August 20, 2014

Five Eight at 25: The Flagpole Q&A

Friday, Aug. 22 @ Hendershot's Coffee Bar

Photo Credit: Mike White

When Five Eight singer and guitarist Mike Mantione and bassist Dan Horowitz moved to Athens from upstate New York in 1987, Mantione says it wasn't love at first sight. "I came down here thinking there was water," he says. "There’s no ocean. I remember thinking, 'Oh God, why did I move here, again?'"

It's hard now to imagine a band more intricately woven into the fabric of Athens music. A quarter-century since its debut, Passive-Aggressive, and countless soaring highs and crushing career lows later, Five Eight is still, somehow, going strong, always sharpening its inimitable brand of spirited, melodic, lyrically intimate guitar-rock.

The band is currently working on the follow-up to 2010's Your God Is Dead To Me Now. The album, reportedly titled Songs for St. Jude, includes collaborations with renowned songwriter Jack Logan and is slated for a late 2014 release. (We're planning more coverage, including a video series for Homedrone, so stay tuned.)

Says Mantione about the new record: "The history of the band has probably been well told by now. What we’re trying to do is re-write that a little bit from the idea that you can re-invent yourself how you want in this day and age. That’s where we’re coming from."

Flagpole music writer Dan Mistich recently caught up with Mantione and drummer Patrick Ferguson at Espresso Machine studio. [Gabe Vodicka]

Flagpole: So, you didn’t fall in love with Athens immediately?

Mike Mantione: It took me a little while. I loved the fact that you could get a $3 dinner. And I loved the cheap rent, and I loved being able to walk everywhere. I think what really solidified it was playing in town. There was this club, DT’s Down Under, on Clayton. [Editor's note: Horowitz comments that the venue was called The Downstairs at the time.] There were some great shows that had a real DIY vibe. And then we realized you could play all of these towns around here that were just starving for music. It was greatyou could make 150 bucks and get free food. It was incredible.

FP: Did you and [bassist] Dan Horowitz immediately start playing shows?

MM: Yeah, I was only here two weeks, and I played the 40 Watt. Jared Bailey was booking at the time. It was the old 40 Watt, where the Caledonia is now. So, we played there and did our first show.

We killed ourselves trying to make this incredibly personal, quirky record into a national phenomenon, when that was never going to happen.

FP: That has to be pretty overwhelming. You moved here and almost immediately you’re playing the big club in town. 

MM: Oh, I never forgot it. It was awesome. I would go see shows and think, “These guys are gonna know me”… Fugazi played the 40 Watt, and they broke the headstock of their SGs. We saw some unbelievable stuff. Robyn Hitchcock. Stuff like that. The dB's. I would meet these people after the shows and hand them my cassette, and they’d go, “Whatever, dude.” And years later, I became their friends and wound up playing with a lot of them.

Everyone wanted to play Athens, so Five Eight would open for anyone that came through. It’s a real small city, and if you were any good, people took notice. 

FP: Given his writing prowess, is it intimidating to be around Jack Logan?

MM: To me, it’s inspiring. I’ve hit a really prolific paydirt. Especially with lyrics. I’ve been writing a ton of lyrics. Not even to keep up, because there’s no way to keep up with someone like that. Just to try to get in touch with what I want to say on the album. When I got laid off after Your God is Dead to Me Now, I started writing poetry, which is a lean-in to the new lyrics. They’re going to be a little more fragmented and a little less narrative. And when they are narrative, they’ll be more poetic. Where [1994's] Weirdo is more of a dialogue, this will be more visual. 

FP: The metric for what seems to constitute a successful band these days isn’t the same as when you started. 

Patrick Ferguson: I don’t have anything nostalgic or good to say about how I thought we were going to be successful in the '90s. I was just wrong the whole time. We had this idea that we were going to be the next Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana or Everclear. I mean, those were the bands that were successful at the time, and we were trying to make a record like that.

And we made Weirdo, and we didn’t have it in us… We made an incredibly quirky, personal record, because that’s all we knew how to do. And then we killed ourselves trying to make this incredibly personal, quirky record into a national phenomenon, when that was never going to happen. We had a lot of misconceptions about that, and we burned out. Trying to achieve that '90s-band level of success was like trying to land on the head of a pin.

FP: Does giving up control of how a record is received help this band find fulfillment?

PF: To me, if you’re honest and diligent about your art and approach it from the idea that you are trying to get as close to the truth as you know it, success and failure are beyond your control. They don’t matter. Success and failure are complete illusions… You might make some money. That’s not very likely in this economy, and it doesn’t really matter. Did you make a good record?

I used to work for this hippie carpenter who would put the Bhagavad Gita on [audiobook] while I was sanding cabinets. And I used to think, “I don’t want to listen to this. I just want to get out of here and listen to Minor Threat. I don’t care about this shit at all.” And I hear Krishna… say, “The Brahman is attached to action, not the fruits of action.” And I had this moment where I thought, “Holy shit. That’s why you make music.” It was the most eye-opening experience, and I thought, “No wonder why people read this hippie book. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it.”

That’s been my guiding principle ever since. Five Eight doesn’t have any illusions that we’re going to make a platinum record here. But we have to make records, or we are horrible, miserable people. It’s a life obsession that isn’t going to go away. I did two years where I didn’t play any music at all. I tell people, “It’s like malaria. You may not be symptomatic, but you’re still sick.”

WHO: Five Eight, Adam Klein, Tawny Ellis, The Smoking Flowers
WHERE: Hendershot's Coffee Bar
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 22, 8 p.m.