Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s ‘Catnip Dynamite’ a solo journey

By  Peter Lindblad

To hear him tell it, former Jellyfish and Imperial Drag mastermind Roger Joseph Manning Jr. — a college student at the time — was in a “heavy XTC phase” when he wrote the music for “Haunted Henry.” And that makes sense because that same year, in 1986, Andy Partridge and company unveiled their highly orchestral psychedelic-pop masterpiece Skylarking.

That would make “Haunted Henry” around 23 years old, and interestingly, the theatrical, piano-beaten love child of Stephen Sondheim and Supertramp — complete with thunderstorm sound effects and bells — is only now seeing the light of day as one of 14 colorful acid-pop splashes on Manning’s vibrant new solo effort, Catnip Dynamite, released Feb. 3 on Oglio. There’s a reason why it sat on the shelf for so long, as Manning only finished the lyrics for it in 2007.

“It was not quite right for Jellyfish so it sat on the back burner for awhile as I always loved the track,” explains Manning. “The story is about a town misfit not too unlike the thread in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Everyone makes him out to be a monster, but we never learn if he really is a monster or just accused of the acts mentioned in the lyrics”
 
Like “Haunted Henry,” Catnip Dynamite was not created in a day, or even a year. “As a matter of fact, Catnip Dynamite was crafted out of sketches and demos over the last 20-year period of my life, and it was a great musical, internal journey to go back and flesh those ideas out,” says Manning.

Manning’s own travels throughout the music world have taken him to some far-flung outposts of the imagination, starting with Beatnik Beatch, half of which would later splinter off into the San Francisco-based Jellyfish. A “through the looking glass” experience in psychedelia and power-pop that scrambled senses with its skewed sensibilities and wonderfully crafted songwriting in the early ’90s, Jellyfish included Manning’s Beatnik Beatch cohort Andy Sturmer, former Three O’Clock singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Falkner, and Manning’s brother Chris on bass for live shows.

Blessed with three marquee talents in Manning, Sturmer and Falkner, Jellyfish doled out its sweet pop nectar to an underground world in dire need of washing the grime and grit of grunge out of its mouth. And its debut album, Bellybutton, which included the alternative hit “Baby’s Coming Back,” did the trick, distilling the hooks, harmonies and melodies of Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Zombies and the aforementioned XTC into a candy-coated sonic pharmaceutical that offered a hallucinogenic refuge from grunge.

“What made us special is we set out to do something none of our peers were doing,” recalls Manning. “Remember, our albums came out in the heyday of hair metal and the meteoric rise of grunge; we were coming completely out of left field, in touch with all our emotions, masculine and feminine, and I believe that’s what our fans latched onto. The creative chemistry allowed for that direction to flourish; through all our skills, we gelled in our vision for the band. If the personal chemistry had been intact, who knows? We could still be going.”

Unfortunately, Jellyfish wouldn’t survive long. Falkner and Chris Manning departed, with Falkner feeling his ambitions thwarted in Jellyfish. Using a cadre of mercenary musicians, Sturmer and Roger Manning carried on, however, and in 1993, Jellyfish released the even more ambitious Spilt Milk, a beautiful swirl of ’70s power-pop, studio artistry and Beatles experimentalism.

A year later, though, Jellyfish was no more. In the years following the break-up, Manning would drift through projects such as the short-lived retro-glam outfit Imperial Drag, who released one LP, a 1996 self-titled effort that worked off much the same template that Jellyfish employed.

“I worked with [vocalist and guitarist] Eric [Dover] the same as Andy and Jason,” says Manning, talking about how the experience with Imperial Drag mirrored that with Jellyfish. “We shared the same creative energies as we did in Jellyfish, long hours defining a creative dream then going for it, getting it released and hope it connects to the public at large. It’s you and your collaborator in a room asking do we have it yet. And if not, can someone order some takeout because we’re going to be here until we do!”

Imperial Drag was a “here today gone tomorrow” proposition, however, and Manning would gravitate toward other ventures, including The Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes. As an in-demand keyboardist, vocalist, arranger and songwriters, Manning worked in the background on studio projects for a host of artists, the list going from Air and Beck to Johnny Cash and … gulp … Paris Hilton. He also worked on music for the films “Lost In Translation” and “Team America.”

All of it has led up to the aural circus that is Catnip Dynamite.

“I’ve been doing session work and band projects for over 15 years,” says Manning. “As I worked on different tracks for Catnip Dynamite, I would have flashes of Beck or Jellyfish. Overall, each project I have been involved with brought it’s own set of challenges and those challenges added to the experience palette as I learned to navigate through them all. I’m lucky they have all been positive, and I’ve learned something from each and every one session to take forward.”

With Catnip Dynamite, Manning acrobatically flips from genre to genre, employing  classical elements, like strings and such, and the electric-guitar crunch of power-pop to marvelous effect, while building up around it all an ornate architecture of piano and other kinds of keyboards. Dynamic and vivid, tracks like “Imaginary Girlfriend,” “Down In Front” and “The Quickening” are striking pop bursts that leap out of the speakers. Manning was keen on making them jump.

“In my opinion, composers have forgotten the power of dynamics,” declares Manning. “We have so much media these days vying for our attention, the media producer is almost forced to hit you hard and loud to cut through all the stimuli. The side effect is with intensity, there is letdown and as dynamic human beings, we have a wider array of emotions than that. We need contrast over a continual one-level assault to thrive.”

That philosophy drives Catnip Dynamite, which features a psychedelic merry-go-round like “The Turnstile At Heaven’s Gate” and the prog-rock bombast of “Survival Machine,” with its fusillade of keyboards.

“With the harpsichord, chimes, strings, the cathedral-like church organ, I wanted big, grand, epic, cinematic and royal,” says Manning. “Lots of reverb to go with the subject matter of ‘Survival Machine,’ which is about death and dreaming. I needed an esoteric quality, evocative of a place of worship, to really help drive home the lyrical message of the song.”

That feeling of being in a place that seems close to the pearly gates is palpable in “The Turnstile At Heaven’s Gate,” a song as full of life and color as any on Catnip Dynamite.

“For me, that’s my whole point in my musical life, for songs to evoke an emotion, a mental visual where you close your eyes and see your own dreamscape colors or a physical reaction (how some tracks just make you want to dance), the goal is always to somehow evoke some type of response,” says Manning. “No self-respecting artist is making music without attempting to evoke some type of emotional quality; that is certainly the intentions I am putting forth.”

And Manning did intend Catnip Dynamite to be a journey through the history and all the various permutations of popular music. “Totally, 100 percent intentional,” admits Manning. “I can’t write in one style. I love punk, jazz, prog, dance — you name it. Throughout the years, I have garnered enough music technical know-how to have the chops and mechanics to explore a variety of styles harmonically, just so I can do exactly that, comfortably go on a genre-hopping journey, which I love to do as opposed to rigidly being held to one pigeonhole.”

In that spirit, Manning added three bonus tracks to the U.S. release of Catnip Dynamite, including concert covers of Thomas Dolby’s “Europa And The Pirate Twins” and Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.”

“I was happy to feature those tracks as a bonus for the fans,” says Manning. “Those live tracks are near and dear to me, and they helped set apart the U.S. release, which came a few months after the original Japanese release on a different label. They are from the Fuji Rock Festival, and to me are a great representation of my rare live show. Both Thomas Dolby and Elton John have been huge influences on me both as a keyboardist and as a songwriter. It was a natural progress to include them on Catnip Dynamite, and my thought was my longtime fans would get a kick out of the bonus material the same way I did.”

Considering that he performed and recorded everything on the record, except for the mixing work, Manning could have done anything he damn well pleased. Going it alone for Catnip Dynamite was a journey Manning needed to take.

“For no other reason beyond collaborating is about sharing, editing and compromise, about sacrifice for the greater good, which is a great experience in itself,” says Manning. “Solo or collaboration, both are rewarding with one way not better than the other — each have their own benefits. In this particular scenario, for the first time in my career, I had the chance to go all the way to the end of the creative process on my own, which was a rewarding experience for me.”

That’s something he hopes Catnip Dynamite is for all who hear it.

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