Q & A: AMY MANTIS

Amy and Eric chat songwriting, Fleetwood Mac and Lady Gaga





PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELF FOR US WHO ARE NOT FAMILIAR WITH YOU AND YOUR MUSIC AND TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF.


Amy: I’m the team captain of Amy Mantis & the Space Between. I write the songs, sing the songs, and play the guitar on the songs. I love everything about music and have allowed it to consume me full stop. I teach music, I went to music school (shouts to Berklee - go Jazz Cats!), and, in a normal year, I go to more concerts than anyone I know. I wrote a song that we released last year called “I Don’t Know How To Stop,” and it’s about my life as a musician. I swear I’m not a maniac - I’m just very enthusiastic.


Eric: I play drums and help Amy with arrangements and songwriting. I’m a writer and I used to be a rhetoric and composition professor. I grew up playing in punk, hardcore, skacore, and indie rock bands in New Bedford, MA, but I took time off from music when I started my MFA at Emerson in 2011. I joined up with Amy through Craigslist a few years back.


TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR NEW ALBUM OR SINGLE?


Eric: The lead single is “Call It What You Want,” which we were actually up in the air about including it on A Place to Land. It’s an older song that Amy had recorded with a previous group that we’d been playing live, and I think the performance had just come to a place where we felt like it was one our tightest, punchiest songs. So we went with it.


It’s funny that the lyrics of that song are about sleepwalking and literally not being in control of your actions, but the song itself is subtly intricate and very precisely put together. You can feel each of us kind of ramping up as the song goes, but then pulling it all back again when we make that turn toward the final leg. It’s an exhilarating song to play, like driving a fast car, and I think we captured that on the record.


Amy: Since Eric nailed our single, I’ll tell you a bit about our album as a whole. A Place to Land really came about after we underwent a lineup change in late 2018. We became a power trio after the departure of our keys player/other singer-songwriter. As a trio, we realized early on there was something special happening and we wanted to capture that. I wanted an album that captured the energy of our live show, who we are musically, and also where we want to go. And thanks to Sean McLaughlin, our producer extraordinaire, and the incredible performances of Jeff (bass) and Eric, I’d say I got exactly what I was looking for.


WHAT INSPIRED THE ALBUM OR SINGLE?


Amy: I had only recorded EPs up until this endeavour, and I wanted to prove that I could present a cohesive 10-song traditionally-leaning record. Also, in all honesty one of my students sparked some envy in me. She had two full-length records and she was 17, and I had none and I was 28. I knew we could find (or I could write) the songs we needed, and I had a band and a producer that were ripe for this challenge. So off we went.


Eric: Amy. She wrote ten great songs and was kind enough to let me play drums on them. I just tried to play the parts I thought she wanted to hear. Sometimes it comes really naturally. Other times it’s like figuring out a puzzle. It’s a fun intellectual and creative challenge.


CAN YOU SUM UP THE ALBUM IN A FEW WORDS?


Amy: Dynamic, heartfelt, and focused.


Eric: Direct, catchy, and hard-hitting.


WHAT RECORD CHANGED YOUR LIFE AND WHY?


Amy: My favourite record of all-time is Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 classic Rumours.


I had always known who Fleetwood Mac were (I will be referring to them as the Mac from here on out), but in 2011, Rumours and the Mac came into my life and I listened to that record every day for the entire month of May, and then some. I was blown away by the simplicity and relatability and the emotion of those songs.


Plus the story of that record in and of itself - it should never have happened. And that makes me love it even more. The statistical likelihood of that record ever happening has to be infinitesimal. But that’s the power of those songs. You have one ex-lover writing about another ex-lover and then singing that song in front of them. It blows me away.


That record opened my ears up to songwriting in a way that very few records have. There was my life before Rumours and my life after Rumours. It’s a very clear line for me.


I was gonna say, “On a more recent level,” but this record is probably not considered recent anymore. The Fame Monster by Lady Gaga. Those eight songs are eight of the most perfect songs anyone has ever created. The dynamism, the hooks, the tracks - it’s perfect. It combined the best elements of pop music and songcraft, which don’t always come together in the same package.


Eric: Appropriately enough, the one I always think of first is Beck’s Sea Change. Up until college, I mostly just discovered music through scene guys condescendingly saying things like, “Oh, you’ve never heard of…” I don’t know, like, “...Gorilla Biscuits? Or Embrace?” Whatever the most obscure hardcore act du jour was. I’d always liked a lot of different kinds of music, and once I left my hometown circle, I got to kind of leave all that identity politicking behind and start growing again as a listener, something I think I lost in high school. I picked up Sea Change, which couldn’t have been more different than the stuff I’d been listening to, and connected immediately.


That record slowed me down. It stopped me in my tracks, really. It validated some stuff for me emotionally, and I think that’s what I was mostly wrapped up in at the time, but it also shifted my ear. I wanted to hear everything Nigel Godrich had produced, everything David Campbell had arranged strings for. It turned me on to aesthetics and production in music. It helped me develop a love for a great lap steel part. It got me into slower, mellower, sadder music, like Elliott Smith and Nick Drake and Sigur Ros. And then he toured with Flaming Lips as his backing band, and that led me to The Soft Bulletin, which was life-changing in its own right.


I think the end result was just me becoming a more song-oriented drummer. I went from trying to do everything as fast as possible to thinking about percussion from a songcraft standpoint.


More recently, I’d have to point to two albums out of Japan: Otoboke Beaver’s Itekoma Hits and Haru Nemuri’s harutosyura. I just think the Otoboke Beaver record is so smart and so consciously rooted in punk rock history, yet it’s also hyper-accessible, just filled with incredible hooks and hilarious jokes and mind-blowing musicianship. Like, I barely understand any Japanese at all, yet because the writing is so meticulous and the performances so evocative, I feel like I know exactly what each one of those songs is about. It’s the sound of four people having a common vision and doing exactly what they want to do and doing it with all the confidence in the world. It’s wonderful.


Haru’s album is more abstract and esoteric, and I think her vocal approach takes some getting used to, but her grasp on the language, her diction, and her sense of rhythm are overwhelming once you’ve acquired the taste. Then you see her live and she’s just screaming her brains out in your face. It’s awesome. It’s like Theater of Cruelty.


DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE MUSIC VIDEO FILMED BY YOUR BAND OR ANOTHER ARTIST?


Amy: I haven’t watched a music video in such a long time. Not for any particular reason - they’re just not something I’ve been seeking out lately. We don’t have any music videos yet, but we will someday! Keep your eyes peeled, folks, we’ll be splashed across your smartphones in no time!


My favorite video might be the video for “Numb” by U2. Mostly because I know how much they hated shooting it because The Edge couldn’t stop laughing, and that makes me laugh. I also love all the HAIM videos. Paul Thomas Anderson has directed nearly all of them and the trust they have in each other is tangible. It’s a beautiful combination that makes for really engaging videos.


Eric: My favorite music video of all time is probably Lady Gaga’s video for “Bad Romance.” Few pieces of media have felt so perfectly of the moment to me as that video. Lately, I can’t stop watching the Osees’ performance of “Dreary Nonsense” from the Levitate Sessions. The song is incredible, and their playing is super tight, but I just love that they look like a coven casting a spell or something. I feel like good rock music should feel a little supernatural.


WHAT WOULD WE FIND YOU DOING WHEN YOU'RE NOT MAKING MUSIC?


Amy: Outside of listening and playing music, I can be found reading, riding my motorcycle, working on my French, or wrestling with the New York Times’ Sunday crossword. And in non-pandemic times, I like to go places and do things. Said things tend to involve either the theatre, Harry Potter, or baseball. Not necessarily in that order. Right now I really miss going to the movies. No horror movies for me, though.


Eric: I write stories. I’m writing one right now about a hunter who gets gored by a buck he believes he’s just killed, and then it starts talking to him, and he has an existential conversation with it as he’s dying alone in the woods. I just finished one about a reluctant vampire. I’m also working on a novel called The Woods that’s about an ancient elemental that feeds on people through manipulation, obsession, and addiction. I read a lot of Murakami, too. And watch horror movies with my wife. We watched I Saw the Devil last night, and I’m still squirming.


DO YOU GET NERVOUS PERFORMING LIVE, IF SO HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT?


Amy: I’ve never been the type to have stage fright, but there are some moments where I find myself being hyper-critical of myself as I’m performing. A lot happens for me between my brain, my mouth, and the microphone. Thankfully no one else has to experience those moments. More often that not, when I listen back to a performance I’m relieved to discover the majority of my criticisms were unfounded. The more prepared I am across the board - mentally, physically, getting good practice with and without the band - the less likely I am to end up being my own worst critic.


Eric: I just never want to be the one to ruin it for my bandmates. That’s it. That goes for studio, live, whatever. You usually can’t even really see the audience from behind the drum kit, anyway, so my concern is always with how the people on stage feel about my playing.


There’s this quote from Nels Cline about playing live where he basically says he just wants to levitate every night. And I get that. I’ve had those nights. I would hate to be what’s standing between someone else and having one of those nights, never mind between us as a unit and having one of those nights.


HOW DID YOU FORM THE BAND?


Amy: Craigslist is what brought us all together. I was looking for a bassist the summer of 2015, and found Jeff (our former bassist) via a posting there. And he had a friend who played keys and sang and wrote, so I said to bring him along too. The following spring we found Eric via his post on Craigslist and now we’re the only ones still playing music together.


Back then (late spring of 2016) we were a quartet with two singer-songwriters and operating under the name “Space Between.” After our keys player/other singer-songwriter moved to LA in late summer 2018, I proposed that we stick my name in front of the band name. Our first show as Amy Mantis & the Space Between was the same night as Game Four of the 2018 World Series, which was sometime that October.


HOW DO YOU WRITE? - DO YOU HAVE A KEY SONGWRITER, OR DO YOU ALL WORK TOGETHER?


Amy: This has very recently changed for us, and for the better I think. On A Place to Land, every song is written solely by me. I think I needed to do that. I wanted something that was unequivocally mine and that’s exactly what it is. But since our bassist left, Eric and I have become a songwriting duo, and I can’t say enough good things about it. I’m still the primary writer in that I bring Eric a finished song, but then we rewrite it together in what we call “Office Hours.”


Eric: I think I approach those sessions very much like I would have approached commenting on a workshop piece or essay when I was teaching. Amy brings me something she’s been working on, and we sit down and try to put into concrete language what it is she’s trying to get across. Usually we start with grounding her work in specifics and then build around whatever emerges: an image, a setting, a narrative arc, or whatever it might be.


What’s most interesting, I think, is that our backgrounds are polar opposites: Amy has had a world class musical education, and it shows, and I taught myself how to play music by drumming along to NOFX CDs, and I think that shows, too. Amy’s stuff is always very well thought out, whereas I’m just kind of autodidactically putting into language the instinctual or internalized sense of music theory I’ve developed as a drummer, listener, and appreciator of songcraft.


WHAT INSPIRES YOU?


Amy: Inspiration is everywhere, and I believe that everything can serve as inspiration. What inspires me is the process of writing a song itself. For me, writing begets writing, and practice begets more ideas. So the more I write and practice and stay consistent, the more songs we have.


Eric: I think the best thing I can do for my creativity is just be well. Like, eat well and exercise and meditate so I can keep my thoughts clear and kind of be present and open to the abundant influence the world provides by just, like, looking around. I’m either in that headspace or I’m not.


WHAT IS NEXT?


Eric: At some point in the next year, we’ll be releasing two EPs that we’ve started working on already. Each is five songs long, and each song on each EP kind of correlates to its respective song on the other EP, so they’re kind of paired together. We’re not sure what to call them yet or how we’ll release them, but I think we both feel like we’ve taken a big step forward with this new material.


Amy: I second what Eric said. And hopefully a vaccine in the near future so we can play shows again.


PLEASE TELL US ANY SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS SO WE CAN SHARE.


Instagram: www.instagram.com/amymantis


Facebook: www.facebook.com/amymantismusic


YouTube: www.youtube.com/amymantis


Twitter: www.twitter.com/amymantis


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