IN HIGH GEAR Classic rock from the ’50s to the ’70s inspires the music of Jonny Manak and the Depressives. Photo by Cory Schwaderer
Jonny Manak has always been a busy guy. It used to be that in addition to fronting his own group, Jonny Manak and the Depressives, he was playing in every other local punk rock band (Odd Numbers, Texas Thieves, the Forgotten to name a few), and would play whatever instrument they needed filling, all while being a professional skateboarder.
Those days are past. He still has his own group, but instead of playing in everyone else’s band, he’s funneling that energy into writing original music for MTV programs like Lawyer Squad, Ridiculousness, and even Jackass reruns. Plus he holds down a full-time job in sales. His latest batch of new songs will be introduced August 2 at the Blank Club opening for Odd Numbers.
Considering all this non-stop full-throttle energy, not to mention his animated personality, it would seem the best possible made-up stage name for him would be, well, “Jonny Manak”.
“It totally sounds like a fake stage name,” Manak says. “My real name is Manak. It’s on my birth certificate.”
The Depressives, though, was a response to everyone, even co-workers unaware he was a musician, always calling him “Jonny Manic-Depressive”.
There was no group, however, on the first Jonny Manak and the Depressive album, 2006’s Rebound Town. Manak put it together in a month—he wrote everything and played all the instruments himself. Now, seven years later, he celebrates the release of his fourth LP, Primitive Sounds for a Modern World, which as Manak explains, fits him because, “I play primitive music. It’s a modern world.”
By primitive, Manak is referring to classic rock & roll, everything from Chuck Berry to the late ’70s punk rock explosion, but that’s about as far as he goes.
“I love ’50s rock & roll. I love early ’60s white-boy rock, where it’s the Sonics trying to do Chuck Berry. I like the late ’60s acid psychedelic trippy garage punk that’s really fucking obnoxious. I really like the 1977 dirty rock & roll like the Dead Boys and Jonny Thunders. I can keep going forever,” Manak says.
Despite how different a lot of these old scenes might appear, they share a similar lineage. As Manak points out, it all started with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. This trio of artists influenced everyone Manak loves.
“I just like to put all that shit in a blender and what comes out is what I play,” Manak says. “I don’t want to sound like a new band. I don’t want to sound like anybody else’s band, but I want to sound like a tribute to an era.”
Each of Manak’s albums have had a somewhat different sound, which is due in part to a near-constant rotating cast of band members, but each album combines elements of these old rock sub-genres. Even before the Depressives, when Manak’s main band was the Cliftons (1999-2005), their jokey ’80s hardcore was done with such authenticity they were able to build a noteworthy fanbase and open for all the major reunited ’80s hardcore bands from that time period.
Manak’s love for era rock, and being able to effectively recreate it, is precisely what led to a prolific side career selling songs to TV shows. It all started in 2002 when, through the help of his older brother, Peanut Butter Wolf, he got a Cliftons song into an episode of Viva La Bam. Manak worked hard to keep that connection, and others that came as a result of it. He has gotten more than 100 songs by his various bands into TV shows, movies, commercials and skate videos.
For most of this soundtrack work, Manak was selling songs he’d already written and recorded, but the past year and a half, he’s been commissioned to write original music specifically for TV shows, and will remain in the TV Studio’s library for future use. In reruns of Jackass on MTV, where there once may have been a Ramones song, there is now a Jonny Manak song.
“All the music licenses have expired,” he says. “Think about it. ‘Hi we’re going to start a show. It’s going to be called Jackass. We want to use your music, the Ramones.’ ‘Yeah, ok, $1,000.’ Then Jackass explodes. Fast forward, ‘Hey we need to renew that license.’ ‘That’ll be $50,000, you’re Jackass.’ So they call me. ‘We want you to write a song like Ramones’ ‘Psychotherapy’ to replace ‘Psychotherapy,’” Manak says.
For Jackass, they gave him specific instructions on what the song should sound like, and what scene it would be for. For one song, for instance, they asked him to write a fast punk tune called “That’s going to leave a mark” for a montage of the Jackass crew getting hit in the head with rakes and other “mark-leaving” accidents. The studio asked him to specifically describe ridiculous unlikely situations that would have left a mark. (“Hey man I got bit by a shark/that’s gonna leave a mark/met a stripper and she stole my heart/that’s gonna leave a mark) Manak wrote the song and recorded it in his home studio with his producer/engineer Neil Young (No, not that Neil Young). Manak played all the instruments himself. He did this all in just an hour.
The release of Primitive Sounds for a Modern World will be on vinyl, something important to Manak. Side A has seven new songs with Manak on guitar, drums and vocals and Bobby Wilcox on bass. Side B features older, mostly unreleased songs recorded live on the air on 89.7 FM KFJC in 2013 with Manak on guitar/vocals, Wilcox on bass and new member Thor DSR on drums.
“Vinyl to me is something you can hold,” Manak says. “You can have this beautiful artwork. It’s something that’s an experience. It’s not just—double-click on your iPhone and music comes on.”
Saturday’s show at the Blank Club is a rare opportunity to catch Manak, who only a couple years ago was playing shows as often as possible. Now, he only books a couple shows a year.
“I don’t leave my house,” Manak says. “I make more money off of music than I’ve ever made, and all I have to do is walk 10 fucking steps. Playing shows is fun and all when people are into it. I would rather just use that time in here with Neil Young.”
Jonny Manak and the Depressives
Blank Club, San Jose
Fri, 9pm, $10