What’s it like to record a collection of songs six years in the making? Better yet, what’s it like to record that very same album in just 10 days?
The answer, it turns out, is nothing short of edifying.
Four best friends from Richmond, Virginia, decided to test this unequivocal challenge. Together they comprise the rock collective known as Manatree, and in some capacity or another they’ve been writing music for nearly a decade now. A couple of the members have even known one another since preschool.
“It all started as a hobby when we were kids,” says Noma Illmensee, Manatree’s bassist and vocalist. “As we got older and began to take it a lot more seriously, we found it was a great tool of expression and a key to collaborative art. It gave us a singular goal.”
In many ways, Manatree’s self-titled debut (released earlier this year on Egghunt Records) marks a defining chapter in the band’s formative years. That being said, it’s hardly a juvenile endeavor. A cornucopia of legato guitar frills rip right out of the gates, accompanied by drummer Alex Elder’s white-knuckled snare cracks on the opener “Fat Jackson.” Before the guitars cut out–in time for vocalist Jack Mayock to offer his cool meditations on the virtues of patience–it’s already clear that Manatree means business.
The band might sidestep any notion of coherent, concept-tethering intent (“it was a lot of early experimentation with songwriting,” says Mayock) but the explorative nature of the material on Manatree establishes a comprehensive unity in and of itself.
Photo courtesy of Mikan Media.
Prior to the album, Manatree released an eight-song EP during their sophomore year of high school. They culled the material from more recent songwriting sessions and recorded everything in their friend’s bedroom, bathroom, and even his father’s chiropractic office.
As senior year rolled around, the musicians knew it was high time to record their full-length debut. The only problem was they’d never recorded in a legitimate studio before, and knew that it would be necessary if they wanted to do justice to the music amassed over the many years dedicated to playing with one another.
After checking out a handful of Richmond’s recording venues, Manatree decided on Montrose Studio. For one, they’d already become fairly acquainted with the facilities after accompanying local band and friends The Trillions during the sessions for their album Superposition.
Montrose also offered an atmosphere unparalleled by anything else they’d seen.
“It’s a very unique place,” says Illmensee. “It’s basically a very old home rurally based out in the middle of the woods.”
Of the studio’s founding family the Olsens, both father and son constructed the beautiful haunt with a tender finesse that commands attention while simultaneously offering serenity. Twenty acres of farmland and woods create an effect of isolation that can help distill both focus and calm for those who come to be creative.
It also helps that the studio is packed to the gills with vintage equipment and instruments.
“We were surrounded by atypical gear,” recounts Mayock. “It really helped put us in the mindset that we were here to record a record, utilize as much around us as possible, and really focus for the 10 days that we did the majority of the tracking.”
Admittedly, the four musicians thought it would be easy to accomplish everything during their spring break. Book out the time, show up, play the songs start to finish, and call it an album–easy, right?
They soon realized that the recording atmosphere is an entirely different beast from performing live. Illmensee explains even the sounds from the guitar amplifiers are varied between the two. Additionally, while a concert set might only last 45 minutes to an hour, marathon stretches of recording songs without getting tired can prove extremely daunting.
Speaking of which, some of the guitar takes for a single song took upwards of six hours to perfect.
“Recording is a skill in and of itself,” says Illmensee. “I was just really happy to do it in such a great environment.”
Riding on the heels of their debut success, Manatree will be hitting the studio again before the end of the year to record a new batch of material. This time around, expect to hear R&B and electronic music slink its way into the math-pop-rock concoctions.
“For this next one, we feel a lot more experienced in the world,” says Illmensee. “Maybe it will move a little faster.”
To hear the rest of our interview with Manatree, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the music for yourself by clicking here.