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Pete Mancini of Butchers Blind: The Daily Vault Interview

by Jason Warburg

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The word that comes up again and again both when talking about and when talking with Pete Mancini is craft. Mancini’s work as a singer-songwriter is all about craft, whether within the context of indie-rock/Americana quartet Butchers Blind or on his newest venture, a debut solo album that leans more to the country-folk side of the broad Americana equation. Mancini himself prefers to describe the music he makes in both contexts as “American music”—a rich mélange of blues, country, folk and the bastard child the three produced together: rock and roll (thank you, Chuck Berry).

Mancini applies his considerable craft to assembling sharply observed vignettes about life in America over these past few tumultuous decades—songs about working hard and getting nowhere, about love revealing and absenting itself, about what it feels like to plow ahead day after day believing that “nobody hears what I say anymore.” The songs he writes are unerringly well-suited for his voice, whose naturally plaintive quality he wields like a surgeon, drawing rich emotion from every carefully considered line.


Butchers Blind has thus far produced two full albums—
Play For The Films (2011) and Destination Blues (2013)—as well as the single “Thursday Girl” (2014) and the EP A Place In America (2015). Mancini’s solo debut Foothill Freeway—featuring all of Butchers Blind plus several other supporting players—formally launches May 4 and has already earned attention from NPR and Newsday.

On a recent Saturday—the day before Mancini’s 30th birthday—we got together by phone for a conversation that covered quite a bit about craft, touched on fellow travelers like Dylan, Parsons, Tweedy and Springsteen (not a law firm), and uncovered at least one reason why it’s still worth watching the Grammys. A good time was had by all.



Daily Vault: After a couple of albums and an EP with Butchers Blind, what led you to want to make a solo album?

Pete Mancini:
It just felt like the right time and the right group of songs. My buddy Russ Seeger pitched the song “Sweethearts Of The Rodeo” to me and it seemed to fit with some of the songs I already had and it seemed like the time to do it. I had a couple of old songs that Butchers Blind never recorded, and a few new ones, and they all fit together nicely; the little puzzle made sense to me. And it felt like it was time to try something different, a little more rootsy than Butchers Blind.


What’s the essential difference? You’ve got the whole band playing at various points on the record, so what makes Foothill Freeway a solo album?


As I was making it, it just didn’t seem like Butchers Blind, or what I had built up in my mind as what Butchers Blind was supposed to be. It felt like this was something different; there were a lot of banjos and fiddles, and while we’ve touched on those kinds of Americana sounds before, this was more acoustic-based and closer to what the songs are like when I first write them. As I was doing the album I realized some of these songs could have been Butchers Blind songs, but by that point I was fully committed to the cause of the solo record.

And it was cool, because there were a number of things I was able to do on this album that never really worked out with Butchers Blind, like recording a Wes Houston song. And I had pitched doing “Cartwheel Avenue” with the guys, but it didn’t really fly—sometimes ideas fall by the wayside or we say “Maybe we’ll get around to it.” So the solo album became a way to execute several ideas that I had on the back burner that I’ve always wanted to do. It was a new thing that I got to try out and I learned a lot in the process of making this one.

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I wanted to ask you about “Cartwheel Avenue,” because the first couple of times through the album it didn’t make a big impression, but now that I’m up to around 10 listens, it’s one of my favorites. You and Iain Matthews harmonized really well and the main riff keeps popping into my head. How did you connect up with Iain Matthews?

Right on. While we were making our second record (Destination Blues) we had some personnel changes in the band and we were kind of down; it was a bum-out kind of time. The album was taking much longer than we thought and we were getting bogged down in the mixing process.

Then our label guy, Bill Herman from Paradiddle Records, passed our first album to Iain while he was doing sound at a show for him, and Iain reached out to us by e-mail and it was very cool. I think his album Valley Hi is a classic, produced by Mike Nesmith [of the Monkees] and with some real great tunes on it.

Between Fairport Convention and Plainsong he had a lot of contributions, and then he has close to 30 albums under his own name, and they range from acoustic folk to power-pop and synth music. He has incredible range and he’s a great singer with a great vocal style. Going through his catalog was a huge inspiration.


What are your favorite songs on Foothill Freeway, and why?


I think my favorite ones are the ones I’ve been playing a lot. When I’m just doing two songs, I usually play “Foothill Freeway” and “To Be Alive.” They’re two of the new ones I wrote for the record and they still feel fresh. I’m really happy with how they came out recording-wise and arrangement-wise. I’m proud of those songs in particular, but I like the whole record.


I’d like to read you back lines from a few of the songs on Foothill Freeway and see what it sparks – maybe a story about where the line came from or what it felt like recording the song.


From “You’re Gonna Change”: “Every time I see you crying / It’s another dance on your floor / I’m starting to think you’re lying / I just can’t tell what for.”


We recorded that song for Destination Blues and it never made the album, but I didn’t want to let go of it. It used to be all Tom Petty-sounding with Hammond organ and a big rock sound, but for this album I slowed it down to a shuffle and it worked a lot better. I wish I’d seen that answer then, but it made itself apparent when we were recording it for this album. Those lyrics are from a past time, and I just didn’t want to let go of the arrangement. Usually if we don’t use a song I’ll end up scrapping it for parts, but that was one I couldn’t let go of; I think the breakthrough was slowing it down and countrifying it a bit.


From “The Hardest Way to Part”: “It’s six months to the day that she left you / And all you’ve got are questions and lies / You think about the night that you first met her / She seemed to have the answers in her eyes.”


That’s another one that didn’t make the cut for Destination Blues. Those lyrics mark a very specific time in my life, and it was just trying to write what you feel, I guess, write what you know, and hopefully someone will connect with that.

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From “Foothill Freeway”: In the chorus, the narrator says “Foothill Freeway, take me home tonight,” but it feels like a central theme of the song is that he has no home, the only place that feels like home is the road, where everyone is moving toward somewhere or something else.

Right. A little backstory on this one. I was doing a gig in LA with a friend of mine; we did a set for a private event. And it was really cool, I hadn’t been to LA since I was 19 and going across country with friends. When we were driving to the gig we were on the Foothill Freeway and my friend said “I remember going back and forth between my parents’ houses when they were separated, I was stuck in traffic so much that I said ‘The Foothill Freeway is my home.’ It felt like this was where I lived.” And I said “That’s a great song right there!” And he thought that was cool. I told him “If you don’t write a song with that, I’m going to.”

That was a number of years ago. He never wrote the song, and I had the chorus saved for years, and had recorded a little demo of it. Years later I was working a contracting job with a friend of mine and the other guys had these insane stories of doing ketamine and stuff [the lyric references being “down in a k-hole”] and other examples of excess, and all of a sudden I had this character who fit the chorus. It might not seem obvious on first listen, but the general story is this guy always connected with the highway and could never really find the right path, and he ends up dying at the end of the song. The Foothill Freeway now is his home and he’s roaming the highway forever, because he died there.

That song took years to write and that’s probably why I feel so connected to it and proud of it.


From “To Be Alive”: “Nothing ever seems to change around here / We’re still working by the hour / and not by the year / Rows of houses we’ll never call home / The more we laugh / The more we feel alone.”


That’s a line that a lot of people have pointed out. As a millennial, graduating in the middle of the Great Recession, it can be tough to get by. Some people can make the transition to adulthood and a career, and some people have a tougher time with it, and I’ve known people on both sides. As someone who’s looking for a career in music, it’s not the most lucrative path. That’s just speaking—not for my generation, but as a member of my generation, I suppose.


From “Rented Room”: You sketch a scene of “Burnt out mills and factory plains / Families living out in the street” and then the concluding line of the song is “We can’t keep pretending we’re someone we’re not.”


That’s an interesting song. A buddy of mine said “You never write in a minor key.” And I was like, “Challenge accepted.” [laughter]

So I had this set of lyrics, and I was watching this documentary and they were talking about opioid addiction and how all these people were sold up the river by Big Pharma. They got injured, and then they took oxycontin, and at first the companies claimed it’s not addictive, but now these people are heroin addicts.

We like to say that America is the greatest country in the world, “God Bless America,” and we have all this pride, but we also have all these problems. Sometimes I feel like as a country we get caught up in our patriotism and because of that we don’t really see all this other stuff or talk about it as much as we should. That line was the narrator saying we can’t keep thinking we’re something we’re not—he’s saying that about himself, but it’s really about the country.


How did you connect with Russ Seeger and Wes Houston?


One of the things about music that I’m most thankful for is all the people I’ve met and connected with over the years, just from having a shared craft. I’ve met a lot of great songwriters and musicians. I met Russ Seeger through the New York Roots Music Association (NYRMA). Basically it’s a bunch of musicians from Long Island who get together and pick an album and then practice and perform it. Some shows have a theme. Buffalo Springfield was the first one I did, we’ve done Neil Young, and it’s a lot of fun, we just get together, have some beers and play a lot of tunes.

I’ve met a ton of people through that. That’s how I met Russ, and we started co-writing. He’s a great songwriter, he has an album out on Paradiddle [Live In Peace] that’s really great, and he’s a guy I look up to. And Wes, he lives in Queens Village, one town over from Bellerose, where I am. We used to go see the Wes Houston band when we were young and he’s kind of become a mentor to the band. He’s another songwriter who I really look up to. He was in Broadside on the Folkways label back in the ’60s and he’s played everywhere. He’s got some crazy stories, and we have a shared love of the same music. To pay tribute to those guys was something I’d always wanted to do, personally, so it was great to finally do it.

Going back in time, how did you get started writing songs and playing in bands?


It started in high school; I was on swim team and I was getting real sick of swimming back and forth in the pool. It kept me in good shape, but I was burnt out on it. And high school, you know, it’s fun, but at the same time you can end up feeling sorry for yourself.

Then one day I saw Jack White play “Death Letter” at the Grammys—I forget what year it was [2004, and it’s worth watching]—but he had this killer hollow-body guitar and he was playing the hell out of it and that was it, man. I went out and bought a guitar, and got really into the blues through Jack White. A couple of friends of mine were into the blues, too—we were really into Stevie Ray Vaughan, stuff like that that would excite a 16-year-old kid who’s just discovering this kind of music. We had a little blues band and we had a lot of fun, tried recording and played a lot of gigs. We were terrible, but we had a great time.

Eventually I started getting into different music and a buddy sent me a note and said “You should check out Wilco, man, check out these songs.” I still have the note. That changed everything for me; it wasn’t all about the guitar anymore. I still love playing guitar, but the main goal since then is to write songs, and just get better at the craft, and that was the only thing that really meant anything to me for years. It still hasn’t changed. That one song—“Theologians”—kind of blew everything up for me.


What makes a good song? What are the components and how do you put them together?


What makes a good song for me is when it’s organized well. I think structure is a big part of what makes a good song, because it allows you to convey your idea, the feeling you’re trying to put across. You could have a great riff, a great lyric or a great melody, but if it doesn’t go anywhere, you lose the listener. That’s one thing I’ve always really focused on, structures and how you piece together a melody and a hook. We have a ton of stuff to study in popular music. For me a good structure is the base-level thing that makes a song good. From there, the rest is whatever you feel, the melody and the lyrics.


What do you love about the songwriting process and what keeps bringing you back to it?


It’s been an ongoing thing in the back of my mind for years. What I love about it is, you start when some little thing pops into your head, a melody or a lyric, and the trick is learning how to bring that spark in your head out through trial and error over years of writing songs. Several albums later I’m still learning about it. It’s kind of a little puzzle, you chase it where it’s going.

I write in my head a lot and then try to flesh it out on my guitar. And sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t, and then you go back to the drawing board, or maybe it comes back in a different light later on. But the process is really fun, really rewarding. Once you record a song and put it out and people are starting to feel it, that’s the best thing, man, that and the people you meet. It’s been a huge part of my life and I’m thankful for it. Once you have an outlet like that, it becomes kind of vital to who you are as a person.

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A lot of people would describe the music of Butchers Blind, and especially of your new solo album, as Americana. But what does that term mean to you at this point? It seems like it’s always a bit of a moving target.

It’s hard to classify yourself; even when you’re writing a resume or cover letter, it can be difficult. The first thing anyone asks me is “What kind of music do you play?” And if you say country, that’s a loaded term, people default to Toby Keith and stuff like that, and if you say rock, that means something else. It all means something to somebody, and you have to classify it as something.

I’ve always said, either with Butchers Blind or solo, that I play American music. It’s a very broad term; people call it Americana, or sometimes alt-country, but it’s really just American music in the grand tradition—folk, blues, country, rock: I draw inspiration from all of those. I would just have to call it American music at that point and explain it a little bit because it’s hard to classify that kind of thing.


To you, who are the classic Americana artists?


Neil Young for sure. What Neil was doing when he was breaking out as a solo artist kind of laid the foundation for what we later called alt-country. And before him, Bob Dylan, of course. But if you follow the trail back, you eventually hit Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie, who is such a hugely important character. Those three are pillars of the foundations of what American music is.

Maybe you could go back further and point to more obscure people, but for me, you had blues, you had country, you had folk—and then you had Chuck Berry who came along and just mashed it all together, and rock and roll happened. There are lots of figures who contributed to the grand wheel of American music, but one thing I think is really cool and found inspiring is the way Woody Guthrie’s influence still lives on today with the Mermaid Avenue records [by Billy Bragg & Wilco] and the record Jay Farrar did of Woody Guthrie songs [2012’s New Multitudes]. That’s a huge deal to me, I think about Woody Guthrie a lot.


As it happens, the next question’s going to mention Bruce Springsteen, one of the world’s biggest Woody Guthrie fans.


Yeah, him and Dylan. Woody Guthrie had such a huge influence on everything that came after him.


It feels like Gram Parsons and Jeff Tweedy and Bruce Springsteen are some of your major influences. Talk about their influence on you, and maybe some of your other influences.


Of course, those three guys are all huge. Springsteen came later, though—he was always around growing up, you’d hear Born To Run on the radio—but only much later, now, am I really getting into his catalog. The Ghost Of Tom Joad record was a big one for me; I didn’t really see Springsteen in that way before that. I love Nebraska, Ghost Of Tom Joad, and Devils And Dust; the acoustic side of Springsteen is very cool to me and was a big inspiration on the solo record.

Gram Parsons is a huge influence on Butchers Blind and on me as a songwriter. I relate to Gram and take a lot of inspiration from his work with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the International Submarine Band, and his solo records are probably some of my favorite records of all time.

Jeff Tweedy, he’s the guy who, once I heard his tunes, kind of started everything—he kicked that door down for me.

Those three people are huge influences. And then there’s Jay Farrar, and the Jayhawks… there’s tons of influences, too many to list here and I probably couldn’t think of all of them if I tried, but those three you mentioned sum up the mode I’ve been in lately.

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In terms of arrangements, what do fiddle and mandolin and pedal steel offer you in the way of tools and tones that you can’t get from guitar, bass, drums, and keys?

It’s a sound that I’ve always loved, and it was great to just dive in full on Foothill Freeway. I feel like Butchers Blind, we are really influenced by the Replacements and a lot of rock bands, so we always kind of have one foot in the Americana area and the other foot in the rock area. For the solo record it was great to dive in full and focus on the Americana sounds. It’s a different palette and it’s a great atmosphere for a song to live in, one of my favorite sounds. Some artists are trying to invent something totally new; I’m just trying to make music that I like and hopefully other people like it, too.


A number of your songs are about working people trying to get by and find some kind of peace or connection in the world. Springsteen has taken some heat over the years for writing about the struggles of everyday working people long after he’d become a rich man himself. I’m curious, what’s your take on that?


Well, first of all, I think his critics should try being a musician, because it’s really hard work! [laughter]

Besides that, I think that they’re missing the point. Springsteen is telling stories. You shouldn’t take it literally, because Bruce Springsteen isn’t singing about himself most of the time. That was a big thing, when I heard Guy Clark and Bruce Springsteen doing that kind of narrative storytelling, it opened a new door for me, where I could become someone else through a song. Those songs are character studies about the human condition. I wouldn’t say it’s acting, but it’s telling a story like you would a film or a book, as opposed to something you should take literally.


So, the first songwriter from Long Island I connected with was Jean-Paul Vest (of
Last Charge Of The Light Horse). Then came Bryan Gallo, and Robert Bruey, and Pete Mancini. What’s up with all the excellent singer-songwriters out there?

Maybe there’s something in the water? We have a really great scene out here and I’m happy to be part of it, I’ve met a lot of great people through it. I think some of it is motivated by the assumption that “Long Island is just for tribute bands.” We have a lot of songwriters out here who are trying to change that reputation; maybe subconsciously you want to prove yourself. There’s tons of great songwriters and they’re doing original music and they’re sticking it out. In New York City, there’s a huge number of acts doing their thing and it’s hard to stand out, so that’s another motivating factor to keep writing, keep creating.


Last question. You’re leaving in the morning to drive across the country. You can only take five albums with you. Which five?


Off the bat I’d have to take Being There by Wilco. I would take Trace by Son Volt, because that’s probably the greatest driving album of all time—for me anyway. I would take Hollywood Town Hall by The Jayhawks.

(Hmm. I have the same problem when I going into a record store, you know? I go in there thinking I wanted to buy all this stuff and then I get in there and forget everything and I’m just like, “Oh, look at this album!”)

If I can get away with one double-set, I’d take the GP/Grievous Angel package by Gram Parsons. And then Let It Be by The Replacements. Yeah, Paul Westerberg is a huge influence, we didn’t talk much about him, but The Replacements have gotta be in there, for sure. There’s definitely some other ones, like Faithless Street by Whiskeytown, but yeah, I’d take those five first.

[Many thanks to Pete Mancini for taking time away from his birthday weekend to talk music.]



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