Behind the wide-eyed, high-decibel comedy of Jason Mantzoukas, there is a consummate, almost archetypal music geek. Before his roles on shows like “The League,” “The Good Place” and “Big Mouth,” Mantzoukas spent years playing drums, collecting hundreds of records and researching transcendental religious music in North Africa and the Middle East. His love of music is effusive and encyclopedic, and during the anxious, idling days of the pandemic, he found it suddenly reignited. But the kinds of music he was drawn to had shifted entirely.
Was there a moment last year when you realized your listening habits were changing? When my normal life exists, it’s busy and chaotic. I listen to a lot of music that is slower, melancholy — stuff that juxtaposes against the larger chaos of my life. When life became incredibly simple, that music became too overwhelmingly sad for me to listen to. I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell right now. Even like an album that I loved, Phoebe Bridgers’s record — still so sad. So I slowly started realizing that I was choosing to listen to soul, funk and R.&B., because it just didn’t trigger those emotions. It allowed me to keep my head above water.
Everything was so scary and stressful in March, in April and May, and I’m a very anxious person by nature. I’ve been in complete solo isolation for nearly a year now; I’ve not touched another person in a year. So my music tastes changed simply because I didn’t want to completely fall apart. I listened to a lot of Meters. I listened to a lot of the Numero Group’s “Eccentric Soul” compilations. My No.1 song I listened to the most — hold on, I made a playlist for this call. It’s the Del-Reys’ “Don’t You Know.” It’s such a beautifully simple song.
I was obsessed with a lot of music that I literally have no reference for. I feel like I’m having another adolescence — being stuck in my room, just listening to music and watching movies. It’s like a second go at being a teenager, when the only way to access stuff was to try to find new music. Which is why I think I’m drawn to all these reissue labels, all these labels that are finding stuff that I just have not known about: Numero Group or Tompkins Square or Mississippi Records or Awesome Tapes From Africa.
I know that you studied transcendental music. Was that something you came back to this year? Huge. I feel like holy music has been reintroduced into my life. I’ve gone back to Moroccan Gnawa music. Also a lot of great spiritual jazz stuff — the Alice Coltrane record from a couple of years ago. Did you watch “Ragas Live,” by any chance? You can sign up and watch the whole thing: 24 hours of uninterrupted, absolutely incredible music performances. They had Zakir Hussain, Terry Riley, all these names. They’re all playing from home, so they’re like, “Here’s Terry Riley from Japan!” They went to Venezuela and played this band I’ve never heard of, fronted by this woman named Betsayda Machado. Do you know who this is? I’m going to send you a song. The visual of them out in this beautiful, idyllic, lush green setting, with the river behind them and people going by and boats, and they’re singing and playing this — I was, like, mouth agape. I stood up, I got so excited.
One of the true surprises of the year was that I listened to a lot of music that made me want to dance around. The Machado song makes me move. All I do is sit and read, sit and type, sit and watch — I don’t need music that just pushes me further into the chair. There’s something about forcing myself to expend energy, even if it’s just out on my porch for 10 minutes. There’s something about that release. That is such a part of my normal life, either through performing or being with friends.
Or even just getting the experience of two people in a room, being like, “Here, listen to this.” I could literally do this for the next three hours!
I would love for you to send me your playlist. The playlist is five hours long. I was like: You know what? I’m just going to dump a bunch of songs in there, because I could talk about any of them as part of this year. And then suddenly, it’s five hours.
The flip side of all this dance-music stuff is that I also spent a tremendous amount of the year deep-diving into ambient and New Age music. This artist who goes by Green-House. And then there was also the Hiroshi Yoshimura reissue of the album “Green.” That Mary Lattimore record “Silver Ladders” — just very calming, a record that really helped me not to spiral out. Beverly Glenn-Copeland. In years past, I would lean more toward harder, experimental ambient stuff — Fennesz, Tim Hecker.
I’m constantly searching for and trying to find ways to discover new music. One thing that has been hardest for me, in the last 10 years, is that so many of those avenues have been closed, because a lot of them were physical. For me, a lot of discovering music came from being able to walk into Other Music in New York. Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. Aquarius Records, out of San Francisco — they would put out a comprehensive list of new releases, with big, chunky write-ups.
One thing I’ve spent the last year doing — and again, I’m 48 years old — is trying to understand Bandcamp and use it as a portal to discover stuff. Digging deep and unearthing stuff that was like: “I don’t know what this is. But because I’ve been listening to this other thing, now that weird label has shown me this thing.” Now I’m listening to this Brazilian artist who I’ve never heard of who’s blowing my mind.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.