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The Learning Curve LP



‘I was an entirely useless child,’ confesses Billy Mowbray, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in new London band ManOrMouse?. ‘Self-conscious, desperate to fit in and scared of pretty much everything. What a waste of chromosomes. It felt like I was a construct of other people’s values, experience, taste and expectations. So one day I got drunk, joined a band and started living.’

ManOrMouse? is all about making that jump - running the risk of simply being yourself and reaping the rewards. And, as the band’s debut album The Learning Curve proves, it’s a winning formula. From the eccentric, Roxy romance of Waterfalls to the QOTSA-like riffing of She Rules, The Learning Curve’s twelve tracks can be crushing, pretty, delirious and majestic - often at the same time.

But above all they’re thrillingly individual thanks to the unhinged intimacy of Mowbray’s lyrics, the charisma of the band’s rich instrumentations and the idiosyncratic tunes themselves. These are the best kind of songs - the kind that sound surprising but familiar all at once.

Mowbray played saxophone and keyboards with London bands My Life Story, Velvet Jones and Sandstone Veterans before signing as an in-house composer to Sir George Martin’s publishing company, GMM Ltd. By day he wrote songs to order for chanteuses like Kim Richey and Hayley Westenra. By night, Mowbray wrote for his own satisfaction - skewed and personal alt-indie tales about playground losers (Jackson), superhero solipsism (Superman) and the zombifying effect of chasing a dream (Alive). ‘To be honest,’ he says, ‘I never expected these songs to see the light of day. But then Matt (top studio engineer and Sideshow Records boss Matt Sime) heard some of my demos and the next thing I knew we were recording an album together.’

‘I was really excited when I heard the demos,’ remembers Sime (Feeder, Moloko, Dirty Pretty Things). ‘They were weird and charming - messed up pop tunes like Bowie meets Pavement meets Queen with a bit of Benny Hill and Roxy Music thrown in for good measure. I’d not heard anything like them so I gave Billy a call.’

Mowbray had recorded the demos in a cupboard at the back of his South London flat, playing all the instruments himself - guitars, bass, keyboards, flute, saxophone, mandolin, harmonica, toy trumpet and the rest. ‘They were a bit too DIY,’ says Sime, ‘so I offered to polish them up. We kept most of Billy’s demo parts and vocals on the album but brought in the experts to replace the bass, drums and some of the guitars.’

Bass player Ricky Barber (Antacid, Scylla) was the first to join up, quickly followed by top session drummer Jonathan Atkinson (Kim Wilde, The Emotions) and guitarist Dean Tidey (Feeder, Ozzy Osbourne), both of whom had been in Velvet Jones with Mowbray. Dean brought in Mark Richardson (Feeder, Little Angels, Skunk Anansie) to drum on the album’s heavier songs, She Rules and Mahalia.

‘It’s such a kick playing your songs with old friends,’ says Mowbray. ‘When they happen to be gods of their instruments it’s indescribable. Bottom line, they give you the confidence to be yourself.’

And that, after all, was always the point.