I heard the Mannequin Men were a very drunk and very loud band that liked to drink and play their instruments loud. I also heard the band’s live show described as drunk and loud. For everyone who is as bored as I am with the obvious adjectives, here’s a new one: dynamic. The Mannequin Men are definitely brash and energetic, yet the most intriguing thing about the quartet from Chicago lies not in their presentation but in their objective approach to being in a band.
“I don’t think a lot of people are bands anymore. I feel like people want to manufacture something that is kind of cherry, but I don’t think that necessarily they understand the interaction that bands need to have,” Kevin Richard (guitar, vocals) said to me before the show at Ronny’s in Logan Square. “That happens because a lot of times it’s one person’s vision and it’s hard keeping a band together. There’s no convincing here,” added drummer Seth Bohn.
Truly, the people that come to the shows, as well as those who play in the band, are there to enjoy themselves without feeling any pressure to buy into anything chiefly because nobody’s selling anything.
So when Flameshovel offered to put out the album that would become Fresh Rot (2007), the band asked for guidelines. “[Flameshovel] was like, ‘Try and reproduce your live show,’ so we tried to go as raw as possible and everything was recorded live.” The result, something like an invitation to see the band live, is only one clue to the success of the band, but not the whole picture. Richard explains that a live show is a “community thing where a record can be a solitary thing,” and the Men do not let their community down, but there is a striking difference between seeing them live and hearing them on record.
I asked them if there is a sonic transition happening from the material on Fresh Rot to whatever is next for the band similar to what happened between Showbiz Witch and Fresh Rot. “Yeah, we’re rolling out of that. I think a lot of people think we’re a punk band, which is weird. We had a lot of aggression to get out of our system once we put out the first record. We still get upset a lot of times. We have no problem writing songs like on the first record but we’re also into all types of music. We’ll be playing like 5 or 6 new songs tonight that will be on the new record. They’re a little bit more mid-tempo.”
But do they ever feel a need to remain faithful to the image created by their record? “Hopefully we can do something that pays tribute to that record or gives people a base understanding of the songs. I mean no one wants to see someone do the same thing over and over. We feel, and I don’t know if it comes off this way to the audience, no matter what we change up, I feel like, because it’s all the same members, it’s still the same sound.”
This fundamental trust enables the band to experiment more in these transitional times. It keeps the live shows exciting and feeds the band’s creativity. “We’ve been lucky enough to do stuff that we’re proud of and people have been accepting as far as that goes. We may do a record that sounds a certain way, but it’d be because we wanted a record that sounds that way.”
Despite this utopian approach to being in band, the songs on Fresh Rot do not ignore the shortcomings of modern life. Songs like “Pattern Factory” and “Sewers” highlight the growing dissatisfaction with an industrialized world while “Pigpen” turns young lust into a disgusting ritual executed at dive bars, creating entirely new forms of irony when it was the most lively song performed at Ronny’s. Because of these songs and others like them, I hesitated for a moment when I opened up the CD and found in the linear notes a dedication to “our great home of Chicago”. Was this tongue-in-cheek?
“Chicago is the greatest city on Earth. We’re chillin’ on this place. A lot of people want to get down on ‘there’s more happening some place else’. You hear bands moving someplace else bigger to try and make things happen. Make shit happen here. We’re not going anywhere.”
“We love Chicago a lot and the idea of building up a music scene. It’s nice to not have the microscope on you. We can operate out here and we can do what we do and we can play different stuff. The kids out here aren’t looking for you to come out and do something [specific].”
Is there a specific scene? “There’s no scene. Which is good and band. The good part is you don’t have to cater to anything. We’re able to operate independently and a lot of bands are starting to get that whiff. Being able to be like, ‘fuck it’. It feels good to be here right now and it will feel good to be here in a couple of years.”
Here’s to a couple more years. The Mannequin Men have a few shows coming up with fellow Chicagoans Catfish Haven before taking over Texas for SXSW.