My first exposure to Mannequin Men was accidental. As a junior at the University of Chicago, I went to see the Ponys, one of the Chicago’s more recognizable indie-rock bands at the time. The Ponys were preceded by a band that I had been hearing a lot about lately: the Black Lips. But the band that trumped them both was Mannequin Men, four guys with no real schtick who dominated the set with the best garage tunes, the best chops, and the best swagger of the night.
As soon as I got home, I raced to Mannequin Men’s MySpace, only to find the band had been opening in Chicago for four years, with only a crude, self-released album (2006’s Showbiz Witch) to its name. Since Mannequin Men's formation, bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Franz Ferdinand had skyrocketed to nationwide fame, only to disappear just as quickly. How could a band this good fly under the radar for so long?
It’s amazing how much the Internet can jade you. When I asked frontman Kevin Richard (real name: Kevin Kujawa) what his aspirations were now that the band is on its third album and headlining a national tour, he said, "I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you I didn’t want to be famous." Richard also noted that with the current tour to support Lose Your Illusion, Too (out this week), the band's reputation is finally catching up to its talent. "We’re starting to get more of an ability to play places like New York and L.A. and have people actually know who you are, which before was a pipe dream.…You have to appreciate what you get."
That kind of attitude is a far cry from that expressed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Kill Your Idols (2004). In the documentary, Karen O. describes how the band set out to be the greatest in the world. At the turn of this century, Yeah Yeah Yeahs we’re being courted by Flameshovel Records, Mannequin Men’s current label. Flameshovel's founders eventually lost the future stars in a bidding war, despite being childhood friends with drummer Brian Chase.
For Mannequin Men, however, personal connections are at the core of their identity. A self-described "bunch of Midwestern idiots in a rock band," the members respond immediately to any praise they get on Twitter or blogs. That’s normally the kind of thing left to a PR representative, but Mannequin Men obviously appreciate any recognition they get. "The city is kinda small once you get in the rat pack; it’s rare to meet someone you like," Richard noted. "It’s not like we’re doing this as a job."
Mannequin Men’s attitude toward fame is almost impossible to understand in the social bubbles of Williamsburg, Los Feliz, and SoCo. Today’s music scene is dealing with two competing lifestyles in its economics, culture, and ethics. On one end, we have the urban lifestyle. In a place like New York, the goal is to be the best of the best, and to demand no less from your peers. On the other end, we have the rural lifestyle. In a small town, where the only successful people are the doctor, the lawyer, the banker, and the businessmen, any artistic success is a blessing. This decade, the dynamic between these two opposite poles has gotten completely garbled. Urbanites who have grown up surrounded by elites have a hard time understanding why anyone wouldn’t aim to be the best in the world at whatever they did. Those who left rural life for city life, meanwhile, often do so to forget the narrow-mindedness of their upbringing.
Chicago is one of the most fascinating and frequently frustrating examples of how these two mindsets clash in American society. America’s third most populous city has a remarkably low cost of living, and its rich artistic history allows for an extraordinarily vibrant contemporary arts scene. Yet, Chicago’s Midwestern streak rejects the jadedness and shallowness of the "coasties" in cities like New York and L.A. -- as well as the ambitions of city life. Whereas New York attracts culture vultures from around the world, Chicago’s artists mainly come from places like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa. Compared to Des Moines, New York may as well be Mars.
As a result, Chicago tends to focus on local culture, which can often limit its national standing. "I think it’s strange that people still think of us as a Chicago band," said Richard, who grew up in the outer suburbs of Chicago. "Meanwhile, a band can come out of Brooklyn and not even have a single out and take over the country."
In addition to Mannequin Men’s incredible live set, the band now features an equally impressive catalog. 2007’s Fresh Rot was a garage punk triumph, eschewing needless complexity for two-chord primal garage rock in the classic Midwestern punk tradition of bands like the Effigies and the Suicide Commandos. Richards downplays his lyrical prowess, but some of the lyrics on Fresh Rot critique contemporary youth in ways that are simply unparalleled by any other lyricist this decade. There are send-ups of club life ("Pigpen,") trend hunting ("Pattern Factory,"), poseurs ("Private School"), and promiscuity ("Grapefruit.") If there was ever a lyric to explain Millenials’ reaction to unprecedented mobility, it’d be Fresh Rot’s last line: "We may be Mannequin Men/ But we can move/ We are free, we are free, we are free/ Are you?"
Most frequently, Mannequin Men have cited the Replacements as an influence. More than being a similarly snotty garage band, Mannequin Men recalls the Replacements through the band’s unyielding focus on sincerity. "Our idea is that it doesn’t matter what kind of music you play…you have to continue doing what you’re doing and hope that your good intentions erases the negativity. I don’t feel like a lot of bands have really good intentions, or really like what they’re playing. They’re operating in this weird Internet world."
The band's emphasis on good intentions can often overwhelm their path to success. When Mannequin Men needed someone to take over for departed bassist Rick Berger, they turned to Miles Raymer, an old friend who just so happens to be the head music writer at Chicago’s premier alternative weekly, the Reader. "Miles is kinda responsible for getting us together in the first place. He’s always been coming to shows and been cool to bands.…We made him play bass, and we were like ‘well, [we] know you don’t play bass, but you do now.’"
When I asked Richards what it was like to have a critic in the band, Richards was taken aback; he had never really considered Raymer as a critic in the band's dynamic. A good publicist, conversely would have told the band that adding Raymer could limit Mannequin Men’s coverage from the Chicago Reader and the city’s alternative press -- the backbone of the band’s fame -- due to traditional print-media standards for conflict of interest. All the same, I cannot see how Richards would let something like potentially reduced local coverage change the decision to add Raymer to the band.
With their new album, Mannequin Men now faces the pressure of being charged with saving one of Chicago’s most dependable local labels. Lose Your Illusion, Too is this year’s biggest release for the flailing Flameshovel Records, which lost its principal distribution after the cutbacks at Touch and Go. In today’s climate, the best financial approach would be to embrace the Internet hype machine and focus on selling the albums more than making its purchasers like it.
Perhaps hoping to maximize on the band’s earned good will, Mannequin Men went into the studio hoping to make more of a pop album. There are, in fact, new pop elements on Lose Your Illusion, Too. Rather than focus on generational cynicism, the lyrics are more in the Black Lips-style of aimlessness on tracks like "Massage," "(Who Is) Alice Golden?" and "WTF LOL." For some, the loss of Fresh Rot’s lyrical complexity will no doubt be infuriating.
Still, Lose Your Illusion, Too is darker and more dangerous sounding than almost anything else in this decade’s first or second wave of garage rock. There’s an inescapable bite to opener "Rathole" that cannot easily be considered pop. Meanwhile, closer "(Us And) All our Friends Are So Messed Up" provides as much of a musical punchline as "We Are Free" brought to Fresh Rot. Lyrically, however, the final note is sour rather than hopeful.
Richards acknowledged that the new album came out a lot darker than he had anticipated, but he loved the ultimate product all the same. Whether a relatively inaccessible garage rocker can save its label is another story.
Yet, in an age when most bands are looking to an imaginary future of pure freedom, Mannequin Men are one of the few bands of our time to acknowledge how far we’ve come and how lucky we are to be living in this era. "Ultimately," Richard concluded, "every band wants to have the situation of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, where you can put out records and people adore you…That guy’s loaded and he’s doing whatever the hell he wants. That freedom is out there for certain acts, and I would love to have something like that happen."
If it doesn’t, at least they got to spend six years of making music with friends. Beats being a banker.
Photo by John Sturdy