She's released great albums under her own name and with an assortment of bands–Glands Of External Secretion, 28th Day, SF Seals, and World Of Pooh among them–but Barbara Manning comes across as one of the nicest, least pretentious people around. Manning's rich, diverse pop is aided immeasurably by her encyclopedic knowledge of music, long list of musical friends, and pretty, infectious vocals. She sings honestly and frankly, never forcing sentimentality, joy, or anger. Manning's new album, In New Zealand, is a collection of songs she performed with some of New Zealand's most notorious musicians, including members of the 3Ds, Tall Dwarfs, and the Verlaines. After wrapping up a complicated move, Manning talked to The Onion about the inspirations for her latest album, her current free-floating living status, and pies.
The Onion: You finally have the move behind you. Are you moving to another location in San Francisco?
Barbara Manning: No, I'm actually moving in the opposite direction. I'm going mobile. I don't have a home at the end of this tour, but I'm freed up.
O: Did you have to unload a lot of things beforehand?
BM: Yeah, I did. At first… See, it was an owner-movement eviction, so I knew I had to get out, and I knew that I don't have any sort of savings in order to move into another place in San Francisco. I sort of hunted around for one-bedroom apartments and studio apartments, and I knew I couldn't afford it. I decided that the best thing to do was put everything in storage. At first, I thought I would just take a little bit with me—kind of reduce all my belongings, and reduce all my records down to one box or something. Of course, when it really came down to it, I ended up packing away 15 boxes of records and every little knickknack that I love. I sold a lot of things to help this move, so I reduced my CD collection down to three rows rather than three or four CD racks full. Then, on this tour, I have a lot of cassettes with me, but I thought, "Let's take some CDs, too." So, going through the remainder, it was like, what are the 20 CDs I'm going to take on the road? I was finding myself almost not really able to take… I don't know. In a way, I'm kind of tired of all the music. It was hard to take 20, because I thought, "I don't think I'd listen to this more than once; I don't think I'd listen to that more than once." On and on.
O: I found that when I had a car with a cassette player and I only had five cassettes that were accessible, they weren't ones I would have listened to all the time. Some of them I really started to like more than I had originally.
BM: Car stereos are like that, aren't they? Because you need to be by yourself listening to it, and your subconscious mind can really really really listen to it, 'cause you're driving, and it kind of opens up your mind a little bit when you're driving. You can sing along. I think car stereos have a magical appeal with music. That's why, of the CDs I did bring, one of them is Neu 2, because I knew that that album is perfect for night driving. With those long monotonous highways, it's like [mimicking krautrock synth], "Doo dee dee doo dee dee doo dee doo dee dee" for hours and hours.
O: This is not meant in a disrespectful way, but you seem sort of like a geek in terms of the way you love music.
BM: I am a geek. In every way. [Laughs.] Always been one.
O: How did you trim down your collection? Isn't there the archival part of you that just wants to hang on to everything?
BM: Yeah. I ended up with about five full boxes of singles. For some reason I'm so attached to the singles, I just cannot get rid of them. It's really hard for me to get rid of singles. For some reason, that's the genre I like best. I have some amazing singles from throughout rock history, so that was something I wasn't able to… I went through the pile, and I only got rid of like 15 singles. I also have really close friends who have amazing libraries. That kind of kept me calm when I got rid of two or three boxes of CDs and LPs. I had to sell a lot of my jazz collection, because I knew that was the most valuable, and I needed money. That was sad to see a Sonny Rollins record that's beautiful and in mint condition go, but I knew I'd get 15 or 20 dollars for it. I was raised with a hippie mom, so the whole thing is non-materialism, right? I mean, I'm talking to you from the deep woods where it's like, you have to cross a creek and go down this dirt road that is really hazardous to get to where my mom is. It's good for you. It makes you realize that you need to be able to let go of things. I just thought to myself, "Well, if I ever really really really really wanted to hear this record, I know where I can find it, and I know I can tape it. It wouldn't be mine. I couldn't take it home with me and put it in my collection. I've worked at record stores since '92, and I worked all summer at one of the greatest independent record stores in America. It used to be a bowling alley, and now it's just this giant record store in San Francisco. While I was working there, I came across records I couldn't believe.
O: As a big music fan, recording in New Zealand with all those figures from the scene must have been a dream come true.
BM: Oh, it totally was. I'm really proud of myself, because it was something I'd wanted to do since 1985. In '92, I was starting to make plans to go there, and I just didn't think I could afford it. I didn't know how I was going to do it. In '96, I hooked up with my friend Alastair Galbraith in New York; he's from New Zealand, and he said, "Barbara, just do it. Just do it! Don't think twice; just go." And I thought, if I'm gonna go, I wanna play, and if I'm gonna play, I want to play with my idols. A lot of them were my friends beforehand, but now they're all my friends. I went ahead and I just thought, "I'm not going to let money be an object, and I'm not going to be afraid," and I wrote 14 letters to 14 different bands. When I got there, I just kept hooking up with people and saying, "Well, let's get together and play!"
O: Now, didn't you do this right before 1212 came out?
BM: No, a few months later. The New Zealand record was recorded in March of '97, and 1212 was recorded in November of '96. It was a pretty productive few months for me.
O: I don't know how to react to the song "Your Pies." It's a bitter, cynical song, but it incorporates pies, which are very happy things.
BM: Not in New Zealand. The word pies has changed for me dramatically since I was in New Zealand. You know, pies to us are cherry pies and apple pies and crumble-topped pies and flaky-crust pies and lemon-meringue pies. Pies in New Zealand are like sandwiches. They're full of meat and broth, and they're more akin to our hamburgers. If you need a snack, you can get a pie pretty much anywhere. The first horrible experience I had with a pie in New Zealand was in a gas station. One of my friends said, "I feel like a pie." I said, "Okay!" She gives me a pie, and I bit into it and was horrified. Meat in New Zealand tastes different to me. It's probably because it's really good meat; probably really clean, without all the antibiotics that we shoot into all our cows and sheep. But I just couldn't stand the taste of the meat that was in these pies. People kept getting me to taste them, like, "Try this one!" I'd put it in my mouth and immediately blow it back out and be like, "No! I cannot stand the taste of these pies." The song is actually… You know how you take an image and… I don't know what the English word is. There's actually a grammar description for using something to mean something else. Symbolism or something like that. It's basically about a person and not wanting to deal with that person, and how you shouldn't have any interaction with that person. I was using the pies as a basis for the description, and that's why the lyrics are about a person writhing around on a bed of pie. [Laughs.]
O: You've been in music for well over 10 years now. It's been what, since '87, '85?
BM: '85. That's when the first record came out. Of course, I was in bands for years before that. But I was young. I'm only 33 right now, so I'm not a total dinosaur.
O: What questions are you really tired of answering?
BM: Oh, one that hurts is, "Why can you never keep a band together?" Whenever I hear that question, I always kind of get a sad heart.
O: No one ever asks Steve Albini that question.
BM: Well, maybe that's because he's a success, and that's reason enough. I don't know. If you're a successful person with lots of money, why ask them why something didn't work? Because obviously something else did. My dream has always been to be in a band with musicians who are also writing, where I really love their music. I mean, I want to be able to put a bass on instead of a guitar and step back out of the light and play my heart out. I want to feel like a member of a band, creating music and bouncing musical ideas off each other without having to be the leader. Unfortunately, it always comes down to where I have to be the motivator. After a while, it doesn't pay off to be the motivator if everybody else is half into it. It's easier just to be solo. I don't want to be solo forever. In fact, I'm going to be moving to Germany for six months, and I'm going to start a band when I'm there. I'm determined. I'm just going to be like a whirlwind, waltzing into this town and immediately finding people, and I'm going to do the same thing I did in New Zealand. I'm not going to have any fear about it; I'm going to feel confident about what I can do, and be really excited about the extraneous influences that are going to change what I do. I love that. I love going in and being influenced by, say, Stuart Moxham and Jon Langford. That record that I did years ago in Chicago… I don't know if you're familiar with it. I did a record with all Stuart Moxham and Jon Langford songs [Barbara Manning Sings With The Original Artists]. I let them completely dominate the recording session with their music, and I sang on top of it and felt like I was trying to match it perfectly with my voice. I did music I would never do normally, a style of music that normally wouldn't come to me. I think it's really healthy, because you don't lose yourself. I mean, I'm still going to make my quirky Barbara Manning chords. I'm still going to sound the way I sound. When you allow other people to come into it and you like what they're doing, they're not forcing you against your will to do something, but you dig what they're doing. They sort of influence you—their energy sort of gets into it, changes it a little—and I think that's very healthy. I want to start a band in Germany, and who knows what it will sound like?
O: Do you have any contacts there yet?
BM: Yeah, I do. I've toured there five times. I've been collecting addresses and keeping contact with some people. I also know that there are going to be heaps of new people I don't know yet who are going to be in my life soon enough. I'm looking forward to it. I'm going through a huge change right now.
O: You put a lot of your compulsions into your records. There's baseball, there's firefighters…
BM: I hadn't noticed that. It's true, though. I tend to take on my favorite themes and go for it.
O: Do you have any others that you're going to do soon?
BM: I don't know. I have a blank page in front of me right now. All I have to do is write on it. I have no idea. I'm really at an interesting time. I don't have a home, I don't have any money, I don't have a record contract, and I don't have a band, but I'm not worried. I think everything's going to be great. It's gonna work out.
O: So you're through with Matador [Records] then?
BM: More like they were through with me. But who can blame 'em? I don't sell a lot, and they're a business. They need to have artists that sell heaps in order to keep that huge staff of theirs paid. I know that they love me and respect me, so best of luck to them.
O: So it's not a bitter parting.
BM: Not at all. It's not a surprise. In a greater world, I wish a record label with that kind of… I mean, they have big artists. Let's not name names, but we all know who their big sellers are. It's too bad that they can't have huge artists and then go to the little teeny artists and make sure they keep going. But they did do that. They did that with me; they did that with Thinking Fellers [Union Local 282] and Circle X, and a million other bands that are probably never going to sell more than 10,000 copies. But they can only do that for a certain amount of time. I do wish I could be in their permanent stable, where every year they let me put out another album, but I'm a tax deduction for only so many years. After that, I don't think I am. I'm on my own now. I do have these incredibly hopeful beliefs that a label with money is going to think I'm a jewel that needs to be thrust into the mainstream. I don't know if that will ever happen, or maybe it'll happen 20 years down the road. You know, how you get discovered later in life?