In a sea of hair metal poseurs and dirty, depressed, flannel-wearing grunge rock, Jellyfish stuck out like a sore thumb — a majestic, Technicolor sore thumb. The core of the band was the modern-day McCartney/Lennon team of Roger Manning Jr. and Andy Sturmer.
After the band’s six-year run ended, the lads went their separate ways: Mr. Sturmer became a TV theme writer while Mr. Manning works as a respected sideman with artists including Beck — with whom he will be playing the Grammys on Sunday.
The band’s two CDs are have now been reissued. Mr. Manning discussed the birth, short life and possible second coming of Jellyfish — plus his dream day job as Beck’s go-to guy.
Question: How did you and Andy [Sturmer] join Beatnik Beach?
Answer: I was down at USC going to music school; Andy was in the Bay Area. We had known each other since high school, but at that point we had no intention of making music together.
He found this bass player who had this band. The guy took Andy under his wing, let him start writing, encouraged him to sing more.
In the summer of 1987, Beatnik Beach lost their longtime keyboard player for whatever reason. Andy said, “I’ll call Roger and see if he wants to be our keyboard player for the summer.” I was not particularly excited about the material, but I was excited to work with my friend again. They had a manager. There was label interest. They had everything that I wanted, so I thought, “Well, let’s give it a shot.”
As I was about to finish my senior year at USC, it was announced they were signing with Atlantic Records. I was driving up [Interstate] 5 from L.A. to San Francisco every two weeks, on average, to play shows or do something for the record company. It was kind of crazy, but that is what you do when you’re about to turn 21.
Q: Why did you both leave that band?
A: Andy and I realized that we were having a great time writing and exploring music together while losing interest in all things Beatnik Beach. It was an inevitable parting of the ways.
Q: But you had a major label deal.
A: It was great to have the support of a label and be bankrolled properly, but here’s an example: Debbie Gibson was on Atlantic at the same time. We had a very important meeting with the label scheduled for the band in Los Angeles. The morning of the meeting, I got a call saying, “The meeting is canceled because the label is having trouble getting Debbie Gibson’s birthday cake together.” It was crushing and quickly gave me perspective of how a band can be lost in the shuffle at a major label.
Q: What bands influenced Jellyfish?
A: Brit pop and post-punk was happening at the time. My jazz schooling helped me analyze the vocal harmonies and arrangements of The Carpenters and Fleetwood Mac and Burt Bacharach. I then applied that to what we were doing in Jellyfish.
Andy was a mad [Bob] Dylan and Van Morrison fan, and while I have respect for those artists, the songwriting didn’t speak to me.
Q: Was the fashion and feel as important as the music?
A: All of our favorite bands — Talking Heads, Cheap Trick, Peter Gabriel, Queen and even the punk groups like the Damned — had a theatrical and entertaining element about them. You were as excited to read an interview from them as you were to hear a guitar solo. And there was nothing pretentious about it. There was a playfulness, a silliness and sometimes comedic celebration in Jellyfish that was important.
Q: Did you feel like a band out of time?
A: Always. We were very aware that we were putting out our first album [“Bellybutton”] at the height of hair metal. We thought, in being true to ourselves, we couldn’t have been more opposite to what was going on in music.
Interestingly enough, by the time our second record came out, Nirvana was the biggest band in the world and grunge was in. Hair metal died a swift death.
Q: What was the creative process like between you and Andy?
A: Andy was perfectly capable of writing completed, finished great songs on his own. I could write lyrics, but it was a painstaking process. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes to come up with a favorite idea musically, but it will then take two weeks or more to come up with lyrics I think are worthy of that idea.
Andy and I would come up with chunks of songs and play them for each other. The song “That Is Why” is a perfect example. Andy had the chorus done. I came up with the verse and the bridge, and we finished the song in about 15 minutes. That is how easy it was when you are inspired that much.
Q: Was it the quest for perfection that broke up the band?
A: It was too many things. Andy and my goals as songwriters started to deviate to the point where I felt that we were both bringing ideas into the picture that no longer complemented each other.
At the beginning of 1994, I came over one day to his place and he said, “I wrote this song, and I can’t wait to play it for you.” Classic Andy Sturmer, gut-wrenching, emotionally evocative heart-on-your-sleeve song. And it was a country ballad. As good as any song you’d hear from classic ‘60s or ‘70s greats like John Prine. I was almost brought to tears. I said, “The song is a beautiful masterpiece. And I have no interest in recording it. Sorry.”
Our aesthetics were going in two very different directions.
Q: What is your relationship with Andy like these days?
A: There is none. There is contact, but only when there is business to take care of. When we parted ways, we definitely needed a break from each other. We were like a couple that desperately needed a separation. Once we took that separation, I never felt a need to be back in his company.
Q: How did you end up working with Beck?
A: I thought I would be happy to go out and play as a sideman. Someone said, “Well who do you like?” It was 1995, and I said, “Not much.” Then I said, “There is this guy named Beck. That guy is rewriting the book. And he’s actually in Los Angeles.”
By some miracle, flash-forward six months later, [Beck and his keyboard player] had a falling-out. Then somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody gave me a call to see if I was interested in playing with Beck. I put it out in the universe, and it came back.
The album that we did is up for five Grammys, including album of the year. And we are going to play the awards. First time I have played the Grammys. I continue to work with him, but it is at his discretion. I really enjoy the touring we do because it’s a very healthy, sane experience.
Q: Any chance of a Jellyfish reunion?
A: I don’t see how. In general, I think it is lack of enough interest on Andy’s part.
I know many people that work with him in film and TV always tell me how happy and successful he is. Last I heard he had four or five shows on Disney that he was scoring.
I reached out to him in 2011 — felt it was long overdue. In doing some personal growth, I felt I had some amends to make with him that were going to be healing for myself and for both of us, ideally.
I’m very happy I did that, and I think Andy was happy as well. He didn’t talk much about it afterwards. Just said, “Thank you very much for this.”