An Interview with the WorkHouse Poets: Part I of II
Rarely does contemporary music get as unpretentious and real as the WorkHouse Poets. Consisting of singer/guitarist James Manganello, vocalist/guitarist Larry Elrod, bassist Mike Doubrava, violinist Stu Wilson, drummer Gary Linnert, and keyboardist Jimmy “Flaco” Foley, the California-based band has existed for 40 years now, playing their harmony-rich blend of acoustic folk and classic country music through decades of various pop-culture trends.
Part of what makes the WorkHouse Poets so special is that they haven’t allowed those trends to affect them, to try and become something that they aren’t. The group has flown on a consistent path, as further evidenced on their new album Hank’s Cadillac. Their rootsy style was once swept outside of mainstream borders but that has changed in the past few years as indie acts such as the Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons have suddenly awoken today’s hipster youth to Americana music.
With such a long history, one interview simply isn’t enough to cover the territory that Manganello reflects upon so this will be divided into two parts.
Q: How would you compare the music scene today to 40 years ago when you started performing? Has it gotten better or worse?
A: I believe that the music scene comparison is quite similar in many ways. In the 1960s we were inundated with an amazing volume of independent and creative music. At that time we saw the birth of independent FM radio including KSAN in San Francisco and others. Most importantly, it was a time when the format was wide open. There was no Clear Channel telling DJs what to play. Presently, the Internet has taken that place. The one common denominator is there will always be creative musicians and artists who refuse to be limited or pigeonholed into categories that corporate types try to put us in. The more we change, the more we stay the same.
With the WorkHouse Poets, we feel free to play our own original music, and not be limited by what common radio practices demand. Everything I care about musically is reflected in the work of this great band. During the ‘60s, I was very lucky. I sat in the fourth row at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to see the Beatles. I was at the first "be in" in Golden Gate Park, listening to the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and in my mind the best of those bands, Country Joe and the Fish. The bottom line is music is music, no matter what time or place, and creativity will always find a way to be heard or seen. That being said, I think we are in a vacuous period with regard to the development of music, and I feel lucky to have my dear friends in this band to play our stuff, come hell or high water.
Q: How would you describe your songwriting process? Do the lyrics write themselves first or the music?
A: I think any effort to explain how a songwriter creates is an exercise in futility. I can't explain how songs come to me. I certainly do not have a formula. I don't think of lyrics and then write music to them, or vice versa. A good analogy would be dreams. maybe I write about my dreams, but I am not necessarily asleep at the time. I may be at the traffic light, or watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or having a Bombay Sapphire. I don't mean to be evasive, it's just that I write about what is on my mind at any given time, and it can be complicated. I'm sure every songwriter has a different way of working. I do see my songs as lyrically driven. I can't speak for Larry, but I'm sure he has his own way of writing. We have never really tried to write a song together, although once we finish one of our songs, we bring it to the studio, so the band can do horrible things to them [laughing]. Actually, the band is such a big part of the songs I write. I bring these rough sketches, with my own brand of twisted lyrics, and what starts as a simple composition. turns into something quite altogether different, after all the boys put in their two cents.
Q: American roots music is starting to make a comeback in the mainstream with groups such as the Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons (who are, ironically, from the U.K.) landing on the Billboard charts. Why do you think folk is having such an impression with the younger generation?
A: There is no doubt that Americana or roots music is seeing a rebirth, but I am sure it is complicated. my own son Chris, who I know has been influenced by the music that was always laying around the house, has been drawn towards folk music. I certainly enjoy Mumford & Sons, but the only reason we are talking about them, is that the mainstream media has decided they are the Next Big Thing. Don't get me wrong; I love their stuff, and I love bands like the Avett Brothers. However, I am telling you, I have been listening to young bands much better than they for a number of years, and they disappear like the wind. No one other radio stations than KPIG in Watsonville pays attention. Of course young people are paying attention, because folk music will always speak to those matters close to the heart, whether political or personal. But Mumford & Sons have jumped over the Americana fence to the realm of mainstream radio. Read Part II