What the heck is a Manatree? It’s not a typo, variety of sea cow or botany jargon, but rather the Richmond-based band formerly known as Herro Sugar.
“We spent our whole senior year of high school deliberating about the name,” bassist Noma Illmensee says. “Facebook only allows you to change your band name once, so you need to choose wisely. It’s a nonsensical name that’s kind of made up to throw people off a little. Another one we considered was Mazzagine like magazine.”
While such silliness might be exactly what you’d expect from a group of 20-year-old guys, these four middle-school friends have matured considerably since their inception in 2009. Now they’re all about celebrating the youth-fueled journey to becoming a real band with the release of their first full-length, self-titled debut on Egg Hunt Records — and critics are taking notice.
But long before cranking out what they describe as “guitar driven indie-something rock/math/pop,” they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, putting Legos together and making movies.
“Jack Mayock and I have known each other since we were 3 and met Tristan in first grade,” Illmensee says. So it was inevitable that they’d start playing music together, he says: “All of us had music experience and we came from very musically influenced households. My and Tristan [Fisher’s] fathers were both in Richmond bands.”
Tom Illmensee played guitar for Frog Legs and Bone Anchor. Danny Fisher was in punk outfit the Penetrators and is the drummer for Jangling Reinharts.
In the seventh grade, the boys learned to play songs they loved by such bands as the Strokes and Rage Against the Machine, and pop hits from mid-2000s by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Soon they began writing their own songs and learning how to shape them courtesy of “band boot camp,” taught by some guys who graduated from Seven Hills School ahead of them. The four-piece began recording demos its freshman year and quickly garnered buzz after winning a battle of the bands at the Canal Club in 2010.
The prize was studio time at In Your Ear, which afforded the members the experience of recording a three-song EP followed quickly by a self-recorded collection of songs, “Smoking General Kills Sturgeon.” The response to their shows was overwhelming and immediate.
Last year, Manatree launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that funded the forthcoming album. It’s a charming, unabashed pop record that finds it exploring new sonic terrain, something members partly credit to working with producer Adrian Olsen of Avers at Montrose Recording Studio.
“Lots of old stuff was around the studio which evoked creativity,” Illmensee says. “At one point Adrian asked us to go grab some extra cables from the house and we opened up a door with all these guitars and amps. It was mind-blowing. Anything we needed or wanted was there from a glockenspiel to toy pianos and baritone guitars.”
They’re quick to note that this album was written while they were still in high school, though some of the less-fleshed-out songs were given new life in the hands of Olsen.
“It’s a representation of our entire high-school experience,” Illmensee says.
While some folks might think that’s something to tuck away, Manatree is proud of how far they’ve come in such a short time. “It’s a celebration really,” adds percussionist Alex Elder.
So far, critics and fans agree that this is something special. Pure Volume premiered the single “Animal Quietlies” with praise, shortly followed by nods from CMJ and Brooklyn Vegan.
Members did not, however, escape the notorious commentary from readers of the latter.
“I believe the comment was ‘This is like a tub of KY Jelly,” says Elder, laughing. “What does that even mean? Is that good?”
Illmensee, who also manages the band, grins at the conversation. “I love reading comments,” he says. “It cracks me up. I mean, this is all just so next level.” S
Manatree plays its album release party at the Broadberry with Clair Morgan and Lucy Dacus on Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10 advance and $12 at the door. thebroadberry.com.