Even with the worldwide chart-smash of “Bang Bang Bang” under her belt as part of Mark Ronson’s Business International, Amanda Warner aka MNDR is still something of an underground unknown to the general populace. Having spent the last 10 years making music, with psychedelic oddities Triangle, or more recently as MNDR, it’s been a non-stop battle that’s about to pay off for this Fargo, North Dakota farm girl. With the media baggage ascribed Ronson in the UK from to his work with Amy Winehouse and his own Versions album, MNDR’s French-slinging co-write on “Bang Bang Bang” arrived at the right time for everybody to sit up and take notice.
With her own work drawing from a broad dance-based electronic palette matched with a crazy knowledge of vintage keyboards and of obscure electronic bands that Webcuts had never heard of (but pretended we did), it’s clear that MNDR is a cut above your Lady Gagas and your Lady Sovereigns (remember her?). We caught up with Amanda in the forecourt of the Bermondsey Square hotel in London in July of 2010 while she was touring with Mark Ronson and playing her first UK solo shows. Along for the ride was Amanda’s sister Rachael, photographer and maker of Spratters and Jayne knitwear.
Amanda: Hellooo, hello blogs, my name is Amanda.
Alright, let’s talk about the “Caligula“ 12″ that just came out here. What’s with the ridiculously limited pressing of 138 copies?
Amanda: A good friend of mine who has a label called Drone Disco, he’s an experimental noise guy, and this is a sub-sub label that isn’t available on the internet. It’s like total trades market only and he’s just interested in doing interesting small runs of anything, therefore it’s (the label) called “What The…?”. It’s cool because he’s a good friend and it’s cool to have the first MNDR vinyl be involved in an experimental vinyl label and aesthetic.
How did the track come together?
Amanda: The spirit of the track was “let’s make this into a dance track, but a taboo one” (starts singing Space Cowboy’s “My Egyptian Lover”) and I was like, in this day and age what is still a taboo topic? I wanted to make one of these naughty dance records where you listen to “My Egyptian Lover” and it’s “oooh, that’s a little titillating”. I was laying in bed thinking what was still taboo? … the movie Caligula. It’s not really taboo, but kinda taboo and naughty, and it reminded me of one time in the Bay Area, I was kinda normal with a steady boyfriend and a job and I was still hauling PA’s around and playing shows, but all my core friends went crazy, just partying and wigging out and it’s kinda a song about that time period.
I really love the “Isis in the control tower” refrain. You only sing it a couple times in the song though.
Amanda: Yeah, it would be fun to revisit that one. I’d like to rework it, to make the refrain happen more. That’s the only song that feels like a work in progress. I think with that one you’ll see a lot of different versions (download one for free here). For all the dance songs we have, I think next to “C.L.U.B”, “Caligula” is a better track.
Before you started making music as MNDR, you had a band for a while called Triangle. What happened there?
Amanda: Triangle’s still alive. Dormant now. I’ll always do that project. We made a second record Decimal Places. It was a little jaunty, ahead of it’s time but we just sucked it live so heavy that nobody could get down with it.
Rachael: What do you mean, how did you “suck it live”?
Amanda: We just sucked live. We just weren’t good enough. We came here one time to do a big campaign and at the time it was The Strokes and “rock and roll is back” and we were doing shoegazer music and our A&R people were like (singing) “Where’s the fucking craziness?”, “Where is the 70’s in your music?” and we were more insular. They were like “You’re American, you’re from New York”, but we weren’t, and we sucked live, but the record is good. So then we made a third record, which is my favourite record of ours, and we did an ATP and we just (singing, again) “left of centre, out of the grip”. But The Shins loved us! We were kinda one of those bands that when we started we became the darlings of the town, and then we had a record and went touring and scooting around the US, and then we made another record and there was a lot of buzz and then we blew it and then you make your third record and 7 million gigabytes of music every day and then no-one cares ‘cos they think you’re kinda weird. Triangle fans will always take a bullet for us. People who like Triangle are like people who like Phish. They’re just in-fucking-sane about it. They want everything. We have one fan who records every show, takes pictures, sends them in the mail. I have like 4 years of later period Triangle, full documentation. Brian and I made music almost every day, I think it would take a year, two years to organise all the material chronological. But that would be a pretty big box set for the nerd-bag fans.
How did you first meet up with Mark Ronson?
Amanda: I met Mark just through friends at the very end of 2009 and I was invited down to the East Village Radio Show and he was in town. It was kind of a blizzard outside and I wasn’t going to go down, but I went and he asked me to give him a song, so I gave him “The Sparrow Song“. He’s the only DJ that has it. He liked it right away and we just started talking and I thought he was really nice, but you know, whatever, you have my song, you‘re DJ, that’s cool. It was just kinda casual, and then he was like “I’m making this record, would you like to write on some of the songs?” and I was like (mimes nodding). He asked me down to his studio in Brooklyn and I was like “yeah, I’ll come over and see if I can write to it”, ‘cos I can’t always write to other people’s music. I’m not that kind of writer. He played me a great song on the record called “Lost It” that Jonathan Pierce from The Drums wrote that was really good. I have to be really, with zero ego honesty, I didn’t know who he was. After I wiki’ed him, I knew he produced Amy Winehouse and was a part of Lily Allen. I wasn’t participating in music that way, nor was I buying Amy Winehouse or Lily Allen, but I respected their talent. It’s clear a manufactured pop artist and someone who has clear talent. There’s a big difference.
Rachael: What do you think about Lady Gaga in that respect?
Amanda: She has a vision and she’s very talented. I think she’s more interested in being bigger than life. There’s this quote where she says “I never want a song of mine to be bigger than me” and I feel exactly the opposite. I would absolutely love a song that I was involved with to be so big that I don’t matter. I want the songs to transcend the ego, where she’s more about the ego. I respect her, that at a very young age she has a focussed vision and she can execute it. It’s very difficult to do that in the system she’s in. I would never sacrifice the music aspect that I think she’s sacrificed. That’s how I feel about her, but I think she’s a talented vocalist and I’ve heard her demos on piano and she’s a very talented songwriter. I will always give a tip of the hat to real talent.
How did “Bang Bang Bang” come about?
Amanda: It was one that he gave me that was sort of difficult to write to. It‘s a shorter phrase structure (mimes synth part) that modulates within a short amount of time (mimes again), in a new key, and (mimes again) back into the other key. It’s a little bit tricky, I think, but I liked it and I thought it was a really hook-y line.
What did he want you to do with the song?
Amanda: He just gave it to me and was like “Can you write vocals? Can you write a top line?” and I took it, and at the time I had a really bad bout of vertigo that I got from a cruise ship and I was extremely dizzy and ill. I knew I couldn’t sing and have him engineer the vocals, because I was so dizzy. I was dizzy for three months and had to go see a specialist. It’s like vertigo, but it’s a neurological disorder that some people when they’re on uneasy ground for a long period of time, their brain panics. It’s trying to push you to the ground to save yourself. To sing you have to feel the music, but I couldn’t move because everything was moving all the time. I was like, why don’t you give me the tracks and I’ll send you ideas. But I knew what I would do, Peter (Wade, MNDR collaborator) and I would write it, engineer it and send him a finished version. Which we did and he liked it, and then he played it for Q-Tip and he liked it and then he rapped on it. Mark beat me up on lyrics and vocals and asked me to redo stuff. He said that I wasn’t projecting enough on the choruses and he had me redo them. He knows what he wants.
What was the inspiration behind the lyrics?
Amanda: The lyrics are… I was listening to the track and the way I write vocal melodies is I sing gibberish to get phrasing down and I kept singing the phrase “Alouette” and Peter got on Wikipedia and read what the song is about and it’s a French Canadian children’s nursery rhyme that the furriers would sing in the fur trade there, because the work is monotonous and they would sing the song about the birds flying around their heads and they were going to pluck their feathers and pluck their heads off. At the time, Peter and I had been dealing with a lot of people in the music business that are telling you “I can get you this” and “No, I believe in you this way” and they’re talking above what they can actually do, and at the same time, the Ponzi schemes in America with Bernie Madoff, it’s a comment on rich baby boomers who all protested about Vietnam and then they go to grad school and learn how to manipulate the banking system for their profit, ruining it for the whole globe, and about dealing with people on a personal level, who are talking above their means and lying. Lying to you to profiteer, but kinda a bigger comment on the people that manipulate money for themselves, selfishly.
So it’s a serious pop song then…
Amanda: Yeah, Q-Tip picked up on right away. So, it’s like (reciting the lyrics) “feathers, I’m plucking feathers, one by one by one, no more skylarking around my head, you’ll get no last word, ‘cos it’s too late, you’ve clipped your own wings”, so it’s about that. My favourite lyric is “those stories in your head is what got you dead”. Like believing your own bullshit. I think like in art and with anything, and you’re here and making stuff and people want to get involved because they’re excited about it, and people want to get involved because they can make a lot of money. If you start believing what they’re saying then you become watered down and you become irrelevant and start believing their bullshit when it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with the kid who’s gonna buy your record and read your lyrics and come to the show and connect with you.
So this all started in December and then 6 months later you’ve got a top 10 hit in the UK. Has this all happened a little fast for you? Plucked from…
Amanda: …from a rave squat in Oakland with no shoes? Um… yeah! When Mark called and said “I think we’re gonna have this be the single”. Sometimes someone can say that to you but you don’t really understand what it means. I didn’t really understand how well he’s done and how well Version did over here, and what kind of opportunities he would have to promote this record and what budget he’d have for videos. Those sort of experiences. I really believe in this song and I believe in Mark’s record and I believe in Mark. It’s a really solid record. I think we’re really good collaborators and I want to support our single. I’m excited to play in his band. I haven’t played in a band in a year. It’s really unusual for me. It’s fun being able to play keys and bass and drums and sing back-ups and be that role. In-between doing Mark’s promotion, it’ll be 3 or 4 days on and on the days off I’ll go do MNDR stuff. So we’re going to have another limited vinyl single out in the UK in the fall and at the top of the year we should have a record out. We have a records worth of material already done.
How much fun did you have doing the clubs gigs over here?
Amanda: I had a great time. The first show on Tuesday at Madame JoJo’s, it was earlier and it was more industry and a little bit more frigid but I felt like I warmed people up and they stayed. I think when no-one knows your material you need to realise they’ve never heard it before and if you can convince the people and keep them there, you’re doing a good job. It was great though. Some of the Business International came down and supported and people stayed and that was goal. I thought that one went well but it was a little more formal, and then Thursday at Yoyo I thought was great. It was like a party I’m used to playing. But the London audience was a little discerning, like a New York audience.
London audiences can be a little standoffish…
Amanda: Yeah, like “let’s see what you show me, let’s see what you got and if you can deliver”. I think it’s more pressure to play her than it is in New York.
Amanda: Yeah, ‘cos you can blow it here. There’s people that I know who’ve done it and it sucks. But there were a lot of people talking and people wasted, and while I was singing there was so much talking, was like, all I’m going to focus on is the talkers. For the first show I did with Mark Ronson at the 100 Club, I fell off the stage. I try to connect so heavy that I hurt myself. I’ve done that like 3 times, fallen off stage during shows. My whole deal is I want to try and quiet people down by the end and they’ll stay, and the people that hate it, I want them to stay and hate it, but really hate it, and the people who love it, really love it, but if you’re apathetic, I know I’ve failed. I didn’t feel like anyone was apathetic, but there was one girl who came there in her heels and her dress and she stared at me with the most disgust and she wasn’t moving with everybody and she was just disgusted by me, and I just bent down and sang at her for an entire verse, and I’m like “let’s just hate each other”. Hate me harder, hate me more.
Rachael: There was this one show that Amanda played at the Mercury Lounge in New York when you were with Neon Indian and it was the same thing. All the crowd were standing back like and this girl was texting and you got up in this girls face and you were like “hate it, I know you hate it!”.
Amanda: I’m not going to go up there and pop music out. “Everything’s right and I’m doing it right, it’s happening, it’s perfect”, you know or whatever. It’s going to be messy, and if you’re standing on the stage and someone’s texting, I’m going to grab your head and tell you to hate it more. Let’s just break this barrier.
That’s the best way to do it, confront your audience.
Amanda: It’s confrontational, yeah. You want me to stand there and be pretty and sing a pretty song at you. Go see a show like that. This is about connectivity and it’s not about “how dare you text while I’m playing”, it’s nothing to do with the ego, it’s more like “I know you hate this, and I know your hatred is because you don’t know if it’s cool or not” and it’s more about the reflected mirror, so what if I just went up you and broke that and was like (whispers) “let’s just hate this, let‘s just hate this experience together”. It’s just so ridiculous. It’s such a ridiculous thing. People were really pissed off I fucking did that.
Amanda: I got a lot of bad comments on blogs for that, and it’s like am I supposed to be a certain way, or am I supposed to do things a certain way? It was really interesting ‘cos I think in California there’s more of an underground that has nothing to do with the music industry but when you’re in New York, a lot of the bands are there to make it. In California, grabbing someone’s head and screaming in their face or breaking that barrier is not as weird, but in New York it’s like this is a formal show.
Rachael: What did they actually say?
Amanda: Like “she flipped us off the whole time”, and I was like really? really New York? You‘re that fucking stuck up your own ass? It was so weird. I was like, why are you so square? Why are you so square, New York? What happened? That just sounds smug. I don’t mean it to sound smug. I was shocked.
Do you think London’s going to be more difficult than your snobbiest New York crowd?
MNDR: I see London as discerning, but also I think the music is bold and I’m brash and kinda loud, and you’re either going to love me or hate me. I don’t have an indie rock attitude, like self-deprecating (puts on fake voice) “I don’t know, I’m just up here and I’m weird and awkward about it and they got stuff on me that‘s weird”. I’m just an awkward person in general. Like, I’m not in a fucking thong and in a bustier with a dancer and wig on (stands up and starts doing a hilarious, vaguely Lady Gaga-esque dance routine). Like, why would I ever do that? Why would that even happen? So I think you’re either going to hate it or you’re gonna love it, but I think you’re going to feel those emotions loudly. It’s what I’ve noticed with my personality. Sorry, does this sound really self-absorbed? I really don’t mean it to….