For their new album the beloved, if perennially under-the-radar, Tarheel combo decided to throw caution to the wind and rock the fuck out…
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“We were joking about how we expected this to be the backlash record,” says songwriter Bill Taylor of the Kingsbury Manx, whose seventh full-length, #The Bronze Age# comes well into the second decade of the band’s career. And while earlier albums caught comparisons to soft-rock icons like the Beach Boys and the Byrds, this one rocks harder.
“We knew that on this record we were going to end up getting into some songs that were more upbeat in tempo and more straight ahead rock than people were probably used to from us – things that were a little out of our comfort zone,” Taylor continues. “I was wondering whether people would say, ‘These guys are really trying something new, that’s great.’ Or, ‘You guys should stick to what you know.’”
Dirt bikes, Zeppelin and beginnings…
The Kingsbury Manx has been a band since the late 1990s, but its roots go back much further than that – to middle school, actually, where the original members first discovered each other and rock instruments. “Bill and I became next door neighbors in Wilson, NC, when we were 11 years old,” says Ryan Richardson, who plays bass and drums and other instruments. “We were both the ‘new kid’ in our school that fall, so we stuck together from the start. I guess I’d say we were pretty typical small-town kids, spending our afternoons shooting hoops in the driveway, jumping ramps on our dirt bikes, kicking a soccer ball, or playing video games.”
But less typically, the boys loved music, too. “We, and all of our middle school buddies (which included original songwriter/guitarist Kenneth Stephenson and cover artist/early band member Scott Myers), were pretty obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll,” says Richardson. “In eighth grade Bill got a guitar for Christmas, and I got a bass. Much Zeppelin ensued.”
(below: “Weird Beart & Black” live)
The four remained friends even when they went to different colleges, two of them to University of North Carolina’s main campus, the other two to UNC Wilmington. “Every other weekend, one set of friends would go visit the other. That’s where the band started,” says Taylor. “We all had guitars, and a couple of the guys got those cassette four-tracks. There was a lot of late night drunken ridiculousness.”
By 1999, all four were out of school, and they regrouped to make demo tapes and CDs and send them out to indie labels. Paul Finn, now the band’s keyboard player, was working at Drag City when he stumbled on the Kingsbury Manx’s first album. He mentioned it to his friend Howard Greynolds, then at Thrill Jockey, but Greynolds had not only heard the album – he was already working on releasing it. It would be the first album on his imprint Overcoat.
“When you listen to dozens of demos every day it gets really easy to discern the quality within the first few seconds,” says Finn, when asked what it was about the Manx’s debut that caught his ear. “If you find yourself continuing to listen (and not having an urge to stop the tape and move on) that usually means something. Rian Murphy (long time Drag City sales guy and all around music guru) and I were on a big Beach Boys kick at the DC office at that time so I think the harmonies are what drew me in. I remember thinking it sounded like a lo-fi Beach Boys and this was a little ahead of the big Beach Boys resurgence.”
With a deal from Overcoat, Taylor, Richardson, Stephenson and Myers headed to a local studio and recorded their debut in four days. Later, Myers, who has created the artwork for all of the Manx’s albums, left to pursue his art full time and Stephenson exited about the same time due to family and work commitments. Meanwhile another drummer and multi-instrumentalist down in Florida had heard the debut and liked it a lot.
“I listened to that first album every day for months and months,” says Clarque Blomquist, who now trades off on bass and drums with Richardson. “Then I met Ryan and we became friends. After they recorded the follow-up, Let You Down, they decided that they needed a fifth guy to play bass for the touring. Ryan suggested they give me a shot at it. “
Meanwhile, Finn had moved down to North Carolina from Chicago. He crashed with a sister for a while, then struck up a friendship with Merge Records’ Martin Hall, who subsequently hired him. Back in Chicago, Howard Greynolds urged him to get in touch with the Kingsbury Manx, so Finn went to a show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. “I started playing with Clarque in his side project, Shallow Be Thy Name,” says Finn. “Not long after that, Clarque told me the Manx were also looking for a full time keyboard player, which was my main instrument. So suddenly I found myself going on tour with the band and now ten years have passed and I’m still in the band and sort of took the torch from Howard to be releasing their records.” (Finn’s Odessa Records has released the last two Kingbury Manx albums.)
Ryan Richardson says that changes in the line-up have been, overall, positive, as the band has evolved over time. “In a lot of ways, I think our basic sound has stayed pretty consistent through the years. Losing Kenneth was a huge blow because he was an integral part of the first three records with his amazing songwriting and spaced-out guitar effects,” he explained. “Luckily, Bill ramped up his songwriting production to fill the void, and Paul was able to make up for the lost guitars with a wide array of organ and synth sounds. If anything, I’d say that maybe the song structures have become more complex over the years, and our work in the studio is bit less haphazard than it was in the early days.”
A rocking Bronze age…
The Kingsbury Manx recorded #Bronze Age# at Sound of Music in Richmond, Virginia, the same studio where the band recorded #Let You Down# in 2001. The band also used Brian Paulson to mix the album; he was the producer on #Let You Down#. “It was like a weird 2001 reunion, where we recorded at Sound of Music again and worked with the same producer, but made vastly different sounding records,” says Taylor. “That’s what I think is fascinating about it, same gear, same producer, same studio, but two completely different sounding records.”
Sound of Music had burned down in the interim and was not entirely reconstructed at the time the Kingsbury Manx entered the studio. (Taylor says that you can hear ladders clanging if you listen closely enough to certain songs.) The band also had to return several times to the studio, as they got money for recording, so the album took almost a year to finish.
Yet despite the length its gestation, #Bronze Age# has an undeniable urgency. It is, by far, the Kingsbury Manx’s loudest, most rocking album to date.
“It just happened naturally. Those were the songs Bill was writing,” says Finn. “We had done a lot of quiet 3/4 songs, so we wanted to try something different. And it’s just fun to rock out. Ryan and I had also been listening to a lot of prog rock like early Genesis in the last few years so I think that kind of rubbed off. “
“We’ve dabbled in rocking out a little a bit on the last three albums but this is the first one where we really went for it,” adds Blomquist. “The biggest difference for me was the tempos. This is the first time in this band where my background playing in punk and metal bands has actually come in handy, with the quick drum beats in some of the songs. Bill has always wanted to cut loose but he’s just now getting around to writing in that style. He and Ryan were little heavy metal kids too so they’ve always had it in them, waiting to be expressed.”
Taylor says that the big fuzzy guitar lead in “Future Hunter” is one of his favorite things on the record (along with Blomquist’s intricately varied drumming on “Weird Beard & Black Wolf”), a rock sound if there ever was one.
“You don’t just throw that crazy, fuzzed-out guitar on there by accident. That was a conscious decision,” he explains. “We were excited about making those and going in that direction. In the live show, there’s an energy that drives that. We’re trying to bring some of that onto a record.”
(below: “Solely Bavaria” live)
Reaching out to the rockers…
Changing up the sound is a risk for any band, especially one with a long-standing loyal fan base like the Kingsbury Manx. Yet Finn says that the band’s fans seem to be okay with the new direction.
“We’ve been lucky to get really great press for our records, but every time there’s a little nervousness like ‘Is this the record people decide to shit on?’”, he explains. “This one was more so because we changed the script a lot, did a lot of upbeat/rocking songs, and people can be surprisingly against change.”
Still, he adds that, “We are blessed with a really great, loyal fan base. They are patient with us, with how long we take. When new record comes out and the mail orders start to come in, I smile to see the same names again from four years ago, and going back to the beginning. We may not have a lot of fans, but the ones we do have make up for it in quality!”
“By flying under the radar for so many years I think we’ve retained underdog status in a lot of people’s minds, so those that know of us are still rooting for us,” says Blomquist. “Nobody is out there trying to knock us down a notch in the reviews, like they certainly would be by now if we had become more widely known.
“When you put out records at the pace we do, there is an entirely new college age crowd out there that probably has never heard of us each time, so it’s always like a fresh start in that way. Maybe one day there will be a generation of kids that we’ll really resonate with and they’ll adopt us as their own. I also think if we could get heard by the baby boomer generation they would dig us, but that’s a little more challenging, because there is no equivalent of college radio for them. It’s one of our goals – reach out to the aging rockers, somehow.”