The Story Behind Jellyfish’s Final Lineup, Part One

One of the most beloved and critically-acclaimed bands of the 1990s, Jellyfish made a pair of superb albums. But after 1990’s Bellybutton, the band fell apart. Co-leaders Roger Joseph Manning and Andy Sturmer had to rebuild the group with new musicians.

Today – more than a quarter century later – The Lickerish Quartet reunites three members of that final lineup. My interview feature – originally published in Goldmine Magazine – focuses on the new group and its debut EP. But the back story for Roger Joseph Manning, Tim Smith and Eric Dover goes back farther than Jellyfish’s second and final release, Spilt Milk. In this exclusive bonus feature, Manning and Smith tell the story of how they first encountered each other – and found Eric Dover – the beginnings of a musically fertile story that continues to this day.

A brief bit of context: I grew up in Atlanta, and during my high school and college years, one of the most popular locally-based groups was The Producers. They toured widely and incessantly – I have friends from New Orleans who saw The Producers so often that they thought the group was based there – and scored two minor hit singles, “What She Does to Me” (#61) and “What’s He Got” (#108). After the band’s second album, a shakeup at Portrait Records left them without an ally at the label, and they were dropped.

Soon after, Bassist Kyle Henderson left for a solo career in the Christian rock idiom. And as the band began work on a third album (Run for Your Life, released in 1985 on a small label) replaced Henderson with a young musician named Tim Smith. Though I’d soon see him onstage with The Producers, hearing the Run for Your Life tapes (my band recorded in the same studio, and engineer-producer Chuck Fedonczak played us the then-unreleased record) was my first exposure to Smith.

Tim Smith: That was the first recording I ever did. I was 18.

Bill Kopp: I saw the Producers many times, but I most vividly recall a show at the Cotton Club. The whole show was great, but the most memorable thing was when you played the ballad “Can’t Cry Anymore,” and all four of you were playing keyboards.

Smith: Yeah, that was actually the song I wrote. I was in my youth of wanting to be in Thomas Dolby’s band!

Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me how you got your start in music and how you came to join The Producers.

Smith: I was going to school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I had lived growing up. I was a huge Producers fan. I used to go see them all the time. I heard that Kyle Henderson was going to be leaving. Another bass player friend of mine had auditioned for them, and had a phone number for somebody. I went and crashed a show down in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

[The next day] I saw Brian Holmes running; he was a big runner. I had a demo tape. And he said, “Well, if you want, come up to Atlanta and audition.” I was not a bass player at the time. I was a guitar player. So I just borrowed somebody’s bass and learned all their songs. And then I went up to Atlanta and auditioned. They said, “Great, we’d love you to do this.”

I was still in high school; I was graduating that May. So they said, “Come on the road with us this summer, just to see what that’s like, since you’ve never done this.” Kyle was still going to do the tour. So, I went out with them in their van, and ran lights for their shows. I hung out and kind of got a sense of what it was like to be out on the road for a few months. Then I joined at the end of that summer.

Jumping ahead quite a good bit, how did you first come to know Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning? And how did you come to be in Jellyfish?

Smith: Well, they’re sort of connected. I was still doing shows with the Producers in 1988-89-90-ish. We did a whole series of “farewell tours.” And we ended up hiring this local guy named Shalome Aberly to do live sound for us. And he was [also] a live sound engineer for Jellyfish. His wife worked for AT&T, and she was moved from San Francisco to Atlanta to work. So, Shalome was here and trying to pick up freelance work, and we became friends.

I had seen Jellyfish open for World Party at The Center Stage, and I was blown away by them. So, when I got to know Shalome, I was like, “Oh I love that band.” But I thought they were faking their vocals live, because there’s no way it could sound that good. And he was like, “Nope, it’s really them.” So when Jason [Falkner] left and Chris [Manning] was leaving, Shalome said, “If you’re interested, I can get you in touch with them.”

So, I went out to San Francisco and hung out with them a little bit. I played on one of their demos. And they asked me to join.

Roger Joseph Manning: It was one of those serendipitous events. When I was putting together my bands in the early days, I always used to joke, “What if the perfect guy for us” – meaning whatever musician Andy and I needed at the time – “What if he lived in Germany? How are we going to find him?” Like, how are we going to get put together?

And I remember when Jason left Jellyfish, we ran an ad in some of the bigger papers, like Billboard and some other music things. Just generic, you know, “Band looking for guitar player,” kind of thing. And Tim actually came to our attention because Shalome, our sound man, much to his frustration, was leaving the San Francisco Bay area, where we were all based, and moving to Atlanta. He was desperate for music and culture, and started working in a variety of clubs. He ran into Tim at some gig. Tim was a Jellyfish fan, and he thought our sound man was lying: “If you’re Jellyfish’s sound man, what are you doing in Atlanta? You’re lying. I can’t believe you’re bragging about this stuff!” You know? He was like, “No, no. My wife just got transferred. This is for real.”

Anyway, they hit it off, and Shalome – who was definitely the fifth man in Jellyfish, a very talented singer and engineer in his own right – could tell that Tim was a really great player and singer with his projects. He approached Tim and said, “The guys just lost their bass player and their guitar player, and I think you should reach out to them, and I will vouch for you because I think you’ve got what it takes. I’ll simply make the introduction.” And that’s literally how it happened. Tim got on a plane and came out to the San Francisco Area, where Andy and I lived. And we took it from there.

In the second part of our conversation, Roger Joseph Manning and Tim Smith tell the story of how Eric Dover got involved.

Click to continue  …