Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher
To those in the know, Five Eight is one of the most important rock bands in the story of Athens music. Five Eight formed in 1988, near the tail end of the college-rock boom that would color the town’s reputation for the next three decades. Yet despite gaining local acclaim and being associated with legendary bands like R.E.M. and Pylon, the group aspired for a level of success that never came.
Just about any discussion of Five Eight—including with the band itself—eventually comes to “what could have been,” and the perceived lack of recognition that many feel is one of the great injustices in Athens-music history. Now, as Five Eight approaches its 30th anniversary, the band is preparing to release a brand new double album titled Songs For St. Jude, as well as a documentary chronicling its recent history.
St. Jude has been three years in the making. According to Five Eight founder, lead singer and guitarist Mike Mantione, the songwriting process differed drastically from the band’s previous projects.
“In the past, I would write lyrics right at the last second,” says Mantione. “So, we would go into the studio to record, and I wouldn’t have the lyrics settled yet, and I would just kind of make stuff up. On this record, I didn’t do that at all. I would type up everything ahead of time and have everything ready on lyric sheets when we went into the studio.
“A lot of the subject matter was pretty dark on this record,” he says. “It was dark material that I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with, so I took some time with the lyrics to avoid that.”
The new approach, says Mantione, led to one of the purest distillations of Five Eight to be put on record. “Five Eight is very much a live band,” he says. “Everything we do is in real time. We’re an older band, [and] people have preconceived notions of what we’re like. I almost think that there’s no way to break that down unless you see us live. Live, I know I’m able to reach out and grab people, and they will respond to it. I think our new music works well to convey that.”
Something else that sets St. Jude apart from its predecessors are the collaborators Five Eight worked with on the album. Renowned singer-songwriter Jack Logan and Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood both make notable appearances.
Mantione says these collaborations were a matter of good timing and even better luck. “The Jack Logan collaboration happened accidentally. His kids and mine were at the same swim-team meet… It was great for me, since I didn’t have to do any singing and I got to pick lyrics for him. I’m not sure he liked everything I picked, but I sent him some of the weirdest stuff we had.
“With Patterson Hood, it was just a situation of us seeing him around occasionally and playing with him here and there,” Mantione continues. “He had complimented us a few times, and for years I had songs that I was wanting him to sing on. Then, on this record, he just barely managed to have enough time to do it. He came in and knocked out his performance in about 20 minutes—it was mindblowing. It takes me five or six takes to get vocals done in a studio. I couldn’t believe he did it that quick.”
The upcoming Five Eight documentary similarly came about due to a series of coincidences and schedules opening up. Titled Weirdo, after one of the band's earliest releases, the film started out on a much smaller scale than what it eventually would become.
“A few years ago, we finally pulled the trigger on remixing and remastering Weirdo, something we had always wanted to do,” says Mantione. “At the same time, documentarian Marc Pilvinsky approached us about doing a movie. Originally, we thought it was just going to be a story about remastering Weirdo, but it’s actually gonna finish on the 30-year anniversary of the band… So, here’s these old guys who never got anywhere, making a documentary about making all this new music. It’s really kinda cool.”
While Mantione jokes about his band’s lack of mainstream success, he says missed opportunities don’t bother him too much today. “I’m not a really big nostalgia kind of person,” he says. “Well, let me clarify: I love nostalgia in the sense that when I pick up the guitar, I feel like I’m 20 years old again. Time stops, and I could care less of what people think about me. If no one showed up I would play the same way as if there were thousands of people in the crowd.
“For me, right now, I’m very charged up creatively,” he explains. “I’m working on a solo record, and I’ve also written another record for Five Eight that’s entirely songs about New York. I don’t care that we didn’t make it. It doesn’t matter. We still get to do stuff that so very few people get to do. How can I possibly look at our careers and not think we did well?”
FIVE EIGHT Legendary Athens band that consistently pumps out boisterous, thoughtful rock and roll. See story on p. 10.
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