Staying positive with The Mantras
Sometimes repetition concentrates the mind. And vibrations don’t hurt either. A mantra, originally derived from Hindu and Buddhist practice, is a word or syllable or a sound repeated over and over again to aid in meditation. In some cases, a mantra is a unit that represents all of the vibrations thought to exist in the universe, and in others, it’s a name or a phrase that helps focus the mind or helps rid extraneous thought from the picture. It’s a way of zeroing in and also of forgetting. The Mantras are a long-running Greensboro-based jam band that doesn’t exactly shy away from those mystical possibilities associated with their band name.
I spoke with guitarist and founding member Keith Allen by phone last week as he made his way from his Greensboro home to the band’s practice space. The Mantras are playing a free show in downtown Greensboro at 7 p.m. on July 14 in LeBauer Park. The quintet has been laying relatively low for the last 18 months or so, partly because they’ve been working on a new record, which has been recorded and mixed and which should be released in the fall.
The Mantras are a jam band in that they play a largely unpindownable blend of music that moves from funk to reggae to jazz to metal to Latin rhythms to Southern rock to prog and beyond. There are precedents for their mash-up sound, and one could point to Phish or Little Feat, the Dixie Dregs, Return to Forever, Frank Zappa, Primus, and Santana as artists that take a hybridized approach to music-making, fusing guitar virtuosity with, in some cases, hairpin-turn section switches. (Allen played metal and rock before studying jazz and classical, which might partially explain the eclecticism.) There’s an improvisatory, long-form streak in the music too, one that, of course, points back to the Grateful Dead.
One can talk about the music of The Mantras as if it were something that the band consciously set out to generate based on their preferences and goals, but Allen casually undercuts that kind of logic.
“Nothing ever happens intentionally,” he said. “Nobody ever lives the life that they planned on, we just have to adapt and make the best of it.”
Adaptation, natural growth and an undulating flow are more the vibe of The Mantras.
“It’s very organic,” Allen said. “We never set out to have a specific style. We always have been real open to writing whatever we want to, and in whatever style we want.”
Mission accomplished. Or non-mission accomplished, depending on how you view it.
Listen to the title track off of Knot Suite, the band’s 2016 release. It starts as a mellow four-on-the-floor groove and eventually winds up culminating in a tangled and dense atonal odd-time riff that cascades over itself. It’s the kind of staggered and uneven phrasing that will doubtless challenge some dancers trying to spin and twirl at their live shows. Or listen to “Dirtnap,” also from the last record. It opens with atmospherics and then drifts into what sounds like a Middle Eastern mode, with a tone that suggests an oud and hand-drum backing, from there, the guitar gets super compressed and heavy.
Live shows are where The Mantras like to cut loose. And, as with many bands in the jam scene, they offer recordings of a lot of their live shows, showcasing some of their extensive jams, segues and covers. You can go to their Bandcamp to listen to or purchase downloads of literally hundreds of live recordings going back to 2014 or so.
Allen has been playing music with bassist Brian Tyndall for 15 years. The Mantras lineup has morphed a little over the years, but drummer Justin Loew and percussionist Brent Vaughn have been part of the equation for years. Singer and keyboardist Julian Sizemore is the most recent addition to the group, and he joined several years ago. Engineer Matt Gordon gets a sort of honorary sixth-member billing in the band for working to accentuate the contours of their chutes-and-ladders songs live, and for also recording and posting those shows.
Playing live stresses a kind of be-here-now philosophy that relates to the mantra of The Mantras.
“As an improvising band you are in the moment so much that it’s hard to know what’s going on because you’re just reacting,” Allen said. “All this art that we’re making, it just reflects life. Like this conversation that we’re having right now, you leave pauses to allow for someone else and there’s questions and answering.”
The give and take, the space for breath, the meditative unspooling, and a pursuit of an openness to offset or equalize density and detail — The Mantras add eyedroppers of all that, particularly on their records.
In 2013, The Mantras released a record with the entertaining title Jam Bands Ruined My Life. On it, there’s a song called “JBRML,” an acronym of the title. But, rather than an epic jam, the track is more like an extended piece of ambient guitar, with slow-blooming feedback and drones. Don’t mistake this as some kind of repudiation of the genre, though. The album also includes “Kinetic Bump,” an aptly titled bit of spongy disco ornamented with alien-insect keyboard sounds and funky scrubbed guitar patterns that eventually turn into guitar-hero shredding.
Humor is something that a lot of jam bands have in common, and for Allen and The Mantras, it’s another case of balancing out extremes: heaviness is cool, but so is lightness. Tight complexity has its place, but so does spacious simplicity. Music that makes you cry can be wonderful, but a chuckle is a good thing sometimes, too.
“The art that we’re creating is trying to be a reflection of the art that we live,” Allen said. “When I was younger I saw hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of shows — something that I really noticed is that you have to keep the light on, in a way. There’s a lot of angsty type energy that can go into music. It’s okay to make people feel a certain way, but you really want to leave people with a positive feeling. At least I do.”
See The Mantras at LeBauer Park in Greensboro on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.