By Sabrina Cofer – Contact Writer
At a split-level home snug in UConn Territory, Waterbury-based Mandala sit with me outside on the strangest makeshift porch I’ve ever seen. There’s a sagging brown couch with green-tinted pillows, a couple of wooden dining room chairs, a faux-leather seated kitchen stool, and an old coffee table in the middle of us. We’re under the second story deck, which gives ceiling space to hang the white Christmas lights, currently unlit.
For the members of Mandala, I’m sure this house-show décor is nothing new. Morgan Fasanelli, vocalist of the group, met Abe Azab, guitarist and vocalist, in high school and hit it off, playing music ever since. “For my whole life, I always just loved singing,” Morgan explains, her neon pink hair and highlighted cheeks acting as bright spots against the graying couch. “I met Abe through musical theater and some other clubs, and we started writing from there.”
The two of them began playing as Mandala in 2015, and after several switch-ups in members they currently play as a five-piece with Morgan, Abe, Sean Connelly (drummer), Matt Rosano (bass), and Pat Mulholland (guitar).
Despite the turnover, their current lineup feels solid. “I joined Mandala as a fan,” Sean recounts, leaning forward, his eye contact steady, silver chain peeking out beneath his WHUS t-shirt. “It was the music that I’ve always wanted to play.”
Mandala’s sound is wholeheartedly their own. Self-proclaimed “sad music you can dance to,” they’re labeled as indie-rock with a penchant for guitar solos. Their latest project, Damsel in Defense, is a tight, six-song EP full of hooks, breakdowns, and enough tempo changes to keep you on your toes.
They’ve always leaned toward catchy songs, but some of their older tracks off Valley People and Cash for Smiles featured more fuzz and sounded a little more “Connecticut emo,” which makes sense, since Morgan and Abe’s original goal with Mandala wasn’t as light as it is now.
“We wanted to be indie,” Abe confesses, sharing a look with Morgan. Morgan shakes her head, laughing. “We wanted to be the indie-est kids you could’ve imagined,” she says. “We grew up in the same time as everybody else, but we’re from a city and went to a pretty diverse public school. We didn’t even know there were other kids playing in bands in Connecticut towns over from us.”
When they learned that the Connecticut scene existed, it broke open their idea of what kind of music they could make. “Whenever people ask me what my influences are, I always say Connecticut music,” Abe explains, his hands folded in front of him, the cross around his neck glinting in the late afternoon light. “My outlook on ‘indie music’ changed completely when I joined this scene. I got to learn that indie music is what you want it to be. It’s an original sound that you’ve created with people who are just trying to do the same thing as you.”
The sliding porch door suddenly opens, and the guy putting on the show later tonight steps out, freshly baked pizza in hand. They all gasp—this level of hospitality is usually unheard of at a house show—and quickly grab a slice.
As everyone chews, happy with the scent of basil and mozzarella, Morgan clears her throat and speaks: “I still have songs that I listen to on the daily by bands that aren’t together anymore from Connecticut. I was sixteen and listening, and now I’m twenty-one and listening and still am inspired by kids that live a town over from me. From other, normie-ass kids. But I loved their minds. I love what they create.”
Even as staunch supporters of Connecticut music, it’s hard not to notice how different they sound when compared to other CT bands. While most of these bands use distortion or heavier tones, Mandala tends to go brighter, often being told that they have more of a west coast sound. Though their lyrics have themes of heartbreak, regret, or self-doubt, their music is deceptively danceable. Most indie songs coming out of Connecticut encourage plenty of head-nodding, but Mandala wants you to dance. Choosing clean sounds over distorted, full-fledged guitar solos over quick riffs, do they feel different from other bands in their home state?
“We think about it a lot. We’re from Connecticut, we’ve been in Connecticut this whole time and still I wouldn’t say that a lot of bands playing now sound compatible with us,” Morgan says. “Which isn’t a bad thing, all the bands in Connecticut right now are dope. Abe and I just come from a unique background. If you asked a few kids from Waterbury to make a band, and maybe a few kids from Cheshire to make a band, they’d sound like us. But there’s not a lot of kids making music in Waterbury, besides hip hop music.”
Their distinct sound may have also been influenced by how they record. Damsel in Defense was their first time recording in a studio, at Silver Bullet Studios in Burlington, Connecticut. “I think the clean sound came from honing in our tones,” Matt explains, scratching his beard as he speaks. “Sean was able to test out different snare drums, and we had access to new recording gear. We were definitely more true to ourselves on this record, and they blend together when we play it live. Even if one might be grittier than the other, the energy runs together nicely.”
They also may have felt some pressure to step up their production game. Sean confesses that they are notoriously picky when it comes to production; they had three different people mix Damsel before they were satisfied.
“Modern music in 2019 inevitably bleeds into your ears. I think the standards of the music industry are changing in ways that adds a lot of weight to really good, really clean production,” Pat explains, scrunching up his t-shirt sleeves, revealing a tattoo on his forearm. “For this latest record, it was definitely a rough road. You have to be very honest with yourself, like is this the right person to do this? Whether or not you’re friends with that person, you can’t take things personally at that level. Because outside of our ears, everyone else is gonna hear this music.”
When I bring up the EP’s title, Damsel in Defense, Abe presses Morgan to speak on it. She shifts her position on the couch. “I first didn’t like it because I’m the only girl in this band, so I always try to not be that stereotype of anything that goes along with girls in the scene, which we know, there are many.” She adjusts her sunglasses, her eyes hidden from view.
“I didn’t want it to be like ‘oh just another chick having to defend herself.’ A lot of people have been like, ‘does this relate to how you feel in the scene?’ And it’s really not that to me at all. It more pairs with the title ‘She Don’t Mind.’ It’s more of an independence thing.”
The EP’s cover has only Morgan, with various objects behind her held up by string. “There’s guns hanging, there’s knives, and then there’s more internal things like a mirror and cellphone,” Sean explains. “It’s like the world is a dangerous place, everybody’s self-conscious, so you have to battle those things internally. It’s not only about a damsel in defense, being a strong woman, it’s about being a strong individual.”
Abe nods, looking over at Morgan. “All of us, being men in the band, we want to protect her. We want to keep her safe from all that crap, ‘cause she’s our girl and we love her. And there’s a lot of crap out there.”
Here, I hesitate. I can’t count the number of shows I’ve gone to where every person that had walked onstage that night was a guy. Watching that as an audience member is one thing, but being a performer must be a whole other feeling.
“I never, ever used to think of it that way,” Morgan says. “I never went into somewhere feeling out of place. Because I wasn’t going in there as me, I was going in there as Mandala.” She pauses, speaking slowly. “I never really worry if there’s only dudes there; it’s disappointing, 100 percent, and sometimes I think that people rule us out of being as hard as we are because I’m a female vocalist and because some things, if you had a male singing the songs, would come across differently. But I don’t think that should affect it at all.”
The house show guy, who we all agree at this point is an angel among us, reappears with coffee, half-and-half, a pot of sugar, and enough mugs for us all. I grab a cup (It’s a paintball thing, you wouldn’t understand written on the side) and fill up while Matt scoops the largest spoonful of sugar I’ve ever seen into his mug.
The guy who runs this house, and countless other diy promoters, bloggers, and other bands have helped them grow over the years, which can be the difference between reaching 50 people or 1,000. “That’s what you need, you just need a little bump from a playlist or some sort of promotion,” Sean explains. “If you took every person in the whole world and you played them our band, there would maybe be a decent enough percentage where it could be a thing I could do for the rest of my life. But I live in Connecticut and I can only do so much.”
As we talk, all five of them pass around a camera to record themselves answering questions, presumably for their YouTube series “The Mandala Effect.” Most videos are of them on tour, meeting fans and hanging out in different cities. When I ask about it, all hands point to Abe. He claps his hands together and smiles. “It’s something we can always look back on. It’s like a scrapbook, a tour documentary series. I get to capture the fans, our friends who pull up to all these shows.”
They explain to me they have an army of sorts in every city, the same faces in the same spots. They warn me that tonight, right before they go on, their crowd will shuffle in, usually a bit rowdier than the others. Abe explains that he wanted to offer them the band’s thanks. “It’s like a salute to them,” he says. “Because we’re not afraid to show that. Because if they’re gonna go hard and sing the words, I’m gonna show them doing that, because that’s awesome.”
A core piece of their band is playing live. They play shows almost every week, usually only taking off a month each year to write and record. And their music, dancey, groovy, and chockfull of guitar solos allows for an invigorating live show, a bit different from the typical stagnant, barely bobbing heads audience. For them, they can’t imagine being a band that doesn’t play live.
“I never really got that, only being in the studio or never playing a live show,” Matt says. “I have a good friend who’s a great songwriter, but he’s in a band that never plays live. They just record music. He can find people on blogs and stuff, and he’s part of music circles online, but if you never play live, how do they get to know you?”
Sean chimes in: “We enjoy playing live because we enjoy playing live. I like to entertain people. I like to go out there and put a good show on. It’s a whole vibe toss-and-throw-back. I could play shows every day for the rest of my life.”
Between the five of them, there’s a healthy balance of personalities. Abe and Morgan, the primary writers, are the most outwardly artistic. “These two are definitely the creative minds,” Sean says. “Me and Matt are strictly here to lay down the groove and to bring the energy, and Pat is there to bring the soul and the solos.” Besides musically, Matt and Pat are the quietest of the group, only speaking when necessary; Abe and Morgan have a magnetic pull between them, sharing glances and finishing each other’s sentences. Sean is the most eager, always smiling, consistently proud of the music he gets to write and play.
Even as friends, they can still get on each other’s nerves, especially on tour when close proximity can easily turn tense. But they always work through it, most similar to siblings arguing than anything else. “You can never be mad at them to the point where you’re like ‘I don’t wanna be here,’ or ‘I quit,’” Abe says, all nodding in agreement.
While they’ve toured up and down the east coast, the Northeast is their familiar domain, and in the future they’re itching to get out of their self-contained bubble.
“I want to be able to just to get the van and book the show and take the time off and really go for it,” Sean explains. “We play and hang out with bands who go on tour for fucking two and a half months straight and I would love to do that, but it’s obviously harder than it looks.”
Besides paying for the van, food, and gas, there’s the whole other headache of finding the spots, contacting the bookers, and just making it happen. This hurdle is what makes most bands remain in their own circles: it’s too damn hard to get out.
“It’s a step that’s really hard to take for a local band. There’s a lot less record labels that are gonna give you that 10 grand for a van and a couple thousand to make a record. That shit just doesn’t really happen anymore,” Sean says, shrugging. “It’s really hard to do it all on your own. We’re doing our thing for as long as we can, but there’s a bigger market somewhere else and that’s what you gotta think about. You have to think about the reality of the business.”
While they eventually want to break out and move somewhere with a larger market—Morgan cites LA, Nashville, and Philly as her dream spots—they speak of moving as something far off down the line. For now, tonight, they have a show to put on.
Around 11 PM, just like they told me, fans begin to clump together in the garage, securing their spots, phones out and ready. Mandala open with “Bowery and Bleaker,” the opener off Damsel, and the crowd wastes no time, immediately dancing and singing along. By the second song, everybody is covered in sweat as one half of the room does some form of Moshing-Lite.
They play confident and tight, like they know the songs inside and out, feeding off the words shouted back at them and Vans-covered feet constantly moving. As it nears midnight, the guy who had brought us the coffee and pizza runs in with a bottle of champagne (apparently it’s his birthday), and in a suspiciously cinematic moment, pops it open, the cool foam dousing us, leaving our skin sticky and sweet.
When someone stands on an amp to bang a tambourine against the ceiling, the string lights hung up fall down around the band, but they continue to play, fans holding up the lights above them. Sean takes a moment to speak to the crowd: “Grab somebody and get grooving. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” The crowd, profusely sweating and smiling, cheers. Nothing wrong indeed.
Listen to Damsel in Defense by Mandala on Bandcamp and Spotify below: