The Kids Are Not UK
Manchester: So Much to Answer For
Seattle and Manchester, England, are akin to sister cities. Set in the Northwests of their respective nations, both cities suffer artfully in the shadow of year-round rain clouds, producing new music genres that inevitably end in legendary suicides.
I've been in Seattle two months and I still pine for the industrial English city I called home for three years and its underdog mentality. Southern England views the North like New England views the Deep South: full of dumb hillbillies. Northern artists react with dry wit, pride, and self-deprecating style, and they exact their revenge by producing 90 percent of the music exported abroad. Manchester isn't what it was during the Hacienda days, when New Order were the New Order, but the city's music scene has remained strong. Oasis succeeded New Order, and even now distinct folk and electro-pop scenes are replacing current masters Elbow, Badly Drawn Boy, and Mr. Scruff.
Manchester produces internationally recognized bands, yet keeps the small-town vibe. I miss receiving advice from Elbow's Guy Garvey at a urinal. I miss watching Oasis's roadie puke purple cordial onto my roommate's couch. I miss the incredible open-mic nights, the costumed art-rock, and knowing where which rocker is getting drunk at any given hour.
So, when I saw the poster advertising a local Britrock-inspired duo dressed like twin Donovans and calling themselves Manchester, I thought, "This, mate, is destiny."
Manchester are Cory Siebe and Jonathan Pasma, 22-year-olds who, like me, only recently settled in Seattle. They just finished chemistry degrees at Whitworth College and now that they're free of the laboratory, they're scientifically taking on the regional music scene. Their indie promotion formula is based on full-color posters, a self-produced CD (Chipper Acts of Chivalry), and an aggressive touring regimen, including nine gigs in the first 10 days of September.
Their music is a campy American approximation of the British approximation of American ragtime: piano and guitar with a pounding tempo, complemented by accordion, harmonica, and banjo. They sing in sync, in intentionally flat and horrible faux-British accents. When they play live, they face each other with their legs apart and feet slightly pigeon-toed. They shake and twitch, and call this "The Manchester Stance."
"We want to be big," Siebe says. "Not Neil Diamond Big, but Death Cab for Cutie Big."
Their self-assurance alone reminds me of Manchester, where they've never been and about which they admit they know little. I fill them in on the scene and vocabulary (if you're from Manchester you're Mancunian) and pass them some mixes.
They eat it up. Unfortunately, their admiration isn't reciprocated. Once I've sent my mates across the pond links to the band's MySpace page [www.myspace.com/manchesterlive], it's clear that Manchester the city hates Manchester the band.
Mostly it's their accents.
"Manchester are a very bad pub-rock duo, with no control of their vowel sounds," Ben Space, bassist for Robin Nature-Bold & Band(ism), tells me. He's one to know: His pretentious Manchester-based, mask-wearing art-rock band is known for exaggerating a working-class accent. "They sound like Chas & Dave do Ben Folds."
Chas & Dave are a London duo who conquered the charts in the '70s and '80s with comedic pub rock. They're a British institution, revered for their cheesiness and earnestness.
"An American band that sounds like Chas & Dave... is just so wrong," messages Dunk Le Chunk, Manchester's bearded folk DJ king. "It seems like a novelty band who have listened to their mum's old records and thought, 'Yeah, that's cool, lets get out the old 'Joanna' and pretend to be English.'" (Joanna is Cockney slang for piano).
"I've nothing against emulating American/English music," Le Chunk adds. "They just suck."
Space and Le Chunk are right, to an extent. Manchester ought to invest in regional dialect lessons or drop the British vocalizations. Their songs show lyrical and compositional promise, their enthusiasm is infectious, and they play their hearts out. They don't need the gimmick.
Frankly, I don't think Manchester suck. I appreciate them for the same reasons I whooped when I was the only one in the club listening to Band(ism) and I'm one of the three regular listeners tuned into Le Chunk's weekly internet radio show [HoodlumTribe.com]—I love the proud underdogs in Manchester.
Eventually, Space concedes: "They bring banjo back to the masses, which is commendable if not recommended. And they are named after a great town."
For me, that's firstname.lastname@example.org