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BWW Interview: Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Talks Lickerish Quartet, Songwriting, and the Utopian Music World of the Early '80s

For the first time, Manning shares the story behind his solo song 'Drive Thru Girl.'

BWW Interview: Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Talks Lickerish Quartet, Songwriting, and the Utopian Music World of the Early '80s

Ex-Jellyfish members Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Beck, Air, Cheap Trick, Imperial Drag), Tim Smith (Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The Finn Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Umajets) and Eric Dover (Imperial Drag, Slash's Snakepit, Alice Cooper, Sextus)-kicked off the new year the best way they know how...with brand new music.

Their highly anticipated THREESOME VOL. 2 EP was released via Stranger Danger Records and Tapes. The first single and video, "Snollygoster Goon," can be seen on the band's official YouTube page.

BroadwayWorld had the pleasure of speaking to Roger Joseph Manning Jr. about the band, the way they write songs, and the near-utopian music world that existed while he grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Read the whole interview below!

Tell me how the Lickerish Quartet came together! I've been following the releases so closely.

In 2017, the New Year started. I was just in shock and realization at how fast it was flying by. I was happily employed doing a variety of amazing musical activities. One of the things that had not been active in my life for a while was recording original music. I had another solo EP that was going to be in the works and coming out in 2018, which was 'Glamping,' but that was a mere four songs and that had taken me forever just due to life stuff.

And I said, I've got to try to do something about this. So I simply reached out to Tim Smith for no other reason than to see if he was interested in collaborating long distance, as just a fun exercise.

We'd never done that. And we had only pleasant experiences in the past, writing and working together. So I reached out to him about that and he loved the idea. And then that was it! He decided he would like to come out to L.A. so we could do it in person. And he then mentioned to me, you know, "Have you given any thought to calling Eric [Dover] and see if he wants to be a part of this?"

And Eric and I hadn't worked together or spoken for a while. I'd run into him occasionally, but we really weren't each other's lives. I said, well, I have no problem with that. I think it's a good idea if Eric's into it. And Eric was! So the three of us just set out to get together, kind of for old time's sake and to see each other again - just to get together with like minded people again. We were all doing pretty well, working for other folks, making money and having a lot of great, varied musical experiences. But it's nothing like where you're sitting there, there's nothing that I know that is as gratifying as having an original idea completed and then realized to the recording process, whether it's by yourself or with a group of people you trust. And that's what this was about. So we had to.

It went really, really well, and it was pretty clear to us that it was like, OK, now what?

And I just had some success with the Glamping EP, and with PledgeMusic, where I got to connect with fans in a way that I hadn't before with fan engagement experiences and bypassing a record company entirely. I was all online, and this included the fact that I was a social media illiterate. I simply don't care about it. And even the brief interaction that I did seem to have huge dividends.

So that inspired us to then pursue recording. It's been a huge exercise in patience - we have just had to do it, and Tim would fly out every few months. I was traveling on the road a lot with Beck at the time, I still do. And then it was done! We put the finishing touches on four songs in 2019 and we're like, let's just put out an EP and see what happens.

So we knew we wanted to complete the other 12 songs which we laid foundations on, but it was anybody's guess when those were going to be finished. And now I'm happy to say we've got two EPS completed under our wings!

Could you take me through a day of the writing process? How do you guys collaborate?

I collaborated with Eric in this way before, but not really with Tim. And so it ended up being each of us bringing in unfinished ideas that we were proud of.

You know, if you're a writer, you always got the wheels cranking. And if you think an idea is worthy at all, I usually try to put it down on something so you don't forget it. And we each had stockpiles of these. So we shared a variety of incomplete ideas.

In my case, for example, it would be a chorus idea. You might have a verse or a chorus, and if the other two guys seem amused in the least, then there's no reason not to pursue it, right? It doesn't mean there's any guarantee that there's something about it that's inspiring creativity. You just simply give me a verse that I think is really catchy and has a cool vibe, and I'm going to try to let the idea come up with chorus ideas.

None of us really write lyrics that early - lyrics always happen later. So these are just musical exchanges! That's not a preference. That's just how it happens to be. We're not poets sitting with our blank canvas underneath the tree out in the park. The music and where the lyric dictates the music is what it's really about for us. Is there an interesting musical idea that's conveying some kind of emotion? You know, that if you have a series of chords and a melody, and of course, the vocal, the person singing, even if they're just singing gibberish - which is what I do, mumble and make up stuff. It's going to convey some kind of attitude, a feeling right away. It certainly does for me.

That's what I'm trying to share with people. If the other two guys have a similar response, like, oh yeah, that's really fascinating.

And we'd start forming just more solid chunks. OK, we got a verse, chorus, verse, chorus we're loving. Does this song need a bridge? Does it go into some kind of instrumental, a Sing-Along Chorus? And what are we going to do for the finale? And that's really, really fun. The arrangement process is just a blast. Again, they're all like self-imposed jigsaw puzzles. And who likes an easy puzzle? You like a puzzle when it's challenging.

Writing a song that not only impresses you and your mates is great, but the whole time you're thinking, well, the general public, are they going to get the joke or is this going to be too overwhelming for them?

Because we like writing in the kind of classic, four minute along pop song genre, very much based on it rooted in the '60s, '70s literature, but certainly not just those two decades. It's just a classic thing, but on our own terms. So we like making little twists and turns and seeing what amuses us within that tradition. Yeah. We have fun doing it all these years later, even though we were Jellyfish together 30 years ago, right?

Yeah! You mentioned the Sing-Along Chorus. My whole life, I've seen your music as the kind of music you play loud in the car with your friends - and I know that because I've done it a million times. I feel like it just instills a sense of joy. How do you tap into that joy when you're writing?

Well, first of all, you just unknowingly gave me two perfect and very fulfilling compliments. First, that you turn it up and share it with your friends, which is just that's part of the celebration right there.

And you said the word joy. That is something that's inspiring to me in my rock, pop, or what have you. Not that I don't love emotional, gut wrenching, tear-your-heart-out kind of songs. There's plenty of those, too. But a lot of people I admire, I find that they were inspired to write when their heart was broken, and they had a break up or some kind of tragedy, and they kind of cry into their instrument. I do that, too. But I seem to be led to create when my life seems to be going well, what I've got all the B.S. of day to day living kind of dialed and I don't have to pay attention to it because it's now taken care of. So I'm literally free. I'm not preoccupied with it.

And what comes out of me is just this kind of crying out in joy. The upside of life or making music that refers to that, or really transcends the listener. Everything may be going great in their life or they may have some personal challenges, but it momentarily, even if it's just for four minutes, transports them to an alternate plane and they just kind of want to hang out there. That's what any good song is, that you go to turn up already. You want to hang out there, you don't want it to end. You sing every chorus. That's what my heroes did for me. And that is just first and foremost what I want to do, what I offer myself.

And so that's why it's not uncommon for us to come up with like 30, 40 ideas that you think are pretty solid. And then maybe three of those really make it to the finish line where it's just undeniably blowing-my-mind, and I hope it blows my audience's mind. And it's a real exercise in self discovery, self therapy, because you really have to go: I don't care what my wife thinks, what my parents think, what my best friend thinks, what my other musician friends think. They don't care what the public thinks because they're so aligned with it. You have so much conviction. There's no doubt in your mind that there's a huge process that's involved before you can go, I stand by this and I'll take it to my grave, right?

I was actually surprised when you said that the lyrics come so late for you, because I've always found that your music with Jellyfish, your solo stuff, and now the Lickerish Quartet songs are just so deeply clever. On top of being so catchy and joyful, I wanted to ask you specifically - the song that comes to mind when I think about this is I love the song on one of your solo albums, 'Drive Thru Girl.' I just absolutely love it. It's so interesting you don't describe yourself as a poet because I was going to ask you how you discovered your talent for wordplay.

Well, thank you for asking. I think this is the first time anyone's ever mentioned that song to me. It's one that I actually wrote the bulk of, including the fun with fast food drive through imagery. I wrote that only back in college. Wow.

And that was a song that, as I became more and more practiced in songwriting - because I was very, very hard on myself, I still am. But back in college I had not written much and I aspired to that.

And it was a very trying time of writing lots and failing lots and getting used to what the process was to get an idea up and out of my spiritual center. And because I play piano, I sing well. You got to sit down in front of the piano and churn out the ideas. And I found that if I picked up a guitar, which I don't play very well. Well, as you say, I don't have the proficiency I do on piano. The limitations of my lack of ability on guitar actually helped me get in touch with other parts of my spirit because I wasn't absorbed in the instrument! I don't know. I can't play it. So I would just kind of pluck out notes and then a lot of different parts of my brain and heart, I guess, to focus on the raw song idea.

I then discovered that while walking or hiking or simply walking home from a college class to my dorm, if I was in a good mood, the rhythm of walking would start facilitating a pulse, rhythm and idea and 'Drive Thru Girl' was born out of that. I was literally walking to class with no instrument in front of me and the melody shapes. I started humming them to myself, as you know, it's so corny. It was like I was skipping through the park, tweeting.

And then I got home and I realized, well, it's the simple chords or what's going to support this melody that I've been singing. And then the lyric just came from, you know, you comment about the cleverness, and thank you so much. I mean, I didn't get into this craft because I admired brilliant lyricists. I do. And when I take notice of someone's lyrics, that means they must have done something really off the beaten path and deep. They got my attention, because often I'm just paying attention to what the bass is doing and what the background vocals are doing. And I'm learning the craft of album making and recording.

And there were a couple, Andy Partridge from XTC, and Elvis Costello for sure. And then my partner, Andy [Sturmer], we started Jellyfish together. He wrote all the lyrics. He was a fan of so many lyricists. He was actually in it a lot more for the lyric writing than I was. And I would watch him work, and I would watch him kind of try to figure out these puzzles, and how he labored over and what his strategy was.

So when I did my first solo record, I was coming up with all these song ideas and was very, very proud of it. I was like, OK, now you now you've done it. You've got these songs, you've got to sing them and you don't have anything to sing. What are you going to do? And I went into this forced lyric writing phase and I was just feeling, feeling completely handicapped. I knew what it should be like. I knew what I was going to strive for. I had no clue how to get there.

But I was very practiced and it was just draft after draft after draft. There's one song on the first solo album, I don't remember which one, but the core of the musical idea, I got it together in about thirty minutes. The lyric for that same song took me over three weeks. It was just every day like, "That sucks. That sucks. Try this again. Do a different approach." Until I finally started to sculpt something that lived up to how good I got the music was.

It's different for everybody. Like I said, my former partner, Andy, he was much more absorbed in lyrics and much more practiced. And I think he wrote many songs from a lyrical concept first.

I read that the first albums that you ever bought were from Kiss and the Beach Boys, but do you have any other early influences that might be more surprising?

I don't know if they'd be surprising, but, yeah. When I was growing up, there was a service called the Columbia House Record Club, and they'd advertise it in the paper and in magazines. And you could get the offer, where you could buy anywhere from 10 to 13 records for literally $1.50.

Well, the whole whole scam was that after they sucked you in with this, you were obligated to buy eight more over the next few years. And of course, they jacked up the price.

So I was a little kid who was just trying to get a hold of any music, you know, like when I bought that Beach Boys record, it was like the Bible to me. And then the Kiss album, and just like, staring at the art and reading every bit of the liner notes over and over again.

So the Columbia House Record Club, I ordered all these records. And my mom said, well, since I'm giving you the $1.50, you order me Chicago's Greatest Hits, and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. I'm like, Oh yeah, yeah.

And Columbia House, of course, screwed up the order. They sent a bunch of Chicago records nobody ordered and they forgot half my Kiss records. And it didn't occur to me to send them back, because it took like eight weeks for the damn thing to arrive. So it didn't occur to me, like, box it up, return to sender. I was like, I guess this is what I get.

But that was a happy accident in that it led me to listen to a bunch of Chicago music besides their hits. And that band would, you know about him or not, but in their early years they were quite progressive and jazzy because that's where they came from before they kind of wrote their AM radio classics. It allowed me to hear harmony and arrangement from a rock setting that like I'd never known, you know.

As much as I loved Kiss, that's not what they were doing. I was having my ear really expanded.

There was also a store at the time back then called Musicland. It was in every mall across the nation, and in Musicland they would have all the hit parade, all the vinyl and cassettes up front. When you walk in the store, literally flashing, it set you up with that.

But if you went to the back of the store, they had rows and rows and rows of sheet music, because people still grew up playing guitar and keyboard back then. That's kind of just something you did, like sports. People understood it. Most homes had a piano that was trying to make you a well-rounded person or exercise those parts of the brain.

So I found out half of the Chicago songs were all in sheet music in the back of the store. And I could read from taking classical lessons. And what happened was I started reading those. I bought them to learn, like, this doesn't sound like the record! Well, why not? Because the record is not just a keyboard, it's all kinds of instruments and all kinds of things that they're doing. And the sheet music was kind of a simplified version, but what the sheet music taught me were chords, which classical generic piano lessons don't teach you. You could be blasting through Mozart and Bach and whatever and you have no idea what you're doing. You're just reading the notes. But I started learning chords, and learning how to add a sentence that gives this kind of sound. I started listening to where different songwriters were leaning on certain harmony patterns. And I like some of those patterns. Other ones I didn't like. Some of them made me feel very moody and melancholy, like a Beach Boys song, and others didn't. And it was just such an eye-opening world.

So it was bands like Chicago. And then we're talking about the late seventies. So you had bands like Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers, Toto, who were all on the hit parade, but they were a little more sophisticated than a lot of the kind of classic rock. And I was going, well, these guys are on the radio, but their music is different. It's more involved. It's got these other places it goes to. I didn't understand any of it, but I was fascinated by where they took the listener versus where Lynyrd Skynyrd took the listener.

And these are the things I started being fascinated by, buying more of them. And by the time you get to high school, it's 1980, 1981, and the whole world's exploding. You've got all the classic rock from the 70s. You've got New Wave and punk coming from England, which was highly experimental, but still it's very catchy, very looking, very melodic. And we were only ten years out from the sixties and all of the Beatles influence and all the psych pop and Stones - everything that was happening in the 60s wasn't that far away.

So you literally had some of the most highly experimental times in rock pop music, certainly with progressive rock bands. Punk and New Wave were kind of trying to tear that all down, to kind of go back to simple fun. It's emotionally teenage-charged music, so I was drowning in it. I had some really great friends who supported this habit that we all had, this addiction.

And it was really a time when we didn't judge any genre. It wasn't like, well, if you listen to punk, you can't listen to jazz. Or if you listen to progressive rock, you can't listen to New Wave, or Morrissey, The Smiths, that kind of stuff. It was just like, is it moving us? Is it inspiring us or not?

And so it was literally a free-for-all. We'd save up our money during the week. We go to Berkeley. It's the nearest urban center to where we grew up in the Bay Area in San Francisco. And on Telegraph Avenue by the university, there were literally six used record stores, we'd go in there with 20 dollars each. We'd saved up all week, and we'd come out with 20 records. Dollar vinyl. And my friend would go, I'm buying this record because I like this drummer, he plays on this record. I go, well, what do you know about the band and the artist? He goes, nothing.

And so this is how we started learning about just a huge variety of music that had existed prior to us showing up on the planet. And there were no there were no bad ideas. Ultimately, we were either into something or not. And he bought 20 records. I bought 20 that we'd swap so that we had 40 different records, were listening to different artists, and it was just a glorious time.

Listen to The Lickerish Quartet's latest EP here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Lickerish Quartet

Left to Right: Tim Smith, Eric Dover, Roger Joseph Manning Jr.

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