Beats Off the Beaten Path: Man Mantis's Audiodrome at Deer Pile

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Audiodrome was born out of necessity. When artist and musician Mitch Pond returned to Colorado in 2011 after attending college in Wisconsin, he had trouble booking shows for himself. As Man Mantis, the crate-digging digital scientist performed music that was spacey, referential and beat-heavy, with hip-hop written all over it — but it didn’t seem to go with the popular womp womp of the times. No Denver venue knew who he was; his style was too broad to fit into one scene, too specialized to fit into others. So Pond went about creating a place for it: In 2012, he started Audiodrome, a monthly showcase that gave him and other experimental artists a place to play.

“After the first Audiodrome, people started recommending cool artists in Denver for me to book; every show was like that,” says Pond. “I thought it would be hard to find artists, but that turned out to be the easiest part.” He says the monthly night went well from the beginning, even if only a handful of listeners showed up. However small, the group was always ready to hear something fresh. Audiodrome, which has invited rock bands, rappers, DJs and electronic-focused musicians to play over the years, has hosted RUMTUM, Sole, Turner Jackson and Big J Beats, among many others.

The recurring night never grew into a packed party, but it did become a place where musicians could expand and experiment with sound in a way that a more club-oriented atmosphere wouldn’t allow. “For the kind of music I wanted, the holy grail for a night like this would be Low End Theory in L.A.,” Pond says of Audiodrome’s objective. Low End Theory — which has run every Wednesday night since 2006 at the Airliner in Los Angeles — has had Thom Yorke in its DJ booth and Prince on its dance floor; it’s also provided a springboard for Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing to move closer to the mainstream.

Audiodrome is similar to Low End Theory in that it is a carefully curated experience that nonetheless embraces a wide range of musicians. “Audiodrome is a place for beat stuff that’s off the beaten path — a way to showcase musicians and make it a cool place to hang out but not necessarily make it feel like it’s just a party,” emphasizes Pond.

The program’s first few years were bumpy, and it’s gone on hiatus a few times since starting out at now-defunct Denver DIY space Unit E. It was in and out of Lost Lake Lounge in 2013, but then took an extended break when it became too hard for Pond to find a permanent venue and enough eclectic musicians to fill the bill for each edition. But a revamped Audiodrome has emerged this year, taking up residence at the all-ages Deer Pile in Capitol Hill. Pond also brought on fellow musical heavyweights Sole and Skyrider to help book and manage shows as well as perform — an addition that expanded the night’s purpose, too, as Sole brings activism and politics to the forefront of any project.

“I’m a little hesitant to cross politics and music, but there is an upside,” Pond points out. “When you’re not appealing to someone’s desire to be seen or just have an experience, you can bring together different communities.” The Audiodrome refresh has him excited, and sharing responsibility for its success with two equally devoted musicians takes off some of the stress. Plus, it gives him more time to work on his own music and visual art, in which he has been heavily immersed lately.

When he first performed as Man Mantis, Pond wore a green bug-eyed mask in order to give audiences something to look at. “Sometimes I feel like watching people play beats is like watching someone check e-mail,” he says. “It’s just not that interesting.” Then again, he adds, for him to be too animated on stage would be untrue to who he is as a person, even when he’s inside the Man Mantis persona. After a while, however, the mask felt inauthentic, too.

Once he shed the mask, he upped the visual game for his live shows by creating and synching his own animations to the music. From behind a minimal electronic setup, Pond can trigger his projections to the beat: Cartoonish lips mouth along with vocal samples as wildly exaggerated images of a horn section pump to the sounds he’s creating in real time. Initially, he was drawing the frame-by-frame marker-and-pencil illustrations by hand on paper, but he’s since turned to a time-saving animation program. Pond’s visual art is similar to his music: Complex but familiar, his layers of bold colored-marker lines create nostalgic images that you think you’ve seen before, but are truly one-of-a-kind work. He recently finished a music video for fellow Colorado electronic misfits Holophrase and hopes to collaborate with other musicians on visual projects in the future.

Pond’s entry into music-making began in elementary school, when a friend introduced him to early PC sound-editing software. His first foray into writing music came through what he would later come to know as sampling. The fourth-grader was immediately hooked. “We just recorded our voices and pitched it up and down. Then we crinkled candy wrappers and added a bunch of effects until it sounded like a shrieking bird,” he says with a laugh. From there, the friends got into ACID Pro, a Sony-created looping software program. Pond began experimenting with software synthesizers and recording his own live guitar playing. Suddenly, he was making music; by the time he got to high school, he was making beats.

“In high school, I started meeting kids who could actually rap well, and that got me into making hip-hop beats. I did that for a long time,” says Pond. “I thought I was, like, you know, a down-ass white boy making hip-hop.”

That “down-ass white boy” went on to college in Madison, Wisconsin, where he hooked up with the well-established hip-hop collective dumate. Pond’s sample work and beat creation flourished in the Midwestern city’s vibrant hip-hop scene; while he was a member of dumate, the act shared stages with the likes of the Game, Kool Herc and Clyde Stubblefield, Digable Planets and Wu-Tang Clan’s Cappadonna.
Even with the success and camaraderie that went along with being a part of such a regionally influential group, after a while Pond was ready to go his own way, and Man Mantis was created. The solo project allowed Pond to get weirder with his sound while staying true to the beats that got him into music in the first place.

While cultivating his work and persona as Man Mantis, Pond opened for sampling innovators like RJD2, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Big promoters took notice, and booking shows became a breeze. When he decided to move back home to Denver, he had to mentally prepare to leave the reputation he had built up in the Midwest hip-hop scene behind and start the grind all over again. In Madison, he was a rising hip-hop star. In Denver, he was a virtual nobody.

“Moving back to Denver was difficult, because when I left Wisconsin, I could get on any show I wanted,” says Pond. “It’s scary to know you have to go to a new place and start all over again.” He struggled at first, but the birth of Audiodrome really shifted things for the artist. By curating a regular monthly night of musicians he admired, he found the community he was looking for. Pond’s star began to rise again. “I’m at a place with Denver now where if I’m going to do a show, I’m never worried that I’m going to have a bad response,” says Pond. “It doesn’t bother me if I have a bad show. I’ve gotten all of the validation that I need out of this city.”

With Man Mantis, Sole, Deborah Arenas, Skyrider, Paperbark and DJ Kill McKinley, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, Deer Pile, 206 East 13th Avenue, 303-831-6443.

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