Matt Mangano is having a very good time playing with the Zac Brown Band. But the group’s new bassist insists he’s playing far more than country music – the genre most often associated with the group.
“I kind of put Zac’s music out of the genre of country and into the genre of good,” Mangano said. “That’s what it is….We go from a country song to a hard-rocking song to a reggae-ish song to a bluegrassy song. It’s fun. And it’s fun to see people respond. They’re singing with every song, dancing around. If it makes you dance and makes you happy at the end of the night, it’s done its job.”
Mangano only has a little experience to back up that contention. He joined the band in December and its “Great American Road Trip” tour is his first with the band.
But he’s known and worked with Brown for years.
A native of Georgia, Mangano attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where his roommate was an aspiring blues-rock guitarist named John Mayer. He played rhythm guitar in an early incarnation of Mayer’s band. When that group wasn’t on the road, he found gigs in back in Georgia.
That’s when Mangano met and initially played with Brown. After about a year, Mangano left Mayer’s band and Brown and moved to Nashville to work in audio engineering. A few years later, Mangano and Brown reconnected. Mangano began mixing the Zac Brown Band albums and became director of Brown’s Southern Ground Studio.
Surprisingly, Mangano didn’t immediately say “yes” when Brown asked him to join the band.
“You would think that it would be an easy decision, a no brainer,” Mangano said. “At that time, I was the studio director for Southern Ground Studio. I wasn’t touring. I was home every day. I could wake up and see my son every day. It would be hard to have that on the road, I thought. But I found out, I get to see my family more now. When you’re working in the studio, you have some very long days and it can be every day. Now I get to see them three days a week.
“When Zac asked me to join, I was sort of hesitant at first,” he said. “Then I sat down with my wife and she gave me the look, you know. I agreed immediately.”
With Mangano now on board, the Zac Brown Band has become an eight-piece outfit, with John Driskelll Hopkins, whom had played bass, becoming a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, baritone guitar, ukulele, upright bass and banjo and continuing to sing.
Mangano said he fit in easily with the group, “I played with Zac in the early configuration of the band. It wasn’t called the Zac Brown Band then. But we were playing some of the songs we’re playing now. I guested on albums and knew them from the studio…. and I’ve been hearing those songs for years. I realized when I sat down to play them, I already knew them.”
Now, he’s getting comfortable in a new environment — the arenas, amphitheaters and giant festival stages where the Zac Brown Band plays in front of 10,000 or more people a night.
“That part was not hard for me at all,” Mangano said. “For some reason, it may not be this way for everybody, but it is for me, the bigger the audience, the more comfortable it is. Maybe it’s because you don’t have direct, face-to-face contact with people. That makes it easier to block out the fact that there are 10,000 people out there.”
It also helps that Brown has put together a top-flight crew to provide technical support for the band members.
“As musicians, all we have to do is walk onstage and concentrate on the music and do it as well as we can,” Mangano said. “That might sound like we’re being babied, but it makes a big difference. It’s one of the reasons the band is so good.”
In joining the band, Mangano had to switch to playing play live rather than in the studio.
“The mindset’s completely different,” he said. “In the studio, you’re really focused on precision, accuracy and coming up with something new and original. You have to be in the right head space to do that. Playing live, you have to have energy, you have to be animated and you have to have more of a fire.
“I like to incorporate the studio aspect of playing when I’m playing live,” Mangano said. “We all have the in-ear monitors, which is like a studio headphone mix. I try to play it like I would in the studio hearing that mix. Combining that with the energy of a live performance is what I want to do, what I try to do.”
That said, Mangano expects he’ll be back in full studio mode when the band goes into Southern Ground to make its next record.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “I’ll probably worry about what kind of pre-amp we’re using, what kind of compressors. But I’m going to try to put the technical aspects aside and work on the performance. But I know I won’t be able to.”
For now, Mangano doesn’t have to think about recording. He’s getting ready for the shows, which will take place on a redesigned stage that will be new to those who come to the shows.
The sets, however, will be familiar to Brown fans.
“We’ll usually play a couple hours,” Mangano said. “We’re going to take you on a ride. It’ll be a wild ride, you just hang on. There will be new material, old material and some new cover songs. I’m not going to tell you what they are. But I will tell you there’s no ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
Asked if he had any favorite songs, Mangano pointed to a pair of tunes.
“I love the ballads, actually. Playing a ballad like ‘Highway 20’ or ‘Free,’ the bass part isn’t very hard. I play a lot of whole notes and I can listen to the lyrics and get lost in them. They have an impact every night.”
If the ballads are the favorites, what is the hardest song to play?
“I’d say ‘Let It Rain’ from ‘The Grohl Sessions,’” Mangano said, mentioning the recently released EP the group recorded with Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. “It’s technically involved and there’s a lot of notes in that. We’re all on the edge of our seats when we’re playing that one. It’s like waterskiing behind a fast boat.”
But even the hard ones are fun to play, Mangano said.
“I’m really enjoying this,” he said. “I fit in right away and it’s only getting better. I’m in a great band.”
A great band that plays more than country music.
“That’s what it is….We go from a country song to a hard-rocking song to a reggae-ish song to a bluegrassy song. It’s fun. And it’s fun to see people respond.”
bassist, Zac Brown Band