of the fun.
And then every song I work on I get better, I learn shortcuts, I learn what doesn’t work and what does. I really try to let the song dictate what it wants to be. If it’s a slow ballad that’s talking about something very fantastical or dream-like, I try to have the music match that. If it’s something fun and bouncy or uptempo rock, I use a sound palette that’s going to help convey that. On the song “Funhouse,” that’s about teenagers falling in love and it takes place at a carnival, so I tried to use some sounds to create that imagery. But I still wanted it to rock, I didn’t want it to get light. I wanted it to have a teenage ’70s rock swagger to it. And there are things that I do to sit in that realm. I use cliché and stereotypes from past artists and then put my own twist into it, take it into 2018 in my own way.
mxdwn: All four songs on the EP have romantic undertones. Do those lyrics come from personal experience or do you imagine up a narrative after you have the melody?
RJM: Definitely the later. Of course, personal experience always plays into it but I usually, again, use that song idea to launch me into a headspace like, “Well what if two people fell in love this way?” Or “What if someone had a daydream about this?” I just keep imagining and try to create artificial worlds that excite me and hopefully are gonna excite the listener.
mxdwn: How do you see the Glamping EP unfolding into a full album, and where are you in that process?
RJM: I’ve got eight other songs in the works right now…I mean I don’t know, it’ll probably be another nine months or so before I finish another batch of four. I seem to enjoy doing a few at a time better, it’s a little easier to wrap my head around [laughs]. They’ll probably be similar enough to fit on a record together, but that’s not necessarily the final goal. I’m just trying to get batches of songs out that I know kick butt and are gonna make sense to me and my fans. So yeah, that kinda remains to be seen. Like these four songs on Glamping, the rest that I have going are all over the place…from real soft Beach Boys ballads to a full-on ’70s New York punk rock-type song, so it’s all over the map, which I enjoy doing.
mxdwn: Are there any lessons you learned from working with bands and as a touring musician that influence the way you approach your solo career?
RJM: Yes! I learn stuff from all the artists I work with. I worked with Beck the longest and most often. Everybody’s got a different way of making records, different ways of getting to the finish line. I just kind of enjoy watching people and learning what tricks of the trade they use. It’d be hard to nail down one thing specifically. Beck, for instance, really likes to work fast. He’s a big believer in the idea that your first instinct is the way to go. He really believes in what people’s initial ideas are, and he’ll try to capture those. So I tried to learn not to belabor an idea or drive it into the ground. If it’s not working right away I move onto something else, get out of the way of any potential trappings. Then you just keep the creative ideas flowing and you can even come back to them later, but it’s about throwing a bunch of stuff at the song and seeing what sticks.
mxdwn: The pop music world has evolved a lot since your last album in 2008. Do you feel like Glamping reflects this at all?
RJM: No. I mean, I get excited or not by whatever trends are coming and going but it rarely has an effect on what I’m doing. I feel the music that I’m making is timeless in a way. I’m just carrying on a pop tradition that really got started with rock ‘n roll in the ’50s and continued to evolve through the ’70s and ’80s. That’s the music I grew up with, even though a lot of it was before I was born, and I just really relate to it. It speaks to me emotionally. So it’s very natural that it’s gonna influence me and my solo work. Like I said, first and foremost, it’s all about what the song is asking to be. Is it asking to be a light whimsical, fairytale psychedelic type song? Or heavier with a lot of orchestral accompaniment? If I cared about what trends were going on in contemporary pop music or even in indie rock or whatever and competing with that, it just wouldn’t serve my music. That’s not to say I haven’t done anything that was similar to certain trends but that was actually probably by accident. Yeah, I seem to have no problem operating on the sidelines if you will, and I’m 100% fine with that and my fans seem to be as well.
mxdwn: Who’s the first person you bounce your new ideas off of?
RJM: Ah that’s a good question…uh…not very many people! [laughs] I mean, I really don’t play anything for anybody until it’s close to being done. And then there’s my fiancée Laurel or a guy named Jay Gilbert who helped with my Pledge campaign and been acting as a stand-in manager. I trust his musical sensibilities. Certainly, when I get some musicians in the studio to play on the music, they get to hear it, and I can tell right away whether they’re having a positive reaction and what they like about it. It’s a real act of faith and courage in one’s voice. Again, I’m my own worst critic, so I’ll sit there and a song may just get stuck in the mud for months because I know how good it can be and it’s not there yet. I want it to blow me away. I want it to be as good as one of my heroes’ favorite songs. And if the skeleton has that potential and the arrangement isn’t getting it there then I have to keep chipping away at it.
mxdwn: You’ve given a lot of praise to PledgeMusic, can you talk a little bit about what they do?
RJM: The artist does most of the work so you can have as elaborate and complex a campaign as you want, or make it simple and straight-forward. It’s different for everybody. Pledge provides a really great easy forum to regroup with all of your existing fans and bring them all to one center to participate in your campaign, and it also allows you to reach out to other communities and inviting new fans onboard. The means of collecting the incoming funds and distributing the products is made very easy. It’s a very simple system for navigating all of the things a record company would do. You can do a lot of promotions yourself as well, so it’s all about how big or small you wanna make your own campaign. They just provide the tools and the forum. And they take a reasonable cut compared to what a label would take. It makes things very convenient for someone like myself who has pockets of fans all over the world, and now it all can add up to a big fanbase. My job is just to remind them that I’m still alive and making music and I want them to be involved, which is the other thing Pledge is good at, providing the tools for me to interact with my fans in a more music-oriented way than the usual social media avenues.
mxdwn: As someone who’s traveled the world and been a successful musician for a long time now, what goals do you still hope to reach?
RJM: One of the main things that I look forward to doing in the years ahead, which is why this Glamping campaign has been so important to me, is that amongst all the things I do, creating original music and recording it is probably the most gratifying thing I’ve done in the last 30 years. I started out in this business co-founding, co-writing, co-producing. And going solo is the greatest joy. It’s also the hardest work I’ll ever do, but it has a great return in terms of creative fulfillment. Working with Pledge in a situation like this allows me to do this as much or as little as I want, and I wanna do it a lot [laughs].
So my goal for the next ten years is to release something every nine months, every year at least. I want to be very interactive with the fans and make projects bigger and bigger. I want to keep creating original music for the people that want to hear it, and have it all make sense from the most creative side to the financial side to the social media side and even to the live performance side. Having it all happen and come together without necessarily being a big-name artist that’s backed by a record company is the goal. That’s really what we’re talking about–making this work for the artist and the fans in a smart, sustainable way without the traditional record label model. As I learn more and gain more experience I think I’m just gonna get better and better at it. And then, of course, I want to play on more movies. I want to play on more people’s records. I really enjoy the variety of work I do already, and I look forward to seeing it expand.