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THE MANTRA IS MUSIC

by Britt Chester

At 10 p.m. on Monday night, just three days away from the opening night of Mantrabash, five members of the festival’s namesake band are sitting in the living of the home of a few other members in Greensboro.

Instrument cases are stacked in corners and strewn about the floor, styrofoam remnants of forgotten meals perspire on the coffee table, and a general cloud of restlessness hangs over the room.

For the past eight hours, members of the Mantras have been trucking gear to the festival grounds located just over an hour outside of Greensboro in Ferguson, North Carolina at the High Country Motorcycle Camp. Included in the latest haul was a large outdoor grill, various storage receptacles filled with the little things conveniently within arms reach when needed during the festival, and a bar for the backstage hospitality. Amidst a list of other operational items transferred, Julian Sizemore, the keyboardist, mentions that there are someone else’s materials and items currently sitting on the property.

“So, yea, hopefully those are gone in time,” he says.

Keith Allan, vocalist and guitarist for the outfit, left his wife sitting at home on the couch in order to attend one of the final rehearsals on this mist filled Monday night. It will be one of the final rehearsals before the big show this weekend, but the overall feeling in the hazy room is that of just another Monday, and less of the final stretch leading into the big day.

As we wait for Kenn Mogel, the other guitarist for the Mantras, to arrive, Allen begins to make sarcastic conversation about how exciting it is to be in a band.

He mumbles something about “momentum” and “velocity” as it pertains to a band just being real and playing music. About how much they, collectively, are passionate about the music and just playing instruments. He’s speaking to me, but the audience is the rest of the band minus one. It’s a brief mockery of the fact that we are all sitting around thumbing smartphone screens waiting for one more person to show up for rehearsal.

Allen settles on “philocity,” assumedly an interfaced statement of “philosophy” and “velocity.” We all laugh.

At the end of his exhaust is an invitation to see the rehearsal space in the basement of the house. There’s the usual disclaimer that it’s not as glorious as one might think – that somehow all bands rehearse in spaces constructed by VH1 to serve as backdrops for “Behind The Music” – and that it’s simply a white room. To expect anything more would be ignorant of the costs of musical spaces with ideal acoustics and ample space for each musician to move freely about in their craft. We head down a flight of stairs and into yet another purgatorial storage facility for guitar cases, wires, boxes and the like. At the back of the room sits the rehearsal space.

Sitting on the amp is Brian Tyndall, the bassist and one of the only remaining founding members of the original Mantras lineup. Sizemore takes his place in the corner office of keyboards and synthesizers while Allen takes a seat next to him. Tyndall taps on the strings of his bass, mimicking the motions of a song only he can hear, as does Sizemore on the keys. Allen runs his fingers along the neck of the guitar as drummer Justine Loew and percussionist Brent Vaughn enter the space. The conversation is minimal as each one reacquaints themselves with their instrument.

Mogel enters the room, finally, and the brief salutations follow. Mogel just returned from Disneyland, but talk of the happiest place on earth can’t seem to break the concentration of the rest of the room.

It’s less than two minutes before the guys shut their mouths and begin the intimate sonic communication. Sizemore opens with keys followed closely by Tyndall’s bass. The drums come in with a steady rapping from the percussion side and the guitars fall inline.

The first version is a bit more of a reintroduction to the song. It’s a cover song, one that will certainly be played out at the festival, and an initial attempt is choppy. The jazzy time signature calls for a five-count break, but the band has yet to master the re-entry.

Tyndall keeps time with his foot – a metronome of sorts if you will – but it’s obvious that each member’s internal count is both accurate and honest. Between each take of the song is a conversation about what is happening and who is the culprit. There’s no blame placed directly, but just reference to an audio recording of the original song.

“It’s there on the one-count – the one-count falls on a G,” Sizemore says.

The keyboards and drums seem connected with Sizemore focused on Loew’s pattern, but the overall piece begins to take shape as the six members begin playing a coherent song.

In four days this song will be mastered, at least mastered to the likes of six musicians. But it’s only one of who knows how many that will need to be memorized for the weekend.

This is the sixth Mantrabash for the 12-year old band, and they are making sure it’s going to be the best.

The current lineup for The Mantras is relatively young. The original iteration of the Mantras is no longer – that included Marcus Horth on the lead vocals and guitar, and featured his first name in the title (Marcus and the Mantras). Tyndall is the member with the most tenure, although Allen is a close second since joining the band after just one or two shows. In 2006, drummer Ryan Wike was replaced with Justin Horth sitting in his place, but even he would be officially replaced with Justin Loew in 2007. Also right around the time Brent Vaughn introduced percussion to the then-quintet.

Allen recalls being adamant about bringing percussion in due to his respect for the dual drummers utilized by the Grateful Dead. He said it added an element that was missing, but not missed – just something that could help to elevate the band’s sound.

“Marcus left the band three or four years ago when we started touring heavily,” Allen said. “It’s not for everybody.”

At the time of his departure, The Mantras were a twoguitar band with keyboards to compliment the drums and bass, and Allen even said the loss of the guitar was softened by Justin Powell’s keyboarding. But it wasn’t the same.

“As soon as things started to change there was a rift,” Allen said, recalling the exit of Horth and the later transition to a six-piece with a new sound and voice. “Some didn’t like me just singing by myself”¦ it was a lot of pressure on me to be that dude. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ve had to deal with a lot of rejection and a lot of people saying one thing but doing another. It’s tough to let people in after 12 years. We are a bit protective,” Allen said.

Ultimately, Sizemore would replace Powell at the helm of the ivories in 2013. Mogel would do the same except on the guitar. Mind you, this was during the height of touring seasons, and replacing members in a band with an exhaustive list of songs and covers that are regularly cycled in the live setting is not an easy task.

“[Justin Powell] was nice enough to give me a chartbook he made when he was joining the band,” Sizemore remembers. “The Mantras have, like, 85-100 original tunes, a lot of them progressive rock tunes, or jazz-based tunes with alternating time signatures, so it was”¦ it was as much variety as possible.”

Sizemore came on right around Halloween in 2013.

The Mantras were at the time booked for a residency in Baltimore, which saw the band playing one show each week of that November in the Charm City. Sizemore had just joined on as the replacement for Powell and was beginning to learn the ins and outs of being in a band fulltime. Once prompted, he sold his car and moved in with a couple of the other members. Although his experience was mostly in the world of piano, he eagerly adapted to the sounds required of him in The Mantras, a jam band.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do full-time, whatever the pay,” Sizemore said. This sentiment was echoed many times from each band member, and although sarcasm lies heavy on this close knit group of friends, it rings true when you listen to them vehemently deny the idea of working in a cubicle and taking home a secure check is anywhere remotely near to their idea of happiness. Sizemore, especially, intents that he has tired of working the restaurant and service industry, even if that means making next to nothing.

“It’s worth it to not make any money and still work your ass off for full days, everyday as long as I can do this,” he said. “We really embody that whole thing.”

Mogel joined the band right around the same time as Sizemore, with Sizemore’s appearance becoming official during the 2013-2014 New Year’s run. Up until that point, the learning curve was steep and sans ladders for both Sizemore and the rest of the band. Bringing on a new keyboardist, someone who admittedly was the least experienced on his instrument by comparison to the rest of the band, wasn’t easy.

“When [Justin Powell] was coming it was a gradual process – they all became friends over time,” said Sizemore. “I was just stop, drop, and boom here I am. I moved into the house, and I’m here to stay.”

Allen recalls Sizemore learning the easier pieces first with a concentration on all of the songs. Tyndall said the same thing, but added that if Sizemore was going to remain playing with the band then it would mean throwing him to the wolves. In the first month Sizemore came on the act had 23 shows lined up, not including the monthlong residency in Baltimore. Sizemore remembers having to learn new songs each week to play for the residency since the band has imprinted upon itself a reputation of not ever playing the same show twice – something popularized by other acts of the same genre.

It was during this transitional period that a lot of changes were occurring for The Mantras. Vaughn, who had the instrumental ear required to play, had never played percussion in a band before, and Mogel plays his guitar left-handed (that means it’s upside down if you weren’t aware.)

The struggle with bringing on new members for any band is the reality of having to relearn songs. For both Tyndall and Allen, two members who wrote, co-wrote or have at least played the songs out on multiple occasions for years, it means dropping their own egos and notions about the direction of the band and accepting the course that it will take with a new lineup.

“When new people come in I always learn so much about myself,” Allen said. “It’s interesting. It’s difficult. I don’t like having to relearn songs.”

Vaughn spoke about other residual issues that come with bringing someone new into the band, although he himself was an addition after the inception of the original lineup. “They are going to be there”¦ it’s your world and they are in it,” he said.

It’s not the same as hiring a new human resource manager. It’s certainly not the same as working in a restaurant, and it’s nothing like other jobs that require the constant pursuit of creativity and an outlet: It’s bringing someone on who can comply with a group-thought, which means agreeing with a majority decision or even standing firm on an independent idea. For The Mantras, it means adapting to the foundational momentum that has been building for, at the time of the last implementation of a new member, a decade.

“It’s a weird thing because a lot of people think they want this but they don’t know what it’s about,” Allen declared. “They don’t want to sleep on floors, or make no money, but it’s something you have to do. I have to play guitar or else I’ll go crazy. We get addicted to that release on stage.”

Several of the members live together in a house, the same one they rehearse at on a regular basis. Others live scattered around Greensboro, but all within a close enough proximity that if a call is made each will be ready at a moment’s notice for practice or decision-making.

There is a special bond for band mates required for the whole to work as a unit. First, there is the general idea of “can we be friends with this person?” Given the decadeplus run of the band, the idea that happiness is achieved through success is long gone. And to expound on that idea is to also assess how each member views success as an individual and as a band.

Tyndall’s view of success is relatively felt throughout the band, although Allen has a different approach – what seems like almost a fear – to the subject. Tyndall sees that setting little goals and achieving them is success in and of itself, arguably the definition of the word. But Allen is vocal in his disregard for the matter.

To Allen, success is a black hole that one can get lost in search of. For the entirety of the interview he’s downplaying the otherwise outwardly successes of the band while still maintaining passion for the venture. It’s a contradiction of sorts, but not one easily called out. He recognizes The Mantras fall into a certain genre of music that is not easily classified by “hits” or “viral sensations.” True to form, rarely does a jam band make headlines because of a single song or a trending topic. The sad reality is that most of the time any jam band (Phish, Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, to name a few) is named is when tragedies happen at their events. The stigma of drug culture falls almost uniquely on the scene surrounding jam bands, which is ironic given the nature and tone of most of the songs is a general sense of uplifting and the empowerment of the creative juices. Place that next to any current mainstream rapper’s lyrics, and you’re looking at polar opposites. It’s almost as if jam bands recognize their audience to be a calm crowd, void of confrontation and lacking in political uneasiness. However, it’s ignorant to assume that the calm crowd is not at least smoking something to maintain that demeanor.

Even upon entry to the interview Tyndall opened with “Don’t paint us as a drug band.” That stereotype has been long played out – whether correct or incorrect, validated or irrelevant – it’s a fear for any band entering an already charted path that it won’t be able to shake the preconceived notions of the masses. That notion for jam bands happens to be the drug culture that envelops it, and again, whether valid or invalid, it’s there.

“The whole, especially the scene we are in – we are in that festival scene that’s come out of the Grateful Dead – there is a drug culture that is involved with them so it’s grandfathered in to all of us in the scene, and it’s in rock and roll,” Sizemore said.

Mogel added the point about being entertainers, and that at the end of it all, their goal is to still have people leave the show with motivation and the will to push themselves to be better.

So the “success” of the band falls less on the talent of each musician at this point, and leans more toward the idea that happiness is achieved through playing music, which is paying the bills, which can be presented as “success.” Together, they’ve proved they can play to festival crowds in the upper thousands, yet still not be too prideful to play their hearts out to a room of 20 in the middle of Indiana on a routing tour stop. How can you gauge success when the gauge doesn’t apply to the persons?

Allen referenced Carlos Santana’s sentiments in expressing that he didn’t feel validated from his music until he won a Grammy. “That terrible Supernatural album. That guy has 25 albums, is a guitar god, and he didn’t feel like his music would live on until he won a Grammy.” Again, success is in the eye of beholder, despite how many commas are added on that next check.

“Mantrabash is one of the biggest things,” Vaughn chimed. “No matter how much we have going on, we can’t help but be moved by all the people together. Seeing all these people who have supported us and were there when we were down, all in one place. It’s powerful, but it’s not validation.”

The history of Mantrabash does not date back to the beginnings of The Mantras. What started in June of 2008 as more of a backyard party and less of an organized, legal full-blown festival, has turned into something much larger than the band originally dreamt. Like any band shifting it’s focus from local gigs and regional stops to national tours and festival appearances, The Mantras wanted something more. Recognizing the amount of North Carolina festivals, as well as the national circuit, which can easily float a band for an entire summer of touring if the bookings and tour routes are financed properly, The Mantras wanted in on a piece of the action.

The first year was held in the backyard of a friend’s house. It was, in the purest form, a house party. There were five bands and roughly 150 people showed up. This was in June of 2008, and by the time the next year rolled around, the act managed to double the amount of people in attendance, and move the party to bigger piece of land. The festival, albeit an event The Mantras could play at with other bands, wasn’t a miscalculated undertaking that didn’t yield the result originally hoped for: The Mantras got booked two nights at the Get Down, another North Carolina festival that was on the rise at the time.

Allen admits that in the first two years of Mantrabash the group was inexperienced. There was little understanding of how ticketing money can sit in escrow, how setting a budget according to expected attendance can allude to a relative bottom-line figure after all is said and done.

When it came down to it, the first two years of Mantrabash proved to be too much work for the act, who was by and large taking on the lion’s share of the financial responsibility. Understanding that festivals take years to build a reputation, The Mantras decided to step back from the role of festival proprietors and back into the studio. Between the first Mantrabash-house-party and the second, the act released How Many?, a 15-song record with songs like “Jabberwocky” that perpetuate the emphasis on a singular hook to catch listeners. The 2010 follow-up, Dharland, showed a renewed sense of self for the act. Whatever happened in those years sent The Mantras in a direction less reliant on long-winded, mathematically complicated jams, and more into a honed direction of a singular theme. Dharland is a more emotive effort focused on the instrumentation and skills of the members as individuals. “Magillicuddy,” for instance, opens with a bass improvisation that sounds slapped and staccato against the concise plucking of the guitar.

The drums don’t take center stage but more or less hold the beat – the real meat and potatoes is served on the low-end. “Sativa” off the same album has more of a jazz feel with a slow-paced bass and winding guitar riffs.

The next album wouldn’t come until 2013, but the year before was full of all sorts of twists and turn. It was in 2012 that Mantrabash would return after a two-year hiatus. Teaming up with Stanlee Ventures, a promotional entity based out of Virginia, Mantrabash was able to secure funding to bring some larger acts to the stage in hopes of building a more far-reaching following in the community. The Mantras headlined all three nights but were supported by Particle, one of a few pioneering acts in the genre-blending world of electronica, jam, and rock and roll.

The 2013 edition of Mantrabash featured Zoogma and Dopapod as the cobilled headliners, with a host of local and regional acts added.

It was in 2013 that Jambands Ruined My Life would be released, as well, thus showcasing a strong embrace of the idea that jam bands can infuse electronica in a polite and respectful manner without detracting from the organic elements that popularized acts of the same flavor. It was also in the time leading up that The Mantras experienced the departure of Horth, which could be the reason for the sudden shift in sound. Jambands Ruined My Life also felt the touch of professionalism with Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger handling some of the mixing and production duties on the album. The final product would be a foundation for other changes set to occur in the coming months, namely the addition of Sizemore and Mogel to the band, officially.

It was in 2014 that things really began changing, once again, for The Mantras. Launching a Kickstarter campaign to hopefully procure funding for a new album, The Mantras raised just over $11,000 and set to work on the a new recording studio and engineering gear. Mogel was tasked with handling the brunt of the load for this venture – he’s mixed, engineered and produced other albums in the past, and perhaps has the most experience with doing so in-house for the band – and constructed what the band believes to be an honest representation of themselves on record.

Shortly following this event, though, Powell would make exit from the band and introduce Sizemore.

Sizemore recollects on last year’s edition of Mantrabash with both excitement of the newness of it all, and the slight trepidation he felt in becoming a part of something he only once heard about.

“It’s just to build up this whole scene and take the North Carolina jam band scene to a different level for not just us, but for a bunch of these other bands,” he said. Admittedly, Sizemore did not have your typical barrier of entry to the world of jam bands and festivals. His initiation, a memory he fondly recalls while the rest of the band laughs at the mental image burned into their memories, found Sizemore dressing up like Alan Jackson to sing “Chattahoochee” at his first Mantrabash. It could be worse, though, given the hazing rituals of other institutions.

For 2015, Mantrabash is less of a stressor and more of a moment of reflection. Thanks to the help of band manager Zach McNabb, and Carrie Collins, the bookings and logistics that require certain things to be checked off have not been a worry for the members. Instead, they’ve remained steady touring throughout the year while putting the finishing touches on the forthcoming album, Not Sweet. Having played around 150 shows this year, the additional help of staff has been much needed, and it has allowed members to go into the week with ease and excitement.

The lineup for this year’s event features EOTO, a live-improvisational act that features Jason Hann and Michael Travis, the rhythm section of String Cheese Incident. For The Mantras, this is a big deal. Tyndall admitted that he had been wanting to get EOTO on the bill for years, but it just wasn’t right until now. This billing, perhaps then, could be a testament to the momentum The Mantras and Mantrabash have built over the years. Another one of the spotlights for the festival is Bernie Worrell, an artist that Mogel described as “someone we’ve been listening to our whole lives whether we know it or not. I’ve waited my whole life to play with Bernie Worrell.” (For the uninitiated, Bernie Worrell is a founding member of Parliament Funkadelic, and has played with The Talking Heads, Fela Kuti, and many more.)

One of the reasons for the excitement, too, is that Wilkes County has pretty much taken out all noise ordinances as they pertain to festivals and concerts. Merlefest happens to be held in Wilkes County, and in doing so, the county has welcomed events of that kind to its area to help boost the economy. Mantrabash will be holding a food drive coinciding with the event, which will supply local food banks. It’s the part of the festival that Allen thinks should be the focus – which he believes ends up falling by the wayside because of the negative stigma associated with festivals.

“It’s actual things like learning about instruments and engaging the people,” Allen said. “We’ve done a lot of stuff with food banks, and we are getting kids ready for school. You have to put that [help] out there without being too preachy.” !

WANNA go?

Mantrabash starts on Thursday and runs through Saturday. Acts scheduled to play include The Mantras (four sets), EOTO, Bernie Worrell, Ozric Tentacles, Tauk, Consider the Source, Big Something, The Fritz, The Broadcast, ELM, Empire Strikes Brass, Broccoli Samurai, Groove Fetish, Nomadic, Electric Soul Pandemic, Travers Brothership, Imperial Blend, The Family, Dr. Bacon, Psylo Joe, Crystal Bright & The Silver Hands, Coddle Creek, Treehouse!, Soul Mechanic, The Southern Belles, Madd Hatters, and Everyday Junior. Single-day tickets start at $50, $90 for the three-day pass. There are extras for VIP, RV Camping and family camping. There is a $5 parking fee, as well. The shows start at 6 p.m. on Thursday and then 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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