Mr. Airplane Man
interview by Alexander Laurence
Mr. Airplane Man is a Boston duo, Margaret Garrett (guitar, vocals) and Tara McManus (drums, keyboards), who have been playing since 1996. They named themselves after a Howlin' Wolf song. Their obsession with rock and roll music since early high school inspired the band. They began playing on the street and by 1999 they were voted Best New Local Act by readers of the Boston Phoenix.
They recorded their first full-length record in March 2001. It was raw and real. They played with the White Stripes and the Strokes, as well as local Boston curiosity the Lyres. When they recorded their second record, Moanin', they got to work with Jim Diamond and Greg "Oblivion" Cartwright. John Peel soon discovered them too and had them do a session. This lead to their first European tour, which was highly successful.
Mr. Airplane Man played many large tours of America in 2003. In the meantime they were back in Memphis where they recorded their third record, C'mon DJ. This record exceeds all expectations. I got to talk with Tara McManus soon after they had finished an American tour.
AL: When did you start the band?
Tara: We have been playing together since 1996. We actually formed the band around 1998. We had a few people coming in and out of the band. But about five years ago we decided that the two of us was good enough and we didn't need other people. We couldn't find anyone who wanted to do what we wanted to do. Many people who are into the blues have a real icky take on it. It was like they were into the blues but didn't like rock and roll. Or they were into rock and roll and they knew nothing about the blues.
AL: How many shows have you played together?
Tara: I don't know. There have been a lot of shows. When we first started playing in Boston, we played a few times a week every week. We played in pubs and we played on the street every day. They just made it illegal to play in the subways in Boston. We have done a lot of tours now.
AL: Not many bands from LA or NYC play more than one a month. Maybe they play once every three months or so.
Tara: The pub scene is really cool. They book bands to play once a week. People just like to go out. It is a good way to get a following. Once you want to play rock shows with bands from out of town, you have to stop doing that. The rock clubs will not book you if you are playing all the time. We learned to play by playing all the time. I am sure some of those early shows were pretty bad. They were supportive anyway. You get free beer and a little money.
AL: Have you been playing music for a long time?
Tara: Margaret did. She has been playing for a long time. She was always writing songs. I didn't start playing until 1996. Her family had classical musicians in it. My parents were big music fans. We always had records on.
AL: Does your family come to your shows?
Tara: Yeah. They like our records. My dad comes out to shows. It's usually too late in the night for my mom to come down. My dad lives near Pittsburgh, so whenever we play in Cleveland, he drives out. He hangs out. He is really into it. We have been on tour all this year. I lost my job in Boston because I had to take time off to do these tours.
AL: What do you do when you get back home?
Tara: It's rough. I try to pick up shifts at different places. I have been out of work for two weeks. We don't make enough money on the road. Somehow we manage to scrape by. We should be on the road more often.
AL: Have you played in Europe yet?
Tara: Yeah. I am excited to go back in February. We have only played in England not in the rest of Europe. We are going to do another John Peel Session and we are going to play in other parts of Europe too.
AL: How is it different over there?
Tara: It's really weird. We were over there for ten days. By the end of the ten days we were playing to really big crowds. It was really strange. It seems like in America it takes so long to build up a big crowd. It's such a grind in America. It's much easier over there. People are more receptive and cool, and all the shows are more fun.
AL: People seem like they are informed about music over there. They seem to know about a lot of bands.
Tara: Every shows we played in England had DJs that were so good. They would play records in between bands. They knew we were from Boston so they would play The Lyres, The Real Kids, and others. All this great music that even people in Boston don't know about. We have played with those bands before. Boston hasn't been so hot for getting shows. They don't pay so much. We played this amazing show with The Real Kids this past summer and they got paid fifty bucks. It's really sad.
AL: Some of those Boston bands never play a gig outside of Boston. No one has heard of them anywhere else. How come you play all over while they stay in Boston?
Tara: Margaret and I are younger than them. We will put up with not having any money or stability at all. Those bands have been through it so they won't travel anywhere unless they get a certain amount of money. I guess The Lyres are not going to leave town anymore after the LA Shakedown fiasco. It was bad.
AL: Yeah I went to that. I couldn't even get into the venue the first night. What happened?
Tara: Yeah. That was ridiculous. When we were setting up for our show, I was thinking that the promoter, Ralph Carrera, is having breakdown. The truth is that no one got paid. The Lyres had to pay eight thousand dollars out of their own pocket. They paid for their airline tickets and hotels and they were supposed to get paid back and that never happened. It's not like the members of those bands have a lot of money in the first place. They said afterwards that they were never leaving Boston.
AL: Are there any other bands that you like?
Tara: I have been into The Broke Review for a few years. I am obsessed with them for a while. I like The Cheater Slicks. We got to play with them a few times this Spring. They blew my mind completely. I like The Reigning Sound.
AL: You have played songs by Howling Wolf and The Outsiders. How do you pick which songs you will perform or record?
Tara: We do songs that we really like. Things just click right away. We try to do a lot of cover songs but they just don't end up working. There are certain songs that we can do our own way. Many of the songs are just what we are listening to at the time.
AL: You do "Hang Up" by The Wailers.
Tara: It's such a great song. It's one of the best songs I have ever heard. When I heard the original song, I thought this songs is so perfect, we have to play this. The drum beat and everything about it is great. I haven't heard it in a long time and then I heard it recently and I thought, "Oh man, this song is untouchable." I can't believe that we tried to do a version of it.
AL: When did you record the new album, C'mon DJ?
Tara: We recorded it in two different sessions. We did a week last fall (2002). We finished it up this past spring (2003). We recorded it in Memphis with Greg Cartwright.
AL: How did you meet him?
Tara: We were obsessed with his new band, The Reigning Sound. We were bugging him to do a show in Memphis. We went down there right when we were mixing the previous record. Moanin'. We played the show and our car broke down and so we were stuck in Memphis. Greg liked our band and said that he would mix the album. We made plans to record the next album with him. I am so glad that we did. It went really well. I am really happy with the sound.
AL: How did the first John Peel Sessions come about?
Tara: John Peel somehow got a copy of Red Lite. He played it all the time. He was really into it. He invited us to do a show. It's great because a lot of people really don't like Red Lite. They think it's too fucked up. They think it sounds that way because we didn't know what we were doing. They don't understand that we were going for that sound. When we did the first show we picked the option of just recording some songs. We didn't know that we wouldn't get to meet him. This time we are going to do a live show in the studio. It will be more fun.
AL: What songs did you do on John Peel?
Tara: We did "Red Light." We did an early version of "C'mon DJ" and The Wailers "Sun Going Down." Those were like the first time we played those songs.
AL: What are the plans for the band this time of year?
Tara: We are taking a break. Margaret is in Memphis right now. February we are going to do some shows. We will be coming to New York City. We will go to Europe, England, and then come back, and do a real big tour of the States in March 2004.
AL: Margaret writes all the songs?
Tara: Yeah. She writes all the songs. Sometimes she'll bring in parts of a song and we will make up the music together. We figure out the music and the arrangements together. She usually has all the ideas for songs.
AL: Are all the songs live takes?
Tara: Yeah. We did a few overdubs. During the live show I play drums and keyboards at the same time, but in the studio, I just overdubbed it. It's easier. All the microphones are all over the drums. There is too much in the way.
AL: Have you read any good books lately?
Tara: Yeah. I just read this book called "Camellia Street?" I am bad with titles and remembering names. I can't remember all of our song titles a lot of the title
AL: What do you do when Margaret says; Let's play "Commit A Crime"?
Tara: I don't know. I remember a few words. We have our little code system.
AL: Which show did you think was you best this year?
Tara: We had a really good time on the West Coast. The shows in LA and Portland were fun. We played at this unadvertised, after hours place. Everybody there was really cool and having fun. It's so rare that people are having a good time and dancing.
AL: Does it get too wild and people jump onstage?
Tara: No, never. I love that. It got like that in England. People were going crazy. It was fun. Many places we go to people are so reserved. People are often too self-conscious about being excited. I know if I like a band I go right up front and I am so happy and so into the music. It is fun when you have a group of people who are all that way. It's sad when you get this feeling like you are the only one who cares.
AL: People are trying to be cool.
Tara: That's what I mean: in Portland, Oregon people were truly cool because they were having fun and didn't worry about being cool.
AL: Do you have any recent favorite films?
Tara: I liked The School of Rock. I just saw it. We also saw American Splendor when we were on the road. That was really good.
AL: What is your favorite part of doing music?
Tara: Playing live is my favorite part. I don't like recording very much. I have learned to tolerate it and at moments it can be fun. But for me it's all about the live shows. That is why I do it. Ever since Margaret and I were little we have always lived to go see live music. We always went to shows together. I love the spontaneity of being in the moment with the music and the crowd.
AL: How old were you and Margaret when you started going to shows?
Tara: We were thirteen or fourteen. There were all ages shows on the weekends. We used to see punk bands all the time.
AL: Where are some cool neighborhoods in Boston? Where would we find the hipsters?
Tara: (laughter) I don't know any hipsters. I live in Somerville. Everyone is getting pushed out to Somerville. It's north of Cambridge. It's the next town further away. There is a bar there called The Abbey Lounge. That is where everyone goes. It's the only place that isn't a yuppie place. It's not expensive. They have a lot of rock and roll shows.
AL: Is that near Davis Square?
Tara: That is like the other side of Somerville. I never go there. People there are mostly college kids. They are all into Irish folk music and bluegrass.
AL: Do you have a lot of records?
Tara: Yeah. That is my entire life. We have three chairs at my house and fifty thousand records. I don't own anything except records. It's bad when you are on the road because you can buy records and be on the road and not pretend that you have any bills waiting for you at home.
AL: It seemed like it took a lot longer than usual to put out this album?
Tara: It's been since July. It was delayed because there was a lot of drama over the cover art. Someone was supposed to do our cover and then they flaked out at the last minute. All this stuff happened. It's been ready for a while.
AL: What is going on with this guy, Long Gone John?
Tara: He is awesome. John is great. He is a piece of work. He has so much heart. I love him. He is so cranky. He is so negative and really funny. He has put out some amazing records. I am glad we got to work with him.
AL: He is supposed to be a big art collector.
Tara: Yeah. We finally went to his house last winter. He has so much stuff. It was amazing. He has all these painting by Mark Ryden. I live in my own world. I have seen a lot of that art in magazines. When I saw that art in person I really liked it. It was impressive.
AL: Are there any other bands that you like?
Tara: We played with The Tearjerkers in Memphis. They are great. We just did a bunch of shows with The Husbands and The Demolition Doll Rods. I love The Dirtbombs.