Progress Report: MNDR
Progress Report: MNDR’s Amanda Warner chats about the group’s debut full length, Feed Me Diamonds.
MNDR is the brainchild of vocalist/musician Amanda Warner (who uses MNDR as her musical nom de plume) and producer Peter Wade. The two turned heads back in 2010 with their E.P.E. EP and excellent singles like “I Go Away” and “Caligula.” Not only did the band have indelible hooks, but Warner herself seemed tailor-made for pop stardom — great voice, great style, and a knack for writing great, smart pop songs. The buzz around MNDR only intensified with the release of Mark Ronson’s “Bang Bang Bang” that same year (a song co-written by Warner on which she shares vocal duties with Q-Tip) from his excellent Record Collection collabfest. Warner would eventually spend much of the next two years touring alongside Ronson and a slew of other bands while fielding offers from a variety of record labels and big-name producers eager to court her professionally. As it turns out, forging your own path in the pop world — even with everyone chasing after you — is no easy task. Earlier this year MNDR released the first single (“#1 in Heaven”) from her forthcoming record, Feed Me Diamonds, which is due out next month. I had the chance to talk with Warner about the pressures of recording her first proper full-length and the problems involved in not wanting to be the next Ke$ha.
STEREOGUM: What were you doing before the MNDR project took off?
WARNER: Well, I’m actually a bass player by trade, so I was designing keyboard rigs and playing bass for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs while they were making the It’s Blitz record, but I didn’t end up going on tour with them because the MNDR stuff was starting to pick up speed, so I figured I should probably see it through.
STEREOGUM: Well, it was a good thing that you did. After the “Bang Bang Bang” track blew up and suddenly you were the object of all this attention, was it hard to navigate after that? Hard to figure out what was the next logical step to take?
WARNER: Yes. Absolutely. I actually had a very clear concept of what I wanted to do, but once you get to work with an artist like Mark Ronson, it sort of just elevates the status of your project very quickly and suddenly there are all these people who want to do business with you and be creatively involved with you. I just had to be very careful. It was a very bumpy road … choosing a label, trying to gauge people’s interest, finding management. I actually waited a really long time to find management. I waited until I felt like I really needed it. The creative aspect was always very clear to me, but the business and the label situation for “pop” music was very contrary to what I wanted to do.
STEREOGUM: I would assume that there would be a lot of people in that world who might be very eager to get their claws into an artist like you and who might have a lot of really embarrassing ideas of what you should to do immediately make some big money.
WARNER: Oh God, yes. They would have really had me Ke$ha-out in a big way. It was really … in terms of career choices, deciding how to proceed after the success of my early singles was really just the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, aside from actual life and death stuff. There were so many choices and I said no to a lot of labels and a lot of big producers. I just felt like people liked me the way I am and the way I make music, why mess with that? Having fans that enjoy what you do … that is the thing that really makes your career. People in the business would like you to believe otherwise. I’m not one of those artists who want to spend a lot of time talking about the evils of “the business” — I mean, it is what it is — I just wanted to do what felt right.
STEREOGUM: So, after you sorted out all of that stuff, how did you set about making your new record?
WARNER: I’m writing all the time, so I had a lot of material ready to go. We recorded in Peter Wade’s studio, which is called Wonder Sound. I made demos at my little home studio in Bushwick, and then we’d just file-share things. I did so much touring with MNDR during that time, so I had to write a lot on the road. So all in all, I can’t even tell you how long the process took. Technically, I already had a record done when “Bang Bang Bang” came out, but I just wouldn’t compromise regarding my vision and everyone just wanted to A&R me to death. I was just, “No.” The only options people wanted to present me with A&R-wise was to be another Katy Perry or a Ke$ha — and nothing against either of them, I mean, go get it, ladies — but that’s not what I do. So I pretty much had a record done then, but because of all the business stuff and the touring in between, plus the recording, it all took over three years.
STEREOGUM: God, how frustrating.
WARNER: Yeah, it is a little bit. But it also gave me fuel — and time — to keep writing. Plus you also have to just be thankful that anyone is interested. I was just working it as “one fan at a time” and was grateful to the people who were listening to me. Those are the people who have the power. At least for an artist like me.
STEREOGUM: The record sounds amazing. Production-wise, did you have a pretty clear vision of what the sound and the aesthetic should be from the get go?
WARNER: Oh yeah. I wanted something that was like industrial pop. Peter and I talked about that right from the beginning. Something kind of dark. I’m also a DJ, so I know a lot of electronic music and the stuff I was always more into veered towards the more German, more minimal variety. I like Richie Hawtin and stuff like that. I was trying to keep those influences In mind while we were working through the songs.
STEREOGUM: Tony Maserati — who has also worked with Beyonce and Lady Gaga — mixed the record. How did you get hooked up with him?
WARNER: I feel so lucky. He is actually Peter Wade’s mentor and they work together. He was a big fan of MNDR and volunteered to mix it, which was such a blessing. I feel like the luckiest person on the planet.
STEREOGUM: How are you gonna perform this material live?
WARNER: As of right now it’s still a one-woman show, but I’m putting together a band so I’m hoping that it will be a combination of both. There are some bands that can really benefit from a live band setup, but other songs don’t really need it. You don’t really need a live drummer on a dance track, you know? It wasn’t recorded with one and there’s no need to add one just for the sake of doing it. So, it’s gonna be a combination of both. I’m also working with a lighting designer right now named Jamie Carreiro, so I hope we can really go to the next level with that as well. There will be lots of lights and lots of jams.
STEREOGUM: He was the same person who worked on your stage show before, right? He created the interactive light show thing that you had going.
WARNER: Yes, exactly. I’m still working with him.
STEREOGUM: I live in Brooklyn and I remember seeing you play very early on — tiny little spaces — and then saw you gradually move up to bigger stages and bigger tours. It’s cool when you can actually witness something grow beyond it’s infancy into something bigger.
WARNER: Thank you so much for saying that and thank you for ever coming to any of those early shows. Some of them were a crazy mess.
STEREOGUM: Even early on you always appeared pretty self-assured and in control of what you were doing. Has performing gotten easier for you since then?
WARNER: Absolutely. It took me a long time to really get used to it and I’d say it’s only recently that I’ve really found it. I came from the world of … well, I made pop music, but I wasn’t necessarily the front person when I first started. Then I made a lot of experimental music, which is really its own thing that comes with its own set of things happening and reasons why you are doing things onstage. It was really only on my most recent tour that it finally clicked for me and I could really feel it coming back at me from the audience. There was no confusion for me, it just felt right. You know, previous to that I would do things like record myself rehearsing and then watch the tapes to try and figure out what I was doing wrong and oh my god, that is just fucking painful. It worked though, and I felt like I needed to do that in order to get past my own general awkwardness on stage. Though, I’m still pretty awkward as a person.
STEREOGUM: There are certainly plenty of people making smart and interesting pop music right now, but do you ever feel that people might not take you as seriously — or might not be as interested in the message — because you are making electronic-based pop music?
WARNER: Hmm. Not necessarily, it’s more of thing where … well, the melodies and the production on the more obvious pop songs can really take you out of the song’s meaning in a totally escapist way, which is also great. You know, it can be that you are just singing along because it makes you want to move or you can really be connecting to what the song is really about — it can work on both levels. That’s what I love about pop music when it really works.
STEREOGUM: And in the best case, great pop music works on both your body and your mind. I like that too.
WARNER: The other day I was at my sister’s house and I was watching the Today show and Pitbull was on there. He was saying something along the lines of “Music is less than ten percent creative and more than 90 percent just about business … and I want to own it that way” and I was just of dumbfounded by it. And people really cheered for that statement. And I don’t know, maybe that’s some kind of post-modern zen bullshit that’s totally true, but it mostly just makes me want to barf. I just … I just can’t think about it that way.
WARNER: I just think about great pop music from when I was a kid that also happened to be really commercial. Like, say, Duran Duran for instance. It was pop music for teenage girls but it still had some kind of deeper meaning. I mean, can’t it be about something? How many more songs do there need to be about how you are rich and totally balling at a club? I don’t care.
STEREOGUM: What’s next then? What’s the rest of this year like for you?
WARNER: Touring. I love being on the road, so I’m really looking forward to that. Tons of promo and stuff. It’s been such a long process, so I’m kind of dying to get this new stuff out there. I’m also really excited about the stuff I’m writing now, so I hope this year I can figure out a way to release a lot of new music. I’m just excited to work, you know? I’m gonna work it out.
Feed Me Diamonds is out 8/14 on Ultra Music.