Mantis is sleeper-agent music. I dismissed it at first.
But I kept thinking about how the keyboard part in “Small Clone” floats above the chord progression, while a slide guitar plays the melody. And how the harmony vocals on “Jonathon Smith Travels North,” which say little more than “la la la,” somehow add meaning.
Then there’s the seamless flow into “No More Sugar”; the grabby, singalong refrain of “I Know Ya”; the subtle vocal processing, stop-start riffs and meter shifts of “Lakeside” and “Pineapple Pete.” Warmth, complexity and playfulness intersect in unexpected ways, and it’s all fairly groovy, in a mid-‘60s spy-movie sort of sound.
Wait, I’ve listened several times now. How did that happen?
Mantis is Clara Huebenthal, Daniel S. Carr, Zach Forlenza-Bailey, Matthew Venora and Mitch Britton. There’s no point in mentioning what they play, because they jump from instrument to instrument, depending on the song. (Huebenthal mostly plays bass and sings.)
The band operates out of a house in Bloomfield, which doubles as Blind Moose Studios — Carr’s full-service recording facility, and a place that regularly hosts house shows. (Carr’s roommate, Stephen Friedland of the band Fat Randy, handles many of the bookings.)
“It’s the intimacy, especially here,” Carr says of Blind Moose shows. “We stress diversifying not only the music but the people here, trying to not make it such a safe space that everyone is not stepping outside … [It’s] a neutral space. We don’t want to just hear four rock bands in a row.”
“You can come to a show here and hear someone free-styling, rapping over an instrumental beat, followed by a reggae band, followed by a punk band in the same night,” Venora adds.
Mantis happened when Carr and Huebenthal, who met at UConn, started writing songs together; “I Know Ya” was one of their first efforts. “[Carr] actually gave me a bass and I started learning,” Huebenthal says. “It wasn’t really a band,” Carr says. “We just record all the time.”
Huebenthal and Britton, who still attends UConn, grew up in Southbury. “We’ve had friends in common for a few years,” Britton says.
Forlenza-Bailey and Venora were jazz students at Ithaca College. Venora began sitting in with Carr, Huebenthal and Britton. Armed with a few songs, the quartet took Carr’s Tascam 388 8-track machine (Mantis records everything to analog tape) to Venora’s grandparents’ house in Wilmington, Vt.
“The whole side of the house is just a window facing into the woods,” Venora says. “We thought it would be a nice chance to get away and block out that chunk of time.” Mantis recorded “Mantis I,” a six-song album, in four days.
Forlenza-Bailey, who plays saxophone and keyboards, first sat in during a backyard gig.
“They were very nice and welcoming,” he says. “I pretty much improvised the whole show. … I’d been to a few shows before, so the music wasn’t too foreign, but it definitely was new. I like that I’m not on the recordings. It’s a time capsule of where Mantis was.”
Funnybone Records, owned and operated by West Hartford resident Dylan Healy, released “I” on CD and cassette. The band has performed at Sully’s Pub and Hanging Hills Brewery in Hartford and a few other venues. Mantis hasn’t done any touring yet.
“That would be really fun, if we could talk about it and make it happen,” Forlenza-Bailey says. “But that’s for another day to talk about.”
During songwriting sessions, a band member will bring in ideas, and everyone else works out a part that fits.
“We’re all trying to figure out how our specific piece will fit into the puzzle to make the song as effective as possible,” Venora says. “If I’m on keys, I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m trying to create a texture that will slide right in.”
“Something I really enjoy about this group is the vocals are sometimes used as sonic instruments,” Forlenza-Bailey says. “It’s not always about the lyrics, but just the tone of it, which I dig so much. It’s a cool thing people don’t take advantage enough of these days.”
At gigs, a recorded song shape-shifts into something else.
“When it’s live, we’re taking it to another place,” Venora says. “We’re stretching things out. We’re trying to keep the sets charged the entire time, that focused energy.”
“It’s like pizza dough,” Huebenthal says. “We started with one ball, slowly got the pie stretching, and soon enough, the toppings will go on.”
Like most maturing Connecticut bands, there’s some discussion of leaving the state.
“We talked about moving to Northampton,” Huebenthal says. “We had that in mind for a while, but we couldn’t really find a place. It was hard. Places just get eaten up there.”
The ideal city, Carr says, is one with a vibrant music scene and a number of “quality venues.”
“There are a lot of places to play around here, but it’s not like people are going to listen to music. Basement shows are normally what I consider to be the best listening environments, compared with playing in a loud bar. … Everyone talks about getting paid or not getting paid for shows. We want to get paid. That can be tough around here, depending on the shows.”
“I think, if anything, our desire is to be somewhere diverse — geographically, artistically, humanly, just to see something new,” Huebenthal says. “We’ve all been here for our whole lives. I’m ready for something new and different.
“There are so many great artists in Hartford and Connecticut,” Britton adds. “We’re already in a great spot. But it’s hard to stay in Connecticut.”
Last month, I visited Mantis at Blind Moose, where they played me an unrecorded song called “Double Bull’s Eye,” built around a relaxed, two-chord vamp.
Forlenza-Bailey played keys. Carr and Britton were on guitars, Huebenthal stayed on bass, and Venora took a seat behind the drums. “It started as a jam, and everyone just happened to be on those instruments,” Britton says.
“We were playing darts at a Hanging Hills [Brewery] show, and Matt [Venora] scored a bull’s eye. Literally five seconds later, I got a bull’s eye.”
Stream and purchase Mantis’ music on Bandcamp.
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.