It takes balls—big ones—to pack your instruments and zero cash and see if you can make it from California to New York on your music alone. Or maybe you’re just crazy, or crazy talented, with just the right partner. And you’re a band called Maniac.
Band? More like a duo: Maniac consists of Shawn Harris, of punk rockers The Matches, and Jake Grigg, of the Australian indie-pop band Something With Numbers. The two met when their bands toured Oz together. And they instantly clashed. “We actually didn’t like each other,” Grigg says in his laid-back brogue. His words come through a speaker-phone set up through—well, it sounds like he says the band’s P.A.
It’d make sense. The two men live together in an East Bay apartment that’s stuffed with instruments, gear, computers, video gear and screen-printing equipment. Once Harris and Grigg discovered a shared affinity for The Beatles and Crowded House—as well as a slew of ’80s pop bands, a sound the Maniac guys call “sticky vinyl pop”—they became friends. When The Matches and Something With Numbers fizzled out around the same time, Harris moved in with Grigg in Australia. They started recording together and realized they shared a certain chemistry, not to mention a common language. As multi-instrumentalists and former frontmen, they found they could supply whatever they needed to realize the other’s creative vision—which soon merged into one.
In order to make a go of it in the States, the pair relocated their operation to Harris’ digs in California. In this apartment, there’s enough stuff for an entire band, but it’s Grigg and Harris who do all the work. They write, record, produce CDs and make their own merch in this one cramped space. And they’re prolific. In addition to the band’s forthcoming album, Mania, they’ve produced two EPs (the limited-edition Sons of Summer and Extended Play), with three more Sons of Summer volumes on deck—with scant song overlap between them.
Harris attributes this to symbiosis, as though he and Grigg were long-lost spiritual twin brothers. You can hear it in the music, too, the same way you can hear John Lennon and Paul McCartney complement each other in Beatles songs. The lifelong Beatlemaniacs protest the comparison, saying such a thing is “impossible” to re-create, but they also hope it’s at least a little true. But not so much with regard to the Beatles as their other favorite band, Crowded House. In that band, brothers Neil and Tim Finn have a similar relationship, writing their own songs but singing them together as a single musical entity. Maniac notes that in both bands, you can still tell a Lennon from a McCartney tune, and Neil’s writing from Tim’s.
“We kinda hope we get to the point where people go, ‘Oh, that’s a Jake song …’ ” Harris says, with Jake completing the thought, “… or, ‘That’s a Shawn song.’ ”
If you pick the music apart, you can tell. Only that sells Maniac short. What makes their music work is how their voices dovetail, so you don’t really care who’s singing lead, or who wrote the words. The symbiosis—and a palpable camaraderie and creative joy—makes Maniac’s songs exhilarating and fun. They’ve described the effect as “Wham! on drugs around a campfire,” but, again, that sells them short.
Maniac draws from so many wells—the aforementioned Beatles and Crowded House, as well as The Moldy Peaches anti-folk, Depeche Mode synthpop, Nick Cave gloom, Aberfeldy sensitivity, Hoodoo Gurus college rock, British New Wave/soul à la JoBoxers or The Thompson Twins. To come up with one reference or label that describes them is to ignore everything that’s going on in the music. It’s much better to focus on that communicable elation that runs through every contagious verse and chorus. It’s what carried them safely across the country and back again on that hitchhiking tour. And it’s what could make them huge.
w/ Foxy Shazam, Cadaver Dogs
741 S. Kilby Court (330 West)
Thursday, April 12, 7 p.m.