Disassembling Mobile Steam Unit
An interview on the New York band’s disarray of sound and their new EP.
I’ve been to my fair share of shitty band rehearsals and Mobile Steam Unit doesn’t waste studio time. I sat in for a few songs and at first I thought the sound would be a bit chaotic from watching them pull their shit together. What came out instead was organic and surprisingly clean. After a mildly heated debate about how to classify their music, they agreed “garage soul” could be among one of the many tags to file them under. After listening to all three of their albums, I realized they don’t fall into one genre at all — they can’t. Their sound is all over the place, completely adulterated, but it’s not a mess. Each song you get is a wild card. You could get electronic with heavy Radiohead influence or maybe you’ll get a country beat with some Daft Punk peppered in. They’ve even recorded a voicemail jingle for an Indian restaurant. If there ever was such a genre for that, I’m sure they’d be killing it.
Not a lot of bands have such a variety of sounds and none can really pull it off. That’s what makes Mobile Steam Unit such an anomaly. From their tendencies to dip into different genres, the idea that appealing to one audience versus all of them could hurt rather than help the band, but they don’t seem to sweat it. Mobile Steam Unit may have not completely honed in one specific sound, but, at the end of the day, why does any band really need to stick to one genre? To make the tag search easier? To market to a specific group of people better? For world domination?
From the perspective of a listener, I’d say their new EP, Country Raw, sounds like Radiohead and Deer Tick had a vivacious baby. That’s another tag I’m very confident no one else is linked to.
Patrick Manian, Jeff Manian, Sam Huntington, Aaron Younce, and Dan Manian are the collective members of Mobile Steam Unit. Aaron is currently living in New Orleans, so Dan is tapping in on bass for the moment. Jeff, Dan, and Sam all attended high school together and have been playing music together, one way or another, ever since. Patrick, Jeff, and Dan all fall under the same Manian family tree and then there’s Sam, who’s kind of the adopted child in this picture. I first met Sam at Piano’s in the Lower East Side where he was confidently sporting sweatpants and UGG boots. This first impression really doesn’t hold true to his character, but it was worth mentioning because what the hell, Sam?
I met up with Sam, Jeff, and Patrick at an Indian restaurant in the East Village and stayed for a few rehearsal songs after talking with them. I won’t disclose exactly where in the East Village because the land lord, or better described as the gate keeper for the studio, is a real spitfire and will not hesitate to punish those her break her rules. I figure she’d appreciate some privacy and also I don’t want to get in trouble.
Over some naan bread, we discussed rad dads, the war on plastic bags, the unsuspecting double meaning of Country Raw, and how to classify their cornucopia of sounds.
The new album is called Country Raw, but there’s a little but of electronic, indie pop, and rock in your other albums — your sound is a little all over the place. Why did you guys choose to call this album Country Raw? People can be pretty turned off by the word country.
Sam: The actual name Country Raw came out of an email chain. Pat sent around a rough mix of these songs that we did over the course of a weekend. We wrote at my mom’s farmhouse in upstate New York. We all went up there for the weekend. The three of us, Aaron Younce, the bass player who now lives in New Orleans, and then Ivan Anderson, the guitar player, who plays with us occasionally. He’s come in and out of the band in various levels of intensity, but he came with us on the trip this weekend and we just kind of held up at the country house for three days. We had this very fruitful, very fun creative session in the country. So, it’s literal. The email chain that Pat put out was titled “Country Raw,” which was in reference to the fact that he put out a raw mix of the songs. We hadn’t really done any production stuff, hadn’t really mixed them, but was just putting it out there to share. I thought that that was a brilliant title and the songs were made in the country. There’s certainly one song, I think, “VHS and Sex” has a lot of country music elements that we go for. At the same time there’s a lot of raw, non-country sounds, like the synth, vocals, guitar, and bass things happening, that aren’t really pretty or radio friendly in the way that country is. So, Country Raw seemed to be two words that actually applied to the sounds — or, well, to me.
Patrick: I like the word country and I actually like country music. The guys that got me into it were Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings — older guys. I used to be in a country band called Six To Midnight. Before that I was in a rap group. I hop around. Both those bands were pretty bad though.
Sam: Let’s not talk trash about Absolute Flavor. I don’t know anything about Six To Midnight, but his college rap group, Absolute Flavor, put out a double disk that has some jams on it. I’ll stand by that. The album is 1,000 Years Of War. Check it out. It’s on Bandcamp.
Patrick: I googled Country Raw, just to see if Google found out what the coolest thing is and the entire first page is filled with something called Big Country Raw Dog Food.
Country Raw is a dog food?
Patrick: Yeah, from Canada. But it doesn’t end there. One of the songs on Country Raw, which I encourage you to pay attention to, is called “Selfishness.” It’s a totally raw beat. I asked Aaron to come look at it and I guess he didn’t hear us because all he said was, “Get your hands off my dog food. I need it more than you.”
Jeff: That’s before we knew anything about the dog food. This was months before anyone knew.
You guys were nominated for best indie pop band by The Deli. Would you agree that you guys are indie pop, country, electronic, or rock? How do you classify your sound?
Patrick: Definitely not country.
Jeff: People always ask this and I never know how to answer. I always start by saying rock. Just based on that, indie pop just seems wrong.
Sam: If you listen to our first real studio EP, Safe For Now, which is definitely the most official, heavy-produced thing that we have available to the public at this point, I certainly would not classify that as indie pop because that has got much harder and heavier moments than what I think indie pop applies to. There are some songs that lean on some harmonies and that’s a pop thing. One of the interesting things about this band, from the get-go, is not only have we written some songs together in rehearsal spaces where things come out at improvisational jam sessions, but we also have multiple song writers who are bringing in their own material that they’ve sort of birthed outside of the band. Then it gets brought into the band space and we turn it into Mobile Steam Unit songs.
Patrick: I don’t think electronic works, but I don’t know what indie means. There’s some attempt at making things catchy sometimes, but not for the sake of making pop songs.
I thought “Waste my Time in the City” was a pretty heavy electronic song.
Patrick: Well, that’s a unique one.
Jeff: The song “Dark Cove,” which isn’t out yet, is another one that’s maybe the same type or as electronic as that one is. Although maybe it’s not anymore now…
Sam: We’ll find out. “Dark Cove” kind of has a thing like the dark side of Coldplay-vibe. Like, Coldplay in a basement or Coldplay corrupted.
What artists, movements, or sounds have influenced you guys and the music you’ve come to produce?
Patrick: Well, the way I started playing music was because I’d visit Jeff’s family and his dad would play piano, like Elton John and Beatles songs. Then, they got an electric drum kit. The band started assembling from a young age. They had a keyboard and a bass. There was a drum kit just sitting there, so I had to play it. Then we started with Elton John.
Sam: Did we ever actually play Elton John?
Patrick: Your dad did.
Sam: There’s a cool tandem story to that. Pat and I had never played music together until quite recently — just a couple of years ago. Pat was coming to Fire Island or down to New York and playing with his cousins and his uncle, doing that whole family music jam sessions. Periodically, my dad and myself would come over to the Manian house in Fire Island and we would jam. My dad was a singer/songwriter, doing his thing in the 70s for a while. He had a music studio that he built. He was producing and writing some of his own stuff, but he was a music guy. We would also go over to Dan’s house and Jeff and his dad would be there. We would all sing together. There were a lot of family sing-along stuff happening periodically.
Patrick: What we’re saying is our influence is our dads.
Jeff: As evidence of the song we made today.
Patrick: Where we go pick up our dads in police cars . It’s called “Paddy Wagon.”
Jeff: I don’t think we really answered her question though.
I get it. Your movement is dads.
Patrick: I think Nine Inch Nails is a huge influence on us.
Sam: Huge influence. In the modern era, we all love and listen to Nine Inch Nails.
Jeff: Reflecting on our music, we’ve been on a long Nine Inch Nails kick for the last five or six years. It’s not constant but it comes and goes. We obviously don’t have the rage that they do.
Sam: Right. The songs don’t. That’s for sure.
Patrick: We wish we did though.
Jeff: Harmonically and tonally, I think you can pick up on some of it.
Sam: There is a real — I mean, it doesn’t happen in every sound — but there is a real desire to layer on this classic soul and harmonies. We do a lot of three and four part harmonies when we record and during our live sets. It’s got a Beatles element, but it’s kind of whoever. Out of what we listen to, it’s probably more Beatles than Beach boys.
Patrick: Also, The Band and Radiohead.
Jeff: Radiohead is big on Sam. That’s for sure.
Sam: Radiohead is personally my favorite band of all time.
Jeff: The songs that he brings in are the ones that have that resemblance.
I thought “Smoke the Ocean” sounded like it had a huge Radiohead influence. Who brought that one in?
Jeff: That’s a hard question.
Patrick: That was a very interesting writing process. I was playing the ukulele near Jeff’s dad.
Jeff: We were all on Fire Island. Pat was playing the ukulele and I was playing some video games probably.
Patrick: I retreated into a closet.
Jeff: Yeah, for an hour of two. He put down the ukulele and the drum machine. Then he came out and said, “Hey, I need you.” So, I went in there and put down the synthesizers, the beats, and then Sam just randomly showed up at the house. He just walked into the room and ad-libbed the vocals and it was basically done.
Patrick: A one-take vocal.
Jeff: The synthesizers were two takes each or something. It was basically thrown together in a couple hours. So, no one brought it in is the answer. I guess Pat did.
Sam: It’s a classic, organic, improvisational creation. That’s happened before. Other songs have been born in similar fashions — live.
Patrick: Several of the Country Raw songs are like that.
Sam: We refer to it professionally as the one-hour photo process. You’ll have a laptop and someone will start. Someone will lay something down first and they’ve got headphones on, connected to the computer, so, it’s not like we’re all in a room listening to them together. They’re kind of on their own with whatever instrument they choose. Then you lay something down and then someone else will come in, sit down, and do the same thing. Three or four people in, there’s like a minute and a half of something there. It becomes about people adding parts and subtracting parts. An hour or two later, you’ll hear a part of this whole song that exists based on a little thing you put up.
The album cover for Country Raw is a neon-red lit space that kind of looks like someone’s living room. Where is that?
Jeff: That’s the house where we recorded everything.
Patrick: I wish we could also somehow convey the silence that’s there. The image is amazing to me because everyone had left for the weekend except for me and Sam. We went and wandered off into the woods in the evening. We got lost and there were coyotes howling everywhere. We were out in the woods and we came back in and —by the way, there were no houses near this house — there was just this one orange, Halloween/Christmas light there. It was totally silent in the creepiest color and it was amazing.
Tell me about the plastic bag show you guys put together last April at Baby’s All Right.
Jeff: This is another thing we did that began with Sam sending a huge email about why we needed to do a plastic bag show, so, of course we were like, “okay.”
Patrick: Sam’s also writing a song called “Email Me” out of his deep subconscious desire for us to write him an email back.
Sam: I want one back!
Jeff: It was a great idea and a great email.
Sam: We lined up a show through the bookers at Baby’s a couple of months in advance. I think we, as a group or individually, are not uninterested in certain environmental issues. I know at the time I was particularly interested in laws around the country that recently came into place, but currently did not exist in New York City — banning single-use plastic bags. It’s one of the most, potentially, easily removable conditions of consumer waste. Such a high percentage of people at any given circumstance could easily bring their own bag or the grocery store could provide a bag, so that we as a society or a city didn’t have to go through thousands of millions of single-use plastic bags a year. They do insane damage from marine life to drain systems. When you start thinking about the kinds of things you can do as a city, it’s like, “Oh, why don’t we just do away with this?” We don’t all have to turn into a vegan, zero-waste people all at once. It’s improbable and it’s not going to happen, but this really seems like low-hanging fruit. We decided to incorporate that into the show and make it an advocacy show.
Patrick: It’s also really easy to make costumes out of plastic bags.
Sam: We collected all these plastic bags and made costumes out of them. At the time, we circulated what was the most signed Change.org petition for banning plastic bags in NYC.
Patrick: This just seemed like an everyday thing that people would understand. Everyone’s constantly dealing with plastic bags in the city. You can’t recycle plastic bags. It’s insane. We’re going to do another one at Baby’s this year.
Sam: Instead of trying to pull the plastic bag element together last minute, we’ll work with the local NGOs that have anti-plastic bag campaigns to push their agendas, but also get them involved with the production of the show so it can be like a fundraising and awareness event for them. For the plastic bags stage gear, there’s this really cool organization called Trashion Fashion. They do runway shows where all the fashion-wear is made from reused materials and we’d like to get them to stage outfits. My stratospheric idea was to try to get Eco-Cycle, which is Will.i.am’s partnership with Coca-Cola, to do a sponsorship of it and just do a blow out show at Baby’s. That’s what we’re gunning for.
Mobile Steam Unit will be playing at Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side on February 9th.
You can jam to Country Raw and other non-dog food inspired albums at https://mobilesteamunit.bandcamp.com/
http://mobilesteamunit.com | @MobileSteamUnit