Maneka on tapping into Bad Brains’ jazzier side with new album ‘Dark Matters’—interview

When Bad Brains embarked on their reunion tour in 2008, Devin McKnight fondly remembers the band’s swerve between headlong hardcore and reggae when he saw them at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

“It showed the breadth of their influence and style, even though it was such a stark change,” he explains over Zoom. “So I’ve always wanted to try to do that with my own music because I did a lot of jazz stuff in music school. It just felt like giving the complete picture because I never really get to do any of that anymore.”

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Under his solo project Maneka, McKnight shows that his music is a collision of worlds. Often melding genres together (jazz, punk, shoegaze, etc.) to create a mutant sound, he decided to scale back and try something new. That meant forgoing his punk influences and alien distortion in favor of a necessary calm. On Dark Matters, his second record, McKnight oscillates between jazzy interludes and sprawling rock. It’s the sound of an artist who’s truly found his voice, both literally and figuratively. McKnight says he took a handful of vocal lessons between this record and his last, which spurred uplifted confidence that you can hear from front to back.

Going into the new album, I really loved the interludes. Even though you’ve mixed jazz into your work in the past, what made you want to be heavier on it this time? 

Most of the rock songs, I had those for a really long time. I guess I was trying to make a more complete body of work. I think I just had the idea of trying something different. I think of it like a palate cleanser in between songs. I remember when I was in my early 20s, I saw Bad Brains on a tour. It was actually the night that Obama was elected. It was really weird with that all happening at once.

But they had this whole thing where they would do really, really crazy hardcore. Then all of a sudden, the audience got to have a break after five songs. They would go into really, really chill dub/reggae stuff. So I just liked how they were able to seamlessly go between the two. It was a welcome break, even though I was having so much fun. I’ve heard so much about them growing up [in D.C.] that I brought it all home, so to speak.

How long did it take you to record the album? 

Not very long. I have a process where all my previous albums, my home demos, were pretty much what I made the album into. So I would take those and then get my friend Mike [Thomas] to mix them. But this time, I took the home demos, and then we just started from scratch in the studio. Recording-wise, we didn’t have a lot of time. So, drums in a day, guitars, bass, keys in a day. Then I did vocals over the course of maybe a few days in my bedroom, and that was it.

What’s the biggest change you’ve undergone as an artist between your last album, Devin, to now?

I’m a million times better vocalist than I was at the beginning of Devin because I didn’t really know still what I wanted. I didn’t even practice before recording the vocals on Devin. I just figured I could go in there and have the ideas in my head and do the vocals. But this time around, I demoed them all and got them all ready and went through a much fuller workshopping, even if it was just me, and it really, really paid off in the end.

I got better at writing synths. I put a lot of synth on this record. I’m not a piano player, so. [Laughs.] As a guitarist, you look at synths as this whole big, intimidating world to get into because there’s a lot to know. I had the extra time, so I figured, “Why not hop in and try doing it myself?” So that was a big step.

[Also], having Jordyn Blakely play drums. She’d been playing in Maneka for a while. Just having her perform on the albums was a big thing because I felt like I had a consistent bandmate. So it made the sound a little bit more streamlined, I think, on the record this time. It’s not quite as distorted and heavy. I’ve definitely gone back on this in my head a lot because now all I wanna do is write heavy music. But for a while, the idea I was having was I wanted to make something that made sense with me being a fully formed adult. I’m going to keep making music; I want my music to reflect how far I’ve come.

Is that one of the reasons you’re doing more singing on this album instead of talk-singing? I’m thinking of a song like “Mixer” from Devin compared to the tracks on Dark Matters.

There’s less punk stuff. There’s less distorted guitars. I took a handful of vocal lessons, and I just felt more confident. I don’t really know whether that was reflective of my maturity or anything. I think I learned actually how to use [my voice] more.

Are there any songs that come to mind that were hard to record or write? 

Bluest Star” was difficult because it changed a few times. It was about something that I don’t think I was completely prepared to explore thematically. Also, I have this really bad habit of writing stuff that’s in a weird part of my range, singing-wise, and it’s super hard to hit the higher of those two voices in a higher voice. So I had to try to do that so many times. [Laughs.]

Winner’s Circle” definitely wasn’t easy because I had to explain the structure to Jordyn in a way that made sense. “Zipline” took me a few. I had to write and rewrite those lyrics over again a few times, to the point where I was super proud of it. It was a sensitive topic, so I didn’t want to do a bad job with that. Also, it’s literally only one riff the whole song, so I feel like the vocals have to do it justice.

What’s the last song or album that you listened to and loved? 

I’m gonna be honest with you, I’ve been going through a weird thing with music in general. I still love music, but I’m finding it harder and harder to just sit down and enjoy stuff. I know that might sound weird, but I think going back and listening to a lot of the emo stuff from when I was in high school. So, I just was listening to the Used’s self-titled. That album was so good. I used to be embarrassed to say I liked it even back then. It’s cheesy in the fact that it’s so dramatic, but there’s a lot of good songs on it. That album really kicks ass.

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This story appeared in issue #403 with cover star Dominic Fike, available here.