By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
ManCub's noisy, distortion-washed dance punk seems like it could have been born of some combination of wide-eyed innocence and reckless abandon. Truth is, it's a labor of spite.
"I had a girlfriend at the time, and she broke up with me and broke my heart," explains ManCub's mastermind, Alex Anderson. "She was way older than me and called me 'mancub.' So when she broke up with me, I said, 'Fuck you. I'm gonna have a band called ManCub, and it's gonna be this sexy, sweet electronica that you're gonna love.' I made it out of spite."
Since that moment of emotional genesis, there have been a lot of ups and downs for Anderson and ManCub — personnel changes, recording mishaps and disappointments. But things have been looking up this year. Following successful stints at SnowBall and this year's SXSW, Anderson is preparing to unveil a long-overdue EP titled Business Dogs. "This new record is actually my debut EP, because all the production is 100 percent me," notes Anderson. "The second EP is a lot more of my voice and my drive behind it."
It's been sixteen months since Anderson and ManCub co-founder Danny Stillman released the group's first EP, 8 Bit Crush. Although they parted ways last year — one of the reasons the second album was so delayed — the trials and tribulations have made Anderson appreciate the experience of putting out the new record on his own. At the time of his fateful heartbreak, Anderson had had some success as the drummer for local math-rockers Portamento, but he didn't feel like he'd had an opportunity to make the music he wanted — something that blended his love of punk and post-rock with his taste for electronic-based dance music. "I've always wanted to do dance-punk stuff," Anderson confesses. "I've never had friends to do it with. I had played in punk-rock bands and that sort of thing."
He found a co-conspirator in Stillman, an erstwhile member of the screamo outfit Drop Dead, Gorgeous who had started playing guitar in Portamento. He and Anderson found they shared musical aspirations and branched off to start ManCub. As they began to coalesce, spite would influence the young band's direction again. The two chose the path less traveled, electing not to use computers — an act of blasphemy against the most common element in contemporary electronic music production, but one that gave ManCub a unique sound and produced a more compelling live performance than that of the average laptop jockey.
"We bought as many old drum machines and synthesizers as we could," says Anderson. "We started doing it the old-school way. We never used programming...and then we said, 'How can do this live without a computer?' We went the loop-player route, separating all the songs into different loops."
8 Bit Crush was released in January 2011; its catchy melodies, layers of noise and up-tempo analog drum patterns pulse near the sonic confluence of stylish acts like LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, Hot Chip and Ratatat. Bright synths crash into walls of distortion, juxtaposing the structure of dance sequences with the chaos of noise and punk influences. Most of all, it's fun. As an album, however, the final product was marred by subpar recording quality. "The mixing is really rough," Anderson admits. "We did it in such a weird way. We recorded every part and looped it, then re-recorded the song off the loop pedals. Anything we had was printed."
They'd learned lessons and shown potential, but the two would never record a followup: Stillman opted to pursue an opportunity touring the U.K. with another band, leaving Anderson to carry the ManCub torch. That the project survived is in part thanks to support from within the local scene. ManCub's setup for live shows requires two sets of hands, so Anderson initially got help from James Wayne of Force Publique, and later from Ethan Converse — half of the glo-fi duo Flashlights. The working relationship with Flashlights — Ethan plays with ManCub, and Alex, in turn, will lend a hand during Flashlights shows — has also influenced the evolution of ManCub's sound. "Ethan and Sam both, they taught me the slow," says Anderson.
The lesson he learned isn't strictly tempo-based, though that's part of the equation. It's a more conscious approach, evident in the control demonstrated on Business Dogs. Where sheets of noise previously blanketed entire sections of song, now they are used more sparingly and to better effect, building a chaotic emphasis for the climactic moments in songs. The other sounds are more studied this time around, too. Synthesizers are cleaner, and the totality of textures is more cohesive.
The results are much improved, thanks to professional mastering, which saves the layers from becoming muddy puddles of frequency overlap. "That's another reason I wanted to get it mastered," says Anderson. "I wanted someone else's hand pulling out the frequencies. I'll spend hours on end on the same song for months. It was just, straight up, I can't do any more; I shouldn't do any more, because if I do, I'll ruin it." Not wanting to repeat the engineering mistakes made with 8 Bit Crush, he sent the EP off to Salt Mastering, a Brooklyn-based outfit with credits including work for Warp, anticon., Domino and other prominent labels. Again, the results speak for themselves.
"I couldn't be happier with how it turned out," Anderson declares.
With that out of the way, Anderson is trying to sort out how he'll get 500 denim CD sleeves sewn and spray-painted before the release party. Not only is the music his creation, but so is the packaging, the promotion and just about everything else. While he'd love to have the new EP available on vinyl, it was just too expensive, so physical copies of the record will be available on CDs in hand-sewn denim sleeves. It's become a tradition: ManCub made 1,000 denim sleeves for the first EP.
"All the packaging we've made for anything physical so far has been on denim," Anderson points out. "We sew it up and spray-paint them. The pocket is nice because you can use it for anything after you use it for the CD. People use them for oven mitts, or putting their beer in them for cozies. Everybody uses them for different things."
Getting the album finished and playing shows for festival crowds has been gratifying for Anderson, helping to keep him motivated through the tough times. "Over the past couple of months," he says, "I felt like I've taken a step into the place where I've wanted to be for a long time. Being on the festival circuit — that's been my goal. I feel like the hard work has been paying off, and we do it all ourselves, so it can be discouraging at times."
Having survived the ups and downs, he's ready to push ManCub further — more shows and another record, hopefully sooner rather than later. He's also ready to reap more of what he's sown, because a measure of success can be reassuring. "When you're sitting VIP during Rusko at SnowBall and you've got a free drink in your hand," he concludes with a laugh, "it's like, 'All right, I'm definitely doing an okay job."
Clearly, this ManCub has matured.