Interview: Amy Mantis
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What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
Amy: If I wasn’t a musician, I don’t know what path I would have taken. As soon as I got a guitar it was clear to me that I would be a musician. But between the ages of five and 13, I wanted to be everything from a dentist to sneaker store owner to a writer to an Olympic athlete. I like helping people and creating things, so whatever allows me to do those things is what I would be doing.
Eric: I’ve had like several careers already, most of them kind of simultaneously. I’m also a writer, I have an MFA, and before this last year, I’d been working in academia, teaching. I’ve owned a web-development business, run a pool, slung coffee, and worked for State Street. So, probably any number of those things, except State Street, but I’ve always romanticized the idea of delivering the mail. It just seems like it could be such a chill job.
What do you like to do when you're not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
Amy: When I’m not playing music, I like to listen to music. I’m only half-kidding. Listening to music is probably the biggest external factor in my creativity. I’m a big believer in that if you want to learn how to write a song, you have to listen to songs.
But influences and inspiration are everywhere, and I love that. The first song that I ever wrote that had me thinking, “I think I can actually do this,” was written about an experience I had when I was 17. My parents had taken my best friend and me to New York City to visit my sister - and do all our usual New York things like see musicals and go to museums. On our last night there, I couldn’t sleep. Like, at all. So eventually I got up, got dressed, and went for a walk all over Midtown Manhattan sometime around 5AM. It was February. Once Jamba Juice opened, I got a smoothie and went back to the hotel. Everyone was still asleep so I went into the bathroom and wrote a song - music and all - called “Sleepless In The City.” (Yes, I had my guitar with me. It was unplugged.)
Outside of listening and playing music, I can be found reading, riding my motorcycle, or wrestling with the New York Times’ Sunday crossword. And in non-pandemic times, I like to go places and do things. Said things tend to involve either the theater, Harry Potter, or baseball. Not necessarily in that order.
Eric: I read a lot and I watch a lot of movies. I watch a lot of interviews, too. I feel like I learn more about making art from a half-hour interview with David Lynch than I did in maybe my entire time in the academy. I also write a music blog (panopticsblog.com) sometimes and watch the Needledrop to keep current with music. I watch a lot of live music on YouTube, too. My favorite recently is the Osees Levitation Sessions performances. Really thrilling stuff. It makes me want to get back on stage so bad.
But mostly I write stories. I’m writing one right now about a hunter who gets gored by a buck he believes he just killed and then it starts talking to him and he has an existential conversation with it as he’s dying alone in the woods.
I think the best thing I can do for my creativity is just be well. Like, eat well and exercise and meditate so I can keep my thoughts clear and kind of be present and open to the abundant influence the world provides by just, like, looking around. I’m either in that headspace or I’m not.
How long has your band been around?
Amy: Eric and I have been playing together since 2016. Back then we were a quartet with two singer-songwriters and operating under the name “Space Between.” After our keys player/other singer-songwriter moved to LA in late summer 2018, I proposed that we stick my name in front of the band name. Our first show as Amy Mantis & the Space Between was the same night as Game Four of the 2018 World Series, which was sometime that October.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
Amy: We’re from Boston, and I don’t know how it influences us, but it definitely does. I think there’s an edge to our sound that you wouldn’t find if we were from somewhere where the weather is nicer and the people are less skeptical. New England is full of skeptics - mostly due to the weather.
Eric: Someone once referred to Boston as the “City of Haters” to me. I always found that funny and I think we do play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. It’s this weird dichotomy where there are a handful of people and bands and promoters trying to do some really cool things in our arts communities, but there’s also a lot of gigs you can get in Boston where you’re playing to ten indifferent people who are mostly just trying to watch a Bruins game. It sort of makes you want to just keep getting louder and more confrontational.
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you.
Amy: The original name for the band was just “Space Between.” It came to me as I was flying back from LA after recording the Where the Mountain Should Be EP. That was my first time recording as the singer of my own songs. I was thinking about what to name that EP and had come up with the title The Space Between New And Old, as that’s where I felt like my music lived. And then I thought, “Why don’t I call the EP The Space Between? No. Why don’t I call the band The Space Between? It was a revelatory moment.
I also thought it sounded like a band that should already exist, and I liked that. I still don’t know how there wasn’t a band that popped up in like 1974 called The Space Between. It totally should have happened!
Eventually we dropped the “the” and started gigging as “Space Between.” Then after our keyboard player/my songwriting partner moved to LA, I thought, “I’m singing and writing all the songs now, and my name is highly Googleable - I think it should go in front of the band name.” So I proposed this idea to Eric and Jeff. They were supportive, and now here we are. And it feels right. My hero is Tom Petty, and for most of his career was spent as “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.”
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
Eric: For the worst shows, I have two all-time favorites. The first was at this place where we kept getting, like, accosted for money by the promoters every time we went in and out of the door. I think there were three bands playing. We were the first there and we introduced ourselves to the promoters, but for some reason every time we went outside, they would, like, forget who we were, I guess, and then come running up to us demanding we pay the cover when we came back in. They seemed really desperate. It was bizarre.
The other was this gig in a place that was all exposed brick that had us playing during dinner. We were way too loud for the room, and the manager kept telling us to turn down and play quieter. No matter how quietly we played, it was still too loud. It was like a cartoon. It was one of those things where, at a point, it’s like, “Why did you book us? You don’t have a room for us, and these people clearly just want to eat a quiet meal.”
The best shows have been at the Midway in Jamaica Plain. That place always rocks. And we played a cool house show in Mission Hill that was put on by Citizens’ Loft. I’d love to play more gigs like that when we start being able to gig again, but shows like that happen so sporadically. I wish we had more opportunities to just, like, show up at someone’s house or a VFW hall or something and play a loud, raucous live rock show.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you haven't already?
Amy: The Midway Cafe in Boston. We’ve never had a bad night there, they’re always great to us, and we miss it something wicked right now.
We’d love to play literally anywhere right now. After the dust settles and we can safely have live music again, we’d love to get back to the Midway. We’d also love to play Royal Albert Hall. Whoever opens their doors to us first.
If you could play any show with any lineup who would be on the ticket?
Amy: I’d love to play with the Killers and the Beths. I think that would make for a real fun night of music. I also would like to play with the Foo Fighters mostly to see what Dave Grohl is like. I think I have a lot of energy, but then I see Dave and I’m like, “I’m basically asleep compared to that guy.”
Eric: I think a Foo Fighters audience would be into us. I’d love to open for Wilco. I think their crowd would like us, too. In terms of Boston bands, I think if we ever got to play with Pixies, that’d really be something else. They put on an incredible show.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band?
Amy: Be patient, be open, and have fun. It takes time to develop your own sound. You have to learn how to listen to each other and not let your ego get in the way of what’s best for the song. Bands are hard. But bands are also the most fun thing in the world. So if you’re not having fun, find some new people to be in your band.
Eric: Jeff used to say, “A band is like a shark, if it stops swimming, it dies.” which is pretty morbid, but also totally true. There will always be any number of reasons not to do something -- not to play a show or not to put a song on a setlist or not to finish writing something or not make a record -- and you just can’t have anyone around who’d rather focus on all the reasons why not instead of simply keeping the thing moving forward. Not every decision you make is going pan out. You’re going to be on some bills where you don’t fit and write or record some stuff that you look back on and think, “I’ve come a long way from where I was when I did that.” The point is to have come a long way, not sabotage yourself by being hung up on getting everything right from the start.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
Amy: Start singing sooner. It would have saved me a lot of anguish if I had the guts and desire to sing earlier.
Eric: My first car was kind of shitty. Like, my mechanic literally had to stifle a laugh explaining to me just how messed up this car was. It happened every time I brought it in, which was often. He’d stand there trying not to laugh at me, talking about how there’s oil in my coolant or whatever. I’d probably tell 17 year old Eric to take a little more time making that decision.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Amy: I’m going to break this into two categories: Songs We’ve Released and Songs We Haven’t Released. And even then, it’s hard.
Of the songs we’ve released, I think the one that means the most to me (don’t tell the other ones) is a single we have called “I Don’t Know How To Stop.” It has one of my favorite guitar solos I’ve ever played, and it’s about my life as a musician/songwriter/creator. Despite everything, I literally do not know how to stop.
Of the songs we haven’t released yet, we have a song called “If I Don’t Change It” that is shaping up to be something special. It’s hard to articulate what makes it so meaningful for me, but it’s a song that somehow gets at the largest and smallest issues a person can have wrapped up in a melody that Eric says gets stuck in his head all the time.
Eric: I’m going to go with something we were working on just yesterday. Amy and I wrote this song called “I Want to Know,” and when we started arranging it, we kind of heard the song two ways. We ended up recording two versions of it. One is very down-tempo and introspective and dynamic, and the other is based around this, like, kind of Manchester Sound, James Brown, syncopated groove. I’m really thrilled with how both versions of the song came out and I can’t wait for people to hear them both.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
Amy: We have a range of favorites. “A Distance,” the closing track on A Place to Land, is really special and a real crowd pleaser. It’s one that lets us stretch and take the audience on an improvised sonic journey. The people seem to like that one too.
Eric: This is somewhat unrelated, but I used to play shows at this place called Reflections in New Bedford, MA. It was a rehab clinic, but they rented their meeting hall out to us cheap for shows and didn’t make us hire a cop, so it was the best place to play. One of the guys who worked there used to watch every show, every band, and in between songs, no matter what kind of band you were or how the crowd was receiving you, he’d yell, “Play some Maiden!”
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
Amy: Writing is a way for me to process my feelings and experiences. It allows me to make sense of the world in a way that very little else does. Everything inspires me to write, but most of the time I draw on my own experiences and feelings about things. The opening track on A Place to Land is called “Better Than Me” and it’s about my relationship with social media. “Spinning Black And Blue” revolves around a spiral of anxiety I fell into and how I found my way out of it. And then we have a song like “Call It What You Want” which is about a made-up character who does destructive things while he’s sleep-walking and is totally unaware of his behavior until it’s too late.
Historically, I brought in a song or a few songs at a time to the band. I’d play it, and if they liked it, we’d play it through as a group. The arranging process has always been collaborative, but these days Eric and I are co-writers. I bring a song to him, and then we essentially rewrite it together. It’s been an incredibly rewarding process that you’ll get to hear on our next two releases.
Eric: Amy and I call our songwriting sessions “Office Hours,” because I think I approach them very much like I would have approached commenting on a workshop piece or essay when I was teaching. Amy brings me something she’s been working on, and we sit down and try to put into concrete language what it is she’s trying to get across. Usually we start with grounding her work in specifics and then build around whatever emerges: an image, a setting, or whatever it might be. It leads us in some interesting directions. Like we used a boxing terminology dictionary to write the lyrics for one of the songs on the new EPs.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
Amy: That the listener is not alone; that they have a companion in all this; that someone else understands what they’re experiencing.
Life is messy and complex and riddled with ups and downs, and I think if we can be the reason you’re singing along at the top of your lungs or air-guitaring or drumming on your steering wheel on the way home from a hard day at work, then we have done our job.
I hope our music does for others what our favorite artists have done for us: make them feel something. Music has been the most powerful force in my life, and I’d love to be that fuel for someone else.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
Amy: I can’t think of a time where we’ve had a serious disagreement. We try every idea any of us has and then we discuss it. Usually we all feel the same about something. Also at this point, I trust Eric’s creative judgement and run with whatever he presents. Like he had an idea for our next project, which is going to be two EPs, to have the same song on each one but a different tempo/feel, and I was like, “Sure let’s do it,” even though I had no idea how it would turn out. Well, now we know how it turned out and we’re very excited about it.
Eric: I’ve always liked the very clear power dynamic of this band: it’s Amy’s project and my role is to help her accomplish whatever it is she’s trying to accomplish creatively and professionally. So any time that Amy feels like I’m bringing something to the table that isn’t toward her goals, it makes those kinds of decisions really easy to make, because I just wouldn’t want to do something that Amy didn’t feel was best for the project.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that's coming up?
Eric: Like Amy mentioned, we’re releasing two EPs that we’ve started working on already. Each is five songs long, and each song on each EP kind of correlates to its respective song on the other EP. We’re not sure what to call them yet or how we’ll release them, but I think we both feel like we’ve taken a big step forward with this new material.