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Jon Manning on ukuleles, indoor camping and why songs don't need rules

Blanket Truth's "Hanging Out" 

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On first listen, "Hanging Out" sounds like happy-go-lucky kid's pop. Singer Jon Manning strums his baritone ukulele as flute dances around in the background. Cello and bass pick out the bass line on the left channel as vocal percussion takes over the right. The instrumental assortment suggests a band formed by a group of friends wanting to have fun together, which isn't too far from what happened. Besides the unusual instrumentation, the song has three distinct sections, played through twice, getting rid of traditional notions of verse-chorus song structures. The structure is''t concerned with grown-up rules, adding to the wide-eyed wonder and twee pop sound of the song.

But, in the second section, Manning runs his ukulele through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Tambourine enters the mix. A chorus joins Manning. And lyrically, "Hanging Out" is not a kid's song at all. Manning explores the awkward adult situation of wanting to hang out with someone but being rejected because he/she sees non-existent romantic intentions in your invitation. If only people could be more unsuspecting and child-like at times like this... With somewhat confused and annoyed acceptance of the situation, Manning sings in closing, "So what's the problem?/ Maybe I will never know."

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your instrument of choice is the baritone ukulele, which sounds a bit like guitar, but is kind of unusual still. How did you go about deciding to play the baritone ukulele?

JON MANNING: Well, I started playing soprano ukulele because my dad's from Hawaii. We always had one of those around the house, but I didn't play it too much until a few years ago, and I was like, "Man! Why haven't I been playing this all along?" And I had an old roommate who worked at a thrift store, and he had this baritone ukulele, but at the time I didn't know what it was. It was just some cool little instrument that had only four strings, and he called it the Quatro. For my birthday a few years ago, it was probably 2005, he gave it to me for my birthday. I took it back home, and I was at my parent's house; my little brother was like, "Oh, whose baritone ukulele is that in the living room?" I was like, "Oh, that's mine—so that's what that is." Since then, I haven't put it down. I've just been playing baritone ukulele ever since then as my primary instrument.

Besides the baritone ukulele, the other instrumentation on "Hanging Out," and for Blanket Truth in general, seems peculiar: vocal percussion, bass, flute, auxiliary percussion, cello... How did you decide on the sound you go for?

The others are just friends that have sort of compiled along the way. Like, the band changes a lot. The bass was my, actually, two of the people in the band were roommates of mine: Douglas [Scheider] the bass player and Craig [Salt Peters], who plays flute. We all lived together. Sarah [Cohen], who plays cello, was a classmate of Douglas'. And we had a sousaphone player for a minute, and then he quit and Douglas was like, "Well, we don't have a sousaphone player anymore, but I'm going to bring a cellist home with me." So, I actually had no real part in that, but it ended up working out well. And the guy who does vocal percussion [Eli Damm] is a friend of mine, a good friend, and he does beatboxing and vocal percussion for all sorts of events throughout Seattle. It seemed like it would go well since I originally started out with just Casio beats. So, it's similar to the Casio beats, but is a lot more organic and a lot more dynamic.

The combination of instruments on "Hanging Out" gives you a bit of a child-like twee sound, but the song, lyrically, is about adults. You mention coffee in the first line of the song, which isn't a kid-friendly thing, and you have a line about marriage: "My intention is not to make you my wife." Is the juxtaposition of twee-pop sound and more mature lyrics intentional?

I don't really think of it much as a juxtaposition. I guess I never thought of it that way. I don't really take into consideration, too much, the instrumentation versus lyrical content. I mean, I like to keep it light for the most part, but also keep it real and relevant to experiences that I have. But with instrumentation, I don't really like to get too heavy lyrically.

And talking about the experiences that you have, would you consider "Hanging Out" a rejection song? "So what's the problem?/ maybe I will never know" suggests the girl you want to hang out with doesn't want to hang out with you.

It could be rejection both ways because it's sort of like, "Well, why can't we just hang out? You don't have to be my wife to hang out." Not everybody who wants to hang out with each other wants to make out with each other. It's just sort of saying that there's nothing wrong with hanging out, and I don't know why sometimes people can't separate the two: between relationships and being friends.

Are there stories behind most of your songs? How do you come up with your songs?

Not all the songs are real, and not all the songs are fabricated. I try and just use the experiences that I've had and expand upon them. A lot of the songs do have stories. I feel like some of my songs just have a whole bunch of ideas for songs and then once a situation or an event comes up that reminds me of something that I jotted down previously, I'll go back and then expand upon it and flesh it out. But sometimes I'll come up with the riff first and then make up with lyrics on the spot to go with it. I have no real set thing, I just kind of let the songs come as they happen.

You mention fleshing out songs, but at 3:30, "Hanging Out" is longer than most of your songs. Why do your songs tend to be so short?

I feel like it's related to today's attention span. It's also correlated to the art of the perfect two-minute pop song. I feel like most pop songs really hover around that two-minute mark and don't go too much over it. I try and use that as a guide to keep in mind. Also, when I see a band live, I usually don't want them to play too long. There's lots of other bands and try and get everybody in there. It's easy to lose people's attention, so it's nice to keep people on their toes and keep the songs short and to the point and not to add any super excessive guitar noodling or anything like that.

"Hanging Out" mentions Woodland Park, a zoo in Seattle, and rainy days; does Seattle influence your music?

I feel like any time I'm in a new spot it definitely affects the songs a lot. ... My immediate surroundings definitely have a big impact on what I write about.

The line about rain in "Hanging Out" is,"Even on the rainy days we can find something to do." How does the song relate to the overall album, Indoor Camping?

Indoor camping is something that I have done on rainy days before, and I feel like if you have a good person to hang out with then you're exponentially more inclined to go out and make something positive. Not to say you can't make something positive when you're not hanging out with other people, but when you have someone to collaborate with, it makes it that much easier and that more exciting to create and make something new. Because then you can share that experience with somebody else instead of doing it on your own and then going back and calling up whoever. You'll be like, "Man, I just did this thing!" And they're like, "Whoa, that's cool!" and you're like "Man, I wish I could be there!" But if there's other people you're hanging out with—co-conspirators—then they could be right there. I think overall, the song and the album—I feel it's pretty representative of the album aside from its length.

But I like the juxtaposition of the acoustic and the distorted ukulele parts, and I tried to keep that going throughout the album as much as possible. A lot of songs are re-recorded from past releases, but re-recorded digitally because before I would do everything on a four-track. I actually had a friend of mine—Tory Fiterre, who plays music as Cartoon Monster—come up from Portland for a whole week, and we recorded this all in my bedroom. I was actually contemplating trying to record the whole thing inside of a tent in the living room, but it turned out to be a little bit precocious.

The album is being released by Now Herenes Records on CD and by Lost Sound Tapes on cassette.

Correct, that's my tape label.

So, why are you releasing your music on cassette?

The cassette version of the album is a completely different recording. It's a solo boombox recording. The CD is a full-band digital recording that's mastered on CD and fairly professional looking. But I just started recording on cassette tapes, and I like to keep recordings native to the analog tape. I just liked it because it really shows that sort of anybody could do it; anybody can have a boombox and press "Record" and play a song and make a bunch of tapes for other people. Actually, one of the main reasons I play music is to try and encourage other people to create something new and write their own songs. I feel like everybody, whether they know it or not, has at least one good song in them. No matter who they are, they have at least one; who knows how many, but everybody has at least one. I think that everybody should write and record that song ... and then send it to me at lostsoundtapes@gmail.com. [Laughs.]

Are all of your songs trying to communicate that do-it-yourself ethos? That anyone can do the pop-friendly, short songs that aren't quite kid songs but are kind of simple?

Yeah, that's my biggest thing: You don't need a real structure for a song. Some of my songs do and some of them don't. You can just put some cool sounding funky keyboard part and off-key vocals and it can still be a good song. You don't need fancy instruments, and you don't need fancy recording equipment. You don't need a golden voice to record a song. You can just do it at home. I listened to The Mountain Goats and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and I was just like, "Man, Mountain Goats just record stuff on a boombox? That's so cool. I have a boombox, I can do that." And there's Casiotone, and it's like, "Man, he has an entire album he recorded on an answering machine. I have an answering machine, I could totally do that. You just have a little Casio keyboard and an answering machine. I have all these things; why am I not doing this?" I love music so much, and for a while I thought that I would never be in a band and that I would always just be a bystander, but then I was really encouraged by these people, just by their music existing.

Do you try and style yourself after anyone in particular, or do you put yourself in any particular genre?

I guess it's folky pop music. I really love indie pop and twee pop stuff, but I really like punk music, too. I try and just put as many elements of different genres as I can but also try and keep things simple which ... can be counter-intuitive sometimes. But I feel if I write enough songs, I can get it all in, but I'm not sure when that will be. But there's no one that I really, I don't think, consciously try and sound like, but I definitely am very influenced by friends of mine. Like there's a band called Iji, who is from Phoenix, Ariz., and he's actually moving into my house next month. We're going to be playing in each other's bands and even start a new band, which I'm really excited about.

And, how much of the band is on tour?

There's just going to be one other person with me, Eli, who does vocal percussion. So, we're going to be a baritone ukulele/vocal percussion duo, which I think will catch a few people off-guard, but I'm looking forward to that.

Blanket Truth plays Nightlight Friday, Aug. 22, at 10 p.m. with International Grapevine and The Baker Family Band.

  • Jon Manning on ukuleles, indoor camping and why songs don't need rules

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