“Music isn’t a sound, it’s an art,” Jerome Mandrake tells me over drinks at the Oasis lounge, stirring his Coke with a straw.
“When I’m jogging on the seawall and I hear a song, my mind is picturing the live performance with lights and dancing. That’s what music is. A good song is a rush of adrenaline.”
It’s the eve of his first performance in more than three years. We’ve just spent the last 15 minutes tracing the evolution of pop music from the late 1990s to today. Mandrake can barely contain his excitement: he just scored tickets to the Spice Girls concert. I am seriously considering killing him for them.
“They were the first group that I picked up. I was about 13 or 14 at the time,” says Mandrake, explaining his Spice Girls obsession. “For some reason, ’90s pop got this whole thing going. There’s something about a thick stream of harmonies with a dance beat behind them. It’s something I’ve never been able to give up.”
The thing he’s referring to is his emerging music career that began in this very lounge four years ago when he won the coveted title of West End Idol with fellow songwriter Adam Patrick.
“We did it more as a joke and because we had this music we had written but we didn’t have a show,” Mandrake remembers. “So we decided to do the covers that they wanted the first week and when they let us choose our own songs, we did one that we had written. At least that way, if we didn’t make it past the second week, somebody would have heard our music and we could say we had done it live.”
Mandrake and Patrick won two free hours of studio time that they used to record one song; two months later they went back to record an album.
“When the CD was made we decided to put together a full show with dancers. I’ve always been really into the big visual thing,” Mandrake says. “We ended up making 500 copies of the CD and we sold them all in two weeks at the shows we had booked. Then the hype died down. We had done these songs so many times and neither one of us was very good at marketing. We were just songwriters.”
A chance invitation six months later to perform at Celebrities’ Men & Song event put a solo Mandrake in the same show as an energetic pop performer by the name of Armstrong Jr, whose backup dancers and choreography shared Mandrake’s go-big-or-go-home creed.
“I was really jealous of him,” Mandrake recalls. “I remembered what Adam and I had done and to see somebody else do it made me want to do it again.”
After a few encounters, Mandrake and Armstrong Jr began to collaborate on a few songs, combining Mandrake’s song writing talent and voice with Armstrong Jr’s production abilities.
Three years later, they’re poised to launch their new CD Affirmation through Armstrong Jr’s production company, AJR Productions.
“When I met Armstrong Jr, he made me feel so talented,” Mandrake tells me. “He had only seen me do one performance that I wasn’t that proud of, and he still wanted to invest all of this time and creative energy with me. I came up with Affirmation as the title of the CD because of the affirmation that working with him gave me.
“I didn’t know if I was good or not,” he says, adding, “it’s people like him that drive me.”
Mandrake calls his brand of music electro-pop, a style of music that is mostly available on import CDs from Europe and can be found on the guilty pleasures shelf of many a gay man’s music library next to Kylie Minogue and Republica. It’s a version of pop that has evolved from the Spice Girls era of music but has been driven underground in North America by R&B-heavy Top 40 music.
Affirmation is an exploration of this underground phenomenon from a local perspective, and Mandrake’s live performances are choreographed, sugarcoated fantasies that stay true to the excessive nature of pop’s beast.
His first single off the new album, “We’ve Got Work to Do,” is already getting rotation on gay radio stations and has been remixed by DJ Zach Shore.
“Our goal with this project is to create an underground pop scene in Vancouver,” Mandrake tells me. “We really want to change the gay scene’s form of entertainment. In my opinion, the gay scene in Vancouver is run on artistic people and yet for a community that is known for its art, the entertainment here is really lacking. We want to bring up a form of entertainment people would love to see and to have it be homegrown.”
The following night, Mandrake swerves around chairs, tables and the occasional groupie in the stripped-down basement that counts as backstage at Celebrities, while the clock ticks down towards the first set of his CD preview concert.
Upstairs, a small crowd ambles around the club and stares at an empty stage with a purple tinsel backdrop. While some patrons appear to be friends of the performers, others have just wandered in off the street in hopes of finding something to do on a Wednesday night.
Business cards and Affirmation flyers cover every countertop in the club and two of Mandrake’s dancers circulate with copies of the single and pass them out to patrons, who are reluctant to accept them until they find out that they are free.
Twenty minutes before show time, the dancers tape glow sticks to black hula-hoops in the basement while production assistant Sandra Lister is sent on a last-minute errand for bobby pins. Mandrake warms up his voice by singing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as he fishes a black tank top out of his suitcase then makes his way towards the hair and makeup chair.
Armstrong Jr is already coiffed and styled and is enjoying a cigarette with the group who have worked incredibly hard over the last month and a half to make this night possible.
The rapid banter of pre-show anticipation is broken by the arrival of three drag queens: Joan-E, Vegas and Carlotta Gurl. Joan-E is emceeing this short show while Vegas has been asked to perform a few drag numbers between Mandrake’s songs.
Gurl is just along for the ride tonight and it isn’t long before she’s humping the furniture and doing cartwheels. Armstrong Jr catches Gurl’s antics and immediately casts her in Mandrake’s next video, while Mandrake helps Vegas decide between a blue or pink sequined top.
Joan-E sits quietly on a stool and rifles through her purse searching for cigarettes until someone taps her on the shoulder and tells her to make her way to the stage. The show is about to start.
After a brief set-up by Joan-E, Mandrake takes the stage with two dancers in tow and dives right into his first number.
Pink and purple lights shimmer off the tinsel backdrop as the backup dancers writhe seductively behind him. The crowd keeps a safe distance from the stage and watches the performance unfold, uncertain how they want to react to it. By the second song, however, heads are bobbing and feet are tapping.
They move forward, in small groups, to stand directly in front of Mandrake and his harem. Slowly he wins them over, before it’s time to take a short break and let Vegas take the stage.
A half hour later, Mandrake and his girls return and the crowd resumes its position up front. The dancers swing glow stick-adorned hula-hoops around their waists, while Mandrake sings. The crowd begins to cheer.
For the final number, Mandrake is joined by Armstrong Jr and together they show the crowd what thick strings of harmony set to a dance beat can feel like. The crowd responds, feet stomping and hips shaking.
The energy builds as adrenaline flows back and forth between the stage and the dance floor, then climaxes as Mandrake moves into a cover a portion of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and the crowd screams.
The post-orgasmic bliss of the performance leaves Mandrake, Armstrong Jr and all the backup dancers running on a surge of energy that affirms their sense of purpose. Electro-pop is alive in the club tonight, and the crowd is helping to bring Mandrake’s goal of an underground pop movement to realization.
The next step is the full CD release party, which will be a bigger show and will likely draw a bigger crowd, but Mandrake isn’t worried. He’s already gone farther than he ever thought we would since his first audition for West End Idol.