IN 10,000 MANIACS’ native America, hotel operators hang up when friends ask for the band by name and nervous radio programmers assume that Elektra are trying to sell them a hardcore outfit.
Tours with R.E.M. and a cover version of Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ are slowly introducing people to the band’s folk-tinged rock, taking their recent In My Tribe LP to the top of the college charts and into the lower reaches of the Billboard Top 200. Already Natalie Merchant is growing accustomed to strangers arriving on her doorstep in search of a healing word. “Right now I can’t support myself, let alone any foster children,” she shrugs. “We’re still struggling even if we don’t have to sleep on people’s floors any more. Our independent tours were good experience but it’s hard when there aren’t many people in the audience and Connie looks at Sally and says, I thought you were putting up the posters!”
10,000 Maniacs come from Jamestown, upstate New York, and formed in 1981 as a response to the mutterings of punk rumbling across the Atlantic. The band started out playing cover versions of the likes of Joy Division and The Gang Of Four before adding country and folk influences in their search for more uplifting moods. This six-piece band released a couple of independent albums in their first three years, the five track EP Human Conflict Number Five and their first fully fledged LP, Secrets Of The I-Ching. Their 1985 Elektra debut The Wiishing Chair was produced by the folk-rock pioneer Joe Boyd, whose work with Fairport Convention in the late ’60s was a major influence, in 10,000 Maniacs’ developing style. The resulting LP included the traditional ballad ‘Just As The Tide Was A-Flowing’ and allowed Merchant to evoke an antique, rural America with a somewhat fey charm offset by the brooding power of stage favourites like ‘Scorpio Rising’. The LP’s critical success failed to halt the departure of founding guitarist John Lombardo a year later, a blow which has obliged 10,000 Maniacs’ remaining four males to contribute tunes for Merchant’s lyrics on In My Tribe and broadened their range.
Despite the occasionally bland production of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor’s old producer, Peter Asher, In My Tribe finds Merchant and band growing increasingly militant as they turn to face the outside world. While Merchant insists she is too unsure of her own opinions to lecture anybody, she manages to sound both compassionate and impatient of the world’s follies in a collection of lyrics that touch on the plight of the illiterate (‘Cherry Tree’), the homeless (‘City Of Angels’) and the abused (‘What’s The Matter Here?’). In My Tribe‘s cover portrays a group of child archers with bows drawn, an archive shot from the ’60s. “It’s a lot more modern than the cover of The Wishing Chair,” explains Natalie, “even if it is taken from the ’60s! I like the combination of the militancy and the children. I think children in America are geared to more violent play than in the past. Perhaps it’s a return to a more violent, primitive state despite the common illusion that America is the home of the civilised world.”
Yet those militant children also suggest the steel behind Merchant’s irrepressible sense of wonder. If the first LP turned away from the wicked present to the brittle past, In My Tribe confronts modern violence head on. “That’s what America’s like. When we started all the music was nervous and agitated and not at all uplifting. We wanted a band that had the ability to move from ballads to thrashing chaotic numbers and shift like our moods. I can be sitting in a friend’s apartment in Manhattan and the minute I step outside the door I’m in a war zone. Any pleasant mood can be interrupted momentarily; the potential for violence is always there, even with me.”
Like her boyfriend Michael Stipe’s R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs appropriate all kinds of ’60s influences for their own ends. Merchant’s long, parted hair and flowing dresses, both tossed around onstage with an ancient abandon, suggest a belated flower child recalling some of the better moments of her parents’ era while the band tempers her wishful thinking with the taut conciseness of those early new wave influences. Call her a hippy and she’ll probably clip your ear. “I want alternative power, I’m a vegetarian, I’m interested in community organisation and I’m concerned about our environment but that shouldn’t make me a cliche,” she snorts. “I only started listening to Bob Dylan a couple of years ago. I’m always finding music and ideas from different eras and places that really move me. I feel I have as much in common with the beatniks or a turn of the century anarchist like Emma Goldman than I do with the hippies.”
© Mark Cooper, Q, January 1988