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Local Listens: Olivia Mancini & The Mates

Welcome to Local Listens, where we profile some of our favorite Washington musicians. This week, we shine the spotlight on Olivia Mancini & The Mates.

Photograph by Chris Leaman.

At just 2½ minutes, the song “My Old Ways” captures everything we love about rock music­—from its rolling, train-engine rhythm and the light bounce of the piano to talk of old habits and “hundred-mile nights.” Even without the support of her usual brass accompaniment, DC native Olivia Mancini’s songs jump with the raw energy of great ska, always wrapped around her distinctive and melodious voice.

On “My Old Ways,” off last year’s Chatterbox EP, Mancini sings: “I’m drinking one tonight, but I’m gonna sip it slowly. / I don’t want to get so messed up as I did last night.” What could be a throwaway line for hundreds of bands is instead a sincere and simple moment tinged with regret and renewed optimism. The track, simultaneously full-bodied and intimate, could blare over a bar jukebox, fill a dance floor, or comfortably make its home inside a pair of headphones—a testament to Mancini and the flawless playing of her band, the Mates.

Mancini started the Mates—at the time called the Housemates—in 2005 with a group of musically inclined Arlington roommates. The band was a way to showcase her songwriting chops after a stint as bass player for the Washington Social Club. It’s been an emphatic success, to say the least. Whether it’s the bluesy “Jealous Type,” the swing-influenced “Radio Silence,” or the soulful and more experimental rock of “Let’s Do This,” the choruses always soar into a classic car-windows-down, foot-stomping-sing-along quality.

Make sure to catch Olivia Mancini & the Mates with fellow Local Listens alums the Moderate and Justin Jones & the Driving Rain at the Rock & Roll Hotel Saturday night. For now, read our Q&A with Mancini for details on the name change, upcoming releases, and why Chief Ike’s in Adams Morgan is the place to be on Tuesday nights.Name: Olivia Mancini.

Age: “Dirty 30.”


First song that made you want to play music:
“Hmm . . .  I’m pretty sure it was the Top Gun anthem.”

First instrument:

Local spot to seek inspiration or write music:
“My living room in DC’s Logan Circle.”

Best local venue:

“I feel like we’re spoiled for venues now. Soundman Rob Curtis has the Rock & Roll Hotel stage dialed in, and Dennis Kane has done great things with the sound on the Black Cat backstage.”

Best bar to hear music:

“I’m a big fan of Tuesday nights at Chief Ike’s, where this pickup reggae/ska band plays every week. I don’t want to blow it up too much, but sometimes HR from Bad Brains sits in.”

Favorite local band other than your own:

“What if I still said my own? Ha ha, little joke there­—glad you qualified the question. There are a lot of good bands in Washington. I’m lucky that we’re playing with one of my favorites, Justin Jones & the Driving Rain, this weekend at the Rock & Roll Hotel.”

Best thing about Washington’s music scene:

“There are enough really good bands that I have trouble choosing which one I like best.”

Worst thing about Washington’s music scene:

“So many people move away to New York. It’s not better there, guys. Come back.”

Craziest tour memory:

“Unfortunately, the craziest memories are also the haziest.”

Finish this sentence: “When not making music, you can find me . . . ”

“ . . . learning prog-rock solos to teach my guitar students.”

Rolling Stones or the Beatles?

“Different animals. If you haven’t yet, check out the Stones’ record Tattoo You.”

Digital download or hard copy?

“I still acquire both but lean toward digital for convenience.”

Rolling Stone or Spin or . . . ?


Club show or festival?

“The only festival I attended with any regularity was the HFStival. Are they still doing that?”

When and why did the Housemates become the Mates?

“In a literal sense, the Housemates ceased to be housemates many years ago. The band name lingered while we searched for something that still represented us and our relationship to each other. One day, Ed said, ‘Why not just the Mates?’ I liked it, filed it away mentally, and a few weeks ago I overheard Kristin and Randy telling someone, ‘We’re in a band called the Housemates, but we’re not really called that anymore.’ I don’t know what possessed me—I probably just wanted to put an end to the debate—but I shouted from a different room, ‘Yeah, we’re called the Mates!’ There was about 20 seconds of silence, and then I heard them say, ‘Yes, we’re called the Mates.’ Then I made T-shirts so it couldn’t be changed.”

What’s the current lineup like? Has it fluctuated at all over the past few years?

“The current lineup is Kristin Forbes on bass, Ed Donohue on guitar, Randy Scope on drums, and my little sister, Julia, on backing vocals. Eventually, it’d be great to replace—not in spirit but in body—our old trumpet player, Dan Swenson, who we lost to Boston about a year ago. But would you believe that rock-and-roll trumpet players aren’t all that easy to find?”

Is there a Mates record in the works or any other side projects? If so, when can we expect to hear them?

“The Mates record is done! As is the Sleeping Secrets record! As well as Donny Hue and the Colors! It’s been a fruitful year for the Mates crew. I can’t speak for Randy (Sleeping Secrets) or Ed (Donny Hue), but I know I’m getting impatient about a release date. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the new songs hit MySpace fairly soon.”

When introducing your music to someone for the first time, what song do you play?

“I usually start by playing ‘My Old Ways’ because it’s upbeat and accessible and about being out late and partying. Once they’re hooked, I bring out the deep cuts such as ‘Deal Is Off’ (about an impending divorce) or ‘Weathervane’ (about losing direction in life).”

Favorite musician or band that sounds nothing like you?

“R. Kelly.”