Dissecting Manikin's gang mentality
The humidity inside Sound on Sound is breathing down our necks this Friday night, invading personal space and stepping on toes. It's understandable. Summer in Austin brings out the more primal instincts in us all. Half the dead punks on the wall here would agree.
Manikin's set starts with a beat – the opening notes to "Beat It," to be exact. It's the day after Michael Jackson's death, and everyone packed in the small North Loop record shop for Manikin's LP release nods and lifts beers in approval. Then drummer Alyse Mervosh subtly changes tempo, and the local quartet shifts from goofing off to straightening up. Suddenly, the oppressive sweat and curious smells inside the store become less of an annoyance than a salve.
Like forefathers Wire and PiL, Manikin is one of those bands that's really good at sounding like itself, something that's evolved through the 5-year-old quartet sculpting and resculpting its sound. There's no experimentation beyond its three-minute marches, no wanky solos or rock & roll posturing. Manikin songs are concise in the punk rock tradition and restrained in their execution.
The original lineup of guitarist/vocalist Alfonso Rabago, bassist Doug Cohenour, and drummer Lisa DiRocco formed in 2000. Eventually that splintered and Rabago, who was born in the Phillipines but raised in Houston, folded in Madison, Wis., transplant Mervosh and bassist B.J. Schindler, who cut his teeth on punk in the small town of Copperas Cove, Texas. Former Houstonite Bill Jeffery pops in on trumpet occasionally. Between the four, they've been playing in local punk bands such as the Winks and Eastside Suicides for more than a decade, and the majority has more than one band (Mervosh is in the Hex Dispensers, Schindler in Tokyo Nites, Jeffery in Ichi Ni San Shi). The fact that Manikin doesn't play that often makes its live shows all the more impressive. Standing in Rabago's kitchen a week after the record release, the group plays down its disciplined work ethic.
"If we just play shows, we won't write new songs," explains Rabago.
"We're also old and have semireal jobs," adds Schindler. "So we have to wake up early. I can't speak for everyone here, but I'm not as fresh as I used to be."
"I will say this," pipes in Jeffery. "You're right about this band's work ethic. I'm outside the box a lot, but these guys practice their asses off."
Schindler: "At least once a month, religiously."
If getting things accomplished by increment is Manikin's m.o., its excellent third LP is the reward. After a four-year gap, Stop the Sirens (see "Texas Platters," June 26) marks the apogee of the group's sonic growth with a bit more polish but the same barbed intensity. Currently it's a vinyl-only release, with a CD version forthcoming this fall, though it's refreshing the band seems content with just petroleum product, a format lost on many younger music fans.
"My favorite story," Schindler relates. "The Riverboat Gamblers went on tour and sold some kid a 7-inch [single]. He came back and said, 'This won't fit in my CD player.'"
Schindler and Mervosh are the foundation of Manikin's sound, the rhythmic backbone supporting every downstroke. Mervosh is the metronomic center, Schindler the left brain, his basslines distorted and snaky. Rabago's the right brain, the perfectionist. His guitar playing is more random, staccato, and his vocals sound like he's yelling from the bottom of a well. Before the four played in Manikin together, they were friends first, which helps when it comes to the democratic process of piecing together songs.
"We try to keep it steady so Alfie can do his thing," says Mervosh.
Rabago: "That's how we write our songs, through the rhythm. All the songs evolve from the bassline. It's almost like disco. The guitar's always the last piece."
In 2007, Richard Lynn, Super Secret Records CEO, told me: "You know how sometimes you see a show and it makes you happy to be exactly where you are? You don't want to be anywhere else or doing anything else; you're convinced there's no better place in the world than where you are at that very moment?
"That's how I feel whenever I see a Manikin show."
Lynn's felt that way for most of the past decade; he essentially started his label to put out Manikin's 2002 self-titled debut, after seeing the original trio play. Second album Still, released three years later, was still a bit scrappy, the band finding its footing among fuzzy SoCal punk riffs. 2007 7-inch M Theory showed shades of what was to come: thicker slabs of bass and Rabago's guitar pounding in migraine-sized bursts rather than steady jabs.
Militaristic, ominous, dystopian, bleak – all descriptors of Manikin's sound, and there's certainly a Joy Division-esque obsession with control (it's covered "Shadowplay"), but Rabago refers to the songs he writes as his view of the "human struggle." That theme's crystallized on Stop the Sirens, songs like "Leaders" and "Mirrors" the perfect pairing of black and neon, lost and found.
As much as a song like "Death March" encapsulates all those labels, it also describes Manikin's discipline at Sound on Sound: "We all fall down, fall down in a row. Cornered at the hideout. Playing at the final show."
The NYC No Wave scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s yielded many acts that considered themselves self-sufficient outsiders tackling themes of isolation and paranoia. That scene has evolved (or devolved, depending who you ask), spreading out over 30 years, and Manikin is a kindred spirit of that gutter-fabulous time. There's purity in its do-it-yourself ethos, from album art (designed by Rabago) to the bottled intensity of the group's live shows, distilled after years in its Red River scene of misfits.
Rabago admits the group wrote a majority of the songs on Sirens within the last few months, motivated by a deadline. Yet he's not quick to throw out an idea if he doesn't like it at first. That's the nature of Manikin's songs: They change.
"If you're a painter, you have to paint something," Rabago says. "I like the idea that anyone can do it. That's why I don't do too many solos. I make it simple – play with one finger."
"That's what I love about this town," Jeffery adds. "I love local bands. I like hearing bands that haven't even recorded yet. That's inspiring to me. It took away a lot of the cynicism. Your friends come out to see you. Take that Sound on Sound show – all these people generally like each other."
"And they're also all in bands," Rabago laughs.
"Well, that's how we all met, just going to the same shows," Mervosh says.
"At Beerland," Rabago chimes in.
"Plus, we all love A Chorus Line!" Jeffery adds.
There's a hard, tough core to Manikin's music, but as individuals, their comfortable, interpersonal groove is well evident when they start talking about music and art and the scene they love so much.
"I like when a band feels like a gang," Schindler smiles.
Manikin plays Snake Eyes Vinyl, Sunday, July 26, 4pm.
Manikin (Super Secret), 2002
Still (Super Secret), 2005
Stop the Sirens (Super Secret), 2009
M.4 Manikin (Super Secret), 2004
M Theory (Super Secret), 2007