Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Talks Crafting Psychedelic Earworms & The Arrival Of The Lickerish Quartet

For Roger Joseph Manning Jr., 2020 has been a big year musically, and is getting even bigger with the ongoing release of EPs in his new supergroup outfit The Lickerish Quartet, with Eric Dover (Imperial Drag, Slash's Snakepit, Alice Cooper) and Tim Smith (Noel Gallagher, The Finn Brothers, Sheryl Crow). RJM Jr.'s life has already been very eventful and busy as a touring keyboardist for Beck, a founding member of Jellyfish, a session musician with a host of greats, and the purveyor of solo music.

It's that solo music that has finally been getting some attention with the digital release and upcoming physical release of Glamping, The Land of Pure Imagination, and Catnip Dynamite. The Lickerish Quartet: Threesome Volume 1 EP is also coming up for release on August 21st. See what we mean? It's a psychedelic, musical explosion. 

RJM Jr. recently appeared on our Tower Instagram Live show, which you can still check out here, but he also took the time to chat with us at Tower's PULSE about things psychedelic, psychology, composition, and his evolving relationship with his fans. Hot take: music can remind you that you are capable of being and accomplishing more than you may think. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: On our live show, you seemed to indicate that you think that when people listen to music, they enter a different mental space or zone. What first got you interested in that idea?

Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: I would say that was a very natural process since I was a little boy, ever since I can remember. When you hear songs all day, some songs affect you deeply and some don’t, for whatever reason. That’s a colossal mystery. Those songs that moved me deeply, I just couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t want to stop listening to them, and ultimately, as I became more adept with musical language, I tried to figure out the mechanics behind that. It was endlessly fascinating. The more I studied, particularly Jazz, which I studied a lot of in high school and college.

Even if your goal is not to be come Herbie Hancock or John Coltrane, the amount of wisdom you acquire from that literally allows you to go into any piece of music and dissect it. From a Radiohead song, to a classic work, to a Punk Rock song. You can go in there and dissect it, then you can understand.

Every time you do that, you wind up with a bigger toolbelt to do your work. Then you end up with a kind of warehouse of go-to concepts, ideas, theories. That’s greatly liberating. Whether I get hired as a freelance arranger on a song I didn’t write at all, it helps me assist them, or if I’m working on Lickerish Quartet or solo music, I can really explore whatever I’m feeling like in that moment.

If I’m fascinated by a song by another artist, learning all the ins and outs of it, my goal is for my music to somehow do that for someone else. It’s this bizarre process of really being almost narcissistic and self-centered in that you’re creating something that’s obsessing you.

Then, even though I’ve done it, it’s still fascinating to me. When you complete it, I say, “I hope this will be contagious for others.” With my various projects, past and present, there really are no middle of the road fans. They really either get it and are as obsessed about what we’ve created, or it’s not for them at all, and they are like, “Don’t want to know about. See ya!” There’s no people on the fence.

That just tells me that the communication is being made, and that’s the ultimate goal. It goes from being a selfish endeavor into this giant and widespread, communal reward. I hear back from the audience about what they were feeling as a result, and I’ve been so happy to have been a part of it for so long.

HMS: Thank you so much for those great explanations. Your music makes a pretty bold statement on The Lickerish Quartet: Threesome Vol 1. In my mind, it’s somewhat psychedelic, though I don’t know if that’s what you intend.

I can imagine that people who hear it will have an immediate reaction, thinking, “This is the world that I’m interested in being in.” Or maybe there would be incomprehension from others who might never have encountered things like this before. I like what you said about being young and listening to music over and over; kids have this endless capacity for that. It is about how it makes you feel, though, like you’re in some other place. Are you interested in ideas about the Unconscious at all, or Psychology?

RJM: Yes, more than you know. I always joke, being the age that I am now, that if I could go back and spend my parents’ money more wisely in college, I probably would have taken 20% music classes, 30% business classes, and then 50% would have been all Psychology.

I’m endlessly fascinated by what makes us all tick. Not just the mind and thoughts, but how the emotional body all ties into that, and, of course, music. The Conscious, the Subconscious, that all plays into it. As a music-maker, that is all fascinating to me. I’ve really gotten into that world in the past 10 or 15 years, as much as I’ve had time for. I wish I could have two or three lifetimes to go into all that, it’s just all so deep. It all feeds into each of those territories.

HMS: There’s a huge amount to read and to know, but one thing I find great about Psychology, is that there’s no end to it, either. Even as much as we do know, we don’t know everything, so it’s fascinating.

RJM: Absolutely. There’s a not often spoken about component, that everybody, whether they are raised religiously or whether they are atheist, has this understanding that we are more than our bodies. That something is running the show here, some kind of essence. Sometimes it’s limited by the body, or thoughts, or emotions, but we are so much more than we appear to be, when we look into the mirror. And we are so much more than our achievements.

People know that they could be so much more than they are if they had the right handbook, or the time to figure it out. That’s this kind of invisible spiritual essence that I think everybody knows is there, most people want more of an understanding of it. It’s like we’re walking around living life, but we know that we have one hand tied behind our back.

We’re doing it, and we’re making it work, and we support each other in getting through, but if only we were 100% free, and 100% in touch with the vastness of our capacity, we would be maybe less frustrated. But that’s why great athletes, or anyone who is a master in their field, inspire us. They show us what we are capable of.

I like that music is a regular reminder of that. Because music is completely invisible, but we’re all super aware that it’s 100% real. For me, whatever my definition or relationship with spirituality, I’m convinced that it’s real, even if I don’t fully understand it, and that it’s a big part of who I am. Every time I’ve doubted or disbelieved, I’ve reminded myself, “I can’t see music, but I know it’s there, and it makes me feel the heights of ecstasy, and seems to bring so much joy into the world.” I’ve always got one foot in that metaphysical realm thanks to music.

HMS: So, do you hope that music, in general, reminds people that there are things that they can’t see, and that they are more than they seem to be? Or even, specifically, that your music will do that?

RJM: Absolutely, and you kind of nailed it a moment ago when you said that you were struck by the psychedelic aspect of the work that I do. I am such a huge fan of that era. There’s a weird duality that I enjoy. I love straightforward hooks and really catchy grooves. That’s one of the reasons we all enjoy music. The Beatles, for instance, resonated with generation after generation.

But I’m also a huge fan of 60’s, and early 70’s Rock Pop where they were getting highly inventive and experimental within the confines of a three minute Pop song. Many groups were doing amazing stuff, even if they were less known or successful than The Beatles. I love writing catchy grooves and melodies that take listeners, within two or three minutes, to a complete escape from the day to day. Often, creating a surreal backdrop, musically, helps to do that. But I never want to lose sight of the singalong. I want to lead with the earworm melody. It ends up being a psychedelic earworm.

HMS: I like that. I think we have our interview title. That means it’s a participation, which is cool. There’s a lot to be said for the one-time experience, but there’s something really special when the audience participates after the moment, too.

With your Jazz background, that explains a little bit why you do go in for improvisation. Do you tend to use a more intuitive approach for writing music?

RJM: Certainly, it’s intuitive. The more you do it, the more you learn to notice when you’re having a good idea or when you’re not. And if you are, you better capture it. Then you review your big warehouse of idea scraps, and the ones that are worth pursuing leap out at you and remind you. Then you set out to explore all the ways that it can be realized. With the improvisational aspect that Jazz encourages, as well as the deep sense of harmony, there’s a freedom to sitting at the keyboard. I’ve always tried to sing at the same time; I don’t just work it out with my hands.

HMS: Oh, that’s cool.

RJM: It has to feel good. There’s a physical aspect to it. Otherwise, it’s very easy to get lost in your head. You can stay in the left-hand side of your brain, and you want to balance it with the right-hand side of your brain, which is the immediate, emotional demands. My favorite artists have been artists who have blended the two.

I was talking to a friend recently about growing up with the group Earth, Wind, and Fire. They were such a heavy dance-groove band, but their melodies led the way. Almost like that’s why they had so much more success than the 50 other genius Funk bands of the time. They had a singalong aspect that was very advanced.

HMS: I meant to ask you, regarding the 60s and 70s, is the use of layered sound, while still having strong melody, something that interested you about the music then?

RJM: Well, I actually say that would come more from a lot of early Progressive Rock and that kind of 50s to 70s psychedelia. But yes, bands back then were limited by their technology, but they were trying to see how expansive they could make the drums-bass-guitar-keyboard quartet. That’s what every band had. If you wanted to use orchestral elements, you had to have a label’s money. Then it was do you want drums or do you want strings? The basic band had four instruments, and wow what they did with those four instruments.

I really enjoyed growing up with the bands YES and Genesis, two British bands who were the godfathers of classic Progressive Rock. Whether you like that genre or not, they did so much exploration with just those instruments. And their music couldn’t be more different than each other. It’s like two totally different bands with two totally different genres. That’s endlessly inspiring to me, as a keyboard player. It’s almost like if you can conceive of it, you can make it happen.

Back then, in the late 60s and early 70s, people did miraculous things. Bowie is a classic example. Here was a guy who had Pop success, but really was expansive with his sound. There were many other groups like that, too.

HMS: Looking back at that innovation, and learning about it, isn’t a stuffy subject at all, either. It feels like it happened yesterday once you get into it.

How do your feelings about transcending the mundane and looking into psychology fit in with the other members of your Quartet*? I’ll say “quartet” with an asterisk.

RJM: [Laughs] I’d say they generally feel the same way, but our different personalities bring different things to the picture. I’m very content making solo records but teaming up with these other two collaborators creates this whole third entity that I can’t imagine doing any other way. It’s very much like Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They were all very successful independently, long before the trio formed.

It helps when you all come from the same place and value the same ingredients in your Rock-Pop music. We are aware we carry on in a tradition that’s 40 years old now, or more, and we are putting our own twist on it. I think the audience likes that we have not forgotten about how moving melody structure can be in an era when melody is not valued. Every youth movement has it’s soundtrack, and right now, a lot of it is crap. Melody is not the criterion for being a cool Hip-Hop artist.

It is very contemporary in that we are not interested in being a nostalgia band or a retro-package. This is all about, “Where can Rock go?” and “Where can psychedelia go?” on our own terms. It appeals to young and old, and I’m always surprised when I get e-mails from fans who weren’t even around during the Jellyfish era. They are having their minds blown. They are saying, “I didn’t even know guitars could do this.” Because they are used to listening to synthesizer sounds all day.

HMS: It is very cool. As much as I’m happy that your solo work has been collected, I am also happy about this new quartet release, and the fact that there’s more rolling soon. This new stuff really does buck the trend and goes against what is most common right now.

RJM: Yes, that’s what we have a lot of faith in, too.

HMS: What do you think your life would have been like if you hadn’t gone into music that wasn’t as technology-driven as working with the keyboard?

RJM: It would have been something more traditional, like Jazz, which is primarily acoustic. I love acoustic piano, and quartet and quintet ensembles. The golden era of 50s to 70’s Jazz is such a ridiculously immense body of work. I would have been very happy doing that, but I was born smack-dab in the middle of Rock ‘n Roll, and there was too much Zeppelin and Dead Kennedys running around in my head. It’s in my DNA.

HMS: What’s the thinking behind releasing the new Lickerish Quartet in several EPs rather than in LP form?

RJM: Mostly just to be able to not interrupt the flow of music to people. In the past, I released traditional albums, and it would just take forever to get a whole album out, with all my other work. I’m not happy about that, and it wasn’t my intention, it’s just what it ended up being. Doing an EP in 2019 through the crowdsourcing PledgeMusic avenue ended up being way more rewarding than I would have imagined.

It showed me that with 4 or 5 song EPs, the listener really has the time to absorb just that and are longing for more. Which is great because they don’t have to wait years for me now, but five or six months, and in between you keep that relationship going. Artists and fans now have relationships that couldn’t have even been conceived of during the KISS era. That was part of the fun and charm of the whole superhero aspect of the whole thing, that fan and audience agreed to. But this is different now. People are as intrigued to ask you 20 questions on a Skype interview as hear the music, or purchase the rare, signed vinyl. It’s been a learning process for us.

We’ve all come from projects in the past that had some notoriety, but I wouldn’t have said that any of them were slam-dunk, the next U2. But we’ve got this built-in audience around the world who are loyal as hell, and we say, “We want to write for you.” It becomes this kind of circle and you’re so grateful for that that you want to create these fan experiences to engage with them. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know our fans.

We’re working on finishing the second EP right now, and it’s challenging, but I can almost imagine what the audience’s response is going to be, so it helps me hunker down and be even more patient, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. These people are already waiting, and what could be more motivating than that?

HMS: I like the EP format a lot, but it seems like people who are paying attention are returning to that format for practical reasons, especially in a time where touring hasn’t been possible. I think that’s great for fans, too. I think we’ll see more EPs.

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