These days, you never know what you’re going to find when you log into a Zoom call. With the pandemic running through its fourth month, the majority of the bands I’ve interviewed have been people I had not met before. It was just my luck when I logged into a call with Columbus trio The Manatee Room that two of them were featuring amusing backgrounds, getting our conversation off on a good foot.
Kallan Imhoff (vocals and guitar) was located undersea in the Krusty Krab, while drummer Rob Shield had a couple bags of Munchos in his background. James Walsh (bass) was sitting at his computer with a fan spinning hypnotically behind him.
“Here’s the thing. I asked some of my students what the best snack in the world is, and no matter what they said, I had to tell them that they were wrong,” explained Shield, a smile creasing his face. “Munchos are the greatest gas station snack that ever existed. They’re two dollars, they’re delicious, just get your Peace Tea and Pop-tarts, and you’re good for a road trip.”
For what it’s worth, this writer believes that a Zero bar, some barbecue pork rinds and a bottle of Yoo Hoo would be a better choice, but let’s stay on topic here… actually, what were we talking about?
Oh, right. The Manatee Room.
Seriously though, in over and hour of chatting with these three, I learned that they’re about as off-the-wall and ADHD as I am, but they are highly serious about their musical craft.
Imhoff says the band initially got together when she was a freshman in college. She was sitting in a small classroom for Linguistics, and the teacher told the students to get to know each other a little better. As fate would have it, the person sitting two seats over from her was Shield.
“We were just kind of talking about nothing, and I mentioned that I played the drums,” she explains, “and his eyes lit up because he played the drums too. We immediately became besties right then and there.
“Well, one day we had gotten together with our original bassist Zayn, and we just started jamming. We were just like… do we want to start a band? Why not?”
When it came time to find a new bassist this spring, Shield turned to his longtime friend Walsh, of whom he knew to be musically proficient.
“James and I have been friends since the fourth grade. He’s insanely talented – he can sing, play guitar, do Irish dancing… you know,” said Shield.
“Well, as it happens he learned the bass guitar on a whim for the last band we were in. He’s so good at picking up new instruments and learning things, so I knew he’d be a perfect fit in the band.”
“I was also at their first show back in the day, and I’ve always been a big fan,” adds Walsh. “I figured it would be a great fit.”
Imhoff says the addition of Walsh has given them a unique writing opportunity that they might not have had otherwise. She says that writers can sometimes become jaded to their own music, and miss out on little things once they’ve heard their own songs enough times.
“It helps us because he has the listener’s ear, and hears and sees things that we might miss. He picks up on the little nuances and helps us smooth things out.”
I have moments like that all the time, where I find a little thing or another that I might have missed in the past, even in my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for decades. I truly believe that’s the mark of great musicianship. Walsh says it’s also helped him grow into his role with the group.
“It has really given us the opportunity to be a little more nitpicky about what we write,” he admits. “It makes recording a lot more unique when you’ve been on both sides of a band.”
Things got a little silly again when the group told me about the name they had chosen. If you don’t live in Columbus, you might not understand our love for manatees, but anyone who remembers the lines when they first arrived at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium can relate.
“My first few years of college, I discovered that I preferred to leave campus to do my studying. I had a zoo pass, so I’d head over there around 10 a.m., when it was totally deserted,” he described. “I’d go over to the manatee enclosure for a few hours and do my homework.
“You know what else is really fun?” he continued, “watching those guys float around. When there’s no one else around, they just float up to the glass and look at you. It was great!”
Imhoff was laughing now. “We never really struggled with the name though,” she added. “Once it was said aloud, it just worked”
“Listen, to have the manatees to yourself?” said Shield as he made a chef’s kiss motion. “It’s the best. I’d sit there for hours just getting homework done.
“Plus, I grew up working on a farm in Utica, so I’m kind of immune to the smell!” he laughed.
For a band that has been together for over two and a half years, finding time to record had been a struggle for the trio. All three either had work or school commitments, but with the city-wide shutdown in effect, they found they finally had time to hammer out a song.
“Pastel is my favorite song I’ve ever written, from a lyrical standpoint,” says Imhoff. “It was also the most different thing I had ever written in my life.
“The great thing about our group it it’s very co-creative. I’ll come in with the lyrics and a direction I want to go in, and the guys will jump in make something beautiful with their parts.”
Imhoff says that the song specifically centered on a short relationship she had. By her own admission, it was “definitely a mistake.” But she says the person gave her a CD of theirs, and out of the blue four months later they texted her asking for it back.
“When I first wrote it, it was kind of a self-empowerment song. Like, you screwed up my life, I’m just trying to shake you off… leave me the hell alone!
“But, at the same time,” she continued, “It was kind of about how toxic my approach to dating used to be.”
Shield says that he carefully approaches a lot of the songs, and this one was no different for him in that regard.
“I really like songs that come across as really melodically laid back at the beginning, especially when there’s a lot going on in the lyrics,” he divulges. “I feel like this those songs, you have to let the lyrics do their work.
“But, at the same time, whatever James and I are doing in the background, we want to make sure to be involved enough that people are bumping their heads.”
Shield says he likes a lot of bands whose lyrics carry weight and emotion and Imhoff says a lot of what she writes follows that pattern.
“Someone once told me that I write sad songs that sound happy. As much as I hate to use the term,” she paused, “a lot of them are based on unrequited love.
“See, that’s my Gemini stereotype – a lot of my lyrics are heavy and emotional, but I know how to let those things go. Actually, the songs we’re writing for our record kind of follows the Gemini pattern. It’s about navigating your way through things.”
The other members were decidedly less interested in whether their Zodiac signs help dictate their songwriting. Or what their signs even were…
“Am I an Aquarius?” Walsh asks Imhoff, chuckling. “I remember telling her that was my sign when I started with the band and she was super excited about how we’d mesh. And I was just sitting here like… I have no idea what that means?”
“I honestly think they don’t give a damn about the signs,” Imhoff sighs.
“Any time anyone asks me, I just say I’m a Gryffindor,” Shield proclaimed. “Actually, I’m an Aries. I kind of thought it was unusual when Kallan first asked me, but now it seems like the Zodiac has made a big comeback, so it’s pretty cool.”
As for Pastel, you almost have to listen to the song two or three times to truly catch the gravity of the lyrics. The jilted side comes out in early in lyrics with “You’re not the light of my life – you’re the sun in my eyes” and “No longer have room for you – My time is not a tomb for you – Your gray world doesn’t deserve pastel.”
True to what Shield said earlier, the music allows the lyrical wizardry to shine. “I’m usually more of a melody first, lyrics second kind of guy. But it’s a good contrast for the heavy hitting lyrics and the music around it.”
“Sometimes she catches me off guard,” Walsh adds, referring to Imhoff’s depth. “As someone who has been both audience member and bassist, I would sometimes get stuck on how the music sounded.
“But with Pastel, I did not anticipate what I ended up feeling after hearing her words.”
The song ends with an acerbic line guaranteed to knock the listener off their feet – “If you wanna chase someone who doesn’t love you – then who am I to stop you?” Imhoff definitely has a razor-sharp wit and a bag full of stones that she is not afraid to throw.
What does the future hold for this simultaneously silly and super serious trio of troopers? For now, they’re hoping to get together and record a full length record, but the timing has to be right.
“We were really excited to get Pastel recorded and released, because it had been so hard to get things together pre-pandemic,” explains Imhoff. “But with the racial tensions and other things going on in the country, it just doesn’t seem like the right time to try and shine a light on ourselves.”
“Fortunately, we’ve been working at home,” interjects Shield, “so it’s just been a lot easier to get ideas together and get things done.”
“We’ve also finally gotten the ball rolling on some Manatee merch,” adds Imhoff jubilantly. “That was a long time coming, so we’re excited to see how that looks!”
Finishing our original conversation, Imhoff says she’d bring water, white cheddar popcorn and a big bag of crunchy Cheetos on a road trip, while Walsh would have coffee and a Clif bar.
The Manatee Room – Pastel