Johnny Manchild has spent years in the music industry, and his newest work illustrates his ability to tackle difficult personal struggles and incorporate complex musical elements.
Manchild has been in bands since he was 10 years old, playing drums, guitar, bass, and piano as well as writing and recording his own music.
According to an Oklahoma Gazette article by Ben Luschen, Manchild attended Classen School of Advanced studies and then enlisted in the army after graduation. He later went to UCO as a percussion major and ended up falling in love with piano performance. In 2016, he was a bassist and songwriter for the band The Happily Entitled.
Soon after, Manchild rounded up some college students in the jazz program at UCO and formed the band Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards.
“I decided to start my own thing,” Manchild said. “I wanted a band of musicians that knew how to listen to each other and adapt and pick something up and roll with it, and jazz players are good at that.”
The band is made up of Johnny Manchild, Ethan Neel, James Thompson, Ben Wood, Jamey Levy, and Danny McGinn.
Their newest album, “Insomnia”, was released August 3, and it deals with mental health, drug abuse, and sleeping disorders.
“For the album, there’s a lot of personal stuff that I was more serious about,” he said.
“Insomnia” is daringly sentimental. There’s never a dull moment in the record, pulling from several different genres and samples from current newscasts.
It’s like if you took angsty 2000s punk rock (think like Anthony Raneri from Bayside) and put it in a blender with Ben Folds style piano melodies, threw in some jazz, added in some smooth orchestral elements, and sprinkled in a little Rufus Wainwright for good measure.
“Insomnia” is piano-rock meets ska meets Sufjan Stevens. Imagine this – it’s PBR music and earl grey tea music at the same time.
Manchild recorded, mixed, and mastered the album himself, which took upwards of a year. In the new record, there’s also a new string element that added to the intricacy. Manchild said he spent nearly two months just arranging the song “Insomnia” because there were so many layers.
“I just wanted to have something that had cool instrumentation and something that was musically more complex, but not to the point where no one would want to listen to it,” he said.
Lyrically, the album is just as complex. The song “Crush” is about being in a toxic relationship and alludes to drug addiction. Meanwhile, “What Good Am I” tackles the difficult subject of Bipolar disorder and finding a balance between needing medication to function and rejecting medication to create art.
“They put me on Lithium and Bupropion for bipolar disorder, and, after a few months of taking that, I could not write anything at all,” Manchild said. “So the first half of the song is about me deciding to get on medication and deciding that my mental health is more important than anything else, and the second half is pretty much flipping and saying, if I have to be crazy to write stuff, then I’ll just be crazy because I can’t deal with not being able to write stuff.”
Being on medication, Manchild said, makes everything seem flat, which doesn’t work for writing music. He said writing is his own form of therapy, so not being able to write is difficult.
The new music has been called “a diverse trip, from beginning to end.” The album also incorporates some political dialogue with the song “Gestapo,”which music writer Nathan Poppe described as a “nearly five minute gumbo of horn-laced piano pop colliding with feverish rock and roll.”
Because the album has such heavy material, performing the songs live can be challenging.
“I think it’s impossible for me to really get into the headspace of a song that I’m singing to really tap in emotionally and put on a good show because I would just be like in a ball on stage trying to sing a song, and I don’t think that works,” he said. “It sometimes feel like more of a performance.”
Despite the difficulty of performing live, it’s still something Manchild said he enjoys. The Poor Bastards’ “Insomnia” release show was August 3, and Manchild said it was the best show they’ve ever played, with people singing along to songs released just that morning. Norman-based ska band The Big News opened for The Poor Bastards.
Manchild said it was the perfect lineup, and he’s been very pleased with how the record has been received.