Manfred Mann interview. November, 1993

For Keyboard magazine.

Manfred Mann is now in his fourth decade in the music industry. Having announced his arrival in the UK from his native South Africa with a string of hit singles which illustrated his special skills in finding the arrangement that turns good songs into massive radio play hits, Manfred has consistently produced high quality albums that have achieved notable commercial and critical success while bypassing the usual media hype associated with big selling albums. Success on his own terms.
If Manfred Mann has a hit song in the nineties, it will make him one of very few acts whose hit making longevity spans four decades.
Blessed with a sound ear for a good song, as well as a respected business sense, Manfred's success in the music industry has been built on a solid platform.
His piano playing skills.

In the beginning.

There was a piano in the house. If there had been a guitar I might have learnt that. My mother played the piano. When I was about six, I gravitated to the corner of the room, and started playing the piano. I was primarily self taught. Eventually I took lessons, but I soon got bored, because they were teaching me to read, and I could play better than I could read. I found the reading process very frustrating, so I kept giving it up. Even today I don't read very well. I had to teach myself in my thirties.
My first influences were boogie, sort of blues really. I got hold of a book and painstakingly worked my way through it, but, growing up in South Africa at that time, what could one hear.? I had very little access to anything.

When I was around 14 I started hearing different music, and that helped. I practised really a lot, and then an American piano player, whose name I forget, came to South Africa. I saw him playing a concert at the Johannesburg University, and I thought he was great. Then, one night I was playing in a coffee bar, and he came in. He told me he thought my playing was great. I thought 'fantastic. He thinks I can play.' I suppose around then I realised that I could play, but I never thought I'd earn a living as a player.
Around 1960, I decided to move to England. I thought I might be able to make a living out of teaching, although I came mainly because I didn't want to be in South Africa. I certainly wasn't overconfident. In fact, I had no confidence whatsoever. I've never had any faith. I always think when people say you've got to have faith in yourself, they're trying to talk themselves up to a state of optimism because they've got no faith in themselves.

A user end view of the arrival of technology in the world of keyboards.

When I first started playing there wasn't a whole lot of choice in what keyboard you played. You played an acoustic instrument over which you had no control except to hit the notes. Then came the organ, where you had marginal control over the sound, but which took away the touch response. That was the whole sixties period. Either piano or organ.

In the seventies, you started getting synthesisers which gave you more control over the sound. When the Mini Moog came along, for some reason or other I found a way to play it which is personal. To this day I use it all the time. I have two Mini Moog's midied up, and its there on the albums and on the gigs.
The Mini Moog gave you instant physical control of the sound parameters with your hand. It didn't give you an immensely rich sound in some ways, but it gave you a degree of control that no other electronic instrument, except that particular breed of synthesisers, ARP, etc. gives.

What's happened now with keyboards is, you get more and more sounds, and no real control. You get phoney control, where you can alter a lousy filter or whatever, but not real control.

So keyboard players are now more the keepers of the sound, and not the players everybody admires. Its usually the guitar players because they've got their hands on the instrument. A direct physical relationship between the player and the sound. The keyboard players are there using their sounds to imitate real instruments. I can be a string orchestra one minute, and an African marimba band the next. The importance of the actual playing is diminished. I think its led by the manufacturer 's making what they think people want. More and more sounds, with less control over those sounds. I think its a mistake.

If you think of all the control we have in terms of sounds, and then you think, well what have these keyboard sounds given us over the acoustic world, apart from the fact you can do it through computers, what sounds do you hear on records that are new.? I cant think of more than three. A reedy string synth sound that's quite unique to synthesiser. It imitates strings but isn't strings. A mini Moog type synthesiser sound, and I battle to even think of a third. Maybe someone reading this article can tell me what new sounds there are that are actually useful. I'm not saying you cant make up your own wave forms, but what's useful.? For drums, you can have buildings falling down, breaking glass, explosions, and yet people use the snare drum most of the time. So it seems to me that there is something quite fundamental that comes from the acoustic world that you cant get away from too much. Its what you hear with your ears and what is made with organic, natural instruments.
I don't think that all this available technology has had a negative effect on developing players. There are still a lot of people wanting to play. I think the live player thing is very much alive. The BIG market is still for people who play instruments. I think there are a lot of other people around who cant play instruments, who program, and are very good with technology, but players are still the most important thing.

If your thinking of making a living as a keyboard player.

Don't do it. Its the only advise you can give, on the basis that someone who really wants to do it wont listen to you, and anyone who has any doubt will listen to you, and if they had any doubt they shouldn't do it anyway. There was a woman here the other day whose son wants to be a guitar player. I said don't give him any assistance whatsoever. Just hassle him to do his schoolwork. If he really wants to do it he'll ignore you, and he will come through. You don't have to encourage people. You've got to be good enough deep down. In my case, nobody made it easy for me. I wanted to do it enough. You talk to anyone whose had success. They wanted to do it enough. If your parents can talk you out of it, you may as well be talked out of it.
For those players who make it onto the next stage, I would say this. I have never met a single individual that never had an opportunity. Everyone gets a chance. This idea that you never get a break is nonsense. Everyone meets someone who listens to them. So if you really are going to do it, there's just three things to remember. Work Work and Work. Because one day an opportunity will come your way, and when it does, you'd better be ready.
Something that many people reading this might not fully appreciate, for all their faith in themselves, and all their determination, is the real sense that it is possible to just deliver a record, and the next minute the whole world is playing it everywhere. Now that's happened to me a lot over many years. It hasn't happened for a awhile now, but I know its possible to go into the studio, make a recording, just hand it in, and six months later the whole worlds exploding. So now when I work, for all my realism, and for all my self deprecatory kind of attitude, I know that its possible. I actually know it. I can feel it. Its tangible to me - the possibility. Maybe for someone who hasn't had that experience, there's a need to rely on optimism. Maybe an empty optimism. Not real hope.

Still playing after all these years.

Having played the piano virtually daily for approaching half a century, how does he feel about playing now.
Its a difficult one. Like a mountain climber. You ask him if he's happy when he's half way up the mountain. He cant breath properly, he's freezing and there's no oxygen. I suppose his answer is 'I'm' cold, I want to have a hot bath, but this is what I do. I'm a mountain climber.'
I don't think I enjoy music in the naive kind of sense I might have when I first started, but its part of me in a way that it wasn't then. That's absolutely what I am now. I'm a musician. I will play that piano everyday. Sometimes just to practise, sometimes just to muck about. Sometimes just to enjoy the sound of the instrument.

Earlier this year I took some time off to visit Africa. I absolutely love wildlife, and I went to Botswana. Just one guide, and an open top vehicle, going round the bush. It was wonderful. I completely forgot I was a musician. It just didn't matter. Completely inconsequential. When I got back, and played the piano, I was astonished that I could play as well as I could play. I just couldn't believe it. I spent hours just sitting there playing, and I enjoyed it immensely. I thought 'God I can play this thing'. It seemed like something that had just been given to me. So perhaps if I was in Africa living in a tent I wouldn't bother much. Its really hard to say. But, if I'm on a gig, and its going well, I get a lot of pleasure out of that.
I think I'm burdened in my own mind with making everything I do as good as it can be, so that now I cant just go down to the pub and play. Sometimes I wish I could, but then I think someone will look at it and say 'there's Manfred Mann, and he's playing crap.' When we do gigs I work and work and work to make sure they're as good as possible.

On recording techniques.

I really don't know much about the recording engineers job. I'm too much of a musician to ever be really organised on that side. I find that no matter how much you do a thing properly or unproperly, if the guy doesn't sing right, you're completely stuffed. You can get everything wrong, and if the singer sings great, it'll live. The voice is the most important thing on the record. The most important rhythm instrument on the track is not the drum kit. Its the voice. I think people really miss that. 90% is the way the guy sings. I mean, use Peter Gabriel as an example. Everyone raves about his productions, which are incredible, but for me the really incredible thing, worth as much as any of his amazing production techniques, is the awesome way that he uses his voice. He sings great, and I think people underestimate the importance of that.

In doing arrangements.

Most of the songs I do are covers. Once I've decided on a song, I learn it, and then I stop listening to the original. I don't refer to it again. I play it over quite a long period of time. Weeks maybe. Fiddle about - Try to find a way of doing it that eventually appeals to me, that's different from the original. Its a very instinctive kind of process. I have a kind of pride in trying to make it different to the original.
When I arrange the song, at the piano, or on the computer, where I do a lot of it now, most of the time I do the singing myself, and then just hope that when we get to the recording the singer will be able to fit his voice where it works.

Talking Technology .

The interesting thing is, we used to make records in three hours, in the early sixties. And now, everything's improved to such an extent, and its all so much faster with Technology, that it only takes two months.
Its this thing of having control over every parameter.
I think the worst thing that's happened is that you've got too much control.
It all needs thinking about. I'll use an example.
Some things that you do in your life, you don't really control fully. You should get instructions. Like - open the packet - lean forward - balance - move your arm toward the counter - breathe in. Many of the things we do are just not meant to be thought about too much.
Over the last ten fifteen years there's been a kind of love affair with technology in certain areas, where everyone says 'Hey this is great'. Then when the next thing comes along its 'That was crap, this is great'. It reminds me of the digital watch. Nobody wears a digital watch. It was a crap idea in the beginning. So if you look at those old computers people thought were great ten fifteen years ago, they were impossible, really awkward ways of wasting time, and everyone was saying how great it all was. Like the digital watch, from a working point of view, they were out of touch with people.
I now like computers because you can treat them like recording machines. The mindless repetitive button pushing that you had to do to complete even the simplest of tasks, is no more.
So now its all easier, and better, but what its done, is enable people to produce recordings on their own. The computer gives you the feeling that you can. So there's a lot more people making songs in isolation.
I enjoy some of the tremendous advantages of working on the computer. I do most of my sketchpad arrangements onto a C-Lab Notator, mostly in my home workroom. Being able to make changes to the arrangement so quickly is great, although when we get to the studio, I almost always replace all of it with live playing.

Since 'Davy's on the road again', although Manfred has not had a major UK hit, there have been considerable sales elsewhere.

There were the various Earth Band albums. 'Somewhere in Africa' was quite successful in Germany, won their equivalent of a Grammy in 1984. The song 'Runner' made 22 on Billboard in 1984, and the Earth Band albums continue to sell steadily.
One recent project, "Plains Music" was a number one record in South Africa last year.
Currently I'm doing a new Earth band album, as a co-production with Richard Burgess. I haven't worked with any producers in this way since the early sixties. Its been an enormous relief for me to be able to concentrate on arranging and ideas, and leave Richard to get on with the things that he's really good at, which is really dealing with the practicalities of those ideas. Hours and hours of sifting through various takes, and deciding which is best. Seeing him work, I just realised that he is much better at that aspect of it than I am.
I feel much more optimistic with this album than I have done for a long time. Again, its mainly songs that I have found. Some new ones by a South African writer, Cyril Schuman, that might surprise a lot of people, and others that people might recognise. I search in the most obscure corners for songs, but its not always easy to find a great song. I'm the sort of person that whenever a band has a successful record, I go back to their earlier work and see if there's anything there that people might have missed. A good song masked by a bad performance. I also go through loads of indie compilations

Wedded to uncertainty.

I think people always feel better when they have a strong definite direction. If you sit in a room with people who are undecided, everyone feels insecure. Then, when the decisions made, everyone feels very confident. At that moment the creative process ends. I believe in making that strong, powerful sounding, decision is actually a weakness. Its a weakness because we cant deal with uncertainty. So were tempted to go with the power of positive thinking thing. This is the decision - bang - everybody feels better about it, but it may be the wrong decision.
I believe in putting off that kind of decision to the last possible second. I will constantly change things, changing my mind all the time, in what I believe to be positive creative thought. If I'm doing the last few songs on an album, and its all definite, I'll still listen to tapes coming in. I'll still bear in mind the possibility that there's something that I've missed, right up till the last minute. It drives the people around me crazy. Even if it only serves to show that the original decision was the right one, I don't think indecisiveness should be viewed as a weakness.
I don't believe you should have set beliefs about things. It just means that when your presented with a problem you know how to look at it because you have a belief that affects your response. Whereas each problem poses a fresh set of thoughts, and should be looked at clean, without the baggage of previous experience. Particularly in recording its important not to be bogged down by how you did it before.

I don't believe that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. Obviously people will find parallels. Its the people who think history repeats itself always getting it wrong. Generals fighting the war like they did the last war. I mean, if history repeated itself, the Germans would have killed many millions of people in the First World War. They didn't. In fact there was so much British propaganda about Germans in the First World War that when the Second World War came, they didn't believe what was coming out. There was this feeling that history was repeating itself that blinded them to what as happening. The pacifists. - Totally right to be pacifists after the First World War, totally wrong to be pacifists faced with Hitler. These people basing things on previous experience just get it totally wrong. You look at the Second World War and say the war was worth fighting, and then become a warmonger in Vietnam. You cant use that experience. Every situation is different.

Reminiscing over afternoon tea.

In England there's very little commercial success for me now. I'm regarded generally speaking as a 'has been' by most people. They meet me and say didn't you used to be Manfred Mann. In fact Manfred Mann's Earth Band was the most successful period of my life in commercial terms. In hard market money terms. Unfortunately people here remember the sixties band very highly. Although it was a great band, incredibly successful, and some of the records are very very good, we never quite managed to make successful records out of the side of the band that was truly exceptional, and that is as a blues band, and a really good live band. Paul Jones - very good blues singer, but the songs we're remembered for are the more lightweight ones like 'Do wah diddy diddy', 'Mighty Quinn' etc. Bands like the Stones managed to make their best stuff, in one sense, successful. We never quite managed to get the blues stuff to be successful, and I think that is what happened to that memory of the sixties. I must say I personally don't bother too much about it. The sixties isn't a period I remember with any great affection. I have to be careful about what I say about that time because I have a great respect for the people I worked with in that period, and they're all very fine musicians, but somehow I don't think we ever produced the best that we could do on record. Maybe it was partly my fault because I was very much singles oriented.

I've not been tempted to do any kind of sixties revival thing with the sixties line up of Manfred Mann, partly because what I do in Europe is very valuable, and I think it would be muddied terribly. This year alone in Germany we've sold over 300 000 copies of the Earth Band compilation album, and just finished a very successful summer tour, so I wouldn't risk jeopardising that.

Apart from the fact that in that band, and the guys in the band themselves know this, you could get up and play without me. To the listener, it wouldn't matter if it was me or a session player, whereas with the Earth Band you couldn't put anyone else in there because the sound of the Moog, and the way I'm playing it, is actually integral to the whole thing.
The sixties band can play without me and sound the same. Mind you, apart from the voices, its probably true of the rest of the band, because the success of those songs was more in the arrangement and the voices.
I mean, Pretty Flamingo is still a lovely record, but I wouldn't want to do it again. I think the past is the past, and tomorrow is another day.
The thing that keeps me going now is simple. Life and the force of life.
Just a day to day thing. Survival and just be as happy as you can because you only live today.

3 700 words.


  Real Estate Oakville