An Interview With Leslie Mandoki Of The Mandoki Soulmates

Leslie Mandoki Interview

Photo courtesy of Chipster PR

Few artists possess the fortitude to follow their passions like Leslie Mandoki does. From an early age, Mandoki fell in love with music across the board and coupled that passion with an ambitious vision to succeed outside of his homeland of Hungary.

After escaping his communist-ruled homeland, Mandoki found himself a refugee with no money, instruments, or a place to call home. But he soon became embroiled in the ’70s American disco scene as a member of Dschinghis Khan, though it never scratched his deepest musical itches.

Still, for two years, Mandoki toiled away as a pop artist, raking in fame, money, and accolades but setting aside what he truly wanted to be doing. By the ’80s, Mandoki had left disco and pop music behind and began recording the music he’d always envisioned. In the 44 years since, Leslie Mandoki has never taken his foot off the gas pedal.

Leslie Mandoki has manifested his vision, but he’s far from done. For ClassicRockHistory.com, Leslie dug into his roots, inspirations, artistic process, new music, working with Ian Anderson and Al DiMeola, and more.

What inspired you to become a musician, and what keeps you inspired?

I’ve always been drawn to the arts. Actually, my first plan was to be a painter, and I took great pleasure in working on all the artwork for our albums. The second idea I had when I was young was to become a poet, and I won a young poets contest when I was 14. Music was always around me and in my heart.

My father played lullabies to me on the violin, and I grew up in the bosom of Béla Bartók, if you’ll pardon the expression. Eventually, by age 15, it was pretty clear that I was going to be a musician. Around that time, I went to the Bartók Conservatory in Budapest and saw what it meant to dedicate one’s life to music. And I said, “I’m in.”

The level of musical knowledge and appreciation in our audience has always propelled my creativity and kept me inspired. It is humbling to me because I do believe that we are not really the composer or lyricist of our songs, but rather that life itself is writing them, and we just have the joyous privilege to write them down.

And when the world turns upside down, and we end up in this labyrinth of crises without a compass, this is the inspiration to try to be the musical torch lighting the end of the tunnel. You see the symbol of the black swan on the album cover. We would really love to repaint this icon white again.

Tell me about where you grew up. What was the scene like?

I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, where there was censorship and where people in opposition were tortured. It was gray and lacking any liberal humanity. But this was only one side. It was because of this other side, an environment where people were very close to each other, and, despite the circumstances, there was a warmth, especially with my dad, that I grew up strong.

There was great mental strength and, in the classic European sense, almost a romantic feeling about love, respect, and tolerance. Culture and learning—these are the answers to everything a dictatorship gives you.

What were some of your favorite spots to take in shows as a kid?

My first concert, behind the Iron Curtain, of course, was The Spencer Davis group. I was young, and Stevie Winwood had just joined the band. A year later, I saw Traffic. Both were phenomenal, and the inspiration I got from these has never left me.

But most of the shows I saw in my teenage years were in semi-legal clubs, which in the daytime housed communist youth organizations, like the Pioneers. But somehow, there was a little space for American-style jazz-rock and British-style prog-rock.

That’s where I got the idea to merge both styles, to pursue complex harmonic structures, sophisticated lyrics, and the great production of British prog-rock like Jethro Tull and combine them with the instrumental virtuosity of, for example, the Brecker Brothers and Return to Forever.

Even on this new album, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Al Di Meola from Return to Forever, and Randy Brecker are in the band. The drive to combine fusion and prog-rock was born in my heart and soul as a young teenager from these experiences.

Did any local musicians inspire you as you were coming up?

The best Hungarian band in my early days in Budapest was called Syrius, and unfortunately, they were eventually destroyed by the culture of communist censorship. In 1972, they recorded an album in Australia called Masquerade. What an inspiration! I was a young teenager, and they were established old boys, but they came back from Australia and were playing in these semi-legal big clubs.

Somehow, they discovered me and called me up to jam with them. Just as importantly, they shared with me the record collection they brought home to Budapest from Australia. There was also Szakcsi, a genius at the piano, who later became my teacher and inspiration at the Bartók Conservatory.

He became a lifetime friend, and I was lucky enough to record an American album for him on the legendary new age and jazz label GRP Records in New York in the middle 1980s.

Of your older work, what albums mean the most, and why?

Having produced over 100 albums, I have to say that each one has a special place in my heart. But maybe the one that means the most to me is from around 1980, called “Back to Myself.” It was taking the road back to what I felt I truly am musically, after feeling that I had been slipping the wrong way into being more of a pop star-type.

The first album with the Mandoki Soulmates was 31 years ago, Out of Key… With the Time. I had never really planned to be “the cool guy,” I was always out for the balance of substantial content with the beauty of the form.

How did you enlist Ian Anderson and Al DiMeola into the Soulmates coming from such diverse geographic regions?

It’s very simple: it’s based on music. I was reaching out for the greatest of both British prog-rock and American jazz-rock, and they felt it. Back when I had escaped communism and was a refugee in the West, I told the resettlement officer that my plan was to form a band with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Al Di Meola of Return to Forever to create a musical melting pot of British prog-rock and American jazz-rock.

The officer smiled, perhaps understandably, and then asked my friend Gábor Csupo, who was sitting next to me, the same question. Gábor said he was going to Hollywood—we were the same age, 22, and he was a cartoonist and animator. His first work was on The Simpsons, and then he created Rugrats, and his studio, Klasky-Csupo, went on and on.

For the new record, A Memory of Our Future, where are you pulling from in terms of songwriting?

It’s this crazy world we’re all now living in. There are so many problems that I would like to illuminate and help us get through, and I want music to help show us the way. Music is the answer—music is the greatest unifier. That’s what I learned as a little boy from our grandfathers at Woodstock.

Yes, music can heal and can and should build the bridges we need, even if we can’t see where the bridges used to be anymore. Music can teach us tolerance, respect, and love and also reflect the darker side of life.

There are also some personal songs on the new record, like “Matchbox Racing.” My aunt, who became a refugee after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, wound up in LA and used to send me Matchbox cars and postcards. One postcard, particularly, of the parking lot at LAX airport, somehow represented freedom to six-year-old me, along with those little Matchbox cars.

So, I had to write this story for this album. But my daughter, Julia, an extremely talented musician, wrote the music for this story. The big picture is that the inspiration for songwriting comes from two sources: the world around us and the world around me.

On this album, from the world around us, the songs would be “Devil’s Encyclopedia,” “The Big Quit,” “Blood in the Water,” “Enigma of Reason,” and “We Stay Loud.” From the world around me comes “Matchbox Racing,” “My Share of Your Life,” and “I Am Because You Are.” And what represents both is “A Memory of My Future,” which ends up with the lyric “A memory of OUR future.” That’s what it’s all about.

Which song means the most to you, and why? Tell me a little about the first single, “Blood in The Water.” What is the song about?

The songs that mean the most to me became part of this album—all the others were not recorded [laughs]. Especially when you work analog, and the band plays the songs together, you really have to be selective. That’s what I did and had to do to work in this analog way.

“Blood in the Water” initially represents the album musically, especially with the blessing of a solo by Ian Anderson and an amazing Hammond work by Cory Henry. As the lyrics say in this song:

“We are swimming against the current, 

because we are a little different

greedy shorting, big reset, tick your tock, and buff your glow

the sharks are hungry, and the water is deep. 

Freedom is ringing, freedom is singing

but our compass is lost, directions crossed 

in these trying times, truth is hard to find 

blind to the reason and the freedom of a free mind.”

These are actually the song lyrics. Musically, I was really happy with the instrumental arrangements on this album. I was not writing any complete arrangements because we were not programming anything. It was an album played and recorded analog. Everything was roughly written down before we started to record, and we worked out the parts as we recorded—totally old school.

How do you view the way you write music today versus the past? What has changed most?

It’s so varied. Sometimes, it’s just playing drums and singing along, or being out on an autumn lake with an acoustic guitar, or just singing to my iPhone to get the right melody with the right words. Sometimes, it’s in the most unpleasant places, and sometimes in the most pleasant places in life. And sometimes, the songs come to me when I’m sitting in the studio surrounded by all the instruments. So, there is no definite way to do it.

Can you describe “revenge of the analog?” Is any part of the new release not analog?

First of all, the straight answer is: Everything is absolutely analog, except, of course, uploading to digital streaming services. So, the whole signal chain, from the very first note into the microphone all the way to cutting the lacquer master for the vinyl LP, is analog.

The “revenge of the analog” is just an ironic way to say that this is an analog record for a digital world. But this record is not so out of key with the time. It’s in sync with all those who are swimming against the current. And because we have that intuition and would like to express it, we were trying to find the right format, practically, aesthetically, and symbolically, and analog felt very right.

It was like we said, “Hey, let’s go down to the basement in the studio and take our 2-inch tape machine, set it up, plug in our best microphones, and it’s going to be like a handwritten love letter to our audience, not the usual text message.”

What’s one thing about you as a musician that you’d like people to understand?

I strive to find the things that unify us, the things that we have in common, our mutual goals that build bridges that bring us together musically, lyrically, and artistically. This is the most important aspect of both my artistic life and my personal life.

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them? 

The short-term goal, of course, is to celebrate this album’s worldwide release. But I want to celebrate by staying aware that the future is tomorrow! I’m moving forward from early morning to late night, eight days a week!

Will you tour North America?

Honestly, the greatest missing achievement in my life is to bring this music to America. We played once in Miami for Art Basel and once in New York City, invited by the Grammy organization. Of course, we would love to tour America and reach American audiences with our musical messages. We would pretty much do anything for that because I’ve always had the feeling that this music was actually born in and for America.

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