MIXED MEDIA: The band’s melding of warring sensibilities made them tough to pin down.
“Boston has a way of being a little too comfortable for bands,” says Zak Longo as he sits in his Brighton kitchen. “It’s easy to get caught up in things and forget where you stand in the rest of the world.”
Flyers are spread all over the table for Mad Man Films’ party at Great Scott this Saturday for the release of Project Manors — their first record, which pulled itself over the finish line a full year after the band crossed it themselves. The other two members — singer/guitarist George Lewis Jr. and drummer Joe Ciampini — have long since moved to New York, and Longo’s been busy wrapping up an English degree from UMass. A second show at O’Brien’s on Sunday will wrangle the gaggle of side projects sprung from Mad Man Films: Longo’s Before Lazers, Ciampini’s Death to the Weird, and Lewis’s solo project.
For his part, Longo’s been dealing with the real world more than the fantasyland of bandhood lately, spending his summer mentoring disadvantaged high-schoolers in a program to prepare them for college application and hitting the gym with them in the evenings. He takes a square-shouldered approach to conversation, like an assistant football coach; it’s hard to reconcile this Longo with the guy I once saw cover the Residents’ “Sinister Exaggerator” in a sheer white nightie.
At the heart of these efforts is Longo’s younger brother, Sean Robert Killian, who’s currently in a Florida prison trying to scrape up the funds to get back into a courtroom. Both Mad Man shows will serve as benefits toward a fund to cover mounting legal fees.
“My parents already sold their house and everything else they own for the first defense trial,” says Longo. In 2005, Killian was convicted of murder in a touchy case on the campus of the University of Central Florida. But police later convicted a second man of the same crime after getting a recorded confession. The matter would seem to be cut-and-dried but red tape runs thick. Three years later, Killian remains in jail, though he’s completed a paralegal course and has filed his own writ of habeas corpus.
“We’re just trying to build up a good foundation in hopes that Sean can get a fair trial like he deserves,” says Longo.
Meanwhile, in New York City, George Lewis Jr.’s computer is frozen. He’s recording himself playing saxophone for demos for his second album, a solo project he’s been working on in between back-and-forth hops across the Atlantic for theater and performance jobs with his sisters. “It’s like going back to high school for me. I don’t even know if I can play guitar like that anymore.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Mad Man Films were tearing through Boston’s basements and clubs with their bratty disregard for scene norms. Lewis was an uncommon Bostonian — a hyperactive soul-punk singer who conjured delicately melodic guitar lines from his guitar even while gnashing and stabbing it as if he were auditioning for the Contortions. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Florida, he evinced a breezy, surf-punk nihilism that stood out against the city’s chilly New Englander vibe. His band’s knack for harmony and their fondness of moody treatments fit right into the scene. But they also had a goofy, pompous machismo — think of it as a willingness to meld warring sensibilities, like Primus and Talking Heads — that made them tough to pin down.
Project Manors serves as a record of their last days. Picking up where their debut, The Black Powr EP, left off, the first few songs scrape along like knife fights: heaving, blown-out bass lines and shards of guitars get tossed around between big, loping drums. If ever there was a Mad Man sound, “Obstruction” is its exemplar — a little militaristic, a little rushed, hinging on stuttering guitars that choke frenzied, end-of-the-world melodies down to tight, staccato jabs. Lewis barks over it all in raw, ranting, run-on sentences.
Yet Manors also attests to the forces that slowly pulled the band apart. “Racecar Heart” might as well have been on Lewis’s solo album, a shuffling truck-stop sing-along that Jerry Lee would have dug. (“It just seemed too Mad Man Films to me,” he says.) And “Attic Box” rattles with rusty guitar strings. Ciampini says the changes have more to do with getting through life than anything else. “When we did Black Powr, we were trying to be a punk band. But we were kids when we got together. We all went through things and thought maybe it’s time to slow down a bit.”
Mad Man operated in Three Musketeer mode at all times. Longo remembers this as being what mattered while they were together. “We mentored each other in everything we did. Moving apart and waiting for this record to get mixed changed all that. For George, it just became clear that he needed to be free. He needs to be doing something new all the time, and that means not being committed to a band. He’s a man of change.”