So there's 'Station To Station' era Bowie. Jamming with The Flaming Lips and E.L.O on the MIR space station. Phil Spector is producing. All inside the mind of a Brazilian martial arts fan from London who thought up his album title on a beach in Italy, recorded it in a fog of narcotics in L.A and then headed straight to a Tibetan Monastery in Scotland to recuperate. That's Darren Berry (aka Mankato). Even when he's providing you with the sweetest of tunes-and there's some on 'Safe As Houses' to give your dentist nightmares -they always emit a faintly surreal glow. "The first time I became aware of music was when I was three years old," explains Darren, as sunlight floods through a West London bar. "It was Elvis Presley singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' on this record player. But by that time I already had a musician I wanted to be. Animal from the Muppets!"
Quiet at the back there, please: Mankato is here to restore your faith in the classic English singer-songwriter. Darren's musical influences, as he points out may be "too numerous to mention", but an hour in conversation finds him enthusing about everyone from Afrobeat icon Femi Kuti to Brooklyn hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shante (aka Lolita Gooden) to none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Yet even this doesn't quite explain the strange edge to his kaleidoscopic pop vision. Radio will undoubtedly fall at the feet of tunes such as debut single 'Flesh & Bone' but look a little closer and you'll find lines like 'When your life don't mean anything/ Start it all over again' buried deep within the lyrics. "Oh, there's definitely an hallucinogenic element to Mankato" he smiles. "That Carlos Castenada thing of reinventing yourself through whatever means
necessary. Let's just say that I've got an enquiring mind..."
Biog - Continued
The boring stuff. Drumming by the age of five, Darren added a string to his bow at ten when he joined the school orchestra to play the violin ("I just thought it looked cool, like a gangster!"). Soon he was meeting local musicians who turned him onto the intricacies of blues and jazz. His real musical awakening though came at fifteen via another strain of music: electro. "That really opened my mind to the possibilities of how far reaching music could be" he enthuses. "Electro just felt like something that was mine, both musically and culturally. I had my tracksuit and my piece of lino, the works. I'd just listen to 'Queen Of Rox' and we'd just imitate what they were doing in New York; breakdancing on street corners."
Through a chance discovery in a West End bookshop-he'd been looking for a book on Beethoven at the time- Darren found his obsession with break-dancing leading him toward the ancient Brazilian art of 'capiero'. A complex mixture of boxing and dance with a built in voodoo philosophy, it led Darren away from Western music and instead toward the rhythms of South America. Overcome with wanderlust, before long he was living in a hammock on a beach in Brazil, learning the ancient art at first hand. "It originates in a ritualistic dance cult from Africa, but the life of a 'capoeista' is basically pretty mental. They dedicate their lives to it. They're very flamboyant; very hot-headed. They love to drink, they love to do back-flips and they love to kick each other in the head! But I learned a lot. By the time I came back I was so fit, physically and mentally. I could do somersaults."
Naturally impatient to conjure up the bizarre concert still playing in his head, Darren returned to London. "It was great in Brazil, but to me, life in London is just as magical. It's what I'm about. I'd always been drumming in bands but I loved being in the studio so much I'd be there from the setting up of the drums to the packing up of the microphones when it was over. It felt like home. Because I could play all the instruments I'd end up playing the bass parts, and the idea grew from there. After that it just seemed natural to start making my own music. One evening I just started writing a song on my eight-track called 'Should I Want You’. It was then that I realised it was time to make an album on my own."
Cue Mankato. Having secured a deal with 2M records thanks to his home demos, he departed for Los Angeles to start work on his album. Realising that the distractions of L.A rock life were proving a little too tempting, a month later he returned and - after a psychic detox in a Tibetan Monastery - set to work channelling his ideas through Nellee Hooper collaborator Fabien Waltmann.
The result is the deeply impressive 'Safe As Houses'. A twelve track masterclass in sunny, surrealist pop, it conjures up images of everyone from Supergrass to solo John Lennon to Air at their most tranquillised. They're the sort of songs you could listen to fishing for sharks from the back of a yacht in clear blue seas. Anything could happen.
Most of all though, it sounds like a Damon Gough if he'd grown up in London and was beaming down his thoughts on the universe from a fixed orbit in deep space. When it's up: on the crystalline pop of 'Pictures Of The Other Side', the breezy 'Fu Manchu' and the glorious jangle of 'Catch A Fire' it's positively euphoric. When it's down: on a lovelorn 'Sell My Soul ' and epic closer 'Coming Down' it feels like someone just called time on the backstage bar on the dark side of the moon. But then, hey, this is the biog.
"Well if 'Coming Down' sounds like it was written at 5am whilst I was coming down, then that's because it was!" he beams, heroically. "But for me all art is about searching for answers to why we're here. Look at any artist through the history of time. They lose touch with reality in order to find something else, from Mozart through to people like The Velvet Underground, Hendrix and The Happy Mondays. For me, making music is about the primitive thing of conquering your fears and insecurities whilst relating it to being in the twenty-first century. I want to communicate honestly with people that feeling of anything being possible..."
From down here on earth, it looks like he's already achieved it.
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