Roger Manning (Jellyfish, Lickerish Quartet)

by Roger Catlin

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. started Jellyfish with high school pal Andy Sturmer in the late '80s. With wild, colorful clothing and a musical palette ranging from the Raspberries and Queen to ELO and Wings, it seemed utterly out of step with the hair metal and grunge of the early and mid '90s.

Despite their influence and cult following, they broke up in 1994, with Sturmer, the drummer and lead singer, withdrawing from bands and recording, and Manning forming Imperial Drag and the Moog Cookbook as well as touring with Cheap Trick and Beck. But over the past three years, Manning, 53, has been working with bassist Tim Smith and guitarist Eric Dover - both members of the last Jellyfish lineup - as The Lickerish Quartet, whose debut EP, Threesome Vol. 1, is due May 15 via The Lickerish Quartet/Label Logic, distributed by Ingrooves. It's the first of three planned EPs from the group due out in the coming year or so. The already released first single, the trippy, six-minute "Lighthouse Spaceship," echoes the loopy, kaleidoscopic pop of the old band.

We talked to Manning from his LA home during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Lickerish Quartet: Eric Dover, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Tim Smith (photo: Jay Gilbert)

Roger Catlin (Songfacts): The songs on this first EP have such a strong Jellyfish flavor. Was that the intent, or is that just what results when you guys get together?

Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: I think it's very natural for us. It's just an extension of our personalities and who we are as people and songwriters. There was no agenda whatsoever to do anything with this music, to have it be a certain way. But when we looked at all the material, I think we all felt pretty good that not only do we like it, but any fans who missed that music from us will be pleasantly surprised. It's not like we went off, started a reggae band, and said, well, I hope the Jellyfish fans like it!

The Lickerish Quartet may be a cheeky name for a trio, but the title comes from an obscure 1970 Italian erotic film, directed, produced and co-written by Radley Metzger, whose other films include Camille 2000, Score, and, under the name Harry Paris, The Private Afternoons Of Pamela Mann and The Opening Of Misty Beethoven. The Lickerish Quartet, shot in Italy and dubbed in English, got good reviews from the New York Times critic Vincent Canby, as well as from Andy Warhol, who called it "an outrageously kinky masterpiece."
Songfacts: How did it work? Did you all bring songs to the project or did you develop them together?

Manning: It was more organic. There were no finished songs. Part of the experiment for all of us was, "Hey, I have these unfinished ideas sitting around, let me play them for you guys and see if you're inspired to help me finish them," kind of thing.

So we all did that. We all had a batch of unfinished ideas that we shared with each other. It's fun to hang out and to explore that side of each other's musicality. And of course that works only if you have enough in common to share an aesthetic and vibe, which we do. And then you've gotta have the work ethic to hunker down and realize the shit. That's probably the most challenging part, and for me, the most rewarding part.

I can play a song on guitar or piano and sing, and I'll know if it's solid top to bottom. I finish the arrangement there. But making it three dimensional and creating a recording, that's a whole different thing and that's also very fun. And to me, that's the ultimate way of seeing it through to fruition and the most gratifying process, but it's also the most challenging because it's just constantly decoding a jigsaw puzzle.

There are plenty of days when you try a bunch of experiments and you walk away at the end of the day and go, "None of that worked. This sucks and I don't know what I'm going to do about it." So the three of us have got to put our heads together and figure it out, and we do. That sense of accomplishment, transcending the challenge and overcoming it, rising to the occasion, all those things are very gratifying. The spirit, the soul essence, loves that sense of accomplishment.

Songfacts: Was it always like that in the studio for you? And is it harder now, or easier now?

Manning: Uh, the same. That's been a part of everything I've ever done. I've certainly raised the bar for myself, and if my collaborators share that aspiration, that's what we shoot for. It's like being an athlete. It's like, "Oh, I was accepted for the Olympics? I'd better train like I've never trained before, because I want to see if I can push myself to be the best that I can be." And all that training sucks. It's really hard work. But it's a huge payoff, and that's what this is all about.

Songfacts: Have advances in the technology changed your work process?

Manning: It's whatever gets you to the finish line. You've got the luxury of the computer, so if you're stuck on something, the computer can help you problem solve. But it's all the same challenges that you would have had like Jellyfish had in pre-computer, pre-digital recording. It's still, "What do we have to do to convey the sentiment of this song in as clever and as amusing and entertaining and honest a way possible?" So you set out to do that and the computer, or whatever in 2020, is another tool to help you get there. But it doesn't finish the record for you.

Since they last played together in Jellyfish, the three members of The Lickerish Quartet have been busy playing in a number of other bands. Manning toured and played with Beck, as well as Air, Cheap Trick, Jay-Z, and blink-182. He's also recorded four solo albums, played with Eric Dover in Imperial Drag, and with Brian Kehew, formed the half-spoof Moog Cookbook, a duo that did retro-sounding instrumental versions of rock standards and gave Daft Punk the idea of wearing anonymous-looking spacesuits.

Dover, who was Imperial Drag's lead singer, also sang lead for Slash's Snakepit and toured with Alice Cooper. Smith was one half of the two-man Umajets, whose 1997 debut album had contributions from both Manning and Dover. He went on to play with Sheryl Crow, the Finn Brothers and Noel's Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Drumming for The Lickerish Quartet is Jeremy Stacey, who has played with Aztec Camera, the Lemon Trees, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and, since 2016, King Crimson.
Songfacts: Did each of you bring a song to the table for the first EP? It sounds like the the concluding six-minute "Lighthouse Spaceship" is a big collaboration.

Manning: You could say that "Lighthouse," "Bluebird's Blues" and "Fadoodle" were all ideas that I started and for Tim, "There Is A Magic Number" was definitely one that he started. But all the songs then were finished by the three of us. I brought in most of the music for "Fadoodle," but Eric wrote the entire lyric and Tim helped flush out the bridge and arrangement. It was definitely a three-way thing.

It wasn't at all the "Roger Band," with my old bandmates to help me be my backup group. That was never our intention. We also understood that when we were together in the past, Andy was the lead singer and wrote most of the lyrics. So in his absence, it was clear we all had to do whatever we had to do, not because we wanted to create Jellyfish Phase II, but we didn't have the luxury of having his brilliant lead singer chops.

Though Eric was the lead singer for the most part in Imperial Drag, this was a very different project that required different lead singing acrobatics that had had less to do with the Imperial Drag project. This was why this is a true collaboration. We each brought our own strengths and weaknesses to the table and built on those.

When you have three different people singing lead vocals at any given time, it can be challenging to make sure you have a cohesive sound, which was a concern of ours. But the background vocal structures, and the way we did it, I think mission accomplished as far as I was concerned.

Songfacts: Will you play a few Jellyfish songs if you do tour?

Manning: I've performed a Jellyfish song or two every time I've done any kind of solo stuff live. It's always a nice bonus, a nice encore moment. When I played Fuji Rock in Japan in 2008, [original Jellyfish guitarist] Jason Falkner happened to be playing the festival on a different day, and we connected and he came up and did "That Is Why" with me. The fans went nuts. It was a real incredible surprise and beautiful moment. So, we have no problems with that. We just wouldn't bill it as a Jellyfish reunion, or "Come and hear the hits of Jellyfish performed and maybe a few of our songs."

Songfacts: "That Is Why" is kind of a classic from those days. What is its origin?

Manning: If memory serves, Andy had the chorus idea, and he didn't know where to take it. But he believed in it and I believed in it when he played it for me. And I got inspired to help create that verse and the bridge and we finished the song structure itself in a 30-minute writing session, because we were both so excited in the core of the idea. And then demoing it and arranging it, that was a whole other can of worms to crack it open, or whatever the cliché is.

That was a song that, once we finished it, we were like, "Wow, there's really a sound to this." It didn't have anything to do with the Beatnik Beatch sound that we had been involved with before [in our first band]. This was clearly more our personality. It became our second single and it actually got the most alternative rock airtime and video time than any of our singles off our record, so it was a bit of an alternative hit for us.

For a while it seemed like the disappearance Andy Sturmer from the rock scene following the breakup of Jellyfish was taking the mysterious routes of Syd Barrett, Bryan Gregory or Jeremy Spencer before him - poof, and he was gone. But then he became a writer and producer for the Japanese duo Puffy AmiYumi, and through that a writer of the Teen Titans animated series on Cartoon Network. There followed a career in cartoon scoring and producing for Cartoon Network's Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, Ben 10, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the third season of the animated The Batman.

For Disney, Sturmer, now 55, composed the theme song and score for its series My Friends Tigger & Pooh and the theme song for Transformers Animated. Which all doesn't sound all that far afield from "Lighthouse Spaceship," frankly.
Songfacts: At the time, your sound was a little out of place with what was going on in popular music, as I suppose it still is now. Has that changed?

Manning: It's been pretty clear to me since our junior high, high school and college days, that what seemed to push my buttons was not what was pushing other people's buttons. Sometimes, that was me getting into music that was already past. I got into a lot of jazz and '60s psych rock and '70s progressive rock after the fact. I was too little to see the band Yes or early Genesis. I wasn't even born to enjoy The Byrds or Steppenwolf, let alone any jazz from the '40s, '50s or '60s.

All of that music has shaped me, all of that music I love dearly to this day, but it's certainly not fashionable in any kind of mainstream sense, but there are pockets of audiences that keep that all alive. When it came time to finally have a stage to share my own ideas with my collaborators, any time we got any attention I was surprised, whether that was getting signed, or getting played on MTV or radio, or having people in the audience. To me, it was a miracle.

There were nostalgic elements to it, but we weren't doing retro music. We were doing contemporary stuff that had nothing to do with current trends. So when [Jellyfish's first album, 1990] Bellybutton came out, it was the height of MTV hair metal. We had zero to do with that, other than we rocked out once in a while. And then when Spilt Milk came out [1993], it was at the height of grunge, and we had zero to do with Pearl Jam, we had zero to do with the Seattle scene, other than, again, we rocked out every once in a while.

In fact, I can remember, we were touring and we were set to play Seattle and we were scared that nobody was going to be at the show, and if they were at the show, they were going to heckle us. And we had one of our best shows of the tour in Seattle. It was packed, everybody knew the words, everybody was singing along, they didn't want us to leave the stage. It just showed us that regardless what was going on in the mainstream, there were definitely people out there starved for melody-oriented, singalong, harmony rock/pop, because most people have that part of their soul that craves that.

Even generations now, at some level, they grow up hearing The Beatles. Even though we don't do Beatles, we operate in that school, so it's appreciated and valued. You know, rock is for the boomers and my generation. Hip-hop is the new foundation for everything of the last 30 years. I'm not diminishing that or saying it's wrong. All I'm saying is, while there's plenty of hip-hop that I enjoy, it's not what gets me out of bed in the morning, and it's not what I base my creative expression on. I have more to do with Burt Bacharach and Cheap Trick than I do Biggie Smalls and whoever is the new Lil' this week.

April 21, 2020
Here's where you can hear Threesome Vol. 1

Further reading:
The Primitive Radio Gods story
'90s Music Quiz
Interview with Lisa Loeb

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