Even though things can get tough and your goals can seem unrealistic, as long as you're building on your skills all the time and work hard at it, there's no way of failing, you know?
Leaving behind a successful band to pursue a solo career is nothing if not a noble pursuit. Russell Manning, the former commanding bassist of Twin Shadow is now taking listeners on a journey to the furthest edges of sonic euphoria of his own accord with Rush Midnight. The practitioner of good taste recently unveiled his debut LP, +1, which invokes a sense of futurism that echoes from the past, perhaps a vision of the future as it was seen in the ’70s. At 27, Manning is already making a series of smart moves in a momentous game and emerges from the shadows to propel into a new darkness.
Anthem caught up with Manning on the phone while he was holding court in Phoenix, Arizona, just another pitstop on his tour around the country.
Are you guys in Phoenix now?
Yeah. We just got to this haunted hotel…
They put you guys up in a haunted hotel?
It’s supposedly haunted. We haven’t slept here yet, so we don’t know if it’s true. Thankfully I have someone here to share the room with.
And you guys are playing a show tonight, right?
Yeah. We’re playing at this thing called Sticky Fingers. It’s actually going to be the last Sticky Fingers event ever. It’s a party that’s been going on in Phoenix for five or so years.
How is the tour shaping up so far?
So far so good. They’re actually getting better and better. The venue was at capacity the other night. Last night we played in Springfield, Missouri, which was awesome. Tonight we play in Phoenix and then tomorrow we play in L.A. The crowds don’t really seem to know who we are, but they’re really into the music, so that’s cool. I don’t really know how people fill the rooms at these places. I guess promoters are just the guys creating the scene in every city, you know?
Do you enjoy touring?
I do. What’s funny is that we’re flying everywhere. It’s just the two of us, me and my drummer Chad [Hodge]. It’s way cooler to fly than to drive. Our setup is so minimal that we can just throw our bags in baggage claim. We end up making more money than we would if we had to pay for gas by driving from place to place.
What are some of your tour necessities?
Tour necessities… Definitely some long johns, vitamin c, headphones and hand sanitizer.
Bands often say it’s hard to eat healthy on the road because they’re always on the go. Do you find that to be true?
Yeah, it’s true. I think if you want to spend an extra bit of money, you can eat a bit healthier. What’s cool is that we have more time since we’re flying everywhere. Right now, we won’t go on until midnight, so we can take a nap or walk around town and find some good stuff to eat. I think it just requires time. Sometimes when you’re on the road, you don’t have the time to stop at a Whole Foods or something and get the nice stuff. You end up going to Taco Bell.
When you’re playing in new cities, do you make a mental checklist of things you want to do while you’re there?
Not really. I’ve been to Phoenix before a couple times. This guy who drove us from the airport told us to check out this one restaurant that used to be a tailoring shop or something and it has DJs and stuff. I don’t exactly know what it is, but it sounded like a really cool nightclub. We might go there later for dinner. I’m more into exploring Europe because it’s more new to me.
Aside from good sound, what qualities define a perfect venue in your opinion?
It depends, but the sound quality is definitely important. Sometimes venues work with a really high stage whereas others have no stage at all. We played in Miami a couple nights ago at this place called Bardot and it’s basically a living room where you play on a Persian rug. Everyone’s right in your face and dancing two feet away from you—that was really rad. And they hadn’t heard our music before. [Laughs] I guess a venue’s reputation is important because people will show up either way if it has a built-in crowd. Usually, if a venue offers good drinks and food, that’s the key.
What normally runs through your head when you’re performing? Emily Haines once joked that she thinks about picking up her dry cleaning.
[Laughs] Wow. She would be so pro if that’s what she’s actually thinking about. I’m just trying to remember the lyrics at this point. I’m trying to connect with Chad on the drums. I guess I’m watching how people respond to the music. With Twin Shadow, we got to a point where things became effortless. I might’ve been thinking about calling friends, where the afterparty is or just making more eye contact with the crowd because we weren’t playing anthemic songs.
Was it difficult to walk away from Twin Shadow? Was it a amicable split?
It was pretty difficult, but I had friends and a lot of other people encouraging me to go for it. George [Lewis Jr.] was super supportive. Everything just started to fall into place really fast. I met Jeff [Bratton] from the label Cascine and he had a great vibe. I met some PR people. I had met a lot of bands while on tours with Twin Shadow. It was definitely a risky thing to do, but I knew I had to give it 100% because, otherwise, it wouldn’t happen.
So you have no plans to reunite with Twin Shadow anytime soon.
Right now, I’m not really planning on going back. I’m trying to really commit to this new project and see what happens, you know? I want to see where I can take it.
You studied Jazz at Oberlin College. How did that come about?
I met this really cool guy at my school when I was in Brooklyn who taught Jazz. He played electric bass and basically got me involved. He really became my mentor. The older I got, I lost interest in sports and turned to music. We won some competitions and before I knew it, I thought I might as well goto college for music. It turned into this long disciplined study.
What kind of sports did you play?
I used to play soccer. I played ice hockey for a year or so. I also played baseball, but I wasn’t very good… I was always the right fielder, you know? [Laughs]
Did you want to eventually become a professional athlete back then?
Maybe I thought that in high school… Actually, I don’t think I took it all that seriously. Even the kids at the conservatory where I studied Jazz were so down on themselves. They had already accepted the fact that they weren’t going to become pro musicians. Even though things can get tough and your goals can seem unrealistic, as long as you’re building on your skills all the time and work hard at it, there’s no way of failing, you know?
But talent is obviously a major factor.
Yeah, that comes first. Wasted talent is such a bummer. If you have a story to tell or have some sort of vision… Or if you’re funny or whatever it is, why not go full throttle with it? There are so many people out there who don’t have that creative urge or weren’t born to be creative.
How has your taste in music evolved over the years?
I definitely don’t listen to Jazz anymore. I started DJing in the past couple of years. I was playing a lot of Italo disco, ’80s punk and revisited songs that I heard growing up. My dad owned a lot of punk records. After awhile, I realized what people like to dance to and what kind of songs stuck with me. I wanted to work on dance-y projects and engage with people.
Your dad was a big influence then.
Yeah. I wouldn’t really call him a musician, but he has a great record collection and he used to DJ back in the ’70s.
What does he make of your music?
As far as I know, he’s into it. I mean… I don’t know how honest he’s being. [Laughs] He’s into the style for sure because it’s right up his alley. His record collection has the Bee Gees, Kool & the Gang, Marvin Gaye… A lot of funk records. I feel like this is definitely reminiscent of what he listens to. My parents are super supportive.
What’s your writing process like? Maybe use the track “Crush” as an example?
For “Crush”, I remember coming back after touring South America in the spring and we had a couple of days off in New York. I went to see my buddy who works for an ad agency kind of place where they’re always looking for new music to feature in commercials. He texted me, “Hey man. Can I get some neu-disco songs? I got this new TV spot.” I started writing this beat and bassline, and before I knew it, I came up with a simple melody. I wanted it to be a fun party song. I also had the spring season in mind and I’m in love with the beach, so I wanted to keep it light. It’s a love song too. It’s about letting loose and being young as well.
What advice do you have for aspiring bands in New York? How do they set themselves apart from every other starry-eyed band?
There are a lot of people who come to New York wanting to play every night, or as much as possible, hoping to get discovered. I thought the same thing for awhile too, but that’s not how it works. I think it’s important to work on the music first. You really need to hone your craft so you have something to show for yourself. Once you become a successful band in New York, you rarely play in New York. You’re only here for the holidays or a couple of days here and there. I would tell bands to make sure that the music is really cool so people will want to pass it around.
Something I noticed right away is that you have a very strong, cohesive style. How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
I’m very minimal as far as fashion goes. I’m a huge lover of tank tops and wear them a lot. I recently got back into studs. I’ve been studding leather vests; studding them really close together so it ends up looking like a sheet of studs. I want Rush Midnight to have a fantasy element to it. I want the music videos to be magical and I want to be more like a character than my real life self. I have a lot of respect for what my boy John [O’Regan] from Diamond Rings is doing as far as costumes and styling goes. His creative director is Lisa [Howard]. I’m not trying to copy that or anything, but it’s inspiring to watch. I definitely like the idea of putting a person into a costume.
You were born in Dumbo and raised in New York. How has your New York transformed over the years?
It has definitely gotten a lot safer. I hate to use the word “gentrified”, but that’s what happened. New York is like a hub because everyone wants to come here, but it’s not like the grime-y, dangerous spot that it used to be. I was born in the ’80s, so I guess I saw a ton of that when I was young. I’m really fascinated by ’80s movies and the dangerous New York. I love the Taxi Drive New York from the ’70s with the old subway trains and graffiti art. I don’t know if I wish that was my era, but I wish I could somehow experience that too, you know? New York is a little too safe and it’s a little boring.
What are some of your local haunts?
I usually just get invited to places by promoter friends or DJ friends and they always show me new stuff. Maybe I’ll go watch a DJ at some place like Soho House or Le Bain. If I hang out with someone, I’ll pretty much hang out with them all night long.
Good luck with the haunted hotel. Let me know if anything weird goes down.
[Laughs] I’ll keep you posted.