“The Guitar Is Everything”
The Ellis Mano Band came about after an inspirational late-night chat about Americana and Southern rock between singer Chris Ellis and guitarist Edis Mano in 2016. Ellis was a regular act on Swiss and German television while Mano packed stadiums in his youth; and they decided that evening that their shared musical interests could lead to something a bit special.
So the pair then sought out leading session musicians in the shape of drummer Nico Looser, and bassist Severin Graf, and the line up was complete. Their debut album Here and Now (2019) was met with critical acclaim and they now plan to release Ambedo by Jazzhaus Records on 25 June 2021. The band describe their sound as “a sort of rock n’ soul, rooted deep down in the blues,” but it is more diverse than that brief description suggests, and this broad palette is particularly showcased on their sophomore album.
Guitars Exchange catches up with Edis Mano in his studio in Zurich, Switzerland in mid-April 2021. He has been playing his ’63 and ’65 strat this morning – what he calls ‘my holy grails’ - and is keen to talk about his love of the instrument, Ellis Mano’s brand new album, and how the group are now linked with the Roger Waters’ band…
GE: You have your second album out on June 25th 2021; what most excites you about it?
EM: I write the music in my studio here, and with this album I tried to go more to the limit, for example, by trying to be more bluesy when we play a blues track. I do everything as we don’t have a producer. Our band are all very experienced, our drummer Nico Looser has been playing for something like 40 years as a professional musician and his knowledge is big, but I have to make that decision when it is right, and when it is too much. My main goal was to try and make it sound natural and authentic. We only use vintage stuff, old microphones, an old mixing desk, and vintage guitars… it is like a search… we are looking for the perfect sound and trying to record those magical moments. We tried to record everything at the same time – I have a lot of things to watch over when we record, so it’s a big challenge, but I love it!
GE: The first single release is ‘Keep it Simple’; could you tell us about how that track was chosen?
EM: It is a nice song and when we thought which should be the first single, the promo guys said ‘choose that one!’ It is not 100% us, because we are more rock n roll and blues, but it seems to have been the right decision because we have had a great response. It’s going well.
GE: I’d like to ask you about a few of my favourites: on ‘Sweet Sin’ for example, you play a lovely guitar melody; how did that come about?
EM: I was jamming along to a track on Spotify or Youtube and it suddenly came from nothing. 5 or 10 minutes later I had the main melody and so had a jam session with Chris Ellis, and it just felt really easy to develop it. I tried to reach a sound like John Mayer because I love it - that ‘mid-boost tube-screamer’ stratocaster sound. It was cool!
GE: Most of your music is driven by blues, Americana, and Southern rock, but ‘Ambedo Mind’ has a very laid-back jazz feel to it; do Ellis Mano consider it experimental in that sense?
EM: We are really open, two of us are jazz educated. Nico is one of the leading teachers here in Switzerland and he teaches a lot of jazz; we have a lot of influences and we want to draw on that. If you think of AC/DC, for 45 years they have been playing in the same style and tempo – I love AC/DC – but I want to play blues, rock, pop tunes, soul and funky stuff. Actually I had been playing around with a particular guitar riff for seven or eight years, I think, and one day we were playing a jam session and it fitted perfectly, and so we decided to make a song from that. I love it, it is different, but music has no limits, I think.
GE: ‘Breakfast’ is a ballad with backing singers, a prominent hammond organ, and you have a guitar solo at around 3 minutes – could you explain the story behind the song?
EM: All the people who know me as a guitarist ask me why I play such short solos, and I say I always want to play for the song, I don’t want to be that guitar player who is pushing myself to the front. This is one of the first times I have allowed myself to play a longer solo, and the reaction has been so good I think I am going to do it more.
Mr Mayer again was a particular influence on this track. I love his pop, blues stuff. I have a few heroes like Derek Trucks and early Jimi Hendrix – I love them.Lyrically we have a good friend, Shane Brady, who plays with our singer, and when we started we asked if he could help us with the lyrics, as our mother language is not English. The idea behind the lyric is about when you meet a girl and you don’t know if it is going to be one night or something longer, and so this tells the story of trying to keep her.
GE: ‘Heart n Mind’ makes a rousing and emotional finish to the album – was that perhaps written with stadiums or a big live outdoor event in mind?
EM: Maybe. We searched for a ballad with a lot of space. I play it with an open tune acoustic tuning, and then the horn ‘stadium type sound’ came. We love it. In one month we are going to shoot the video, and we have a cool idea, so I hope it is going to be good.
GE: Are there any other tracks that you’d like to highlight?
EM: Our next single is going to be The Question, a rock track. Lachy Doley is an Australian with a big fan base worldwide, and we sent him that track and asked if he wanted to play, and he came back after three days with such a cool file, with a video, and it was so good. Last week he sent me an email to say that he now is a member of the Roger Waters group; so that’s great.
GE: Going back now to the start of your career, how did you become ‘Big in the Balkans’?
EM: [Laughs] My parents are from there. As a teenager I played with two of my cousins in a band in the Bosnian language, and we toured playing 60s and 70s rock - the Doors, Hendrix kind of rock n roll – and we went to Sarajevo and the girls came after the concerts asking us to sign our names on their skin. But then we stopped after a few years because it was too expensive for us with all the driving, so then it just became a hobby. But, yes, it was a cool time.
GE: What is it that motivates you to write and play music?
EM: I started early at nine years old and… I don’t know… something always has wanted to emerge from my inner musical voice. When I am awake or asleep melodies come to me and then I think ‘these are unknown’, and they grow. I have written hundreds of songs. You know on a cell phone you have that voice memo app and I record thousands of riffs, chord progressions and licks there. I just try and progress.
GE: Were there any specific setbacks in your journey as a musician, and if so, how did you overcome them?
EM: I had played guitar daily for hours since 2003, and then I just stopped and for five years became a sound engineer. And then once again Mr Mayer returned to my life. I saw him at Michael Jackson’s funeral, I think he played alone on the stage, and I was so impressed that I tried to get all his albums, and since then I have played more than ever. I used to do 150 gigs a year as an engineer and I thought that was enough music but I was wrong; I was being creative but it was a completely different thing. Since then for me the guitar is everything.
GE: If you had to select one highlight in your musical career which would you choose?
EM: It was with Ellis Mano. You know we met a guy who had an analogue studio, with nothing that was digital, and he asked us if we wanted to do a song called Whiskey, in a rock n roll session. Then one Sunday we did three gigs and we were playing live for the first time, and it was a big challenge. I was never more nervous than then, and it was such a good thing. When I think about that moment, around two-and-a-half years ago, I always have a smile on my face, because I realised at that moment that this band is something good, and we should work hard to make it better.
GE: Turning now to your guitars, which was your first?
EM: It was a cheap Washburn, and never in tune, which was a pain in the arse. And after that I had an Ibanez RG 550. And then I fell in love with the Steve Vai jams, you know with the grip in the body. I was playing fast and wanted to be the next Steve Vai, but in 1994 I listened to Hendrix and since then I have been a stratocaster player. I had at one time 50 strats but now I have, I think, five. I traded a lot, giving five guitars for one good guitar, and now I have my beauties.
GE: Apart from the electric guitars that you mentioned, which acoustic guitars do you use?
EM: I have a Martin OM 21 and a Furch from the Czech Republic; a guy there copies the Martin guitars and they cost perhaps 2,500 pounds, so it is not cheap – but it’s like a D35 and it sounds so big; so these are my two – one for picking and one for open tune stuff. You know you play a guitar for just a few seconds and you immediately know if it is yours or not. I need only three or four guitars; that’s enough!
GE: What plans do you have for this year, after you have done your next video?
EM: We are working on our third album, we have seven songs recorded and hope to put it out next year. You know these days you need to release singles every two or three months, and we want to play live but you know with the pandemic the situation changes every few weeks, it is frustrating. My hope is that with the vaccine we can play in winter. But we want to do streaming concerts and have a good release of the album on June 25th.
Guitars Exchange’s interview with Edis Mano closes with him saying that his band aim to do a tour in Spain, Portugal and France, when it is safe to do so again. “We hope it’s soon!” he says