Gamblers make their Iron Works debut on Saturday, September 16th, 2023!
Tickets: $10 ADV/$15 DOS
Ticket Link: https://wl.seetickets.us/event/Gamblers-w-Special-Guests/552975?afflky=BuffaloIronWorks
The music of Gamblers ripples with unseen meaning. Dark things lurk beneath the surface of Michael McManus’s sun-kissed harmonies and splendorous melodies.
Take “We’re Bound to Be Together,” for instance, a standout track from the New York group’s debut Small World (released via Symphonic in 2020). It’s a buoyant power-pop gem betraying ample evidence of Gamblers’ Beach Boys worship, but its sweet-tooth hook (“You and me / We’re bound to be together / Forever”) conceals a darker subtext: McManus is not singing about a romance at all. “I’m actually talking about the relationship of an addict in the throes of an opioid addiction,” says McManus, the leader and principal songwriter of the indie-rock band.
Now, a year and a half after Small World’s release, the song—retitled as “Bound 2 Be Together”—is among the highlights on Gamblers’ new remix EP, When We Exit. With intricate, nightclub-ready beats and guest features from acclaimed rappers Skyzoo and Mick Jenkins, When We Exit emphasizes the reverence for hip hop production that has always been embedded deep in Gamblers’ sunny, indie-pop fever dream.
A knowing belief in the gap between surface perception and grim reality is baked into this songwriter’s upbringing. McManus was born and raised (and is currently based) on the south shore of Long Island, where manicured lawns and picket fences disguise all manner of violence and dysfunction. McManus grew up in Massapequa, New York, just down the block from John Gotti Jr., who was then running the Gambino crime family while the elder Gotti was imprisoned. “My town was ground zero for the mafia when I was a kid,” McManus muses. “And then we have the Long Island serial killer, and the opioid epidemic”—the devastation of which he has seen up close.
McManus was born into more lawful enterprises: His family owns the oldest family-run bar in New York City, Peter McManus Cafe, where the musician grew up working as a waiter and barback. He credits the place with substantially influencing his writing and enabling him to view the city through both an insider and outsider’s lens.
As a high schooler soaking up the influence of ’90s alt-rock giants, McManus was active in Long Island’s DIY scene, memories he sums up as “loud guitars and craziness, running around like a madman.” But it was during his university days at Hunter College that his musical parameters expanded. The musician formed an electronic music group with a friend and spent every free moment immersed in production software. “I started making my own loops and my own beats, and that led to getting entrenched in the production side of things,” McManus says. “I wasn’t really performing in bands. I was basically a full-time producer.”
Hip hop had always been a tangential influence for McManus—as a kid, he was turned onto Wu-Tang Clan by neighbors down the street—but now he was immersed, crafting beats with the fervor of a sculptor chipping away at marble. He began producing for friends and making beats for underground hip hop artists; he even funneled his boom-bap influence into his own rap album, 2015’s Waiting for Carmine, released under the moniker Don Miguel with a slew of guest vocalists. It was during this fruitful period that McManus collaborated with respected rappers such as Meek Mill, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and Heems. At one point, he produced an entire unreleased album for the Das Racist rapper. It was also with Heems that he created music for shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Viceland’s Gaycation.
If those raggy DIY bands of his youth helped ferment McManus’s gift for melody, the plunge into rap production seeded the beat-heavy arrangements that distinguish Gamblers’ debut album, from the stuttering snare claps that inject rhythmic bounce into “There Was a Window” to the percussive loops that wind their way through “Form and Flood.” “That recording process of making a beat, where you’re just going layer by layer and line by line in the studio, is a writing style that has carried over into Gamblers,” McManus explains.
McManus formed Gamblers with the goal of bringing rap production styles to indie-rock songcraft. The first iteration of the band, which featured guitarist/songwriter Gary O’Keefe and drummer Johnny Hoblin, was based in Brooklyn between 2014 and 2019. Lineups shifted; O’Keefe departed; Hoblin, McManus’s best friend since elementary school, departed, too, and then returned to the fold. He is now a crucial element of the new iteration—shall we say second wave?—of Gamblers, as is lead guitarist Jimmy Usher, formerly of the influential Long Island band Edison Glass, whose distorted licks weave their way through these songs.
Gamblers formally introduced itself with the release in 2020 of Small World, which was praised by outlets like PopMatters and Newsday and landed single airplay on Sirius XM, NPR Music, and WFUV. McManus’s kaleidoscopic pop sensibility is the through-line—from the beatific, soaring harmonies of “Give Yourself Into Love” to the wistful psychedelia of “Corinthian Order”—but the songs are also replete with references to mental illness, violence, and personal tragedy. “Tug of War” addresses the struggle of trying to balance being an artist with being a good person, while “Blood Sport” is a bubblegum pop song written from the perspective of a family dealing with a loved one in the throes of addiction. (Again, layers of meaning peel out from a deceptively simple surface.)
The new EP, When We Exit, can be understood as a bridge between Small World and an in-progress second Gamblers LP, which is already in the mixing stage. The goal was to put a new spin on preexisting songs and essentially “A&R” the album from a hip hop standpoint.
Thus, the EP contains skeletal remnants of five songs from Small World, remixed and thoroughly reimagined in a studio in Ridgewood, Queens. Small World’s airy, lush title track, now called “Preach Your Love,” morphs into a ghostly electro-pop banger; “Bound 2 Be Together” is deconstructed with technicolor synths and pounding ’80s snares fit for a John Hughes soundtrack. The chorus of “Tug of War,” rendered chilly and sparse, now bookends a rap verse by the underground Brooklyn MC known as Skyzoo.
Most dramatically, “Give Yourself Into Love”—retitled “Another Dose”—is transformed into a house-inspired rave-up with a mesmerizing verse from Chicago-based rapper Mick Jenkins. “I was just digging what he was doing musically” says McManus. “He’s really easy to work with and it just came together really, really well.”
In reimagining these songs with a curated network of collaborators, Gamblers are operating in the tradition of one of their biggest influences, Damon Albarn.
“I was always a fan of the approach Gorillaz takes, where there’s a theme, and it’s under this collective or band, but there’s a ton of other people involved and it’s a space for collaboration,” McManus says. “Taking some more chances musically, and having a space to do that with some awesome collaborators, all within the context of the band—that was something I was really interested in.”