Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Eric Mantel Interview

| October 1, 2010

Coming Unstuck

Anyone in town who ever spent a split second in a blues bar or rock club from the 1970s through today has likely run into Chicago-based guitar slinger Eric Mantel. Often dubbed a virtuoso, the player is also known for his songwriting, vocal, and even teaching skills, not to mention a cross-genre spread that includes pop, jazz, and hints of new age, as per his latest project, The Unstruck Melody (on Steve Vai’s Digital Nations download label), which finds common ground with fans of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, Eric Johnson, and Todd Rundgren, wrapped around Mantel’s detail-oriented playing style.

“I get compared to Eric Johnson quite often, but if you listen close enough, you’ll know I’m not Eric,” admits Mantel with a laugh. “Everything’s influenced by something and it’s impossible to come out as an artist nowadays and be unique and original. I discovered over the years as a teacher that the more things you have for people to latch onto, the easier for them it is to listen to it. You’re a product of who you listen to, but you also need to have your own voice.”

One major element setting Mantel apart is his decision to break the current album into separate acts, complete with an intermission-themed segue. Along the way, each track is tied together by melodic sensibilities, diverse rhythms, and positive premises meant to stir listeners out of complacent musical or personal patterns.

“I kind of wanted it to be like a show and create a Sgt. Pepper’s-type album that’s an eclectic musical journey,” unveils Mantel. “I’ve always been an eclectic artist and when I grew up I was a huge Beatles fan. I set out to not overplay on the guitar end, but rather focus on good songwriting, melody, and hooks to have it balanced so I’m not just serving myself. This album isn’t about hearing me shred, but wanting the music to cross over [to a variety of genres] and not just the [guitar] niche. My lyrics are a lot more reflective and they’re definitely not boy-meets-girl songs. I don’t really write that way. I write more philosophical, spiritually, and politically. Someone once quoted my music as ‘intelligent pop’ because it makes you think more. It’s definitely spiritual and a lot of ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what’s the truth?’ kind of stuff. I’m asking deep questions.”

One major point of reflection came around the original release date of The Unstruck Melody, which was originally slated to release four years ago, but was side-tracked after the passing of Mantel’s father (Harry Mantel, a journalist and editor for WMAQ/NBC News radio). Though the songs were completed and a first pressing had taken place in pre-release format for music industry connections, family affairs accounted for the lengthy delay in the record seeing the street.

“My father was 85 when he passed away and it wasn’t like it was unexpected, but any time you lose a parent, it still hits you,” he recalls of the somber time. “They were definitely trying times and a lot of stuff surfaces. You go through a lot of different emotions, plus I spent a lot of time helping my mom and getting the estate settled.”

Despite a heavy heart, Mantel did some occasional touring overseas, forming a supergroup of sorts called The Fret Pack with acclaimed guitarists Neil Zaza and Florian Opahle (Greg Lake, Ian Anderson). Though he may have been lying low around the Windy City, international audiences ate up the trio’s unbelievably nimble playing action and collaborative chemistry.

“I’m not recognized in every single place, but appearing on the covers of Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines back in the 1990s really helped spread that attention,” he asserts. “Those were distributed all over Europe and Asia and the guitar’s popularity is especially huge in Asia. People in those places think way ahead of us in terms of listening tastes and they appreciate more technical-based performances. Look at an older band like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who, when they came out, were huge in Europe but critics hated them. Then you had punk when people wanted to play, but you didn’t have to be very good at your instrument or study to be a virtuoso player. There were of course great bands that came out of that, but some of the best music was written in the 1960s and ’70s. After that, record labels started letting everybody in.”

— Andy Argyrakis

For the full story, grab the October issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.


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