Editor’s Note: In November, Oakland outfit Mansion dropped off Early Life, a full-length vinyl and digital release, on our friend Sam Lefebvre’s Degenerate. It’s a towering, metallic thing, a bristly ball of no wavey noise that frequently feels like someone is trying to stomp it into your skull. I mean that in the best way possible, I promise.
A few weeks after packing the house at Life Changing Ministry for its release party, it made enough noise to land not only on a solid handful of venerable niche pubs, but improbably enough, in the Arts section of the New York Times.
The album was something of a passion project for Sam, who helped to facilitate its genesis, from recording to artwork to packaging to promo – all based on his belief in a band that had blown him away at few West Oakland underground shows. Because I always like to hear about how cool shit comes together, I asked Sam to tell us a little more about the process behind the record. As expected, he broke it down in epic fashion.
“I grew up Methodist and I was always like, man, Catholicism is so cool,” said Mansion guitarist Adam Keith. “The art is so nice and austere and they speak in this language no one can understand.” His recollection, in a recent Maximum Rocknroll interview, prompted Mansion vocalist Candace Lazarou to acknowledge her Catholic upbringing’s enduring influence: golden sconces and paintings of saints hang in her bedroom; on stage, she cultivates a magisterial demeanor, attaching meaning to her leather gloves’ every hallowed gesture.
The other two members of Lazarou’s very first band became ordained chaplains. Witnesses to Mansion performances might regard her as a sort of spiritual leader, too.
In March 2014, Mansion shared a bill with Healers, Slowfast, and Silver Shadows at RCA in Oakland, an anarchist squat that caught fire a few months later. At the show—which benefited a victim of sexual assault in the community—Mansion marshaled a slow, sinister clang in fits of caustic guitar and battering percussion. Keith and second guitarist Ronnie Burke appeared dour, much more intent on rhythmically stomping pedals than fretting chords. Lazarou looked mercenary and sounded instructive, singing with cadence and authority fit for a pulpit.
A couple months prior, Mansion had self-released a cassette tape (a January RCA gig with Stillsuit, Bonus Beast, and CCR Headcleaner marked the occasion), which vivified the balance of tempestuous scree and exacting precision apparent in the band’s live shows. By mid-2014, the group agreed to let me release what would become Early Life, Mansion’s full-length vinyl debut, with my intermittent fanzine, Degenerate, acting as the label.
It felt like an urgent project. I wasn’t confident that Mansion would release a full-length title, at least not on vinyl, considering the conventions of its scene. Mansion formed in 2013 in Oakland. Drummer Jeff Cook and Keith came from Atlanta, where they were in a clear precursor to Mansion called Mens Room. With the foursome completed by the addition of Burke, another Southern transplant, and Lazarou, previously a member of the short-lived local post-punk outfit Pang, Mansion played its first show in May 2013 at Bay Area 51 with Drunk Dad, CCR Headcleaner, and Unifried.
The debut gig, at a compound closely associated with the local noise scene’s old guard, begins to illustrate Mansion’s subcultural peers and affinities. The group shared bills with industrial techno projects of the sort helmed by Keith himself as Cube, or purveyors of leftfield heavy, like Black Dog and Stillsuit. Mansion moved within a constellation of underground outposts in Oakland, scenes inhabiting the city’s post-industrial infrastructure at a great practical and ethical distance from the independent music industry. One unifying feature of the realm is cassette tapes, a practical format with interesting applications but usually without the impact and perceived permanence I tried to lend Early Life with a vinyl release.
Early Life’s recording process was fragmented, a curious mix of homespun and hi-fi. Cook repeatedly flew standby to Nashville, where his Uncle Joe engineers at a studio geared toward industry country, and recorded drums to a click track. Keith and Burke then recorded guitars in Mansion’s rehearsal space—an awkwardly oblong room in a warehouse off Solano Alley that also hosts teenage gabber raves—on a digital four-track. Lazarou, meanwhile, recorded vocals in nearby bedroom, a mic-stand erected among symbols of pleasure and penance in the lapsed Catholic’s dim-lit den.
At the time, the process seemed worrisomely overcomplicated. The writer Joe Carducci argued in Rock & the Pop Narcotic that, for small rock ensembles, recording core instrumentation live is paramount. Only then, he asserted, can recordings capture intuitive interplay and exceed the sum of their parts, whereas discrete multi-tracking, metronomes, drum machines, and other robotic accouterments are in fact the enemies of groove and feel (and the tools, in his dichotomy, of pop). I consider it an imperfect but useful way of thinking about rock performance, which is why the recording of Early Life at first left me disconcerted.
However, constructing the songs from separate sessions actually strengthened Early Life. Compositionally, the songs hinge foremost on rhythm. Keith called the writing process “subtractive.” He and Burke ensured that the guitars never overlap, just call and respond. The instruments’ tone is fetid and vile, but the phrasing is surgically precise. Think of the album as a factory that at once produces and systematically quarantines toxicity. Ren Schofield, the electronic artist who performs as Container, cites noise-rock’s influence on his arrangements; Mansion reverses the relationship. Rather than rock ‘n roll, Mansion’s album is perhaps better understood in the context of electronic music. Its writing and recording process necessitated and emphasized a grid, a steady pulse to which the players adhered as much if not more than they did to one another. The phrase “telegraphed noisiness,” which Ben Ratliff used in his New York Times review of Early Life, is tidy and apt—wires transmitting dissonant, electronic information.
The phrase also resonates because it recalls Telegraph Avenue, the artery around which so much nastiness and beauty gathers in the East Bay.
Mansion toured the country leading up the release of Early Life. Inspired by a policy implemented by M’Lady’s Records in Portland, I instated a 23% discount for women, to reflect ongoing wage disparity. And it continues to slowly accrue positive reviews, including the aforementioned, unsolicited nod from the Times. To our delight, the paper even ran an outtake photo from Early Life’s cover shoot—orchestrated by Keith along with Miel Lister, who performs as Oracle Plus—in which two members of the band are ceremonially slathered in foodstuffs. Keith cited the food fetish site Messy World as inspiration, though the mood is closer to Isabelle Adjani’s indelible subway scene in Possession.
More rewarding than the mainstream validation, however, was Early Life’s release event last November, an underground West Oakland affair featuring Obsidian Blade, Drought Spa, Silver Shadows, and Daisy World. It was stiflingly crowded, one of the venue’s best-attended events, and Mansion performed under red lights on what was once the stage of a church. Keith’s description of old Catholicism’s humorless austerity came to mind, but to that particular congregation, Mansion spoke a language that everyone understood.