For Jack Pinder, frontman and guitarist of Baltimore indie rock power trio Manners Manners, queer identity is inseparable from songwriting.
“My songs are personal,” he says. “They’re about me and I’m very gay, so most of the songs are gonna have something gay in them.”
But acknowledging that, Pinder feels strongly that it is not his job to educate listeners about LGBTQ issues through his lyrics. “I would challenge anyone listening to my songs to meet me where I’m at. I’m not watering my art down with Trans 101,” he says. “Come to my shows with that already under your belt, please.”
Standing five-foot-four with neatly cropped hair, a baby face and a penchant for stylish button-down shirts, Pinder was assigned female at birth and has since transitioned to male and identifies as a gay trans man. Though he doesn’t cultivate an outlandish image for the stage, he supplements his wardrobe with the occasional sparkly top or pair of high heels while in the spotlight, often high-kicking to signal the end of a song.
Playing their first show on January 12, 2016, and releasing a three-song EP six months later, Manners Manners has been steadily building a following in the Baltimore music scene, especially in the queer music community where Pinder got his start.
“I’ve been lucky to meet so many queer musicians in the city and the community is really tight,” he says. “Sometimes it can feel like a very small, crowded pond among other queer artists, but we’re all doing our own thing.”
It’s been a big year for Baltimore’s queer music scene.
“A whole slew of bands fronted by queer people came out this year,” Pinder says.
Alongside his band, queer-fronted groups Maxine, Hystermajesty, Dreambush, Syringe, Anti Androgen, Santa Librada, Saddle of Centaur, Joseph and the Beasts, Quattracenta, and Bond Street District all debuted or rose to greater prominence in Baltimore this year.
“Queerness is more present than ever in Baltimore,” he says. “It’s definitely changed.”
Pinder feels that change has come as a result of more queer-identifying bands getting the mainstream music scene to take them seriously.
“I think the assumption for a long time was that ‘gay bands’ weren’t serious bands and could never appeal to a straight audience,” he says. “[Also,] the music scene at large is so full of toxic masculinity, homophobia and transphobia we often choose to stay amongst each other.”
Not that he sees no place in queer music for humor.
“There’s goofy, jokey gay bands like Saddle of Centaur and Pansy Division. I really dig those bands and I think they’re especially important because when I see them perform, the jokes are for queer people, the party is for queer people.”
Rounding out Manners Manners’ lineup are bassist Jes Welter and drummer Haley Sweet.
“I’ve been really into Jack’s songwriting since seeing him in Silence Kid,” says Welter, referring to the lo-fi, scrappy guitar-and-drums combo Pinder fronted for five years before forming Manners Manners. Comparing his writing for the two bands, Pinder considers his current material more thoughtfully put together and carefully crafted. “
The songs are also glammier and more romantic,” he says.
In his lyrics, Pinder seeks to describe the specific and personal rather than the universal.
“Every love song by a straight person either totally alienates me or doesn’t make me feel anything at all, so ‘universality’ is hegemonic anyway,” he says. “Literally every other song in the world was written for or about straight people and if there’s truly any value to songwriting being universal, then there’s room for my voice in there.”
He refers to the lyrics of a recently completed song, “Cotton”, as a good example of that. “’Cotton’ alludes to the concept of the cotton ceiling, which is a term [for] the mental block some cis people have about hooking up with trans people,” he says. “It’s not at all universal, which I was always taught was one of the biggest sins in songwriting, but I don’t care if cis or straight people can relate to my songs or not.”
Wouldn’t you rather the feeling of cotton
Pressed up all around your face
I’d never make you do what you don’t want to but
If you said I deceived you
I would not have believed you
A trap door made out of diamonds and glass
A room with a view to the bed you fell onto
So hard on your back
Looking up at the crack in the ceiling gone rotten
“This band, for me, really has the unity of vision around shared aesthetic and musical reference points,” says Welter, a lawyer who formerly worked for Free State Justice, a legal advocacy organization that provides services to low-income LGBTQ Marylanders. “We’re building a noisy but melodic song-driven sound, [using lyrical themes of] queer experience and adversity.”
Pinder, who met Welter while volunteering for Free State Justice, brings completed songs to the group but often defers to his bandmates on instrumentation and song structure.
“Jes and Haley both have a real talent for adding these perfect extra details,” Pinder says. “Maybe just an additional chord [or something, but that ends up being what] takes the song from something I’m OK with to something I can be really, really proud of.”
“If an idea for a song comes to me and it has words and a melody, that’s like finding gold,” Pinder says. “I’ll immediately sing it into my phone so I won’t forget it, and then things move pretty quickly from there.”
Pinder also employs a form of songwriting osmosis: “Sometimes I’ll make a playlist of songs that capture the thing I’m trying to accomplish and listen to it obsessively until I’ve absorbed its magic,” he says.
Pinder, now 27, first developed his musical chops taking classical guitar lessons as a teenager and began writing his own songs at 18. He tested his material playing solo open mic nights while attending Towson University, where he studied art history and cultural studies, before deciding to start a band.
“I didn’t really make the connection that I could be a rock musician until I was older,” he says.
Among his musical influences and inspirations are riot-girl band Sleater-Kinney, Kim Deal of the Pixies and the Breeders fame, Guided by Voices, David Bowie and Morrissey.
Pinder grew up in Parkville and attended public schools and had, by his estimation, a pretty standard suburban childhood. Until about the age of 14 he had aspirations of becoming a pastor but was always confident in his queer identity.
“I’ve always been very in touch with my queerness and was never closeted about any part of it,” he says. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Baltimore’s Mayfield neighborhood.
He says his experiences as a queer musician in the Baltimore music scene have been overwhelmingly positive. “I haven’t experienced any overt discrimination in the larger music scene in the city,” he says. “I don’t think I would have had as much luck in most other places. Queer and trans people are in so many bands, go to so many shows, listen to so much music that I don’t feel especially compelled to hold straight folks’ hands until they’ve seen the light.”