Life on a rollercoaster… in Dreamland, with MANTRA
“All of these songs mean everything to me, it’s hard to put it into words but all I can hope is that if any of them make anyone feel anything like how I felt when writing them, then that’s success.”Simon Stark, Mantra
I can’t recall how it happened exactly… but discovering this band, around seven years ago, more than filled in the vacuum resulting from the implosion of Nirvana and the sad passing of Cobain, one of my all time musical heroes. It must’ve been some ultra-specific google query, a quest to satisfy my thirst for crunchy, gritty guitar-based music, that led me to this London-based three-piece, Mantra (formerly ‘LYGER’) and their music video for ‘New Friends’, (see below). With a heavy bias towards grunge and hard rock music, my excitement went through the roof after soaking up another video from their Metropolis Studio session, ‘Stroke‘. I remember thinking these guys were going to blow up in epic fashion!
Frontman, Simon Stark, could easily pass for Kurt’s dark haired stunt-double in those early videos; his raspy vocals, cut through the sharp, fuzzy distorted guitars and pounding drums, whisking you back to the golden era of grunge music. They have taken all that ’90s alt-rock/ punk/ grungey goodness and present a reimagined, rather than regurgitated, explosion of sound for the ears of those who enjoy all things moody, hooky, riffy and melodic.
Over the years, Mantra have enjoyed support from BBC Radio 1, BBC Introducing, and Amazing Radio. They’ve shared a stage with Jane’s Addiction, Little Matador, Dolomite Minor and Radkey (as seen supporting Foo fighters and appearing in Grohl’s recent ‘What Drives Us‘ movie), played a number of major festivals, including; SXSW, Download, Reading and Leeds, and 2000 Trees and signed with Dine Alone Records, leading to the release of the ‘I Want’ EP in 2017 and debut album ‘Dreamland’ in 2019.
If that’s not already an incredible resume, Mantra have worked with elite producers and engineers, including Tom Dalgety (Royal Blood, Killing Joke, Ghost, The Pixies), notable and sought-after record producer, Rory Atwell (The Vaccines, Parma Violets, Yuck) and legendary rock record producer Chris Sheldon, (Biffy Clyro, Garbage, Feeder, Therapy? and Foo Fighters).
Despite all this incredible and well-deserved success, the past year or so has been incredibly challenging for the band who recently put out a rather ominous statement on their YouTube page. We’ve been fortunate to chat with frontman, Simon about their journey, and what the future holds. Let’s get into it…
Firstly, thanks so much for taking time to talk to us Simon… really stoked for this opportunity, having been following you for some years now!
No worries man! Thanks for reaching out I appreciate it!
Can we start with some background? For the benefit of our readers, tell us where you’re from, how you guys met, and what life looked like before you became Mantra.
Rich and I met as kids in Ealing, west London where we used to smoke weed, skate, graff and the typical teenage rebellion stuff. I didn’t even know he played bass until years later my friend suggested him and once we started jamming I knew it was going to work.
I mentioned above that I first heard your music around 2014 when you were still going under ‘LYGER’. What prompted the name change?
We played in the first incarnation of the band (LYGER) with another drummer, Andy, who left at the end of 2014 just before we went to record the ‘I Want’ EP with Tom Dalgety. Rob answered an ad after he left, and Mantra was born. Once Rob joined it only seemed appropriate to christen the new lineup with a new (and better) name.
Bands typically either get on really well with each other, whilst others barely manage to keep it together – which is true for you, and how do you manage to overcome adversity?
We’ve never really argued I’m not exactly sure why! I think it comes down to chemistry, we all have a similar
sense of humour which is absurdist and nihilistic that I think helps us to poke fun at any problems and just
laugh at them. Also everyone is pretty comfortable with their role and the dynamic of how the band works,
so it’s pretty easy actually.
What led you into becoming professional musicians rather than say… marine biologists or professional football players or… astronauts?
Music has been an obsession for as long as I can remember. Hearing Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, The Beatles, Michael Jackson or Angélique Kidjo for the first time at 3 years old sitting in front of parents boombox meant that it wasn’t even a choice to do anything else.
When I first heard ‘New Friends’ and ‘Stroke’, I remember being totally blown away… in a similar way to how I felt hearing Nirvana for the first time. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your individual influences cover a broad range of artists, including Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, QOTSA through to Autechre and Steve Reich. So rather than have you repeat yourselves… Which artists/ bands are you each currently listening to?
Wow that’s a huge compliment thank you, and I know the same feeling it’s basically the reason I’m playing
music. To be able to connect with just one person through a song is the goal, and I know the exact same feeling because it happened to me too with all those bands you mentioned.
Right now I’m listening to Goldhope, Illiterate Light, Jon Hopkins, Madison Cunningham and Foals. Listen to Black Country New Road if you get a chance too, they’re bonkers!
Where (and when) did you first perform as a band, and how have your shows developed over time?
The first show as Mantra was at the Camden Assembly, but since then we’ve played KOKO, SXSW and
Reading Festival. I always want to improve the live show as much as possible, so we introduced a sample
pad and lighting rig on the last tour and I’d really like to explore visualisations to make it more of an
Playing at Reading is a huge achievement, and aside from those prestigious events you’ve played with some incredible artists such as Jane’s Addiction, Jimmy Eat World, and Radkey. Which would be your most memorable performance to date?
The tour with Radkey was so great, those guys are the best! Janes Addiction was an incredible show, to
play in front of 3,000 people at the O2 in Manchester with such an important band like that was so humbling.
Being on the same bill at SXSW with Jimmy Eat World was maybe the funnest because everything you can
think of that could go wrong went wrong. I broke a string, Robs kick pedal broke, Rich had a brain fart and
stopped playing for some reason and I tried to do a classic rock knee slide like the doofus I am and
accidentally unplugged my guitar lead… How embarrassing! But even with all that chaos the vibe there was so good it didn’t matter and we just had so much fun.
Performing live to 3,000 people must’ve been an absolutely amazing experience! And, some of your other incredible experiences surely include the studio sessions – you recorded with Tom Dalgety!! What was that like for you guys?
Recording at Rockfield was like walking on to hallowed ground. It’s where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. Oasis recorded What’s the Story (Morning Glory) and Coldplay did Parachutes there. Also can’t forget Hawkwind (RIP Lemmy). So just being there itself was amazing but being able to record with Tom Dalgety was even more special. I’d never worked with a producer before, so it was a learning curve for me. I think I was quite insecure about the songs, I didn’t know if they were good enough and I just wanted them to be as good as they could be. At one point I remember Tom saying I had “Demo-itis” which was probably a fair comment, so I had to adjust to filtering my songs through his genius brain, which amazingly we got to do again when we returned to record our album ‘Dreamland’.
The songs are all awesome but one in particular had such an impact on me, ‘New Friends’. It’s a killer track! If you were to call out one track from your back catalogue that you’re especially proud of, which would it be?
It’s really hard to pick but I think ‘I Want’ was a turning point for us, and I remember writing that one thinking ‘wow this is writing itself’. But honestly, I’m really proud of the new songs because we’ve got some that use literally all the chords, and others that only use one note so I think it’s some of the most interesting stuff we’ve done yet.
The ‘I Want‘ EP was the first thing we released as a band, so it’s kind of like an introduction to the Mantra sound. Fun fact is that I played drums on ‘I Want‘ and ‘Destroy You’.
I’ve experienced that ‘this song is writing itself’ feeling before now… though it’s very rare, and infrequent. Are there times when you’re finding the opposite is true, and how do you typically combat that?
I always feel like I’ve got writers block. It’s actually quite scary. Not knowing when another song is going to
come, or if it’s going to come ever again. I feel like you have to totally start again from the beginning after a song is finished. But somehow they always appear.
What would be the best advice you’ve been given in your career, and what advice would you give musicians and artists that are yet to be discovered?
My friend Guy told me to “kill your babies”, meaning, finish a song and let it go. Because it’s difficult for me to know if anything is good enough, or if anyone would want to hear it. Especially after investing so much of myself in the songs, so it’s a way of reminding myself to move on.
When it comes to investing time into your songs, your recent YouTube video ‘announcement’ hints at a new album, but also some uncertainty… can you expand on that, and maybe share some of the challenges you’ve experienced over the past couple of years?
There have been so many, being in a band is so fun, but when you zoom out and realise you’re spinning plates between writing, rehearsing, band admin and holding down a full time job it’s a bit like that old Fast Show sketch; “hardest game in the world”. I think right now is pretty challenging. I was ready for a break after our last gig when we played Reading in 2019, we’d been working so hard for the last few years on getting there but I didn’t know the break was going to last this long, so getting back on the bike to climb the mountain of the music industry again is
Corona has been pretty uninspiring, and it’s sad that everyone has basically lost a year of their lives, but we recorded our next album in lockdown so there’s still something to look forward to. And I think it’s the best thing we’ve done yet. We’re free agents now and still not sure of how it’s going to come out, or when, if at all…
Well, I’m certainly hoping that it’ll find its way out at some point. A follow-up to Dreamland would be most welcome! Meanwhile, let’s dive into the album, and if you can tell us a little bit about how it came together?
‘Dreamland‘ expands on the ‘I Want’ EP, but with a more diverse dynamic range of quiet and loud which is something I really wanted to explore. All of these songs mean everything to me, it’s hard to put it into words but all I can hope is that if any of them make anyone feel anything like how I felt when writing them, then that’s success.
We really appreciate your time Simon, and we’re hoping that the new album does see the light of day… soon! Wishing you every success. Readers can find Mantra on Instagram, Facebook and all the major music streaming platforms.