Mr. Airplane Man has been making music for 20 years, but not a single second has been spent pining for the spotlight—even if it’s landed on them periodically over the years. The blues rock duo formed back in 1998 when best friends Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus wanted to jam. While the two gained attention from the most unlikely of fans—Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and acts like the White Stripes, for instance—they still remained an in-the-know, underground staple in the roots scene. Now, at the young age of 47, both women are stepping out of a shadowed hiatus to reveal their first album of new music, Jacaranda Blue, since 2004 and the reinvigorated passion for music that comes with it.
To understand the lackadaisical tone that bonds Mr. Airplane Man together, it’s best to look backward. Garrett and McManus met when they were 10 years old, holed up at an all-girls sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. “We weren’t popular girls,” says Garrett, “so we stuck together and bonded right away through music.” As children do, the two shared everything they knew that summer, from punk discoveries in Maximum Rocknroll to the offbeat songs on the Beatles’ Revolver, over the five years they attended camp. Though they grew up in different towns—McManus outside of Worcester and Garrett outside of Boston—they took turns hopping on the bus to visit each other. They wrote letters updating each other on life, started attending concerts together, and created mixtapes to exchange, complete with impromptu venting about their moods between songs. It was a childhood friendship with a built-in influence on their musical career path. They just didn’t know it at the time.
Garrett, who taught herself how to play guitar early on in life, rubbed elbows with Mark Sandman, the frontman of Boston alt-rock act Morphine. It was 1995 and she was in her mid-20s. As eager as she was to find a role model, Garrett underestimated what a strong impact he would have on her life, as a guitar teacher and as a mentor outside of music.
“I think the whole time we hung out, he maybe showed me one chord, which I don’t even remember anymore,” Garrett laughs. “We hung out, listened to records, and talked about music. It wasn’t just guitar skills we exchanged. That’s a point I should mention: I wasn’t trying to find a teacher to give me technical advice. I wanted to develop something in myself that I saw in him, and that was this mood he gave off. Mark was super dynamic and knew how to create atmosphere, and he created layers and energy in a textured, low way. All I knew was that I wanted to learn that from him.”
The band eventually formed because of Sandman’s advice. Garrett told him she wanted to start a band but didn’t know how to. Surprisingly, he told her to “travel, see the world, and not worry about starting a band.” Because McManus was her best friend and attending school in Arizona at the time, Garrett booked a trip there. Next thing she knew, the two of them were goofing around on instruments, even though McManus never studied the drums. Mr. Airplane Man busted out loose, impromptu jams that rattled blues guitar over thumping bass drum, their vocals criss-crossing in a feelings-driven fashion. Because they couldn’t replicate their ideas, the two recorded every practice session, those tapes acting as a faint sketch for them to redraw the more defined moments of a practice session jam.
“She didn’t really know what she was doing, and to be fair I didn’t really either,” says Garrett. “Playing along to the Stooges was one of the first things we tried to do. We never thought about being a duo because there weren’t a lot of duos back then. We just took off once we started playing because we were so into it, and eventually we moved to San Francisco and got a practice space there. It felt like a happenstance, but looking back it’s easy to see that we were just having fun playing together, and we wanted to carry that mood on as long as we could. Once we figured out that’s how we make our magic, we began to realize how we work as a duo.”
When the two returned to Boston, they quit their jobs to busk. Mr. Airplane Man started in Inman Square, moved closer to the Common, and then finally rooted itself in Harvard Square. All in all, the duo busked for four months before playing smaller clubs and eventually working their way up. That year, Garrett ran into Sandman at a coffee shop where he asked her how the travels went. After updating him on the escapade, she invited him to their next show. Not only did Sandman trek out to their concert, but he was hooked by their performance enough to invite them to his studio to record for free—and then went on to record their self-titled debut album in 1998.
Over the next five years, everything sped up. Mr. Airplane Man started touring the US frequently. They recorded three more albums—Red Lite, Moanin’, C’mon DJ—and one EP. They played shows with Hot Snakes, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Dirtbombs, and more. Soon a labelmate had them open for the White Stripes. Same thing happened with the Strokes. Next thing the duo knew, Karen O called to ask if they wanted to play with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “We never tried that hard to book shows, which makes this kinda funny,” says Garrett. “Now, I feel like I’m trying hard to book shows. It feels like I’m putting in more effort. Back then, there were some cold calls, like to people like Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound, but most shows felt like they fell into place casually—which makes looking back on it all somewhat surreal.”
Shortly after releasing their fourth album, Mr. Airplane Man decided to go on a break. Garrett and McManus were about to start families, and the thought of moving to new cities was tempting. They realized they had burnt out.“Things stopped feeling magical, and for us it had to be if we wanted to continue. Our songs would feel lame if that vibe wasn’t there,” says Garrett. “We thought it would be permanent instead of a hiatus, until eventually that changed.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, it was an invite to perform at a European music festival that reunited Mr. Airplane Man. In the spring of 2015, a German promoter reached out to ask if the two would be willing to play the festival because, as he put it, he was a massive fan. Garrett and McManus shrugged. They decided to see how things felt and accepted the offer. Right after that show, the two realized it felt amazing playing together again. They scheduled a few shows in Boston. They added a few in New York. Once they looked at their schedule, the duo realized they were signing up for what was essentially becoming a proper reformation.
“We knew this album, a reunion album, would happen before there was any demand for it, and even though we were energized and willing to go to new lengths, the hardest part was getting [the album] to where we wanted it to be,” says Garrett. “We wanted to make something bigger, broader, and coming from our soul. But finding the right person to record us, where to go, and how to fund this were our struggle points.”
Now Mr. Airplane Man have something to show for that, thanks to a transatlantic call from Swiss producer Robin Girod. He talked to every American musician he knew, asking how to contact the band, and upon reaching the duo by phone, asked if he could help them create their next record. After creating an Indiegogo campaign and getting in touch with a solid group of fans, Mr. Airplane Man were on schedule to record a follow-up to 2004’s C’mon DJ. That record, Jacaranda Blue, comes out this Friday.
Mr. Airplane Man wanted the world to hear them like how they sound on stage. Jacaranda Blue accomplishes that task. It’s big and textured—like something Mark Sandman would make—in a way that capitalizes on blues rock without losing the rough edge of garage rock. It begins with “I’m in Love,” the duo’s tribute to Alan Vega, which feels like it could burn for 15 minutes without losing any of its appeal. Garrett tackles guitar and vocals with a passive but undeniably sturdy approach. As usual, McManus can be found giving a sneaking, mischievous flair to her drumming, turning every backup vocal part and additional smattering of percussion into a mood-heavy painting. Girod occasionally enters the picture, too, offering assistance on bass, theremin, and vibraphone. The whole album is rich but never overwhelms. Given it’s nearly 15 years between their last album and this one, that may come as a surprise, but those who know Mr. Airplane Man are familiar with the style. This duo has been perfecting their version of blues rock for longer than most duos in the field, and the best part is how they update their sound so not a single minute sounds like a cobwebbed, outdated version of the genre.
As we near the end of the conversation, Garrett sounds elated with the experience of recording a new album. It’s a tone of voice that many artists express when talking about their new music, but her voice in particular sounds different than the rest. She sounds carefree, relaxed, and inspired—in other words, it sounds like she’s in love. As we finally discuss where it was they recorded the album, Panoramic House in California, that’s when the explanation for her mood comes to light, and as she describes it’s hard not to feel like it’s the perfect summary of Mr. Airplane Man’s musical journey from their early days on through to now.
“When I moved to Los Angeles, I was absolutely stunned by these Jacaranda trees,” she says. “There are boulevards and streets where they line the entire thing, and they’re beaming with this life-affirming purple and pink color. It’s a friendly, warm, encouraging, loving spirit that makes you feel supported and in love. The whole record, even the sad songs, carry a feeling of falling in love with everything in the world. I realized I was falling in love with being here, with playing music, with Tara, with everything. When she flew in to practice these songs together here in LA while our kids were being taken care of, it felt so great to be free and jam together. The color of those trees felt like the perfect description of what everything felt like, so it felt natural to name the record after them. I wished we could package them in the album itself, but we can’t, so instead there’s a photo of them on the back. I hope it fills people with the feeling we got, because it’s really magical, and the next closest way I can explain that feeling is through sound.”
MR. AIRPLANE MAN, BARRENCE WHITFIELD & THE SAVAGES. FRI 3.23. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$15. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM