The Madtown Mannish Boys

A Conversation with guitarist Jesse Steinberg
by Adam Benavides
December 2019

Paul Schwoerer & Jesse Steinberg of Madtown Mannish Boys - photo by Rob Streiffer

Paul Schwoerer & Jesse Steinberg of Madtown Mannish Boys
photo by Rob Streiffer

A Conversation with Madtown Mannish Boys Guitarist Jesse Steinberg
By Adam M. Benavides

One of the most exciting blues acts in the Midwest, The Madtown Mannish Boys have spent the last few years building a formidable reputation around their highly-energetic and entertaining live shows.

Consisting of Paul Schwoerer (harmonica, vocals), Andy Smith (vocals), Jesse Steinberg (guitar), Adam Pryor (keys), Tim Payne (bass) and Nate Meronek (drums), the Madison-based band has one of the most talented lineups you’ll see around and even boast a horn section for some of their sets.

With the release of their second studio album and third record coming in early 2020 (Live at Knuckle Down Saloon was released in June of this year) and ahead of two Madison shows booked in December, Max Ink recently caught up with guitarist Jesse Steinberg, who dished on his creative influences, how their “quirky hodgepodge of guys” collaborates and some of the songs he’s most excited about on the new album.

MI: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing when I was about 13. My dad plays and I borrowed his old hollow body Gibson. I think it was an ES-275 with a slightly warped neck that played like crap. But I remember being flat-out enamored with the guitar and I enjoyed the challenge of learning new songs and thinking about basic music theory questions, like why certain notes seem to fit so well with certain chords. At first, it was an intellectual or cerebral sort of hobby for me. Now it’s more about the emotions that I can express with music.

MI: Who were some of your biggest musical influences?
I’ve enjoyed Blues music since I was a really young. My parents constantly had music playing around the house. And I’m really fortunate to have gone with them to music festivals and concerts all over California as a kid. My influences were mostly who they were into in those formative years. For the most part, it’s a wide range of Blues artists like the “three kings,” (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, etc. But we listened to Gospel, Funk, Soul, Motown, and Folk a lot too. I love Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and so many others. Most of my playing is an homage to the Blues greats, but I think I have elements of some of that other stuff too. 

MI: So, how did The Madtown Mannish Boys come together?
The band formed a few years before I came along, but the current lineup materialized about three years ago. It’s a quirky hodgepodge of guys. Paul owns a couple restaurants (Paul’s Pel’meni is addictive. Be careful!). Tim is a mechanical engineer and works with insanely-high-powered microscopes. I’m a philosophy professor at UW. But we all share a love for the Blues and the requisite chops to not muck it up. 

MI: And why blues? In other words, what about that genre of music grabs you and the other members of the band?
For me, music is predominately about emotion and I find the Blues is a genre particularly well-suited to capture the wide-range of our feelings and how dynamic our emotional lives are. There’s also a rich cultural history to the Blues. It’s a story of struggle and strife, but also of bravery and overcoming tremendous adversity. I find this history gripping and I think there’s a lot we can learn from reflecting about it—not just about the history of music (e.g., that the Blues gave birth to just about every form of modern music), but also about deeper things having to do with race and how we treat each other.

MI: Can you talk a bit about the new album and some of your favorite tracks?
We’ve released two albums thus far: Old Dog (2018) and Live at the Knuckle Down Saloon (2019), and we’re in the midst of polishing up our third. The title track is a song called “Mistakes and Amends.” It’s about being pathologically engrossed with something and trying to break free from it to become healthy again. I wrote the lyrics partly with my brother in mind, who has struggled for a long time with substance abuse. But it’s also partly about being in a toxic relationship and extricating oneself. I’m a big fan of the double-entendre.

We’re really proud of some of the other songs too. “Could Have Done Better” has a funky groove dominated by a guitar riff and a driving chorus. It’s a deeply emotional song for me. I was reflecting on a past relationship and tried to capture a pervasive feeling I’m nearly everyone has had. Although I didn’t think that I did anything wrong, I recognized all the ways that I could have a been a better partner. It was a cathartic song for me to write.

“Personal Crusade” is rockin’ ode to our families, who sacrifice a great deal for us. We play 50 or 60 shows a year and all have day jobs. Most of us have young kids to boot.

Someone’s gotta pick up the slack and we’re blessed to have supportive families to enable it to all happen. 

MI: When does the album come out and where can our readers get it?
It’ll be out early next year. Our keyboardist, Adam Pryor, plays in a couple other bands and is one of the most sought-after keys players in the Midwest. He’s currently touring with Toronzo Cannon in Europe. I think he’ll be in Madison for a couple weeks in January to polish off the key tracks. We may also add horns to a couple tunes. And then there’s mixing. We’ll have a release party (location TBD) and then it’ll be available on our website and all the standard services (iTunes, Spotify, etc.).

MI: Your live shows are pretty popular. At the end of the night, what do you hope people get out of your live shows?
We have a ton of fun playing and this is contagious. When you sweat your ass off dancing around and have a ball on stage, the audience feeds off of this energy and shares in the experience more deeply. So, we try to give it our all and put our hearts on the line. We’re grateful that this speaks to most people in the audience and that they dig what we’re doing. That’s one of the most satisfying things about being in a band for us.

MI: Love it, man. Anything else to add about the upcoming gigs, tour or record?
We’re playing on 12/14 at the High Noon Saloon as part of fundraiser for Recreational Rhythms, which you can learn more about on Facebook. We’ll also be playing on New Year’s Eve at the Great Dane at Hilldale. 

It’ll be officially announced soon, so I’m not sure how much I can divulge at this point… but we’re going to play with a few other bands at the Majestic on 1/11. We’re over the moon about that show!

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