Manic Focus: Making it Look Easy [interview]
Sensible Reason: This is Connor from SR and we’re sitting down with John and Jake of Manic Focus.
John McCarten: What’s up, my name is John McCarten AKA JmaC, AKA Manic Focus.
Jake Barinholtz: How’s it going, my name is Jake Barinholtz AKA Spartacus, AKA the drummer for Manic Focus.
SR: Alright guys, aside from all of your collaborative works that you have going on, tell us about individual projects that you guys have been working on.
JMac: I have a lot of collaborations going on but I’m always trying to work on MF music and I’m always trying to keep the music going as much as possible. I never really stop making beats.
SR: We’ve seen you do Manic Science and Manic Menert, and that’s cool that you’re able to work with close friends doing what you love.
JmaC: I also have a couple other friends I’ve been collaborating with, especially with a lot of vocalists and rappers from Chicago, and Emily Nichols who is a great singer from Chicago. I’m trying to get more vocals into my music, but for now, I’m just trying to make as much music as possible, and the collaborations are just a way of maintaining the inspiration and keeping the ball rolling.
SR: As far as your music is concerned, you can hear so many different genres that play into your sound, it switches back and forth from funk to soul to hip-hop and more. Who are some artists that have influenced you guys specifically?
JmaC: I grew up in the Twin Cities so a lot of Rhymesayers people like Atmosphere, Eyedea & Abilities, Brother Ali, those are all big influences of mine that I listened to a lot growing up in highschool. Also, Moby and his album “Play” was huge for me when I was like 12 or 13. I like a lot of breakbeat music like The Crystal Method, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, those are all earlier influences of mine. Then of course in the new scene, Pretty Lights and Big Gigantic and GRiZ have all been really awesome inspirations.
JB: From a drumming standpoint I came up really into punk, like Blink 182 and Travis Barker was my shit, that’s why I really started playing drums. But at the same time I was in concert band and jazz band and orchestra all throughout school, so I had the jazz training background, and both of those things kind of perpetuated and eventually I got into the festival scene which opened the door to everything really. Electronic music in general I didn’t really start getting into a ton of it and comprehending it until I started getting into STS9, they really did that for me. Them and Umphrey’s really got me into the scene and from there my mind really started opening to different things.
SR: It’s funny to think that since a lot of the festivals nowadays are predominantly EDM-based so a lot of people are assuming that there’s just one guy up on stage spinning. But when you think of Sound Tribe and jamtronica bands like that it’s so different because it is electronic music but it has been manipulated and put into this organic form, and that gave me an entirely new respect for the scene. I saw you guys at Backwoods Music Festival which was really awesome but kind of sad cause there was hardly anybody at that festival.
JB: Yeah that was a sweet lineup, all the stages were really unique and had a cool vibe to them and that was what made the festival awesome. It was pretty spread out but each area had it’s own vibe that way, it was fun.
SR: What is the biggest difference for you guys when you play shows versus playing festival sets as far as crowd reaction and everything goes?
JmaC: At festivals it’s great because it brings together a bunch of people that more than likely haven’t heard of you at first, it’s basically the grounds where you can win fans and you’re making your first impression upon a lot of people. With shows, you buy a ticket and you know who you’re going to see usually. The people who come out to shows are generally people that have seen us at festivals first or maybe they listened to our stuff online, but festivals are really the best because you’re winning fans of music in general but maybe have never heard of us before. It’s a really cool opportunity to be on a stage that you’re sharing with tons of other talented artists. You make this first impression at a place that’s sort of away from real life, the festival grounds are a whole different story.
JB: Logistically, it’s way different doing a show than a festival because a festival setting is what we like to call the old throw n’ go, where we have to get up there and not even really do a sound check because we’ll figure it out within the first couple of minutes of the set. But the great thing is, depending on what festival it is and who else is playing that we’re friends with, it makes for some possibilities for collaborations and then we have some cool things planned for the rest of the festival season in way of that. I’ll leave it at that, but there are some cool opportunities that have happened like that for us that are coming up.
SR: I was really hoping you’d spill some juicy insider info right there. Out of the festivals you guys go to, not necessarily in terms of influences but just people that you’ve seen perform, who is someone or a group of people that you’ve seen really kill it that inspired you?
JmaC: That is one of my favorite things about festival season is seeing how people that we know have progressed, it’s like bumping into old friends. Seeing Big G last night, they played a great set and that was really sick, those guys are good homies that we’ve done extensive touring with and it’s really cool to get to hang out after the show and talk about how music is going and the direction they’re taking it. Other friends too, it’s inspiring to see the show onstage and then to be able to kick it with them afterwards, and maybe collaborate.
JB: It’s like tour season through fall and spring and winter, everyone is kind of honing their game, and then festival season comes and you get to see what everyone has been working on over the last half a year to a year and that’s really cool because everyone is evolving and trying new things.
JmaC: Everyone is really pushing each other to improve their performances. It’s not that competitive, but in a sense it is, because everybody is raising the bar. There’s definitely a standard of equality.
JB: It’s just a mutual desire of everybody to be the best that they can be.
SR: That’s how you expand your music though, whenever a sound gets blown up, even if it’s great stuff, it becomes stagnant after a certain time and people want to stay relevant but sometimes you just need to do weird stuff and be creative in a live sense. That’s one of the best things about seeing you guys play, whenever you give one another those looks on stage you can tell you’re feeling it and sometimes you just jam and go with it even if it wasn’t planned.
JB: Yesterday (at Okeechobee) there were a bunch of moments like that. We had a crazy day, we flew from New York, didn’t sleep, basically came almost straight to the festival and everything went really well so we got onstage and were just like “yes”. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for the weekend.
JmaC: It’s good because I’ve trained Jake to know all the music so he has to be ready for curve balls. We’ve been playing hour-and-a-half sets when we’re touring playing shows, and festival sets are shorter. I try to do a different set every time and keep it fresh to keep myself entertained as well as the crowd. I have to figure out how much time I have and I usually overshoot it and during the set I’m like “oh shit, I thought I had time for 8 more songs and I only have time for 3” and Jake does a really good job of helping me navigate and figure out what to do.
JB: That actually makes for a lot of cool mixes where we go out from a track and into another track and we just catch these cool transitions and hope that they work. I’ve been playing with John for just over a year now, and when we first started, pretty much every set I would just have to ride it out.
JmaC: Well I don’t even ride it out, Jake will be like “what’s the set?” and I know that he knows all the stuff so I’ll just throw him curve balls and he picks it up. Jake is one of my favorite drummers and I like to see what he can come up with and what kind of crazy stuff he can just pull out of his ass.
SR: Well you certainly play it off well, it looks like you guys are having a lot of fun up there.
JB: It’s a lot of borderline unorganized chaos, but that’s what makes it fun.
SR: Tell us about your hometowns and upbringings in music.
JmaC: Well I’m from Minnesota and the Twin Cities, but I moved to Chicago about 5 years ago, and we launched Manic Focus from Chicago as a solo project.
JB: I’m from suburbs of Chicago, and now we live a couple miles from each other in the city. Influence wise, locally, I came up playing in some local ska bands, and I had an all-electronic band called The Coop and we did a lot of festivals which is how me and John got linked up in the first place. So growing up with the local music scene of Chicago helped me evolve, and basically now I’m here playing music with this guy [John].
JmaC: Yeah when I was by myself, I could just pick my whole show up and throw it on my back. But having a drummer makes the experience live, and now that I can afford to have a drummer on tour we play wherever and whenever it’s possible.
JB: I’m lucky that I kind of jumped in at the right time where people are willing to accommodate for a drummer. Getting a backline drum set organized for a festival is really easy now that John’s had the opportunity to establish himself so I’m definitely grateful for that.
SR: How long have you been playing the drums for?
JB: I’ve been playing drums for 18 and a half years.
SR: So that’s obviously your main focus, but what other instruments have you experimented with?
JB: Well I started playing drums when I was 10, but I started playing piano when I was 8 and that gave me a really good theory background. Like I said, I did concert band, jazz band and orchestra, so pretty much every concert production instrument like the xylophone and all that even through college, I was in steel band in college too, so with all of that and having the piano theory background really helped me when I started producing music for my band The Coop and getting into that.
SR: Aside from you guys performing as a duo with a drummer for live elements, have you guys thought about incorporating a third instrument that you both might play into?
JmaC: Well we have a band that we do sometimes with the homie Marvel Years who is an incredible producer, amazing guitarist, and whenever he’s around I try to get him to play guitar for me. He’s rocked a lot of big shows with us, we did The House of Blues with the live band about a year ago in Chicago, and that was Jake on the drums, Russ Liquid playing horns and a couple others so it was a really good time. I want to have a band, it’s slowly growing. But yeah whenever we can, Marvel Years is our go-to guitarist.
SR: So in the next couple of months, are you guys focusing more on being on the road touring or producing in the studio?
JmaC: Well, we’re pretty much always doing one or the other, we don’t ever sleep.
JB: Yeah there really aren’t any times when we aren’t doing shows. It’s been pretty intense the last couple of weeks with a lot of three and four day runs and we’ve just been wrapping some music up together.