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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?”


Roger grew up in California, and soon he was banging pots and pans and boxes, inspired by an uncle who played drums in a surf band, Davie Allan & the Arrows. His mother had other ideas and insisted on piano lessons, which at first he had no interest in. Mum won, of course, especially as his grandparents had donated a piano to the family, and Roger soon found himself sitting in a local house waiting for his lessons to begin.

“My teacher had put out a stack of Contemporary Keyboard magazines in the living room, and I would see these long‑haired freaks in glitter capes — Rick Wakeman playing Moogs and shit. Somewhere in my mind I knew, well: this makes some kind of futuristic sound that the trumpets and the violins and bass guitars can’t make. Otherwise this guy wouldn’t have four or five of them all around him. And of course I couldn’t tell a Mellotron from a Hammond B3 from a Minimoog from an RMI. That would come later.”

By the time he went to high school in 1980, he was lapping up as much prog, synth pop and fusion as he could find. “My friends and I were trying to learn the Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Tony Banks parts by day, and then come night‑time we were going to punk rock shows in San Francisco — lots of art, lots of tear‑down‑the‑barriers. There was all that, not to mention the incredible jazz that was getting electrified and going in all directions. And those were also the very early days of sampling — bands like Depeche Mode were using Emulator IIs, Kate Bush was using a Fairlight. It was the most exciting thing in the whole world.”

A few years later, Roger had his first synth, a secondhand Roland JX‑8P, and an Ensoniq Mirage sampler. “Guitar music ruled the day in the latter half of the ’80s, which I liked as well, but it never occurred to me to take up the guitar. Oh, I learned my barre chords, but I was like: you can do everything on keyboards! Any sound you want, grab a keyboard. I was the sort of auxiliary guitar player in the band, making tough sounds, distorted Clavs, aggressive synthesizer sounds, crazy sample sound design, all those things.”

Beyond Jamming

Then the songwriting bug hit. When he thought about the music he admired the most — like Thomas Dolby’s solo records and his production work for Prefab Sprout — he found that what drew him in was the quality and ambition of the songwriting, in addition to the way the records were made. “I realised that I could jam quite well on people’s music, but I couldn’t write an original hook or a strong verse to save my life. I would have been about 19 or 20, and I literally stopped practising. I needed to figure out how to write a song! And that’s all I did, trying to write an idea not only that I liked, but that I wasn’t embarrassed to play for my friends.

“That was a long, painful process,” he adds with a smile.

You just have to learn the craft, he says, and start transcribing your heroes. “Bands like XTC were at the top of the heap for me, the Elvis Costellos of this world, a lot of ’60s British invasion stuff, on and on, but the point is that keyboards became my writing tool. If the song ended up as a more guitar‑oriented pop song, that was fine with me. I just started using keyboards as a way to navigate. And anything I heard in my head, I could get on the keyboards.”

Roger Manning: Your songs are only going to be as inventive and creative as your basic chord vocabulary. Having studied keyboard since the age of five, the sky was the limit. My knowledge of harmony was quite advanced, so it wasn’t going to be I‑IV‑V for me.

This was an advantage over his friends who wanted to play guitar. “A lot of them would learn their basic folk chords and be off and running. Well, that’s fine, except you’re going to be at the mercy of how many chords you know. Your songs are only going to be as inventive and creative as your basic chord vocabulary. Having studied keyboard since the age of five, the sky was the limit. My knowledge of harmony was quite advanced, so it wasn’t going to be I‑IV‑V for me. I have no problem with three‑chord rock — some of my favourite songs are three‑chord rock — but there’s a benefit in having that power in your back pocket. I was very grateful for that, because I knew that a lot of my friends didn’t have it.”

Fishing Expedition

Roger co‑founded Jellyfish in the late ’80s, and he recalls that as he and Andy Sturmer began work on their first album (Bellybutton, 1990) they both wanted to bring in the sounds of yesteryear. “Hammonds in new ways, Wurlitzers in new ways, Mellotrons in new ways. Synthesizers were a big no‑no at that time — that was the height of grunge — and we were shy of those elements. But by the second Jellyfish record we started bringing synths into it, and samples, too.”

Jellyfish's Spilt Milk (1993) is a beautiful piece of pop splendour.Jellyfish's Spilt Milk (1993) is a beautiful piece of pop splendour.Spilt Milk (1993) is a beautiful piece of pop splendour, a detailed creation carefully designed from the ground up that provoked much praise from contemporary musicians and producers. It was recorded in 1992 around Los Angeles, and Roger remembers how they had grown since Bellybutton not only instrumentally but also as arrangers. “We could hire a real string quartet to come in and play parts that we would arrange on samplers or keyboards, or if we preferred the scratchy Mellotron string sound, we would use that, or we would combine the two, or... it was whatever we wanted. That can be a double‑edged sword, of course. But Los Angeles was a great place to be, loaded with some of the best players in the world. So we would bring guys in to play, say, harmonica, guys who’d been playing on people’s records for 40 years. Just a very exciting time.”

One of his favourites on Spilt Milk is ‘He’s My Best Friend’, which he describes as an uplifting slice of ’60s/’70s‑style singer‑songwriter pop, very Harry Nilsson in its approach and production. “We had fun arranging that, because it’s lighthearted but also has a beautiful, almost Simon & Garfunkel lyricism. I spent a lot of time arranging those clarinet ensembles — completely out of my realm, but you throw yourself into these crash courses in arranging. How could I assemble all my musical education and come up with something that’s fun and inventive, but doesn’t get in the way of a lead vocal? It’s the constant arranging conundrum.”

The cinematic ‘Russian Hill’, meanwhile, features the unusual combination of Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel guitar and Roger’s string arrangement. “That was my very first real string arrangement,” he says with pride. “I spent a long time on it, and it was a 20‑piece orchestra, so it had this larger kind of grand Hollywood sound to it.”

The studio team was the same as it had been for Bellybutton: Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig. “Jack was coming more from the sonic side of things,” Roger explains, “and Albhy more from the traditional Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone, Quincy Jones‑style producer, that understanding of everything from the song to ‘Your demo idea works here, but this is why I think it may not work and serve you best here.’ We trusted those guys like big brothers, mentors, parental figures. We were very lucky to have been introduced to them. We knew that no matter how great or unconfident we were about certain songs and our demo’ing, they had our backs, that whatever song we tackled, this was the perfect four‑person team to do the job.”

There are clear influences resonating around the vocal arrangements on Spilt Milk, but Roger has an interesting perspective on the connections. “It’s an area that fascinated the hell out of me, and Andy too. A lot of my vocal arranger heroes, whether it’s Brian Wilson or Richard Carpenter or Fleetwood Mac or Queen, a lot of it comes from keyboard players. Freddie’s a keyboard player. Brian’s a keyboard player. Richard’s a keyboard player. And I think the vocal work appealed to that part of my arranging sense, too. It was a lot of trial and error — Andy and I would have to work it out, eventually, and we lost and gained band members along the way, but thankfully we found very talented guys who could sing. We started to do it on Bellybutton, but in my opinion our dreams and goals were perfected on Spilt Milk, which to me is much more the realised Jellyfish sound. I feel we really did what we set out to do by that second album.”

Was Not Wis

Jellyfish had some big fans who recognised good work when they heard it. One such was Don Was, and the result was that Roger got to meet one of his all‑time musical heroes. Don had worked with Roger and Andy on a song they wrote and recorded for Ringo Starr’s 1992 album Time Takes Time, and that in turn led to an encounter with Brian Wilson.

An ARP 2600, Korg Delta and Yamaha CS80 in Manning’s studio.An ARP 2600, Korg Delta and Yamaha CS80 in Manning’s studio.Don was working with Brian and figured Roger and Andy might be a good fit for a songwriting collaboration, so he arranged a meeting at a Beach Boys warehouse in Santa Monica. Roger recalls walking into a workroom with a piano. The atmosphere was unsettling. As well as Brian Wilson, there were four or five people running around who appeared to be his assistants, and it was unclear who to address. Roger hadn’t known if Brian would come along with ideas, so he and Andy showed up with a rough idea for a song.

“I sat down at the piano and played for Brian, with everybody else just standing around. I probably have never been more nervous in my life,” Roger remembers. “Especially because we had no lyrics. I had to mumble melodies. I believed in the ideas, I felt they were strong, but it was still very awkward.”

He ploughed on, playing and mumbling through a verse and chorus a couple of times. “And then, of course, you usually go into some kind of breakdown or bridge, or a solo. So right where I stopped, I looked up at everybody and said: ‘And that’s where...’, and Brian leapt to his feet and goes: ‘That’s where we put the bridge!’ He sat down next to me at the piano bench and started playing chords and mumbling ideas. I’m like, oh my God, somebody pinch me! Is this really happening? And right there, on the spot, he came up with an idea. I barely remember what it was, but the song was in progress. It certainly wasn’t like it was finished, but it was enough that we could all tell that Brian was inspired, excited, and seemed to be cool with us. So we were all looking at each other going well, can’t wait to get together and do this next time.”

Roger and Andy went back to finishing Spilt Milk and stayed in touch with Don. “And it was during those next three or four weeks that Don and Brian parted ways. We have no idea why. But that was the end of that. We were like: ‘Noooooo...!’ The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Roger later resurrected the core ideas to write ‘Wish It Would Rain’ on his 2006 solo album Solid State Warrior (also known as The Land Of Pure Imagination).

Whistle Stop Tour

Before we leave Roger in his room full of synths, there’s time for a look at a few more of the prize items in his collection. “There’s a part of me that I guess is a bit of an antique collector,” he admits as we poke around. Oh look! Is this what I think it is? “Yes, I recently acquired a PPG Wave. They’re hard to find, and even when you do find one it can be pricey. I was turned on to a gentleman here in Los Angeles who actually refurbishes them. It was not cheap, but it’s mint condition, and I know that it’s going to work for a very long time. But also, one of the joys over the years for me has been to not spend a lot of money on these things. I like treasure hunting. I like finding ones that are broken, and I know several great techs here in Los Angeles who’ll resurrect them for me. I do still like trying to find deals.”

Another view of Roger’s studio, with his favourite Roland Jupiter‑8 and Sequential Prophet‑10 in the foreground.Another view of Roger’s studio, with his favourite Roland Jupiter‑8 and Sequential Prophet‑10 in the foreground.

There’s something about a physical object in today’s world of virtual this and that, isn’t there? “A hundred percent. I love the tactile, tangible aspect of grabbing the knobs. Also, I’ve purchased modules in the past four or five years that I never would have touched in the ‘80s or ’90s, because they were fairly average, you know? You had to menu‑dive just to start extracting the possibilities. Now, of course, there’s all kinds of tech nerds around the world who make interfaces and controllers with knobs to get inside of these things.”

Appropriately, we stop by a single‑rack Yamaha TX81Z. “It’s just a four‑operator FM synth,” Roger says, “and my friends and I used to laugh at it back in the day. Like, who the hell would buy this piece of shit? But the Stereoping guys in Germany make a great multi‑controller for that thing. And the best part is that it’s just like vintage synthesis. One of the joys of the early synths was that you didn’t have to be a musician. You turned the thing on, you started moving knobs, not knowing what you’re doing, and you’d suddenly got a crazy sound. That’s how you have New Order and Cabaret Voltaire and Heaven 17, all these wonderful bands. Depeche Mode, too — I mean, Vince Clarke is a master, but back in the day, they were learning too. You start turning knobs, and suddenly you’re getting these crazy, screeching sounds out of this Yamaha. This is fantastic!”

OK, now we seem to be at the Oberheim section. “Well, I’m always looking for Oberheim SEMs, and I have a two‑voice and a single, but the Oberheim sound is probably my favourite synth engine of all time,” Roger says. “I can’t even describe it, but it just vibrates my cells the right way. It’s super organic and natural‑sounding to me. So, I found a broken OB‑X, which I’d been longing for forever. I put a good chunk of money into it to get it rehabilitated, but the beautiful thing about those is that they’re so fairly straightforward that my tech was able to source the parts, and he said, ‘This is going to take me a while, but I know exactly what to do.’

“So, yes, within the last year I’ve acquired an OB‑X,” he says, “and I couldn’t be happier about it. But, you know, I’m sat here in this room, and I don’t really need anything.” Well, there’s need and want. Two different things.


The Moog Cookbook

When Jellyfish broke up, Roger Manning began working with the band’s guitarist, Eric Dover, for the project that produced Imperial Drag. Roger’s quest to own an Optigan was about to peak, a happy development that led to him making two albums with Brian Kehew as The Moog Cookbook. If you fancy the idea of tongue‑in‑cheek multiple‑classic‑synth covers of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Even Flow’ or ‘Born To Be Wild’ and more, these are the records for you.

Roger Manning: The Moog Cookbook.He met Brian through the Recycler, a Southern California newspaper dedicated to secondhand stuff. “He was selling an Optigan, I went over to his apartment, he showed me how it worked — and I noticed he had an ARP String Ensemble, a Polymoog, a couple other pieces. I said, So you’re a keyboard player? He goes, Well... not really. Said he was mostly a guitarist and an engineer, but that he loved those kinds of instruments. Anyway, we became friends, and over the next year and a half we recorded these drum‑machine all‑synthesizer arrangements of popular Top 40 songs of the day — for our own amusement, but also to enjoy using a lot of these relics that we both loved to death.”

The line‑up of magnificent keys on the Cookbook albums (The Moog Cookbook, 1996, and Ye Olde Space Bande, 1997) included Farfisa organs, that Optigan and the String Ensemble, Clavinets, many Moogs, naturally, a Roland System 100 modular, and several more. Brian was teaching a class at Cal State Dominguez Hills and got to use its studio after hours — and that studio had not one but two ARP 2600s. “That was nice,” Roger says, laughing at his understatement, “and I’d found a Jupiter‑8 and my Memorymoog by that point. So we had no shortage of great toys to play with.”

I wondered if they laughed as much while they made the Cookbook records as I do now when I listen to them. “We did! Brian was busy as a producer and engineer, working with lots of generic rock bands, I was with my rock band, and Moog Cookbook became our mutual escape. We shared a lot of the same sense of humour and infused that kind of lightheartedness into the arrangements. The records were very much inspired by those Switched On type records of the ’60s and ’70s, whether it was Switched On Bach itself or that whole trend. When the Moog modulars came out, unless you were Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a lot of people didn’t know what the hell to do with them. So they would just redo classical works: ‘Let’s see if I can get my Moog modular to imitate a bassoon.’ That’s great — but we found that kind of thing boring. We liked when a lot of those arrangers started doing Switched On hits.”

He points to arrangers such as Hugo Montenegro, whose Moog Power album of 1969 was in the vanguard. “The stuff they were doing was super‑inventive, very animated. Obviously we were listening to Rick Wakeman blast a Minimoog solo, which was very enjoyable, and Patrick Moraz or something, but we loved what some of these arrangers were doing with the synthesizer — so inventive, so creative. And often a lot of those sounds had a comedic overtone to them, and we’d never really heard that before. We really tried to capture that spirit in the Moog Cookbook arrangements.”

Apart from being a lot of fun to make, a benefit of the Cookbook records came when they were noticed by the French duo Air. “They reached out to us to do a couple of remixes, and then eventually Brian and I became part of their backup touring band for their first album, Moon Safari [1998]. It was hard enough not to fall in love with Air if you were a keyboard player — we just thought so much of them — but they were on the other side of the world, so we thought there was no way we were ever going to meet. And it was around that time that I was getting introduced to the Beck people, because they’d just lost their keyboard player, and it was actually the Moog Cookbook that intrigued Beck the most. I don’t even know to this day if he’s heard any Jellyfish.”