Q&A with Dennis Manuel of Army of Me

This is my third of four interviews featured from the guys of D.C. based band Army of Me. I’m hoping to post my last interview as well as get some audio formats of the interviews up soon. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out Army of Me and catch a show! They’ll be playing Bowery Ballroom in NYC next Thursday, May 29! Below is my interview with drummer Dennis Manuel. One of the founding members of Army of Me, Dennis chatted with me during the “Get A Life” tour about the arduous task of naming a band, how he came to be a part of Army of Me and signing his first autograph.

Tell me a little bit about how Army of Me began.
We just kind of met through mutual friends, me and Vince. I wasn’t really playing any instruments yet. I was screwing around enough to keep a beat. We got together in a buddy of our’s basement. I think we jammed like once and then I moved to New York for two years and I was still kind of playing. When I moved back we got together again. I don’t think we were taking it seriously. I don’t think we’re taking it seriously now, it just kind of snowballed slowly and slowly and slowly and then we got into songs and what’s best for the songs and it got serious. It’s kind of weird because this is my first band and to have come as far as we have. Normally, it’s the third band.

What were you doing in New York?
I was 19 and I basically wanted to get out of my mom’s house. Instead of college, I went to New York and I went to a trade school for recording. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just was going up there to see what it was like, working in the studio. My friend got married and me and his cousin went up there, had one drunken night on a roof top and decided to form a band and take over the world. That didn’t really work out, but it did get us to move to New York, which was fun. That wasn’t really serious; I think we got together once a month. I moved back because I was tired of being broke and Vince called me up, two years after that one jam we had, and he had written a few songs. We just started there, song after song.

You guys went by different band names.
We started as a three-piece and we were trying to come up with a name and we had all these lists. It was such a painful process. I had this basement apartment where we rehearsed all the time and Vince’s girlfriend at the time came downstairs and we were throwing names at her. And she was like, “What about Lioness.” After everyone had said like a hundred no’s, we were like, “That sounds cool. Where did you come up with that?” And she said, “It’s on your wall.” I had this hook and knot that my first babysitter made for me. They look like rugs, but it’s a picture. And it was of Lioness from Charlie Brown. So that was our first name. I actually have a Yoda hook and knot in my kit drum. It’s for the force. So Lioness was our first name and then there was another Lioness and we had to change the name.

One of your names was Cactus Patch?
I think it was actually Catus Hatch, which I don’t know how we came up with. It was really an awful name. But, again, with the lists, the endless freakin’ lists. It’s impossible. On one of Vince’s lists, I saw catus, and I thought it had a ring to it. I was like, “What is it?” Vince is a fly fisherman and catus is a certain larvae from a fly and when they come out of the eggs and come to the surface, the larvae, all the bass come to the surface. So it’s a particular fly, and it was catus and I thought, “What about Catus Hatch?” It seemed brilliant at the time. And then everyone we told the name to were like, “What? Cactus Patch?” And it basically became Cactus Patch. It was so ridiculous at one point I wanted to make a T-shirt with Cractus Catch, Cactus Patch, Catus Hatch, Lemon Snatch. Basically, we’re called whatever you want us to be called. That happened and then we had a couple of EPs, actually we had a full-length under Cactus Patch, which I’m afraid to even think about listening to.

And then you became Army of Me?
Well, by that time we became a three-piece for a while, but then we wanted to change it up and get a bigger sound, so we got another guitarist. We were coming out with a new EP and we had management at the time, and they were like, “Well, if you want to change the name.” I remember the end of Cactus Patch. We played this place called Palomas in Baltimore, which doesn’t exist anymore because it was so sketchy. They had the radio on over the loudspeaker while we were setting up and the commercial was like, “Come to Palomas tonight for a night of country and zydeco with Cactus Patch.” And we were like, “Did they listen to the demo at all?” So we were like, “Okay, we sound like we’re a jam band from Arizona with the name Cactus Patch.” So we had to change it. Our manager at the time told us to write down album titles and song titles of artists we love. Like, Radiohead was the “Talking Heads” song, stuff like that. So, Vince wrote “Army of Me” because it was a Bjork song and thought I’d like it. That’s the arduous task of naming a band. The rest is the future.

Do you have a favorite show from this tour, favorite venue or favorite crowd?
It’s kind of impossible to have a favorite crowd because they’re always different, you can’t keep track. I’d say favorite venue is 9:30 [Club, in D.C.] of course, The Knitting Factory upstairs is always good and Bowery always sounds really good onstage. Favorite shows, I don’t know if I ever come off stage satisfied. There are very few times that I’m like, “Yeah, that was cool.” It’s usually when I feel like I’m in control. When I feel like I’m playing like somebody else, it’s like “That wasn’t me.”

When you travel is there a certain crowd that’s more enthusiastic?
I think there was a weird thing that happened for at least a little bit, where it was freakin’ kind of weird. It was like that thing where you go to Europe and you have no idea how you’re being taken over there. When we hit the west coast it was right at the time that KROQ picked up our single and they were playing it in heavy rotation and at the same time we had a video on MTV and all this mainstream with this huge umbrella of reach was happening. Everybody on the east coast were like, “Finally!” and everyone on the west coast were like, “Who the fuck are these guys?” We were playing all these outdoor venues and people were calling you sir and shit. It was really weird to have that because we hadn’t really played the west coast. And then we do, we had all this stuff hitting at all different angles. It was like, “Wow, can I borrow $50,000 from you? You must be rich.” Or, “Woah, who are you? You’re amazing.” It was definitely, kind of eye opening. I wish it were like that every day, just to be treated slightly differently, like a king. I just thought it was funny. We played the HF Festival in 2001 and this little kid came up to me with the booklet for the festival and a sharpie opened to our page. And I was like, “What?” I was totally clueless. That was my first autograph. I’m not a dumb person, but I had no idea.

How is it being away from your girlfriend on tour?
I think it’s different for everybody, obviously. As long as she has something to do and you’re both busy doing your own thing, it helps to where you’re not concentrating. She’s a stable manager so she’s responsible for a lot of stuff, a lot of horses. It definitely keeps your mind occupied. We’re both very independent people. I’d call her and we’ll basically say five words, we’re kind of used to it. When you get to the three week period, it sucks.

Is it possible to make it work?
Oh, yeah. It’s just a certain kind of person.

How would you explain the band’s dynamic?
Sings: “Well I’m a little bit country and he’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” I think we just all come from . . . like, aside from Dave with us playing, because he hasn’t really written any songs with us. Brad’s definitely a country, folk queen. I’m probably the indie guy. I like weird stuff. I like Jon Spencer and stuff like that. Vince wants to take over the world. We’re very different people. It’s weird, I feel like a lot of people say we’re about the music and stuff like that. But, I feel like we’re just into writing really good songs and we could really do without jumping around and whatnot. It’s about how interesting a core progression is, whether or not one part’s stepping on another. We’re just trying to write smart, good songs and it’s weird because I feel like the world doesn’t want that right now. Vince was talking about last night, they’re [the crowd] like, “Am I aloud to like this? I don’t know what to do. No one else has told me this is cool, so I don’t know what to think.” It’s not like we’re going to quit. What else are we going to do? Become investment bankers? Become mortgage brokers?

What is the writing process for you guys?
Vince will do the lyrics, that mainly comes with the melody. Essentially, a song we’ll screw with the arrangement of it and the vibe of it and then we’ll start arguing about it and then we’ll finally settle on something.

How do you know when a song sounds right?
It’s kind of hard. If I hear a live version of something, where it’s a song that we haven’t recorded, even some songs that we recorded I’m like, “Why did I do it that way?” Being in the studio is definitely different, it’s like part writing. The only way to really hear your parts is to not be playing it while you’re playing it. If you can step back, it’s a little easier to edit. Sometimes you don’t even realize how stupid something is until you hear it played back to you. Even a lot of stuff on the album I don’t play the same way. I was in there [the studio] for two days and I was done and then they went to war with guitars, so they were there for another two months. There are three songs on the album that are pre-production tracks which are just while we’re working on the song they decided to keep the drum parts. I didn’t really have a chance to think about it. But now that I have, the songs have evolved and I’ll go back and listen to the recording to get some of my original idea and then, kind of marry the two. I’ve been playing it for a year and a half and then go to what was the initial feeling. That’s what I usually like. There’s a lot of energy, but you can hear the thinking going on and there is still flow. When that happens it’s pretty cool. But there are some things that I don’t like that I did and I’ll change them. Especially after you get a chance to hear it, it’s definitely a lot easier to edit.