Mantler is the indie-pop-meets-R&B project of Toronto-based songwriter Chris Cummings. The local indie artist has been producing beautiful music for over a decade, but his love of film (he studied it at York, and now works at TIFF) has recently been infiltrating his life even more than usual. In April, he opened for indie rockers Yo La Tengo, who presented a live score alongside a bill of experimental short films by French filmmaker Jean PainlevÃ© at the closing night of the Images Festival. Last year, Chris curated a program of experimental films at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It was called The Free Screen: Mantler’s Visual Music. I think “visual music” is a great concept to start with, so when I sat down with him recently to discuss music, film and his fascinating career, I ask him to tell me more.
“Well, “˜visual music’ was actually a genre of film,” he tells me. “Len Lye and these guys, they were trying to get the image to go so tight against the music that it would express in visual terms what was happening in the music.”
I ask Chris how he got into “˜visual music’ in the first place, and he tells me that it all started when he used to go to The Independents, the free Wednesday night screenings that Susan Oxtoby used to curate at Cinematheque Ontario. I was also a frequent attendee at those screenings, where I was first introduced to the work of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka, both of whom also made appearances at Jackman Hall to talk about their films. It was a transformative experience for me, as it seems, it was for Chris.
Chris continues, “Susan [Oxtoby] used to always say to me ‘oh, Chris you should really see this’, and from about 1994 until the early 2000s, I saw a lot of interesting films that way, that I might not have otherwise known about. Then I read the book Visionary Film by P. Adams Sitney, which is like, the first book about American Avant-Garde cinema, starting with the ’40s, with Maya Deren up to the ’70s when the book was written. I had read that a few years before, so when [TIFF Wavelengths programmer and experimental film maven] Andrea Picard asked me to curate the Free Screen, so I went back to the index of that book and went ‘oh yeah, I like this person, I like what that person did with the music’ and I started looking them up. A lot of them are on YouTube, so I was able to put together the list just from internet research and the index of that book.”
I ask Chris whether he’s made any films since he attended York University’s film school and he tells me he hasn’t, though his friend, film school collaborator (and current fellow TIFF staffer) Jesse Hawken did recently direct the music video for his new song “Husbands” (a tribute to the John Cassavetes film of the same name) which they’ll be putting online soon ““ so perhaps a return to cinematic projects is also in the works. Combining his twin loves of music and film into a sort of multimedia experiment is something Chris says he’d like to try in the future. “I saw Laurie Anderson perform at Massey Hall in the ’80s,” Chris continues. “That was pretty mind boggling, she was just doing it with slide projectors but it was so well done and the timing was perfect, the execution and of course the music were so good. I don’t know, for my live performances, I’ve always felt like keeping it simple was the best thing. I would like to try doing something a bit more theatrical in the future.”
Chris surprises me by telling me he was also involved in a theatre company for several years, the Canadia del’Arte, where he was one of the Musical Directors alongside Sam Allison, who’s in the band Sheesham and Lotus now. “That was a really rewarding experience,” he says “I’d recorded my first record by then, so my whole second record, Sadisfaction, was done there in the music room of the theatre space. Actually, I was an actor too in a couple of Canadia del’Arte productions.”
If film and even theatre are things Chris has always loved and dabbled in, then what about music? I’m curious about whether he’s always been a songwriter. “I actually wrote songs when I was a child,” he smiles. “On the piano when I was six or seven. My parents recorded them on cassette so I still have them all. I stopped when I was 11 and became more shy and self conscious. I studied classical piano from the time I was 7 until I was about 20. I can’t play classical piano anymore but I always had a good ear so I’d pick up songs I liked.
“I’ve never considered myself on the level of a classical composer,” Chris muses. “I don’t know enough about musical development. I’ve always thought of myself as a songwriter. I’ve listened to a lot of songs, so I know song structure. But who knows, maybe one day I’ll try something like composing a score to a film. I’ve always been really intimidated by that.”
“I would also like to curate more screenings,” he adds. “I’d like to do another one with experimental films again. Experimental films are so personal. They’re so well thought out, and it’s such an antidote, if you’re sick of seeing contemporary commercial films, it’s a really good way of going back to what you love about film. I didn’t really come around to it until I was older, in my late 20s or so, and I really started to love it, I think for these reasons.”
Mantler’s been quite in demand, lately. Just days before we met for this interview, he was in Moscow, playing the after party for a show by the Matthew Herbert Big Band. “It was totally random,” he claims. “This promoter emailed me out of the blue at the beginning of May and asked me if I wanted to play on May 25th in Moscow, and I was like, ‘what?’ They paid for airfare, accommodation, visa and everything. The only thing I had to do was go to the Russian consulate to hand in my visa application. So, I got there 7:15pm and they drove me straight to the club. I played at midnight, then played a DJ set until 3:30, then stayed up until 5:30 even though there was no music, because people were just coming up to me and talking to me.”
It wasn’t Chris’ first time in Moscow, but it’s changed a lot, he says. “It was a lot more lively. I was there in the late ’80s, early ’90s and it was a huge city, but it was very oppressive and grey. There was nothing, no billboards, no signs. Nothing said what it was. Now, everything is covered in signs and billboards. Now it’s like, the same Soviet-era buildings but with like, a Starbucks coffee on the main floor.”
I ask Chris what he’s working on now and he tells me there’s a new album coming out soon. “The title of it is “˜Rosy Maze’,” he chuckles. “I like it because it sort of sounds like a name, but it’s also this weird expression. I wanted it to sound like a sort of Stan Brakhage-ish title. I remember something Brakhage said once. He had a picture of like the interior of an intestine on the cover of one of his books, and he said it was one of the most beautiful images he’d ever seen. I thought ‘wow, I’d never thought of that as a beautiful image’. It’s kind of like that. It has the rosy glow of life, but it has the maze of the intestine, the atoms and molecules that make it up, all at once”. A perfectly fitting title for the next Mantler creation, sounds like.
Stay tuned for TFS’ featured topic this month. We’ll be exploring music in film, celebrating the upcoming North By Northeast Festival and introducing you to some of the people who make films that are truly music to your ears.
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