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Don't be fooled: Mandarin is a real Texas band. Its name is Chinese, and it certainly doesn't play straight country music or sport 10-gallon hats, but its music sounds just like Texas looks and feels--scorching, expansive, leisurely. Being a Texas band is not about singing with a twang or about getting back at your two-timin' ex, as the Dixie Chicks or Pat Green might have you believe. No, Texas music is characterized by guitars that sizzle like tires on a stinging gravel road, strokes of steel guitar that glisten like a heat wave and songs that prove that it's not where you're going, but how you get there that's important. With Mandarin, the ride is always more significant than the destination. Mandarin makes songs that fill wide-open spaces. Each note is a step along the journey, one that could take miles to finish. In that way, Mandarin is a quintessential Texas band.
The Denton-based five-piece is a group of articulate, post-college friends, headed by singer-guitarist Jayson Wortham. Wortham and his wife, Memory, founded Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, a Denton club offering some of the finest shows in the area. Wortham is the natural daddy of the band, being the oldest (29) and seemingly wisest. His 6-year-old son Ian is with him today and spends most of the time drawing portraits of the band as werewolves, but occasionally interjects some affectionately candid commentary about his dad. When outspoken guitarist Matt Leer cusses offhandedly, Wortham censors him, because he doesn't want his kid "repeating that at school."
The entire band is at the Brickhaus coffee shop near the University of North Texas campus, quite possibly the loudest place to grab a cup of coffee outside of a chain saw factory break room. The Brickhaus' blenders are so clamorous they threaten to, and eventually do, drown out the soft-spoken Wortham and anyone more than two feet from the mike. (Of course, the waiter who announces the impending arrival of Leer's hummus registers loud and clear. Go figure.) The cacophony at the Brickhaus is the antithesis of Mandarin, a band with more self-restraint (musically speaking) than a car seat.
Mandarin's debut album, last year's Driftline, shows off the band's unique ability to keep three guitars from overpowering all else. A strong ability with melody and great attention to mood make Driftline interesting, though, as Leer points out, not easy to listen to. He's right: To appreciate Driftline is to study it through headphones, several times, examining every little nuance. The group gives its songs time to unfold completely before changing directions; there's no such thing as a short segue. These musicians pace themselves and are patient and restrained. "Learning to Breathe," an instrumental track on Driftline, sounds as if it's describing landscape. One gets the sense of driving down a barren road, soaking up the pavement and sun. There are no landmarks, only distance to cover. Anticipation for the destination comes toward the end (as the tempo quickens), but everything slows down when it finally arrives.
"I think it's a demanding listen," Leer admits. "The next thing we record will be a lot more concise and probably shorter. In retrospect, our first album was our baby--something we wanted to do for so long. Individually everybody just really killed that record listening to it trying to pick it apart. I don't really listen to it anymore. I can't. I'm just over it. It's not like I hate it; it's its own entity. The next thing, I want to be more thematic."
Drummer David Douglas, the "professional musician" in the band who just finished a European tour with Drastic Measures, agrees.
"It being our first record," he says, "we wanted to put everything possible on it because we didn't know if we were ever going to put another record out again."
Though they speak of the challenge posed by being a five-piece, Mandarin has mastered the art of subtlety. Driftline is a fine first album, though as Douglas admits, it may be too much of a "variety record." It is all over the place at times, sounding like Bedhead doing Led Zeppelin doing The Sea and Cake. The disc was produced by Dave Willingham at his Echo Lab and released on Two Ohm Hop (the label Willingham runs with Philip Croley) in October 2000. Mandarin had been playing those songs for a year and a half prior to recording, so it's no surprise that the band has developed and matured since then and moved past Driftline. They hope to record again with Willingham as soon as August.
"When we started this band, any preconceived ideas we thought we might have about it sounding a certain way, we had to eventually throw out the window," guitarist Brian Smith says. "We've had to let our sound develop, and it still isn't fully developed."
The gangly, tattooed Smith played drums in local outfit Lift to Experience but now devotes his time to Mandarin and his store, Johnny Law Records, specializing in obscure limited releases, avant-garde and other rarities. Like the music Smith sells at Johnny Law, Mandarin is a thinking man's band. Wortham's lyrics are poetic and introspective, the music is complex and unfolds slowly, and the group's live show, though it leaves a lasting impression, isn't by any means theatrical. In fact, the members joke about jazzing up their performance, maybe adding some wireless guitars, headset mikes or fireworks. Still, they don't mind playing to small crowds as long as they're attentive.
Wortham challenges Leer's assertion that playing in front of one interested person is better than a roomful of bored ones. Leer spends the next five minutes trying to justify his statement.
"It sucks to play in front of five people, but if they're really into it, that's better than just a scene thing, where people aren't really there for the music," Leer says. "We don't like playing bigger places and opening for a band where the audience isn't responsive."
On Driftline, Mandarin sounds like a band testing its own strength--not the strength to rock, but the reticence not to. "The Ignition," the album's first track, starts off with guitars that sound like muted brass, giving one the sense of sitting under a bridge listening to the hum of cars overhead. It's a nice introduction to a crop of varied material. This band would be perfectly at home on Chicago's Thrill Jockey label. "Pure Led" sounds like the shortest Jim O'Rourke song never recorded with its simple acoustic approach. "Waterborne" and "Scribb" sound like Nassau-era The Sea and Cake, with sweet simple hooks and Wortham's uncanny vocal resemblance to Sam Prekop. "Ignorance and Forgiveness" is steady and slow until the band finally amps up and forces the sound to the top, much the way Bedhead did on its final album, Transaction de Novo.
Still, it's not until track five, "Even Ghosts Wear Shadows," that the music erupts into distortion and sizzles with energy, much the way the now-defunct Comet once did. Even so, the noise is in check, the band never abandoning form. "Ghosts" demonstrates their strong melodic sense. Even through the climax of distortion and snare, the guitars seem to be dueling out the melody. This is not accidental, but rather a technique Mandarin has been perfecting since its conception.
"It's a real challenge to learn when not to play," guitarist Peter Salisbury says. "I've had to learn to just sit down and not play anything. You have to think about what would work better."
"It's about keeping the song under control," Leer explains. "There's noise, and there's unarticulated noise. Noise can be a good thing."
Mandarin knows when to play loud and hard but mostly chooses not to. This approach leaves room for the truly beautiful songs like "Pressing Butterflies," a foreboding modern folk tale about a grandfather's hobby--its dual nature being both pitiless and alluring. "Pressing butterflies is such a cruel thing/But in motion there is so much beauty never to be seen," sings Wortham knowingly.
From the outside, it's interesting to witness the interaction of these five diverse personalities. They all stand out as distinct, but somehow manage to cooperate when it comes to playing together. They emphasize that all were friends first and still hang out together more often than they practice.
"Sometimes I think our friendship keeps us from progressing," Salisbury says, laughing. "We get together and start drinking beer and laughing and not practicing at all."
"We practice together by not practicing together," Leer jokes, as he explains Mandarin's songwriting method. "We work on parts separately. We don't always work together."
"In the practice room we have this alter ego band where, when we really don't feel like working on it, we start getting out of control," Douglas says.
Upon listening to Driftline, it's hard to imagine the alter ego Mandarin: the punk rock, freewheeling band that apparently emerges in the practice room. Still Leer is quick to emphasize that Mandarin "ain't no jam band." Good thing. Texas needs bands like Mandarin to lift the stale impression southern stereotypes leave on listeners. Even if its name is Chinese.