Mentored by Morphine frontman Mark Sandman, who produced their self-titled 1998 debut EP, Mr. Airplane Man were enthralling listeners in Boston-area dives with their mysterious blues-punk sound before anyone had heard of the White Stripes or Black Keys. But according to guitarist/vocalist Margaret Garrett, her duo with drummer/keyboardist Tara McManus was an organic extension of being “totally obsessed” with music since they were kids.
“I’d like to be able to say we were so intentional about being this gritty blues two-piece, way before the White Stripes,” Garrett says. “The truth is, I didn’t feel that comfortable playing with anyone else. We started busking in the street, in the park near Cambridge Common, where nobody went [laughs]. Not really making any money, but that’s how we first felt comfortable playing out. When we tried out other people eventually, it never really worked. It’s hard to join in on two best friends who are very crazed girls when they’re together.”
Garrett acknowledges Morphine as a “huge influence,” but neither she nor McManus identifies with a particular scene. They’ve been fine with being labeled “garage rock,” but their tastes range from Howlin’ Wolf and the Stooges to King Sunny Ade and the Butthole Surfers. “We just have love for music,” she notes, “more than the culture around whatever the music is.”
The vitality and lean angularity of Mr. Airplane’s Music made the late ’90s and early ’00s a heady blur of touring (with Morphine, the White Stripes, the Detroit Cobras, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and recording. By the time they released 2004’s polished “C’mon DJ,” they needed a break.
Their hiatus lasted a decade. (“We had kids,” Garrett says, laughing.) After a few years, independent of each other, they started missing their friendship and band. Reunion wheels began turning when a German fan booked Mr. Airplane Man for a two-week tour.
“It was getting old, getting stale; we just needed to do other things,” Garrett explains. “It’s like Mark Sandman said: ‘Don’t over-focus on the band, go travel.’ And that’s true in life. Now we have something to sing about, write about, play about.”
Last November Garrett, who studied film in college, relocated to Koreatown with her young son. McManus’ family couldn’t leave Rhode Island, however, so they’re negotiating the tricky logistics of being a bicoastal band, which is hell on rehearsals. Garrett expects their sets at Redwood Bar in downtown LA tonight and the Buccaneer Lounge in Sierra Madre Saturday will mix longtime fan favorites like “Jesus on the Mainline” with material from an album they recorded in May with producer Robin Girault. Scheduled for February release by Sympathy for the Record Industry, “Jacaranda” expands Mr. Airplane Man’s sound with bass and some additional guitar to support Garrett’s vibey slide playing.
“When Tara came to visit in May, the whole street outside our practice space was lined with jacaranda in bloom,” Garrett recalls. “Seeing jacaranda blooming for the first time, I fell in love with the world.”
Mr. Airplane Man and the Bloody Brains perform at the Buccaneer Lounge, 70 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, 9:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18; free admission. Info: (626) 355-9045. Mrairplaneman.com, facebook.com/Buccaneer-847437898642883/