Mandrake Project
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Mandrake Project

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The best kept secret in music


"Mandrake Project … To Those Who Wait"

Photographer: HEATHER MULL

Many who start bands are surely masochists. But to undertake the year-long Sisyphean task of creating Mandrake Project’s preposterously ornate debut album, you have to be a little insane — especially to do it on a local band’s budget and schedule. Yet the instrumental group’s leader and guitarist Kirk Salopek seems to be holding it together — precisely because he doesn’t hold it together. And now that the chamber-rock epic A Favor to the Muse is finally complete, the group’s starting to see some benefits of shared membership with celebrated indie-orchestra The Polyphonic Spree.

It’s been a long time coming. “This band really hasn’t been ready to do anything,” says Salopek with a grin. “We’ve been on the landing strip here, I guess, waiting to take off a little bit for two years.” It’s hard to say exactly who he’s referring to as “we.” When the group slowly took shape in 2002, even Salopek didn’t know. “At the time we were shooting for a ’70s, Deep Purple kind of thing,” he recalls. But ultimately, he “wanted it to be something that was jammy, but that would make hippies curse the sun.”

An art teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School and a resident of Elizabeth, Salopek is no stranger to the Pittsburgh scene: He estimates he’s been playing music in the area for 16 years. Prior to Mandrake Project and playing with Adam Evil & The Outside Royalty, he held down vocals and guitar in Halo’s Grace at the end of the ’90s.

That experience must have helped with the recruitment process. With six core members and about 12 guest musicians contributing to the Mandrake record — not to mention a 40-voice choir and people who just drop in to play, it’s frankly a circus. Even that “core group” has seen changes. “We lost a guitar player and a violin player about halfway through,” Salopek says. “Really, this thing stretched on forever and ever. I think we got a little bit lofty with it.”

If by lofty, you mean influenced by Godspeed You Black Emperor, Don Caballero, Rachel’s, Spiritualized and Steve Reich, than yes. If you mean high-flying textures, odd-time riffs and multiple drummers, than yes. Similar to ’80s King Crimson? Yes. “The way King Crimson textured their guitars … like on Three of a Perfect Pair — we do a lot of work like that,” he says.

Key to the album’s lush sound are the string arrangements of Rick Nelson — a “ringer” Mandrake picked up midway through the recording. While on another session with Adam Evil, Salopek crossed paths with Nelson, a strings player in The Polyphonic Spree who also performs with Jens Lekman and on tour dates with Cat Power.

“Rick and I were talking about Mandrake Project one night and he said ‘I’d love to hear it,’” recalls Salopek. “That came into fruition, as Rick is just a member of Mandrake now. He lives in New Orleans,” he deadpans.

In addition to Salopek and Nelson, the band features current Boogie Hustlers David Chapman Jamison (drums, chapman stick, Moog, percussion) and Ryan Meals (guitar, saxophone). Benjamin Zerbe mans the drums and percussion, while Anthony Percora (Flowdown, Sporadic) plays bass and additional drums.

And then there’s the rest. “There’s people who go in and out of the group all the time, and they could be multi-instrumentalists,” Salopek says. “Anybody from horns to theremin players to keyboards to strings … to spoons, if they want to play them. As long as they want to come in and play, they’re welcome to … and they can leave whenever they want.”

Not exactly the kind of band you can pack into a van and hit the road. “My plans for this are probably like the ‘anti-rock band,’” he says. “Let’s face it: This stuff’s not going to be on the radio. It’s not gonna have teen-age girls screaming. It’s gonna be grabbing a very small audience. I’m looking to do film scores with it.”

Mandrake did previously score a small independent film, which has yet to be released, but which Salopek says should be screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Quite a coincidence, since the band is already slated to perform at Composers’ Night at the festival — thanks to a little help from Nelson’s agent. It’s an opportunity that’s both alarming (“A logistic nightmare, absolutely”) and exciting for Salopek and the project.

“We’ve waited for things. We’ve been very patient. I think this music is for people who are patient.” But who, really, is that we?

Mandrake Project with Ritual Space Travel Agency, Anthony Fugate, Gary Musisko, Terence Degnan, and Khafif belly dancers. 9 p.m. Fri., Sept. 29. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $8. 412-381-6811 or - Pgh. City Paper

"Pittsburgh Calling: Mandrake Project"


Band members: Kirk Salopek (guitars, gadgets, loops); David Chapman Jamison (drums, Chapman Stick, Moog); Ryan (Science) Meals (guitars, saxophone); Anthony "Dr. P" Pecora (bass); Benjamin Zerbe (drums); Rick Nelson (violin, viola, cello); all play percussion.

"I wanted to do something that had no barriers, no limitations," says Kirk Salopek, right, of the band Mandrake Project.
Click photo for larger image.

What are they?: A Pittsburgh "musicians' collective" with six core members and rotating door of guests. It features members of The Polyphonic Spree, Adam Evil & The Outside Royalty, The Boogie Hustlers, Soma Mestizo, Beam, Flowdown, Halo's Grace, Lushwell and Sporadic.

Debut album: "A Favor to the Muse" is made up of dreamy, hypnotic and rhythmic progressive rock instrumentals, from the Santana-flavored "Flame of the Simpleton" to the Middle Eastern "Burgundy Turban" to "An Ode to the Spaceman," a heavily orchestrated space adventure with a full choir.

Formed: In 2002. Originally, it was to be a four-piece with a '70s Deep Purple-King Crimson vibe, but with changing personnel it evolved into something else. "I wanted to do something that had no barriers, no limitations," says Salopek. "My intention was the sound of this band would be jammy, but not 'jam-bandy.' We wanted hippies to cringe at the sound of some of this. There are jazz chops and classical elements, but jazz and classical snobs would scoff at its technique. And I wanted enough rock but for the rock crowd to be confused by it. We wanted to mash these styles and see what happens."

On different pages: Salopek says almost no one in the band is like-minded musically. "I came from a punk rock background, but I'm as much into that as I am into classical music, Philip Glass, Steven Reich, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. The bass player is totally into hip-hop, Prince and Miles Davis. The drummer, Ben, is a typical rock drummer like John Bonham and Terry Bozzio. David Chapman is totally into classical and jazz."

Should we use the P-word? "Prog makes me nervous," Salopek says. "I don't like the term, but I like the word. It's misunderstood. We're a progressive band, but not the prog genre. I tend to think were a little more experimental post-rock."

Band motto: "What you don't play is much more important than what you do."

Ever-shifting quality: The basic lineup is two drummers, two guitarists, violin, bass, Chapman Stick and sampling/sequencing. The members like to switch instrumentation "within or between song structures." Sometimes all the members convene for a group percussion workout. "It changes the sonic environment," Salopek says.

How they compose: Drums first. "We took a weird direction," Salopek says. "Lots of bands come in and have guitar riffs and put the drums around them. A lot of these songs are written with drums first."

Why instrumental?: "I felt here was no need for vocals," he says. "No space for it. You don't need to focus on a singer and there's no message we're putting out. We wanted to let people develop their own thoughts by listening to it."

- By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


"Never Going Back #7" Soundtrack -(unreleased)
"A Favor to the Muse"


Feeling a bit camera shy



So what exactly is the MANDRAKE PROJECT? People ask all the time. Aside from the fabled magic root, popular 60's comic magician, and computer operating system, the project exists as an eccentric musicians collective from Pittsburgh, Pa. This 6-piece band (of sorts) is composed of strange visitors, current (and past) members from several Pittsburgh bands as well as members of other interesting and influential bands such as: (THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, THE OUTSIDE ROYALTY, THE BOOGIE HUSTLERS, JENS LEKMAN, VIETNAM, SOMA MESTIZO, BEAM, JON CHECK, HALOS GRACE, etc...with more appearing all the time...)

The bizarre common thread among members is most certainly the projects repertoire. Each member's scope of interest varies widely. There is no common goal for a sound, as the Mandrake Sound can take on many aspects of many styles while maintaining cohesion. It can be the soundtrack for many situations. Surprisingly, it all sounds like Mandrake regardless of the genre mish-mashing and member sharing. Even more puzzling is exactly whose playing what, and when theyre playing it. The members tend to switch instrumentation within or between song structures creating a barrage of dynamic sonic interplay. Staple Mandrake sound is based largely around RHYTHM. The project relies heavily on drumming and percussion, sometimes with all 6 members convening to participate in group percussive numbers. The normal Mandrake setup exists with 2 drum kit players, 2 guitarists, violin, bass, Chapman Stick, percussion and sampling/sequencing. This however, is subject to change at any given time. Lets now introduce the gentlemen responsible for all this cacophony:

KIRK SALOPEK- Guitars, Gadgets, Loops, Percussives
DAVID CHAPMAN JAMISON- Drums, Chapman Stick, Moog, Percussives
RYAN SCIENCE- Guitars, Saxophone
ANTHONY PECORA- Bass Guitar, Drums, Percussives
BENJAMIN ZERBE- Drums, Percussives
RICK NELSON- Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Auxiliary Implementation.
DARNELL ANDERSON-satellite- Saxophone

After a few demonstration recordings and the partial scoring of an independent film release, the month of May 2005 began work on the first full length Mandrake Project album.

A FAVOR TO THE MUSE collaborated a massive amount of music and musicians. With 12 satellite guests joining the band and a 35 piece choir, the size of the project grew beyond initial aspiration. Drum tracking began at AAM STUDIOS with Skip Sanders. The project then resorted to weeks of location tracking with cello, violin and viola being recorded in Austin, TX, and guitars, violin, and percussion being recording in various Pittsburgh locations. The remaining sessions of tracking and mix down were handed to King Larry Luther at MR. SMALLS recording facility. The sessions lasted into December of 2005, and anticipations were initially set for a spring 2006 release, however the album was not finally completed and released until September 2006. Lineup changes made late in the recording process added Rick Nelson and Ryan Science as a new and permanent force to carry the album to its final stages.

The album sits heavy in atmospheric soundscapes, lush string arrangements and complex guitar trickery. It also holds surprises around every corner of its track listing as genres and styles suddenly appear, disappear and blend together.

Now complete, A FAVOR TO THE MUSE will hopefully deliver what weve always intended to the listening audience. Our utmost honor goes out to some of the great talent that has assisted in the creation of FAVOR TO THE MUSE: Rick Nelson (the POLYPHONIC SPREE, JENS LEKMAN, VIETNAM, ST. VINCENT), Jim Dispirito (former RUSTED ROOT, BIG WORLD), jazz man and amp guru Rick Struzzi, members of THE OUTSIDE ROYALTY, Jesse Prentiss (former RSTA), and the fantastic BOOGIE HUSTLERS horn section and keys.

It is also our hope that positive change, dynamism, and spontaneous creation will lead the music into further reaches. Thank you for investigating the Mandrake Project, and frequently stop back to WWW.MANDRAKEPROJECT.COM or WWW.MYSPACE.COM/MANDRAKEPROJECT for updates and additions.