Before blues-punk deconstructionist duos like the White Stripes and Black Keys hit the big time, Cambridge Massachusetts’ Mr. Airplane Man had built a beautiful little buzz-bomb of a flying machine for two. The garage-blooze twosome comprised of singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett and drummer Tara McManus may have named themselves after a Howlin’ Wolf song during their bleary, brilliant, and all-too brief run in these parts. But the outfit’s brand of lo-fi basement trash and primitivist thrash was equally indebted to howling of a different sort: garage-punk caterwaulers such as the Stooges, ‘68 Comeback, the Oblivions (whose leader, Greg Cartwright, rubbed grit and grease into the gears of more than a few Mr. Airplane Man tracks over the years), and a thousand Crypt Records cavemen hawking their racket mail order. In fact, the band’s stint on the retro-rrific Sympathy For The Record Industry label (early home to the White Stripes among others) buzzed volumes about where its sound was coming from, and where it was headed. In the early-to-mid 2000’s, these two gals planted themselves at the sonic crossroads where the Delta meets Detroit; where Junior Kimbrough meets DMZ; where the sacred meets the profane — and then blasted a path in both directions.
Though they’ve since gone their separate ways and embraced new adventures, the occasion of a rare reunion show this Thursday night at Cuisine en Locale (156 Highland Ave. in Somerville: go to https://www.facebook.com/events/747160765367192/) marks the return of one of my absolute favorite (and best) bands from the Boston area and beyond. As a reminder (or primer) about just who Mr. Airplane Man were and will be once again (Tara tells me the band is booking some European shows and dates for next year, which is an encouraging sign that they may fly around our airspace a little longer), here’s a profile feature I wrote on the band for The Boston Globe back in September 2003. At the time — especially with the less-is-more garage-rock revival in full swing — this dynamic duo seemed poised to take the music world (or at least a tasty, noisy chunk of it) by a moanin’, howlin’ storm. Welcome back ladies. You’ve been gone way too long, and sorely missed.
Unwinding in the back room of an Allston bar, Mr. Airplane Man singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett and drummer Tara McManus are talking about the stark, mystical power of Johnny Cash. The recently departed singer’s ability, Garrett says, to lay bare the heart, soul, and authority of a song, “to communicate something so deep, without flash – that’s something that I aspire to.” Suddenly, as if to underscore her point in bold, the Man In Black comes booming from the bar’s jukebox, his earthy baritone and hard-strummed guitar filling the near-empty room. Garrett and McManus sit up, slightly startled, and laugh.
This is the way it’s always been with Mr. Airplane Man, a rawboned garage-blues duo who have been one of Boston’s leading rock and roll lights since they recorded their self-titled first album five years ago. An air of fortuitous magic seems to hang, like an aura, over the heads of these two childhood friends from Newton, MA. who spent much of their adolescence exchanging homemade mix tapes. Only these days, a growing legion of fans who have latched on to the outfit’s gloriously grimy clatter – a sanctified racket of basement-punk menace and roadhouse blues moonshine – make their own mix tapes of Mr. Airplane Man.
Those fans will soon have even more songs to choose from. Tomorrow marks the release of a terrific new five-song EP, “Shakin’ Around” (the band celebrates with an EP-release party at T.T. the Bear’s Place the same night), that will be followed by the release of the twosome’s next album, “C’mon DJ”, on the ultra-hip Detroit-based Sympathy For The Record Industry label, in January. When delays concerning the album-cover artwork for “C’mon DJ” postponed its release (originally intended to come out this month), a dose of resourceful inspiration and determination helped turn a potential setback – a scheduled five-week U.S. tour with no new music to promote – into a fresh opportunity. “Basically what happened was, we remembered that we had some free studio time (left over from the group’s strong showing in the 2002 WBCN Rumble),” says Garrett. “So we just went right in to (Boston’s) New Alliance studios and we recorded it for free, just to have something to put out.”
On past albums, Mr. Airplane Man, who took their moniker from a Howlin’ Wolf song of the same name, paid tribute to its influences by reviving ancient Delta blues artifacts or blowing the dust off obscure garage-rock 45’s. “Shakin’ Around”, which the duo recorded in one day, is no different. Here, they offer inspired readings of “Hang Up”, by the seminal ‘60’s garage band the Wailers, and Chuck Berry’s perennial “Round & Round.” For the standout Garrett composition and slide-guitar showcase, “Up in the Room”, Mr. Airplane Man mainlines the smeared swagger of the Stones covering Slim Harpo on “Exile in Main St.”
This time out, Garrett and McManus also got a chance to work with one of their favorite Boston musicians, DMZ/Downbeat 5 guitarist JJ Rassler. “Every time I hear that guitar on (the title track) ‘Shakin’ Around’ I think, Wow! We’re in a song with JJ Rassler,” says Garrett. “Tara had the idea of asking him to play on it. He took a cab and came over to the studio and said ‘what do you want me to play?’ and just plugged in and jammed.”
“When they asked me to play, I couldn’t get down there fast enough,” recalls Rassler, who by day works as senior tour coordinator for Rounder Records. Rassler claims he was “blown away by the concept” of the duo before he even heard them a few years ago. “But once I saw them, I was just knocked out. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Tara’s got this tribal, primal beat that I adore, and Margaret’s ferocious on the slide. I was just shaking and saying how do these chicks know this stuff? It’s so good and dirty and real. There’s no pretense about it. It’s all from the gut, and you can’t fake that. If it were formula, everybody would be copping it.”
Despite local acclaim and some high profile associations – the late Morphine leader Mark Sandman was Mr. Airplane Man’s first mentor and creative catalyst – Garrett and McManus never sound as if they take how good they are for granted. They impart a fierce, steadfast vision of what they want their music to project – heart, soul, honesty – but that’s a different thing entirely. Mr. Airplane Man remain, first and foremost, fans and students of the music that spawned them. To get even closer to the musical culture they’ve embraced, they’re taking the next logical step. After “talking about it for three years”, Garrett says she’s finally moving to Memphis in November. McManus plans to follow suit next spring.
“I think you just learn as you go,” says McManus of the band’s taste for trance-like blues and proto-punk trash. “Knowing what you don’t like, and finding out what you like, helps. I like that there’s a certain kind of harshness to the sound (of garage-rock), but I also like stuff where there’s room to put yourself inside it. That’s why I like what Mark (Sandman) did. Morphine’s music was full of atmosphere. I think a lot of rock bands now are just overwhelming you with their volume and the spectacle of their show.”
Mr. Airplane Man knew they had found an ideal ally in ex-Oblivions/current Reigning Sound leader Greg Cartwright, when he helped mix last year’s magnificent “Moanin’”, giving it just the right blend of spit and polish. “They’re one of the best bands I’ve ever seen,” says Cartwright. “They have great song writing ability and they also know how to get into ‘the moment’.” When it came time to record “C’mon DJ”, the duo headed straight to Memphis and Cartwright. “Greg had this idea to set us up in the front room (of Easley Studios), which is the lobby,” recalls Garrett. “Usually, everybody records in the traditional, big-sounding room, but we recorded in the waiting room so that we were on top of each other. I was literally singing on top of Tara’s drums.”
The idea, Cartwright says, was to stick the band in cramped quarters and strip down the sound to its raw essentials. No vocal overdubs. No fussing around. “For a two-piece, it seemed like the big room would be too much space for their sound,” says Cartwright. “But if you put them in a small room, the intensity of the sound is going to be even heavier because there’s nowhere for it to go. It made more sense to put them in the same situation they’re in when they rehearse, where they can stand right next to each other, communicate well together, and hear themselves really well.” The result is an album whose loose, fast frills and thrills have everything to do with music that burns like a fire-hot furnace, and nothing to do with slick studio trickery.
McManus calls the experience “amazing.” In Cartwright, she says, there was “a belief that if you just relax and are in the moment and feel good – even if there’s little imperfections here and there – that’s what makes a record really great. And I finally realized that it’s better to have fun and let mistakes happen. They actually might be really cool.” As Cartwright says, “mistakes are a part of music, and sometimes they’re the best part. Sometimes, something happens accidentally and it’s like alchemy.” True to form, even Mr. Airplane Man’s rough edges have the unmistakable aura of accidental magic.