It’s 3:40 p.m. on November 12, 2014, and the very first track on the latest album by Manny Berlin (a.k.a. Manfred Janssen), Basement Tapes, is being recorded at Frostbite House in Whitehorse.
Neither Janssen, nor his co-producer Jordy Walker imagined it would take more than three years to get the seven songs out the door.
Manfred Janssen is a Yukon musical staple, glued together by years of playing, singing, touring and recording. He has played music most of his life.
Sounds of Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley spilled out of the family home. Like many teens, he played in bands, strumming away on a cheap Carmencita guitar his parents ordered him from Sears. But it opened the gates, in a way.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he listened to the blues and hung out on the strip on Yonge Street in Toronto. It was the place for music – Le Coq Door, Hawk’s Nest, Zanzibar…
Manfred Janssen and Jordy Walker recorded the bulk of the album in Walker’s basement studio in Hillcrest, hence the title, Basement Tapes.
I had a chance to catch up with them to discuss the new album.
Lara Lewis: So, how did the Basement Tapes project begin?
Manfred Janssen: I played with Jordy at the Gold Rush years ago with Ed White and we talked about recording together.
LL: When was that?
Manfred Janssen: We just kept talking about it. “We should do it.” Then we did it. This album was to break away from the folky stuff. We just decided to roll the tape and see what happens. I wanted it to be less push-button-y. You know, “Retake, retake.” The beauty of working with Jordy is that I could say, “This is what I’m looking for.” Jordy would be like “Oh. Yah,” and find the right thing. It was very collaborative. It was kind of a release in a way.
The idea was not to do a 14 to 15 song CD. Originally, I thought I would do a 6 pack. You know – A side, B side, like a 45 or an EP. Not shooting your whole load on 14 songs. I brought in Sammy and Nadine [to play the fifth track on the album]. They didn’t have a clue what they were going to be doing. They brought a banjo and an accordion. I wrote the song while we were recording. Recording is a good impetus for that.
At this moment, Jordy Walker and Manfred look at each other and laugh. I ask what the joke is and they say they are reliving the experience of recording. Jordy cuts in, “It’s bringing back the laughs we had at the time.” Manfred agreed. “Yes, you marvel at the moment. You just don’t know how things will turn out.”
LL: What about the name on the album – Manny Berlin. Is that your alter ego?
MJ: I have family in Berlin, a cousin. I was visiting and she’s like, “Hey Manny,” she calls me Manny. “Hey Manny, you’re in Berlin.” I liked it.
LL: And the cover? It reminds me of New Orleans.
MJ: My partner visited the Vancouver Art Gallery and there was a Day of the Dead exhibit. She bought me a T-shirt with the image from the album cover. I liked that image, so I tracked down the artist, a guy named Jon Langford who lives in Chicago. He’s known as the godfather of punk in Wales. (Ed. note: Langford is originally from Wales and a founding member of The Mekons.) I emailed him to get permission to use the image, not really expecting anything. The next day he emailed back.
LL: So, how did you know the album was done?”
Jordy Walker: I think we thought it was done before it was done. We recorded six tunes. We wanted to do the song “Muddy Water,” but didn’t know if it would work.
MJ: I brought Paul Lucas in for the “Muddy Water” song. That became the seventh song.
And it was a quirky song to record, according to Walker.
JW: Paul played on the track, which is funny in and of itself – just because he’s hilarious. But he grabbed a guitar of mine off the wall and loved the weird, thin sound of it. It went out of tune so quickly he’d play a phrase, we’d stop recording and he’d re-tune and then he’d pick up where he left off. But we all loved the sound of it so much that he did that through the whole song until it was done… Paul Lucas brings a whole new meaning to the word autotune.
Walker’s take on the album is that it is idiosyncratic and subverts expectations, while still being based in a roots/blues tradition. “It’s a heck of weird and fun listen. A trip straight to downtown Vibesville, YT.”
In his words, their goal was to bust the tunes wide open and not do the expected thing.
JW: If we recorded an acoustic guitar, we’d to plug it into an amp and put the mic in the next room… If we wanted a drum kit, we’d take a tom and a cymbal and see what we could do… We did it all backwards – we started each tune by recording the lead vocal, the rhythm guitar and the bass live at the same time with no click track, improvising the form as we went. Then we added harmonica, percussion, more and more guitars, more vocals, keyboards, etc. in whatever order we felt like and if that original track sped up, slowed down, had a weird note or chord, or whatever other “mistake,” we learned that “mistake” and built sounds around it… Once the mistakes were firmly layered in, we had the pleasure of working with some incredible musicians – Alana Martenson, Olivier de Colombel, Sammy Lind, Nadine Landry, Paul Lucas and others.
MJ: This album is something you play loud in your car. This is probably one of the only things I’ve made that I will stick in the CD player of my car, drive from Marsh Lake and be happy listening to it.
LL: And the influence?
MJ: It’s kind of like the rub on the underbelly of the blues, the way I look at these tunes. It’s not the blues in the traditional sense of the blues. All of those influences are the underbelly rub. You know, not patting full on. It’s my take… I like to call it the rub.
LL: So, what’s next?
MJ: I never did this project to release and tour. It’s just something I wanted to do. It took on a life of its own. Do I want to go out and tour? Probably not. I mean, I would. You end up in that whole band-on-the-road. How you gonna do it, support it? At this stage in my life, floors aren’t all that inviting. And the industry has changed. It used to be, “Let’s get to the next festival…” I’m more interested in creating now. To me, this was a joyful experience. Like a painter. You do it because you love to paint. You have to paint… And what anyone else thinks at this point doesn’t matter.
To find a copy of Basement Tapes, or any of Janssen’s music, email him at [email protected] or visit iTunes.