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Roger Manning

Keyboard Player & Songwriter By Tony Bacon
Published November 2023

Roger Manning

From co‑founding cult band Jellyfish to writing with Brian Wilson and touring with Beck, Roger Manning has enjoyed an extraordinary career — and a remarkable collection of vintage instruments.

Ocean Way Studio, Los Angeles, 1992. The band Jellyfish are recording their second album, Spilt Milk. Jellyfish core members Roger Joseph Manning Jr and Andy Sturmer are assisted by several guests, one of whom is Jon Brion. While he’s there mostly to play guitar, he’s also brought along and set up a couple of keyboards. Not just any keyboards: there’s a double‑manual Mellotron and, even more intriguingly, an Optigan.

The Optigan was a ’70s keyboard produced by toy manufacturer Mattel (and yes, they were also to blame for Barbie dolls). It played samples from 12‑inch optical discs in styles described as Nashville Country, Polynesian Village, Bossa Nova Style, and so on. The resulting sounds were wonky enough to be interesting in an alluringly lo‑fi kind of way. And Roger Manning was hooked. “The bug just bit me! I mean, I had never physically performed on an Optigan. I knew what they were, I knew what sounds they made, but I’d never sat behind one. I was like ‘Oh my God. I’m a poor musician like everybody else, but I’ve got to figure out how to get my hands on some of these things.’”

Cut to 2023, and Roger is proudly showing us round his music room where he is now surrounded by, at the last count, 132 of these things. Not 132 Optigans — that would be foolish — but 132 different hardware keyboards and modules. He points out a Roland Jupiter‑8 and a Sequential Prophet‑10 here, a Siel DK80 and an Elka EK22 over there, a Kurzweil 1000SX and an Oberheim Matrix 6R, a Casio FZ‑1 and a Yamaha CS80. And many, many more.

“Obviously, I’m a keyboard enthusiast,” he says, laughing. “And of course I’ve got all the soft samplers and everything in the computer, so if a song really wants a trumpet sound I can go get one. But I love being able to come into this room and work within the keyboard sound palette, everything from early synthesis through digital synthesis through sampling. I love it all!”

A small selection of the 132 keyboards currently housed in Roger Manning’s studio!A small selection of the 132 keyboards currently housed in Roger Manning’s studio!

Beck & Call

We’ll dig deeper into Roger’s treasure trove later, but first we should examine the Beck connection. He’s worked with Beck since the late ’90s, most recently on a six‑week tour that took up all of August and a chunk of September 2023, as well as a sizeable rehearsal period beforehand. It was, he reports, a real treat working in this band alongside musicians he hasn’t played with for eight years: Jason Falkner (guitar, BVs), Justin Meldal‑Johnsen (bass, BVs), Joey Waronker (drums) and Ian Longwell (percussion, Ableton), with Roger on keys and BVs.

The practicalities of modern touring meant that his hardware collection stayed at home, sadly, and Roger’s setup for the Beck tour was necessarily sleek and flexible. His primary tool was a Nord Stage 2 EX 88, not only useful for its acoustic and electric piano sounds, but also supplying the luxury of 88 weighted keys to trigger sample libraries. Manning mentions their live version of Beck’s 2002 song ‘Paper Tiger’ as an example. “Essentially, it’s a rhythm‑section song with very elaborate string arrangements, and I’m performing all the strings off the sample libraries, but via the Nord. That really helps me as a keyboardist, because I like having the weighted action for expression.”

For many of the Beck performances Roger was also deploying sound effects: handclaps, odd needle drops, and so on. “And very often we wouldn’t be playing those rhythmically — I’d have them over on my left hand, on the bottom of the keyboard. In the middle I’d have keyboard stuff: organs, pianos, harpsichords, Clavs, and so on. And while there’s a lot of guys in the band who sing, Beck might want reinforcement, so then I could trigger background vocal phrases, different harmonies, things like that.”

On Beck’s recent tour, Roger Manning (left) triggered a huge variety of samples from his Nord keyboard.On Beck’s recent tour, Roger Manning (left) triggered a huge variety of samples from his Nord keyboard.

Free Space

Another consideration in performance is that Beck likes to be free to vary the tempo. If the energy demands they speed up, Beck wants to be able to go with that. “And as we know,” Roger says, “10 years ago you had to commit. You didn’t have that option.”

The key to this facility today is the band’s Ableton operator, Ian Longwell, founder of Spacebar Society. “We’ve known them forever,” Roger says, “and we were one of the first bands they started working with. They run a bunch of computers with Ableton on them, which not only allows for backing tracks, in the rare events that we want that, and more specifically allows for very elaborate samplers, but also this tempo thing. Let’s say I’m performing a background vocal part or a rhythmic loop that plays along with the band, a light percussion thing that has a little bit of harmonic information, maybe a guitar rhythm, some brass, or something. I’m playing that, and it’s a crucial part to one of Beck’s grooves.”

If the band speeds up as Roger’s playing that loop, naturally the loop needs to speed up as well. “We’ve embedded the loops with click,” he explains, “which is being fed to the drummer, or anyone else who wants it. Ian, our Ableton operator who thankfully is also a drummer, sits there and taps out the bpm with one of his hands while the drummer is meeting Beck’s demands to speed up or slow down.”

As soon as Beck found out he had the option to vary tempo in real time, it happened a lot. Roger grew up playing drums, too, and he still takes pride in his sense of rhythm. He says that to keep on top of this fluidity in tempo, he has to really work with the drummer to make it feel right. They don’t want it ever to sound at all robotic, or jagged, or jerky. He and Joey have played together quite a lot over the years and have become adept at relaxing into grooves. “And then Ian is the third part of that triumvirate,” Roger adds. “It takes great practice, but now we’re all pretty good at it.”

As well as Beck, Spacebar work with many other artists and record companies. “They called me in last year because 5 Seconds Of Summer were going to do a very special live and recorded performance at Royal Albert Hall,” he recalls. “Ian and his team were in charge of hiring a string section and a choir and making sure they all had arrangements, and then adding to what was normally a four‑piece band with auxiliary people — there was a percussionist, plus I came in to play additional keys and sing background vocals, and one of the singer’s girlfriends did some duets — an insanely elaborate situation. I was happy to be a part of it, but it was really fun to be a fly on the wall and watch everything that Ian and his team did besides just provide the sonics of this Ableton‑generated world.”

It’s a world where Roger is happy to play his part, even if it’s not his top personal choice. “No,” he says, laughing, “not my preference, personally — because it’s not my training. I prefer the organic thing. My training was a lot of improvisational music, lots of jazz and so forth, so I like being with other musicians who say: OK, here’s a melody and the chord changes. What are we gonna do with it?”