Welcome To Mandy, Indiana
1AM is not a good SXSW slot. Maybe it’s alright if you’re, like, Ashanti. You get to take the stage for an elite cadre of platinum AmEx holders, all of whom have spent the past eight hours in line tweeting things like “#SXSW intel: That surprise headliner? I’m hearing it’s Ashanti.”
But when indie artists are booked last on a small-scale showcase, they very frequently find themselves playing to the lamest crowds of all time. You’ll find industry nomads shut out of vanity label showcases, despondent thrill-seekers who failed to finesse themselves into off-the-grid afterparties, bar hopping drunk people who are still drinking because they don’t have to drive anywhere, “journalists.”
It’d be unfair to say that this characterization stands equally for the 40-or-so-people who attend Mandy, Indiana’s debut American performance Tuesday morning. There are definitely a bunch of dudes pacing around doing business shit on their phones, and also a bald guy with a Mr. Meeseeks tattoo who angrily flips off the venue’s wall-mounted Union Jack into his Instagram reel. But the Manchester band’s pummeling industrial spin cycle is whipping the fuck around the “British Music Embassy” (that’s what the fake-outdoor-but-actually-indoor event space the Courtyard becomes each SXSW; British bands are also allowed to go off and play other venues as well, for some reason), and at least 15% of the crowd is rocking out with them.
Obviously I’m with the boppers, though I have to admit this venue isn’t right for Mandy, Indiana’s strengths. In a properly claustrophobic environment, the band’s incessant throb would conjure the feeling of suffocating in a nightclub fire (this is meant positively). But that’s not the Courtyard — where each live show becomes a kitschy, Epcot Park approximation of some spontaneous alleyway rave, with faux grass walls and mezzanines styled as balconies. Here the band’s music hits more like the faint, dawning awareness that the drum machine is covering up a beeping smoke alarm. This would be a great place to see, like, 2012 Local Natives.
However, on the level of “oh, this is how they make their stuff,” it’s tremendously gratifying to watch Mandy, Indiana perform. On debut album i’ve seen a way — out this Friday — their jagged soundscapes seem closer to the naturally emanating noises of induction furnaces than the product of a guitar band. But wouldn’t you know it, there’s four of them up on that stage. Alex MacDougall is actually pounding out that looping, mechanized drum beat. Those vacuum cleaner squalls are really coming from bandleader Scott Fair’s pedal board. Synth wizard Simon Catling isn’t a field-recording left on loop but a dude with a sickass beard who used to write for The Quietus. And frontwoman Valentine Caulfield… oh, wait, sorry. Valentine Caulfield has left the stage.
As the band hammers a single beefy note into thin, dripping gruel, Caulfield has surreptitiously dipped — taking a pause from her spoken-word French intonations and occasional outbursts of theatrical laughter to dissolve herself completely in the crowd. She scratches her nose, yawns a little, and occasionally does a little dance. This strikes me in the moment as a very avant-garde thing to do. I recall an interview where Caulfield had discussed her desire to make audiences uncomfortable, and jot down a note to ask her the next day if that’s what this was.
“No, no,” she corrects me. “I was uncomfortable. I was literally falling asleep backstage about 15 minutes before we went on, and didn’t want that to happen for real on stage when nothing was going on.”
“Oh yes. The ‘nothing’ that we other three do,” Fair prods, an impish grin on his face. Mandy, Indiana was born out of his email exchanges of material with Caulfield. No matter how alien the sonic landscapes they’ve since traversed, there remains a sinister effervesce to their music that’s immediately traceable to this puckish back-and-forth. “You do that a lot though, don’t you? Not just last night. You wander off.”
“I just enjoy, you know, actually listening to the group, dancing with the audience” she retorts. “Singers don’t get to do that ever. Our music is all about creating environments and spaces, so my performance depends a lot on my ability to feel the music. Frankly, I don’t see the use in my standing there doing a little rockstar thing. And as you can tell I’m a terrible fucking dancer… I’m even worse when I’ve been up for an uninterrupted fucking day.”
It’s not just her. All of Mandy, Indiana are fucking exhausted — like, “debating among themselves whether ordering a midday coffee is just gonna make things worse” exhausted. After a transatlantic flight spent behind “the only row of people in the world who think it’s acceptable to completely recline on a plane,” the band pulled up, dumped their bags, and played the Courtyard on more than 24 consecutive hours without sleep.
Luckily, we’ve come to Kerbey Lane — UT Austin’s premier hangover spot — and with the students all on Spring Break, this is probably the best/only public place to get clear interview audio of several British people around a table. The coffee debate is settled when the band opens the doors and realizes that there exists at least one alternate energy source to caffeine.
“OH MY GOSH! IT SMELLS LIKE MAPLE SYRUP IN HERE,” Caulfield exclaims.
Months later, several excellent profiles will come out that showcase the awake, engaged, fully roused side of Mandy, Indiana’s artistry. They’re the beating heart of Manchester’s DIY scene, here to combat our dystopian hellscape with menacing post-punk. With all due respect, I feel grateful to have been given the chance to speak with these musicians at their sleepiest. Once everybody had a pancake in front of them, the vulnerability and candor that emerged from Mandy, Indiana was inspiring. Here’s our conversation, edited down for length and clarity.
Were you at least able to channel the exhaustion and frustration into your performance?
FAIR: The opposite. I’m very vulnerable on stage, and if the crowd isn’t feeling it, I feel it. We want to play to a room full of people that want to hear us. And we didn’t get to do that last night, which is frustrating.
CAULFIELD: I’d take a show for 12 people who really want to come over 2,000 people who don’t give a shit. Though, yeah, the exhaustion. There were some very enthusiastic people who came up to us backstage, asking about all the bands on the lineup, and Scott had to walk away.
FAIR: They just sounded so awake and enthusiastic. I was just like, “I cannot deal.”
MACDOUGALL: It’s definitely not the latest show we’ve done, but I would say it was more of a set to survive than one to play.
FAIR: It wasn’t a great introduction to SXSW, I must say. We’re really happy to be here, but everything about the venue felt corporate to us. You saw that screen projecting advertisements right above our heads? It was like we were playing at some lawyers convention.
CATLING: Hey, I’ll take your free tote bag if you don’t want it.
FAIR: You’re right. I don’t want to be a jerk… Mandy, Indiana sort of walks that line between heavy guitar music and more electronic maybe even dance music. We want people to move, for sure, but I think sometimes crowds just don’t know what to do physically. They’re confused, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… Though then there was this one time when some festival we were playing said we were a DJ. So I guess I would like people to know going in we’re a guitar band. We’re very proud of the album, but it’s hard if you just hear that cause there’s no, well, chords. I mean, the reasoning there has something to do with my musical limitations in that regard.
CAULFIELD: Come on.
FAIR: Alright, sure, I’m okay. But I do come from, like, the Kurt Cobain school of guitar playing. It’s not about scales and virtuosity, but finding ways to make your instrument sound interesting and exciting. Sometimes I play a single note, just one finger on a fret for the whole song. Or I use the guitar as a vessel and play the pedals. And it’s actually really fun to do that. It’s minimal, repetitive, intentionally kind of dirty sounding and uncomplicated. But you’re creating space so you can live inside your own music instead of being at war with it.
Is there a sense at least, being here, album on the way, that this is a significant node in your career?… I’m sorry, career is the wrong word for something that seems sort of—
FAIR: That you don’t get paid for? [laughs] This festival is weird. It would have ironically cost us more if we were actually being paid to be here.
CAULFIELD: Yeah, like four and a half grand… which is not to say we’re earning. We’re still exclusively losing… Don’t get us wrong, we’re incredibly honored to be in a position to be able to put this weird shit out into the world, promote it, all that. But there are also moments when I wish I’d become an accountant seven years ago at 22 and I could afford to, like, put a deposit on my flat. Like, I’m genuinely going to be poor the rest of my life. But I think it’s part of choosing to be an artist. I’m also in the somewhat privileged position of being the one of us that doesn’t have a career, that doesn’t have a family — I’m just like a single, free, very poor entity.
FAIR: There’s this huge gulf between very commercialized accessible pop music and then people who come from money who can afford to do weird art, basically. And then there’s us who absolutely had to graft and slave away outside of our regular lives to do it now as old people… I mean I’m thirty six. There definitely is a bit of a stigma about that. We’re a new band, not new people.
CAULFIELD: Thank God we’re not young and famous. I think I only have a couple more successes left in me before I become absolutely unbearable.
CATLING: There’s pros and cons to it as well. We have more responsibilities in our everyday lives; we’ll get offered career making stuff and we can’t say yes to it. On the flip side, I promote a few shows in Manchester and you see bands come through in their early 20s who’ve had the autonomy to agree to these huge tours, and they’re already burnt out.
CAULFIELD: It’s better for our art too. I was in bands in my early 20s, and I was very much focusing on being, you know, the pretty frontwoman or whatever. But with age and, frankly, putting on a lot of weight… persona is now just so far out of the realm of my consideration. I’m focused on what I’m trying to convey as a musician. It’s part of why I stopped singing altogether. Like my background is in Opera, but now I’m just shouting in French, cause that’s what the music needs.
As in a sort of abstraction of emotion and meaning vis-a-vis foreign language?
CAULFIELD: It’s not that I don’t want people to know the lyrics—
FAIR: Just French people.
CAULFIELD: It’s true. I exclusively sing for the French. It’s my [scoff] pride in the home country.
FAIR: She’s trying to raise the profile of France. Not enough people know about it.
CAULFIELD: There is a lot of emotion in the lyrics, despite the delivery. That’s one of the reasons why I think the raw sensation of the live show is so essential to comprehension of our music. We’re very opposed to making music that dictates the way people should be feeling, but we very dearly want people to feel something. These songs are talking about feminism and socialism, mostly, and if you do the work to find that out obviously that’s great. I’ll be there to guide you. But I want you to feel your way to a natural reaction first. Frankly, as artists it’s not our responsibility to tell you what to understand. If someone’s standing over your shoulder, trying to explain their intentions, then I’m guessing their art isn’t that great.
FAIR: I think it’s cool when people misinterpret things. That’s art, right? You think you understand something, and you actually don’t, but you create something new inspired by the wrong interpretation.
CAULFIELD: My favorite review for one of our songs is this one a UK blog did for “Bottle Episode.” There’s military themes in that song, and I guess I was trying to be subtle — whether I was successful or not is up to you. But someone wrote a review saying, “Valentine Caulfield talks about the brave soldiers who gave their lives for freedom! SHE IS FIGHTING FOR THE BRAVE SOLDIERS!’ The reviewer couldn’t have been further from the actual message, but I loved their confidence.
FAIR: That article was directly responsible for thousands of young guys signing up for and dying in the military. They read your words and were like, “That’s it, I’m enlisting.”
CAULFIELD: Sometimes it’s also just not important what the artist thinks the art is about. A friend of mine used to tell me about the Lady Gaga song, “The Edge Of Glory.” Apparently, it was inspired by her granddad. And I’m like, “What in that song reminds her of her granddad?” It’s great that it is, but it doesn’t bring anything to me the listener that she’s dancing in the leotard singing about something that is outwardly unrelated to her granddad, who I do not know.
Do you wish that maybe you didn’t even have to be doing this interview? Your music is so dehumanized and mysterious. I can imagine a version of Mandy, Indiana that debuts to no press in 1987 and cultivates incredible amounts of ambiguity clout by just never putting a human face on it.
FAIR: No, actually we’re corporate whores… Kidding! We would prefer to have a bit more mystique around the project. But it’s just not really possible to do. I mean, I guess it is, but you’ve got to either have way more resources or put in way more effort. We need our Twitter, unfortunately. These days, it’s hard to maintain any sort of distance from being the face of your act or whatever. The current sort of cultural wave is overexposure, over-stimulus, and that’s inevitably going to make things less special. I remember back in the day you’d just spend so much time with one thing because you could only afford to buy one CD. Now, I’m inundated with music all the time.
MACDOUGALL: There’s too much music. They should probably just pause music for a bit… after our record comes out.
CAULFIELD: Frankly, I don’t really listen to anything new on my own so much anymore. But I still see bands. I really enjoy finding myself in a gross basement full of sweaty people on drugs, with no clue what I’m listening to. All I need to know is that we’re all feeling whatever we’re feeling very strongly. That means more than ever.
It’s past 1AM the second and final time I see Mandy, Indiana at SXSW. They’re once again the last band on the bill, and this time they’re surrounded not by countrymen but — as part of Friday night’s Fire Talk showcase — labelmates. The venue is the cramped and kettle-hot Swan Dive, home to some of the gnarliest bathrooms on Red River: perfect for this band, and that fact has me walking through the door optimistic. But even though I quickly clock that the band is shredding concrete— ripping, tearing, freaking out the neighborhood — my concern activates when I see that Caulfield is once again absent from the stage. Is this another “uncomfortable” night?
But then I spot something like a circle pit close to the stage, and smile. I don’t even need to creep up close to figure out what’s going on there. Lo and behold, there’s Caulfield; not scratching her nose or dancing, but bending backwards into the floor like she’s Linda Blair spiderwalking down the stairs. But there isn’t any sense the frontwoman is drawing attention to herself. No, it feels like Caulfield is literally trying to disappear into the floor.
Suddenly it becomes very, stupidly clear to me exactly what Caulfield meant when she spoke about trying to cultivate audience discomfort. This isn’t about tapping into the terrifying resonances and uncanny frequencies of Mandy, Indiana’s music, attempting to channel or mirror them in her performance. No, what she and the band after is far tricker, and ultimately far more disquieting.
Mandy, Indiana are leaving us with nothing but the music.
i’ve seen a way is out 5/19 on Fire Talk.