“Listening to music together, that was a huge part of our friendship.”
By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
It’s been nearly two decades since Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus released their first record as Mr. Airplane Man, but the guitar-and-drum duo’s roots stretch back much further than that.
From when they first met, as 10-year-olds, “music was our connection,” Garrett recalls over the phone from Waltham, Mass, where she currently lives. “Listening to music together, that was a huge part of our friendship.” They made each other mixtapes. As teenagers, they went to punk shows together.
But with the exception of summers spent together at camp, they were almost always at some distance: as kids, they lived a 40-minute bus ride apart. They got older and went to separate colleges. Currently, for the first time in a while, they’re both living on the East Coast – McManus is in Providence, Rhode Island. But that sort of geographic closeness is rare and temporary. “We are kind of both not quite rooted in a specific place,” writes Garrett in a later text message, describing herself as a drifter “ever looking to make a home on high.” But regardless of distance, their connection is always there.
It’s something you can hear in their music, which is often categorized simply as garage rock, but feels like something wilder, freer and more expansive than that label suggests. The duo draws from the sparse jangle of the Velvet Underground and the unfastened ferocity of the Stooges; Garrett’s slide guitar – a technique she originally picked up to add some extra noise to her Sonic Youth-influenced college band – pays heavy, noisy homage to blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Fred McDowell and Jessie Mae Hemphill. (And that’s a shorter auditory walk than one might think: “If you listen to Fred MacDowell,” Garrett says, “It’s blues, and it’s not going way out. But … the way he’s using that slide … it feels like he’s messing with time and space. It’s very psychedelic in a very subtle way.”)
Playing as a two-piece has its sonic limitations, but can also allow for a kind of psychic bond and level of visceral expression that is harder to achieve with a larger band. From the start, “we had this really intense connection, this really special connection and we kind of had a bubble around us,” Garrett says. “And even in the early days when we were like, “Oh I guess we need to find a bass player, I guess we need to find another guitar player,” we would play with some people and it never really worked.”
As obvious and indelible as that musical chemistry might be now, Garrett notes that it took a little roundabout nudging from another Mr. Airplane Man influence – the late Morphine frontman Mark Sandman – to help discover it.
Living in Boston in the very early ’90s, Garrett went to see that elegant alt-blues-rock trio, and afterwards approached Sandman to ask if he would give her guitar lessons. “He said, ‘I’m not really a guitar teacher but if you want to come over I’ll show you what I know.’” The lessons were unconventional: Sandman was a far cry from the folky guitar teacher Garrett had in middle school, with whom she *plink* *plink* *plinked* her way through ditties like “Drunken Sailor.”
“Mark would get me really high and play something he’d been working on and would say, ‘What do you think of this?’ and every now and then he would show me a chord,” Garrett remembers with a fond chuckle. “And he talked a lot about, ‘This is the stance you take,’ … looking back it was like he was teaching me Qigong moves … He was kind of all about how you hold yourself, and the right mindset.”
But what Garrett really wanted to know was how to start a band. “[Sandman’s] like, ‘I think you should just travel for a while. I think you shouldn’t worry right now about starting a band.’ And it was the best advice he’d given me. Because the only person I had to stay with cross country was Tara.”
Mr. Airplane Man ended up doing its first tour with Morphine, and Sandman’s influence remains. Sometimes it comes across in the duo’s ability to express erotic menace, or ice-cold sophistication. Sometimes it’s more explicit: 2018s Jacaranda Blue includes a track called “Angels Between Us (For Mark).”
Garrett and McManus continue to expand the limits of what they can achieve musically as a two-piece. For their forthcoming new record, Garrett – inspired by seeing another guitar/drum act, the Gunn-Truscinski Duo – bought a loop pedal, which helps create the impression of a second guitar, and ultimately a fuller sound.
“We’ve always done our best work when I come in there with a foggy notion about something, and Tara takes it, and kind of interprets it her way, and then it goes back and forth a bit so we’re kind of improv-ing together,” Garrett says. “So we just kind of wanted to capture that.” They decided to record live, surrounded by mics, with the two musicians facing each other as if it was a practice. “When Tara can hear the loop going really well, it’s so ecstatic and fun,” Garrett adds. “It was definitely really fun doing it. And it’s going to be totally different than anything we’ve ever recorded.”
Regardless of where in the world either member ends up next, Mr. Airplane Man will endure. “I love what we do. I love the ecstasy of where we can go together,” Garrett says. Looking back to the beginning, “[It] was such a life saver to find your soulmate in a friend.
“I think we both walked around feeling weird and lonely, we were both total loners and weirdos and not necessarily relating and connecting to most of the other kids in our world. So when we found each other it was really amazing that we had so much in common and really clicked.”
- AIRPLANE MAN with ASTROLOGY NOW, THE GARMENT DISTRICT. 7 p.m. Thursday, April 11. Get Hip Warehouse, 1800 Columbus Ave., North Side. $10. www.gethip.com