Earl Maneein and Jessica Pimentel Get Out of Their Heads

The Seven) Suns violinist and the actor/musician catch up.

Earl Maneein is a violinist and the founder of the avant-metal/hardcore string quartet Seven) Suns; Jessica Pimentel is an actor (Orange Is the New Black) and musician known for her work with the metal bands Alekhine’s Gun and Brujeria. Seven) Suns’ latest project — a note-for-note reimagining of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s One of Us Is the Killer — was just released on Silent Pendulum Records, so to celebrate, the two friends got on Zoom to catch up about it, and more,
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Earl Maneein: So, obviously the two of us have been friends for really long time, and we have to be official.

Jessica Pimentel: Do you want to introduce yourself first?

Earl: I’m Earl Maneein, and I play the violin. That’s my identity. That’s the whole thing. [Laughs.]

Jessica: [Laughs.] I feel you on that. That was my identity for a long time as well. Not Earl Maneein, but…

Earl: Jess was a violinist for quite a while. 

Jessica: Yes.

Earl: You played Mendelssohn, didn’t you? You played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Jessica: Yes, I did. I learned that by ear as a small child, and that terrible squeaky ear learning got me a scholarship at the Russo School of Music and put me in some really wonderful positions in life at an early age. Being able to play out, being able to play with orchestras, being able to play chamber music, getting free or discounted violin lessons three to four times a week… So, I thank papi Mendelssohn for that.

Earl: I also want to point out that for Jess to be able to learn the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by ear is actually an incredible thing, and says a lot about her. I’m not even joking. Like, we can take the piss out of each other, but—

Jessica: I didn’t say it was good! I just said I learned it.

Earl: [Laughs.] Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Jessica: I think I just overplayed. I overdid it — too much pressure on myself, too much pressure to compete, too much pressure to be perfect. Maybe bad technique, maybe genetics, maybe karma, maybe I had some injuries I didn’t know about. We never know why our body fails us there. There are myriad of reasons why this could happen. So I cannot specifically say one one thing, but I do remember there was a point where I would just wake up and my hands were numb or tingling, like that pins and needles feeling. Or I’d be playing an orchestra where I could normally play for hours and hours without ever experiencing pain — maybe a little, you know, we all get that from repetitive motion — but then there would be times I just couldn’t even get through the first 20 minutes without having to shake out my hands. And my conductor noticed that. And it’s kind of repetitive motion nerve damage, tendinitis, a little bit of arthritis developing already at 14 or 15. So I made it through my New York Borough Wide Orchestra until ‘til 17, and then I stopped. I did play as a ringer one time after that at Carnegie Hall, but it was hard because I couldn’t play at the level that I was five years earlier, so it almost felt like I was declining, and that decline was too tough for my ego. 

But at some point, I forgot what it was, I just decided to pick it up again. And it is what it is, and it comes out how it comes out. And still, my pretty bad is not as bad as some people’s good, so I’ve learned to accept it.

Earl: You’ve guested on a bunch of cool things that I’ve heard.

Jessica: Thank you, Earl. That means a lot coming from you. Yeah, and I learned to guest and to not take myself so seriously and to have fun, and that sometimes mistakes are part of the charm. 

Earl: That’s the key, right? You probably watched all those Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote cartoons when you were a kid — you ever notice Wile E. Coyote is running in the air, and he’s actually fine?

Jessica: Absolutely.

Earl: When does he fall?!

Jessica: When he looks down.

Earl: It’s a funny thing in performance; it’s all about not being in your head. Actually, if you don’t mind, I want to tell this story — I’ve never told this story in public. 

Jessica: OK, I’m ready. Here we go. 

Earl: I was in France with Rachel Barton Pine, the violinist who you know has the concerto coming out.

Jessica: Yes. Beautiful, amazing, crazy concerto.

Earl: So she was in France performing my violin concerto, and then after the first performance, she got really sick. She was in the hospital, and this is what kind of a badass she is — she told the doctors, “Get me in a cab and drive me to the venue and I’ll play the concert, and then bring me back to the hospital.” Meanwhile, the doctors were like, “You’re going 100% nowhere.” This was in a city called Rennes, and it was a matinee concert and there was a large contingent of school kids coming from all the regions of northern France to see Rachel play her concert. And [the orchestra manager was] like, “Well, we don’t want to cancel the show.” And then Rachel goes, “Well, Earl’s a violinist, too.”

Jessica: [Laughs.] I do remember this. People are very lucky hearing this story, this is mortifying.

Earl: Now that Rachel is better, I can tell the story. So the orchestra manager goes, “You know, Earl, why don’t you play the concert?” And I go, “Well, this concerto, I didn’t write it for me. I wrote it for Rachel. This is actually beyond me,I can’t play this piece.” And Rachel goes, “Well, you can play the rest of the program. I know you can.” It’s Bruch Violin Concerto, Vivaldi Summer, and then a whole bunch of things that Rachel arranged for orchestra and a soloist that are based on rock songs, but she made it her own. So it’s like Zeppelin and Soundgarden and Queen, but she made it like Pablo Sarasate. She made it, like, hard.

Jessica: She didn’t do the mellow elevator remix of these songs.

Earl: No. And meanwhile, I’ve been up the whole night, because after we got home from the first concert, I went back to my hotel room, and that’s when Rachel got sick. So I haven’t slept yet, it’s 11 in the morning, and the concert is at 2. The orchestra manager’s like, “OK, great. So instead of going back to the hotel room and practicing, why don’t you go buy cheese with my wife?” Because I’d mentioned to the orchestra manager that I wanted to buy my wife cheese from this region of France. So off I go. I have the scores, I have Rachel’s parts right in my hand. I go and meet this woman, and she sees me and she goes, “You look a little awkward holding all of that music, huh? Why don’t you put it in my bag?”

Jessica: Oh, no.

Earl: Rennes is an old city. It’s like pre-Roman. Even the existing things are from, like, 1300, so it’s all cobblestones, nothing is paved, really. Obviously there are modern sections of the city, but where we were at was like 12th century stuff going on. So she goes, “Why don’t you put the music in my bag?” It’s this little rolly thing with a very shallow pocket. So I’m like, “Yeah, sure, OK.” I put the music in the pocket. We go to the market and we’re buying cheese and whatnot. And then I look at the bag and the music is gone.

Jessica: Oh, no.

Earl: It’s like that part in The Big Lebowski — “Dude, where’s your car?” So we’re at the venue, 40 minutes to downbeat, I have no music. I have not practiced. I have no idea what’s going on.

Jessica: I mean, you’ve heard it enough times, but still.

Earl: So, the reason why I wanted to tell this story was because it reminded me about not having time to think — the whole thing was all, go, go, go, go, go. All these things are happening, bad things are happening to my friend, all this shit is just getting thrown, and there’s no time to think of anything. I called the orchestra librarian over, I’m like, “Listen — go back to the office, get me the conductor scores.” The conductor scores are not normal pieces of paper. 

Jessica: They’re gigantic. They have enough lines for each instrument. 

Earl: Exactly. So it’s these giant things, and each turn of the page is only, like, six seconds worth. It’s not useful, but it’s the best that I could do. And then I had this emergency meeting with the conductor like, “OK, I’m gonna call it right now: I’m not going to play the Bruch because that’s going to be a disaster. But I will play the Vivaldi and I’ll play something that I wrote myself. And as far as Rachel’s showpiece Zeppelin songs go, I’m gonna make stuff up in the middle.

Jessica: Perfect.

Earl: “But I’ll play her last 16 measures before the orchestra come in. So once you hear me play, please bring the orchestra in now because this is the time.” And the conductor is like, “OK, we got it.”

Jessica: Jamming time. [Laughs.] Orchestras don’t have to do this normally, either. It’s not just you, it’s like a hundred people that are freaking out.

Earl: Well, the conductor, really, because the orchestra doesn’t know yet. But I’m not in a suit, right? This is in the concert hall in Rennes, I’m not in a suit. I’m wearing, like, a cult leader t shirt with a big hole in my armpit. But I didn’t have time to think. It was all super surreal. I just went, and it was fine. 

Jessica: I’m sure it’s quite liberating as well.

Earl: It was wild. But when I look back on it, I walked off stage and suddenly I was shaking.

Jessica: Because your body just went into fight mode. It’s holding all that energy and that adrenaline to keep you from dying. Because playing a concert spur of the moment is almost equal to the feeling of dying.

Earl: [Laughs.] But let’s talk a little bit about what you’re doing lately, with Brujeria.

Jessica: Yeah, sure. Brujeria is an epic band. Initially, back in the olden days before internet, no one knew who was in this band. It’s composed of kind of the godfathers of heavy metal, the heavy metal elite so to speak — people who are major players in my favorite influential bands, or adjacent to them. And the great gimmick about Brujeria is that everyone has a pseudonym and a disguise, so you never know who you’re going to get, because it’s not one band of a set bunch of people, it’s a constantly rotating cast of characters.I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t want to give away too much of who’s in it. You’re going to have to do the work yourself. 

But we’ve just come out with a new album. The thing is, projects like this kind of scare me at times, because if taken at face value they can appear to be very dark, a bad influence. I mean, we’re talking about drugs and murder. 

Earl: And you guys do look like Mexican cartel guys.

Jessica: Yes. Except, you know who’s in the band, so that’s not really the case. 

Earl: Shh.

Jessica: But at face value, the lyrics are extremely dark most of the time. Even when there’s times that that it seems to be a joke or clowning around — things that appear to be funny or racist or violent, or the dark arts, or are extremely political — at the end of the day, it’s all just a satire of the human condition. You know, we want to make people think about the world as it is and the negative things that we’re experiencing. And people do experience these things that the songs are about. But coming from the point of view of the bad guy. Or sometimes the political statements are very highly opinionated, very strong and defiant, which in some cases can put the members of the band in dangerous situations — especially when we leave the United States, which is a bit frightening. But some things need to be said and they’re not always said in a kind form, and they’re not said in a metaphor. They’re said straight up, you know, “Kill this guy.” Because many people feel that way. Brujeria is not afraid lyrically to go there and just say the thing that people skirt around.

Earl: I love that Brujeria single that you’re on. 

Jessica: Thank you. That was something that was totally out of my wheelhouse. It’s a register I don’t normally sing in, but this is a band that’s very satirical and also very of the time, and we made a song for women. It’s very feminist. Now even the word feminism has gotten a bad rap. But Brujeria has always been feminist. They’ve always had a female character in the mix, and every time she was disrespected, she’d come back at them. Sometimes she would damn them to hell, sometimes she would kill them. But the woman always was right, the woman always won. So this is nothing new. But now, in this current time, to have a song where we wanted it to sound like a very angry female, a powerful female — not sounding like a male register — saying, “I’m not going to take this anymore. Doesn’t matter what I wear, where I was, who I was with. I have the right. I’m a strong woman. And these guys that hit their wives, I’m going to kill them all. I’m going to get a gang of witches, we’re all going to damn you to eternity.” There’s some playfulness to that, but it’s finally a song that’s made for women in this brutal style, which is a very male-dominated style of music, both on stage and in the audience. The majority of the people that listen to this kind of grindcore death metal are males. That’s the majority of the audience, and the players are usually all male. We’ve always had a big female audience and we love to give them that time to shine too, and sing along and get away from this trend that a female metal vocalist isn’t good unless she sounds like a guy. We need a break from that, because it’s just gotten ridiculous now.

Earl: Yeah. It’s funny, too: when Seven) Suns was first forming, I was wrong about this, but in my head I was like, Oh, well, I gotta find string players that are also metal heads. It wasn’t about the male or female thing, but it was like, Oh, I need metal heads to play Seven) Suns, because they won’t understand the music if they’re like

Jessica: What are you talking about? [Laughs.] 

Earl: Yeah, I was straight up wrong! Just really fucking wrong. And my wife, Jenny DeVore, the cellist in Seven) Suns—

Jessica: Fantastic, Jennifer Devore!

Earl: She goes, “No. You don’t.”

Jessica: No, you don’t.

Earl: Not at all.

Jessica: Especially the caliber of musicians you have, who know how to read music and know how to translate that into technique and emotion.

Earl: Right. She just goes, “You just need open minded people that are willing to explore those emotional colors in this format. You don’t need people who are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I own all of the Morbid Angel albums, A to H…”

Jessica: Yeah, just because you’re a metal head doesn’t mean you’re open minded. There’s many blockhead metal heads as well.

Earl: [Laughs.] Well, yeah.

Jessica: We know that very well.

Earl: So, [the strike] — how’s that going? Writers are done.

Jessica: The writers have come to an agreement, but there’s no one to play their words! So we have to come up with the agreement for the Screen Actors Guild. I’m not a member of the Writers Guild — although I am working on some pieces for film and television. People need to know, it’s not about the billion dollar super stars. Most of us lost our health insurance through our union, so you can’t even go to the doctor during a pandemic. So we’re trying to fight for our actors having a living wage, better health care in general. And then there’s also things that are happening with AI.

Earl: Potentially horrifying.

Jessica: Extremely horrifying. And we do hundreds of auditions, hours and hours of auditions.

Earl: I’ve read for you.

Jessica: He has read with me, and you know how much work it is. So we have to get these pages, and sometimes they’re in a quick turnaround — maybe they give you 10 pages to memorize your lines, create this character, and have it in to them in 24 hours. So that means whatever plans you had that day are gone, if you’re able to do that. Not everyone is able to cancel plans, you know, if you have children, if you have a sick parent, if you have work. So somehow you have to work around that aspect and cram all these lines into your brain and create a character that’s believable. Then you have light and sound: You have to light your thing, you have to make sure it sounds good. You have to find someone else who has no life at the same time as you and get them to read the other character with you, and either they’re able to come over or you need to have your Zoom ready, so you need to have a working computer. You need to be in a quiet place — I mean, I don’t know how many New Yorkers are always in a quiet place. Not me. And costume and makeup and hair and all that, to create a believable character. And then you have to hope you can get it done in a few takes so it doesn’t take very long, but sometimes the auditions are enormous. Then after that, you have to edit the tape yourself, you have to make a card with your name on it and your height and your agency. I mean, you’re doing a full short movie.

Earl: And none of this is paid.

Jessica: None of this is paid. You have to make a short film every time somebody says, “We’re thinking about giving you a job…” Never mind all the work that you’ve done before, if you’re lucky enough to have a reel that already shows your work. What we used to do is show up, do your thing, and leave. Now, the pandemic created this whole new climate of constant self-taping, so these people could see a vastly larger group of actors than they could ever have in their office. So now you’ve made the competition pool much, much larger and the turnaround time is much shorter. 

So you’re doing these unpaid auditions and sending it on Wetransfer and Dropbox, and then you can’t really breathe until everyone tells you they got it. Most people think we live in these condos and luxury houses — that’s very, very, very few people. In order to qualify for healthcare, you need about $26,000 a year. Most of us did not make that during the pandemic. Most of us had zero income during the pandemic and were living on very, very small residual checks. And I’m talking about like, you’d be happy if you got a $17 check. Talking about drips and drops in a bucket.

Earl: It’s funny, I think there’s a similar misunderstanding [with musicians]. I think that like the typical actor, the typical musician actually makes very little money and has to hustle unpaid a lot.

Jessica: Yeah. Even getting around town to auditions is an expense, you know? So we’re talking about maybe having auditions be paid, and therefore making the casting directors be much more selective as opposed to throwing out a wide net and having thousands of people audition. They’re going to have to pay a smaller amount of people, therefore making your odds greater to work. The majority of actors in the union are low income — the mean salary is about $47,000 and over 80% of actors in our union make less than $26,000, which is what you need to keep your health insurance. So most actors have multiple jobs. And not only that — you’re paying these huge union dues, you’re paying an agent and a manager. Agent takes 10%, manager takes 10%. If you’re in an upper echelon, then you have a business manager, which might take another 5%. And if you had someone negotiate your contract, that’s another 5%. So 30% of your income is gone before you get it. And then you have your taxes. 

Earl: And what do you get taxed on, by the way? Do you get taxed before your manager takes your shit or after?

Jessica: No, we get taxed on the gross check. 

Earl: Aha!

Jessica: Yeah, they take from the top. 

Earl: Can you say more about Orange is the New Black?

Jessica: Yeah. I mean, we were the pioneers in streaming so there were no real rules for what streaming meant there. I believe there were only two shows before us that had this model. But as time went on, it became basically the most popular model for doing things. But we had negotiated it as if we were on YouTube for a couple of episodes — not that we were going to be being seen by millions or, dare I say, billions for the next 10 years, consistently on every almost every continent, without end and never reaping any reward from that.

Earl: When we hang out, we don’t usually talk about this kind of shit, so I’ve liked hearing about your process. I gotta go in one minute, but I love you!

Jessica: Love you too! Break a leg later!

You can catch Seven)Suns’ record release show at Saint Vitus in New York on November 7.

(Photo Credit: left, Max Sequeira)

Seven) Suns is an avant-metal/hardcore string quartet, formed by Earl Maneein, Adda Kridler, Fung Chern Hwei, and Jennifer DeVore. Their latest release, a note-for-note reimagining of the Dillinger Escape Plan‘s One of Us Is the Killer, is out now on Silent Pendulum Records.

(Photo Credit: Max Sequeira)