By John Phillips
Photos by John Phillips/Festy Shots Photography
The Mantras’ music has been called everything from “prog-rawk” to electronic. They’ve travelled a circuitous, at times torturous, up and down path to arrive where they are today, on the threshold of moving into the upper tier of jam bands on the circuit. A lot of the rocky roads and smooth highways they’ve travelled are reflected in their most recent studio release, Jambands Ruined My Life. They are, without a doubt, one of the hardest-working bands on the scene, maintaining a relentless touring schedule that has propelled them out of their Greensboro, NC orbit to spread their infectious, rootsy sound across the country.
Starting out as a five-piece band with two guitars, the band added another voice and sonic texture to their sound almost three years ago with the addition of keyboardist Justin Powell. Two days before this interview, the band announced that Justin would be leaving the band, playing his swan song on Halloween at The Blind Tiger. It’s all good: Justin and his wife Tiffany are expecting their first child in April next year, and Justin is coming off the road to concentrate on being a father. It’s the right decision, but one that will admittedly change the feel of the band’s music.
Who will the next keyboardist be? Or will there even be one? Perhaps the band will go back to their former five-piece arrangement? I had the opportunity to catch a few minutes with lead guitarist Keith Allen as the band was loading in for their gig at the fourth annual Mustang Music Festival in Corolla, NC. They’d just played a show the night before in Greenville, SC, and as I strolled up to their van, a couple of empty Red Bull cans came rolling out and onto the parking lot. They looked like warriors who’d just returned from battle, bloodied but not beaten, needing a break but knowing they wouldn’t get one. So they quickly dusted themselves off, surveyed the scene, and started the process all over again. Keith and I sat down at a table in front of the venue while the rest of the band started hauling gear out of the trailer. And, of course, none of them said a word about Keith slacking off with the guy from Homegrown Music Network……
HGMN: You guys are just rolling in from a gig in Greenville last night.
Keith: Yeah, Greenville is starting to be really good for us, and it was a good show last night.
HGMN: How was Mantrabash this year?
Keith: It was awesome. This is our fourth year doing it and it’s grown in thirds every year we’ve done it. The first year we had about 150 people in a back yard and this year we had about 1,100 people so…
HGMN: That’s awesome.
Keith: Yeah it was really good. It’s a lot of work, though. And we play three nights as well, so planning and organizing and working at the festival definitely…
HGMN: So you guys handle all the logistics and everything for the festival?
Keith: Yep. Yeah we do. We had some other people that kind of help us out like our manager, our tour manager, our accountant, stuff like that, they do a lot of stuff for the festival as well. But yeah, for the most part, we’re the ones doing the booking, the planning, the stage management, festival management, yeah, everything.
HGMN: Wow, I had no idea the band played such a hands-on role in the festival. And playing three sets as well.
Keith: Yeah, it’s tough to keep from getting exhausted. But, you know, every year we learn a little bit more, so it’s good. We’re starting to get the hang of it, I think. (laughs) But every year there’s something different that you don’t plan for that comes up, you know?
HGMN: Yeah, it always seems to go that way with any event that size.
Keith: Yeah, we dealt with a lot of rain this year during the daytime. Every night was clear, but we just had a lot of rain during the daytime which kinda parlayed some sets and stuff like that, so it was dealing with that kind of stuff, rescheduling and making sure everything was dry. So yeah, that was a pain.
HGMN: That’s pretty insane.
Keith: Yeah, it is crazy. Especially when you’re in charge and you hire people to do stuff, but at the same time you’re the producer of the festival so the people that you hired sometimes need to get your permission and stuff. So, even if we don’t want to be doing anything we have to be taking care of things pretty much all the time.
HGMN: Definitely a lot of demands on your time.
Keith: Absolutely. But it was good. It’s one of the things I think that sets us apart from other bands in general by having a festival, you know, and being able to trade gigs with bands like that. So splitting hometown gigs, you know, like inviting bands to come and play we can put them on the festival and it helps us get out there, helps get friends of ours in front of a lot of people. So it’s really good on both ends, I think. It helps everybody out tremendously.
HGMN: So I heard the word a couple of days ago about Justin (Powell) leaving the band. First off, that was one of the best worded and sincere announcements about a lineup change that I think I’ve ever seen.
Keith: Yeah. We learned a lot from previous situations of what not to do, I think, when people leave the band. We definitely wanted it to be as smooth a transition as possible and nobody to have any hard feelings or anything like that, you know what I mean. So it was really important for us to go out and get that all squared away real nicely. ‘Cause at the end of the day, like even with people we’ve had like negative situations with, we’re all about, like, kind of an unconditional sort of love, I think, at the root of what our message of our music and our band is. And we can’t stay mad at anybody for too long so you want to try and be as amicable as possible because most of these people are gonna be our family for the rest of our lives. Whether or not they’re directly involved in the music or not. They’re all part of the story, so it’s better to just try and be as graceful with that stuff as possible and move on. We’re all humans, we all make mistakes, we all do things here and there. It’s just important for us to all be family, like I don’t want any of this business stuff to get in the way of the core friendship.
HGMN: Yeah. And at least this wasn’t one of those differences of opinion or going in a different direction sort of situations.
Keith: Yeah. It’s just, right now we’re really at the point like, this next year we’re going to have to be pretty much on the road all the time. We’re at the point now where we’re starting to get some light shed on us on the scene, everybody’s heard of us now, it’s a matter of getting in front of people. So we’re gonna have to be road warriors really hard for the next year or two before we start seeing it turn around. And he just can’t devote that much time to it right now. So who’s to say what’s gonna happen later on down the line, but right now this is definitely the best decision for him.
HGMN: Sure. And a lotta guys don’t make that decision. They try to keep touring and raise a family.
Keith: Definitely. It’s a mature decision and I think it’ll benefit everybody in the long run. You don’t want somebody there who’s not able to fully focus because their mind, rightfully so, is on other stuff. We need somebody who’s going to be 100% in the game. We’re all happy with the decision and with what’s going on. We’ve gone through a lot harder things than this and we’ll continue to go through that kind of stuff so you’ve just gotta brush it off.
HGMN: That’s life in a band.
Keith: Absolutely. I’m surprised we’ve been able to keep it together this long, honestly.
HGMN: You guys are definitely moving up into the top tier of the festival, jam band scene.
Keith: Yeah. It’s funny to me though, because of just how long we’ve been working on this stuff and I still see it as us basically starting off on the ground. I don’t think I’ll ever see, even if we get to a point where we’re playing theaters and stuff, I’ll always see this as something to work on. And I think that comes with the fact that we’ve been doing it for eight to ten years without getting a lot of national attention, it keeps us really hungry. Anytime we get in front of people we just wanna go nuts because we’ve played a lot of gigs to nobody. So, I don’t know, we were really hungry for it and it’s nice to see it turn around here and there. We definitely have little victories every once in awhile that show us that we’re moving in the right direction.
HGMN: So, it’s probably a little premature, but do you have any thoughts for who the new keyboardist will be?
Keith: We’ve been auditioning people for three or four weeks now. Right now it’s not 100% solidified but I think we’ve got a good candidate. We were a five piece for a really long time before we brought the keyboards in. We were a two guitar band with percussion, drums and bass. The keyboard coming in was kind of an afterthought. So we’ve also toyed with the idea of going back to a five piece and doing it like that, but I really like, with arranging and composing and stuff, I really like to have that extra voice to work with. There’s a lot more we can do with orchestration and stuff having a keyboardist. And also I like keeping a consistent look. I don’t like changing it up too much, because if you don’t keep consistency people kind of lose sight of what it’s supposed to be. And this is what I’ve always wanted it to be, so we will add somebody at some point. But I think if we do go with somebody it probably won’t be someone that’s well known. It’ll probably be somebody we know, that we’re personal friends with that lives in town with us. Something that’s an easy decision that doesn’t have to be breaking up another band, or like somebody that’s already famous. Somebody that’s willing to get in from the ground up because in certain areas we’re doing well but in certain areas we’re still starting out, so we have to find a good balance, personality-wise.
HGMN: But there’s a lot of talent out there, especially in eastern North Carolina.
Keith: In North Carolina in general, definitely a lot of talent out there. It’s an incredible pool of talent.
HGMN: So what’s the next big thing for you guys? I know the new album hasn’t been out all that long.
Keith: No, it came out in January and we’ve been touring really hard behind that. We’re probably gonna start recording another one pretty soon. Obviously, we’re always planning for MantraBash, we’ve got New Year’s Eve coming up. Halloween is always a big show for us. We do that in our hometown of Greensboro every year. We’re trying to line up a really big tour in the Spring of next year which is all starting to come together, so that’ll be good. We’ve been talking with some people about doing some tours with some bigger-name bands, so hopefully all that’ll come together as well. But you never know. Right now it’s just touring, trying to get MantraBash off the ground again next year, working on a new album. We’ve easily got two more albums of material now, and we’re still writing, so we’ve got a lot of material to work with and record. It’s just finding the time to do it. We’ll probably take all of January off and get started on it.
HGMN: It’s tough to maintain the level of touring that you need to do to keep heading in the direction you want to go and still get new material laid down. Are you scheduled for any of the fall festivals?
Keith: I don’t know too much about festivals right now. We won’t be at Bear Creek this year; we played last year and they usually like to switch it up. I think this is pretty much the last festival we’re doing until next year. I’m sure we’ll be on a number of them next year.
HGMN: Aura (Music and Arts Festival) would be a good fit for you guys.
Keith: I think we’re trying to get on that. They’re adding a pre-party; we weren’t on the initial lineup so we’re trying to get on that. We were there two years ago and we’re trying our best to get back to that. We just did the “Live at Aura Studios” thing, an in-studio performance, and that went really well. They do like four or five of them and we’ve gotten the most views on our video out of all of them. So hopefully that shows them we’re working and that people are interested. It’s really like a grass roots, cult kind of thing. It’s like you have the initial thing, then the residual that comes from it is usually greater, you know what I mean. It’s like people start slowly getting on board and pushing it harder and harder.
HGMN: It takes a lot of effort, for sure. There’s a lot of competition.
Keith: There really is. There’s somebody out there working while you’re sleeping. You have to just keep going. As soon as you stop trying, at least until you get to a certain point, people will forget who you are just as quick as you started. I remember like, if I mention “Barefoot Manner” to a lot of people in our scene nowadays, they have no idea who those guys were, and that was a band that was huge in being where we are right now, you know what I mean. And it’s just interesting to see how quickly bands can fade. It really takes a lot. It almost takes your entire life. You can’t stop. You have to die doing this stuff, basically, to be kind of thought of as a lifer. Because there’s always gonna be things that happen, you’re gonna come up and go down, you have to always be working. You can’t really stop. It’s intimidating, but we all love it. We’re gluttons for punishment, I think, deep down inside somewhere.
HGMN: That’s why any of these bands out here do it these days. It’s for the love. They love doing it.
Keith: The challenge.
HGMN: I mean, most of these guys, you aren’t making bank on it.
Keith: Not yet, but its close. So we just gotta keep watching our stuff and make sure that we spend wisely and make good decisions. The gas and travelling is what kills everybody right now. It’s so expensive to travel.
HGMN: So things are looking good for The Mantras.
Keith: Yeah, they are. In November, we have a residency every Wednesday in Baltimore at the 8X10. Baltimore’s always been really good for us, we expect those to be really good.
HGMN: That’s a great venue.
Keith: We should be taking somebody on the road with us at that point, a keyboardist, to start feeling it out. Ever evolving, you know. Halloween will be our last show with Justin, and that should be really good. We’re doing a really cool theme; our new album’s called “Jam Bands Ruined My Life”, so we’re doing a song from all the jam bands we can think of, kinda mixing it up with our own stuff. Grateful Dead, Phish, Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic, all the way down to like Umphrey’s McGee, Disco Biscuits, Perpetual Groove, moe, we’re just trying to cover as much as we can. But, you know, we owe all those guys everything. If it wasn’t for them, our band wouldn’t be in existence.
HGMN: For sure. Those are the guys that laid the foundation and paved the way for the scene we enjoy today.
Keith: Yeah, but it’s such a weird situation, being in a band like this. You’re guaranteed almost no mainstream success, but if you work really hard you can get to a point of being like Grateful Dead or Phish, you know. But it’s still hard; those guys are working every day as well. They can never give up or slow down.
HGMN: But mainstream music is just crap these days.
Keith: Yeah, and most of the success that happens out of that doesn’t last. People aren’t able to handle it, or they go crazy or something. You have to work really hard. Most of the people that are successful, people like Will Smith and others, are people that have been doing it since they were nine, ten years old or even younger. And people don’t realize it because they’re in their early twenties when they get really successful, but they’ve been in the business for ten or fifteen years when they hit and they already know the ropes. Overnight success very rarely pans out, you know. Almost always, the people who have it don’t know what to do.
HGMN: Yeah, there’s no playbook for that.
Keith: Yeah, you have to have that work ethic. You have to have that hunger, I think, that comes from playing lots of shows to nobody, and having to struggle on your own, to be able to handle it. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with being in a successful band. It can be a huge head trip for them. Especially if you start feeling like you’re becoming a caricature of yourself. That can really get inside your head. (loud crash of gear nearby) It looks like I should probably go help these guys load in.
HGMN: Yeah, you don’t want to have a mutiny on your hands. Looking forward to the show tonight.
Upcoming Tour Dates
Oct 31 - The Blind Tiger - Greensboro,NC
Nov 06 - The 8x10 - Baltimore,MD
Nov 07 - Higher Ground - South Burlington,VT
Nov 08 - The Spot Underground w/Consider The Source - Providence,RI
Nov 09 - PearlS treet Club Room w/Consider the Source - Northampton,MA
Nov 10 - Tyrone Farm - Pomfret Center,CT
Nov 12 - Church of Boston - Boston,MA
Nov 13 - The 8x10 - Baltimore,MD
Nov 15 - the mouse trap - Indianapolis,IN
Nov 20 - The 8x10 - Baltimore,MD
Nov 21 - River Street Jazz Cafe - Plains,PA
Nov 27 - The 8x10 - Baltimore,MD