This article first appeared in Psych Magazine, published 12/09/2011.
“A sunny riot” says Liam, Black Manila’s drummer, “like a tropical darkness.” Getting a band to describe their sound is usually a stumbling block, but this pithy little response just hit the nail on the head. Black Manila’s self-titled LP is just that: a light-hearted rhythm and blues/garage record with hints of something much darker
The strange seems like something the band is happy to revel in. “When we get round to recording our album”, Gareth says “we wanna be in a house in the middle of the woods.” We talk about what happened when Captain Beefheart did this, locking his band in a house with no distractions; the psychological consequences are unimportant, the band went insane but the album was better off for it. Then the conversation drifts to Paris, to the Père Lachaise Cemetery where Jim Morrison’s grave is, and how his sad little
stone is covered in booze and panties. This conversation, bear in mind, is after our own jaunt around a cemetery in the pouring rain. I saw that one tomb had been cracked open and was filled with water; I wanted to ask if any of them would drink from it for £1000. I guess I was feeling a little strange too.
A couple of weeks before, I’d seen Black Manila play in a little pub in Wimbledon. I was instantly struck by the texture of Gareth’s voice. It’s unique, like Iggy crossed with a grizzly bear (listen to the EP’s first track, Alaska, and you’ll know what I mean). After the show, I said to him “it sounds like you’ve got a harmonica mic stuck down your throat” and I stand by that; there were moments when I expected his chest to feedback his voice is so raw. In person though, he’s softly spoken and withdrawn, leaving second vocalist and bassist Conrad Armstrong to do the talking.
We talk for a while about live performances. “We saw the Black Lips a year ago at a party,” he says “and it was all so soulless. We were really into them but they were just like performing monkeys: everyone expected them to go crazy so they went crazy. I was there and all those posers were there, people standing at the front just watching them and they were on auto pilot.” No prudes themselves, Black Manila are known for getting a little crazy, but for them it’s a matter of playing out how they feel rather than living up to a crowd’s expectation. Liam agrees “I guess that’s what keeps bands underground. The way you get above ground is cottoning onto something and just doing it
Integrity intact, Black Manila aren’t likely to bow to commercial interests anytime soon. Girl Problems, a catchy punk number they wrote a while back could easily take the band to a mainstream audience. Conrad refers to it as “a terrible record”, before catching himself, “it’s not a terrible record, it’s just not us.” It’s true, Girl Problems doesn’t stand up to the material on their latest EP, particularly Alaska, which has the most relentless groove I’ve heard all year. And live it sounds even better, Gareth toying with the melody, affecting voices and taking runs on the guitar while the band holds the beat.
Whatever. I’m just waiting for the band to emerge from a shanty in the middle of nowhere, bleary eyed, looking like the crew of Das Boot and probably hating each other’s guts, but album in hand. Then we’ll have something explosive…
Photography Martin Zahringer