Year of the Manta

Posted by Pete DeMola on 3. Feb 2011

NEW YORK, FEB 3 – The group of musicians now known as the Flying Mantas have always been one of my favorite bands because they don’t take themselves too seriously – there’s no shoegazing, knob-twirling introspection or rock star posturing or sense of apostolic attitude towards them or their music or anything but a pure sense that they’re just having fun.

Just real rock and roll.

They used to be straight punk rock band – a gritty, nasty puke-on-the-amplifier-stacks-between-songs kind of band called You Mei You, a trio whom you felt like you could exchange punches with before, during and after their high-energy sets, shoddy, muddy and teetering on chaos.

Or throw some beer bottles. Get nasty before they oozed back into the woodwork.

Guitarist-slash-vocalist Skip Lunch would take cracks at the audience at D-22 as the night grew long in the tooth (“Fuck you too, asshole!”), when the crowd would settle into an uneasy alliance between regulars and Weekend Warriors who just happened to stick around after the Flavor of the Months played, got paid and sashayed out the door with their fan clubs in hot pursuit.

Both contingents -- the regulars and wobbly warriors -- would be thrilled. Regulars smiling knowingly, newbies pleased at the novelty of recognition.

That would be Skip Lunch spitting dry insults like a machine gun, drum rolls and flourishes from Chery Bomb; former bassist CZ Ramone brushing Johnny Ramone-like curls from his eyes.

They still are that band, I think, but now they have dialed it down (or cranked it up, depending on who you ask) and reverted back to a surf rock sound, with 1960s instrumental structures, horns and organs.

"Singing is a trick to make people listen to music longer than they normally would," said Lunch quoting David Byrne. “Now we have more energy for playing music.”

He added that singing is for pop stars and posers, appealing to people who can’t handle music.

I say reverted because two of the three – Lunch and Bomb – have played in a surf rock band in Xiamen called the Clamps intermittently since 2007.

The seed of their transformation was planted a ways back – maybe it’s always been there under the surface, a magnetic pull, like a manta from the depths.

They kept it secretive, like a pregnancy, and played countless “final” You Mei You gigs last year – recalibrating the punk element, easing in the 1960s garage rock -- before finally putting it to rest and eventually giving birth to their current brand of flower power.

I’d have to tease information out of any of them.

“I’ve heard that you’re changing your name,” I said to Bomb as I caught her last July on the street outside of an Indian Restaurant before a Clamps gig.

“Just tell me what it is. I already caught your ‘final’ gig at 2 Kolegas last week. The community has the right to know.”

No (fuzzy) dice. I finally managed to get her to text me the name hours later like a secret-fucking-code from a covert operation.

The Flying Mantas. Operation Manta commences at twenty-two hundred hours.

Detonation. Cue "Spy Theme."

Got it, good. Very retro, guys. Very 1950s sci-fi. Distinguishable. And a great logo, too.

Earlier someone had slipped me an erroneous bit of info – “I think they’re called the Mattresses or something” – they said, taking a slug off a beer at one of those white plastic tables outside and that got me worried.

Another guy said, “No – not mattresses. They’re the Flying Mantous.”

Oh dear.

I received bits and pieces of info here and there throughout the summer and autumn – at the annual D-22 Halloween Punk Rock K-TV Extravaganza; through phone calls in between double gigs in mid-November Saturday evenings, in between laying down guitar tracks in the studio – but I didn’t make it out to see the new and improved unit until the annual Christmas Day Extravaganza at D-22, which was a total fucking bust – Lunch rightfully likened the once hallowed walls to a mausoleum, memento mori -- but the trio sounded damn good regardless, with songs like “Spy Theme” – two-minutes of instrumental jet-propelled neo-surf – and “Hernando,” a sharp stab in the gut that retains more of the “fuck you” punk element with a lacerating guitar riff and indignant vocals.

We were going to talk more after the Christmas gig but the environment wasn’t very jolly.

Think a Dickensian Christmas at a state-run orphanage – not even a single helping of porridge – and absent of the bacchanals of years past: zero carolers and merrymakers but the forlorn sounds of distant traffic on the Fourth Ring Road, metallic grit in my mouth and emptiness in my heart.

I was feeling the triple sting of health (dying), relationship (on life support) and emotional issues (flatlined) while Lunch excused himself and appeared a short time later after smoking some psychedelic mistletoe courtesy of a Secret Santa.

”We’ll talk about this later,” I said to Lunch as I humped his gear out to our Christmas sleigh – a green and yellow Xili manned by Zhou the Red-Nosed Cabbie -- as he followed, eyes as wide as saucers and floating in a land that should I have chosen to visit would have sent my ALT levels into a Satanic Panic.

Now, during this harmonious Chinese New Year and in an exile in New York, the time seems ripe for playing catch-up.

Things done changed, for the better.

“Everything about our band is better by far,” said Lunch exuberantly from his home in southeast Beijing, a sunny sky shining overhead clouded with gunpowder dust at eight o’clock in the morning.

They’re excited about new member Scott Daly (Arms & Legs) adding a strong element of vitality with bass, organ and reminders of the past.

Lunch feels that Daly channels founding member Richard who was murdered post-gig after a heated dice game in Fuzhou in 2005 – also during Spring Festival -- and fills the void that he and Bomb have been seeking to fill since then, forty-four new members later, most of whom disappeared under unusual circumstances.

”He looks and acts just like him,” said Lunch, ticking off the similarities – soloing on one knee, Jeff Buckley influences. “I swear it’s Richard channeling through him. It’s a little creepy, but in a good way! It’s almost undeniable.”

In addition to the infusion of energy brought in by Daly, the band has kicked off No No NO! Records, a Beijing-based project-centered collective in partnership with the newly-launched DIY vinyl label Genjing Records.

The collective, says Lunch, is intent on cranking out vinyl records from artists who carry the torch of 1950s-60s influenced music like rockabilly, garage rock, and surf guitar.

Expect a split 7” with Japan’s Goggle-A – a first in Sino-Japanese relations – sometime this spring. You can also find them on the soundtrack of "Movie! A Chinese Comedy" later this year.

On the live circuit, you can catch them around town at MAO Live House, Hot Cat Club and at a pangbianr-sponsored instrumental showcase at D-22 on March 26.

And then there are, of course, slots at this summer’s high-profile Modern Sky festivals.

But they have not submerged their punk past.

They’ll still rotate in the old You Mei You standbys -- “Poseur,” “All Talk, No Action” and the legendary “Bu Zhi Dao” – as well as interchange instrumentals with vocal numbers.

In addition to influences like the Damned, Wire and Buzzcocks, add a slew of surf-influenced instrumental bands to the pot: the Sonics, Link Wray, Davie Allan, early-1980s NYC crew the Raybeats and mid-1990s Portland garage rock band Satan’s Pilgrims.

”To me, it’s all punk rock,” said Lunch. “It’s all fast and furious,” explaining that it’s not too much of a departure – that punks have been getting hip to surf and garage rock for years.

Rockabilly becomes psychobilly, he said. “Nothing is lost here in the change of style – it’s surf punk for sure.”

And as far as their self-proclaimed status as the “Most Dangerous Band in the World” is concerned, I hope they maintain it -- even add another notch to their bloodstained bedpost, feeding the mythology fresh meat.

As for me, while I gaze from frosted glass windows into snow-covered, bear infested woods -- with temperatures so cold that the locals claim that if you throw a steaming glass of water in the air it disappears -- I should be wary of meeting my demise in this forsaken land, the Flying Mantas’ California-fused melodic riffs would make a damn perfect soundtrack to these End of Days.

Cover image designed by Misuzu Van of The Beat Bandits. 

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