10,000 Maniacs: At Least Six Are Not Insane

JAMESTOWN, NEW York, about 400 miles from NYC, is home for 10,000 Maniacs.

“We come from an area,” says group guitarist/ songwriter John Lombardo, “that’s a little bit under-educated, a little bit under-cool, definitely unsophisticated. But no one I know from Jamestown is certifiably crazy.” And there are hardly 10,000 people, period, living in the rural town. So what gives with this strange band name?

Lombardo explains, “We went over the edge with it [the name], made it sort of punk and peculiar, so certain kids wouldn’t come to our live shows and scream Def Leppard and AC/DC and expect to hear those kinds of songs. We don’t have to worry about that anymore, but we won’t change our name because we’ve had it for so long now and it still works in a funny ironic way since we play very pretty, majestic songs.”

The Wishing Chair, 10,000 Maniacs’ major label debut LP, released on Elektra this past October, is filled with jangly, lilting, mystical music. There are British and American folk ingredients blended together with whimsical rock. Cryptic yet magical lyrics are delivered with an airy grace by vocalist/songwriter Natalie Merchant. The combination often sounds like an ’80s version of Fairport Convention, which isn’t hard to figure considering the Maniacs’ record was produced in London by Joe Boyd, at the controls in the studio previously for Fairport, Richard Thompson and, R.E.M.

“We’ve tried to create an uncategorizable style,” says Lombardo. “But we don’t mind the comparisons, because they always seem to be termed a cross between certain groups rather than another version of somebody. Joe Boyd didn’t have as much of an effect on our sound as you might expect. He was very Zen-like. He’d tell us if he didn’t like something, then sit back and let us figure out another idea. He wouldn’t insist on changing parts. He allowed us to hear our own music more clearly.”

Formed in 1981, 10,000 Maniacs (actually a six-piece) started out playing Jamestown bars, relying on obscure Joy Division and Gang of Four covers, some reggae jams and a few originals. “It took us a long time,” says Lombardo, “to define our direction and decide if what we were doing was just a hobby or possibly a career. A lot of people spend time in isolation learning their instruments. We were always extremely aware of the environment we were in. In our hometown, there were a lot of folk and bluegrass pickers who influenced us. Then we saw the other polar extreme – punks thrashing around in bars wishing it was still 1977 – when we went to bigger cities. All of this we absorbed. But we have never consciously said to ourselves, ‘We better add a mandolin here or a pedal steel there, because that’s fashionable now.’ We’ve always just tried to write nice, intelligent songs.”

Lyricist Merchant, according to Lombardo, “is like an impressionistic painter. And unlike other members of the band, she sought out isolation while she was growing up. Her mother was into classical music, her stepfather a college professor. Natalie was always the little girl who, on a Saturday night, would rather stay in her room and read instead of going to the pub. When she started writing her lyrics were closer to Emily Dickinson than Patti Labelle.” (An example: Sun through the windows oil spattered/And in mason jars/Tricked seeds thrive.)

The band’s first recording, Human Conflict Number Five, a five-song EP, was released on their own label in ’82. Musically and lyrically quirky, the record garnered little attention as the Maniacs hit the road in an old school bus – covering much of the eastern US and Canada over a six month stretch. Their path eventually led to Georgia, where they met up with bands like R.E.M. and Let’s Active. “We felt a very close kinship with these Athens bands,” says Lombardo. “Here were several groups from the same region who were supportive of each other rather than being competitive. It was a good spirit and harkened back to earlier times. It was like a ’60s attitude in an ’80s framework.”

Out of this Southern communion in ’83 came another Maniacs independent release, Secrets of the I Ching, a ten-song LP that first captured the attention of British critics – thanks to some rotation on the BBC. ‘My Mother The War’, a track from the album, was eventually released as a 12-inch in Britain and placed number 26 on an ’83 Year End BBC listener’s poll. A subsequent recording contract with Elektra came about, says Lombardo, “because of the success we’d had with our independent records and the growing popularity of our live shows. I think we demonstrated we were not going to get drunk or drugged up. I think we showed we’re responsible musicians who have a reverence for our work.”

Beyond The Wishing Chair, which has gained some critical acclaim but has not caused commercial waves, 10,000 Maniacs have no set game plan. The band just wants to keep experimenting and bring new elements to their sound. “We’re open,” says Lombardo, “A lot of the people in the band listen to country music, so more of that could creep in. When I think about how we put our songs together, I remember how I usually play records in my room. I could easily go from a bluegrass song to a Gang of Four song. It’s not like they’re worlds apart. So with our music, we might go anywhere.”

© Dave ZimmerBAM, February 1986

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