In front of a full crowd and three-piece band, a woman in a 1950s party dress, with her bangs curled and wearing bright red lipstick, wails on the mic. She’s like a Stepford wife gone rogue.
This is Mandy Pachios, frontwoman and founding member of jazzy, funky jam-band The Mary Jane Jones — the group that seems to be everywhere right now. The MJJ’s visibility is largely due to the fact that they kill it onstage and because they don’t shy away from weighing in on issues in the Valley and beyond.
Pachios closes her eyes tightly as she growls into the microphone. Finishing her say, the band takes over, and she starts softly swaying to the beat, her mouth slightly upturned. A master of staccato, Pachios punches out short notes that descend into sumptuous long notes that caress the crowd.
Before founding the band in 2011, the people in Pachios’ young life were sure she was going to “sing for Jesus.”
“People would say, ‘God’s going to use you,’ ” Pachios says, recalling what grownups would tell her during her religious upbringing. “And I was like, ugh.”
Pachios grew up in a very religious family, she says. Despite teenage years spent as a cat eye glasses-wearing goth with a shaved head, Pachios ended up following an older sister to a Pentecostal Bible college in the midwest. While studying to be a minister, she married one, and they travelled the country doing ministry work.
“I did that for three years,” says Pachios. “That was all it took for me to never go to church again.
“It was too conservative for conversation.”
And only recently she decided to shake her life up again. Pachios left a salaried job at a corporate coffee company to focus more on the band, which on most days has seven members.
“This is the only life we get,” says Pachios of her decision to quit the day job because it was taking too much away from her creative energies. “What are we waiting for?”
Pachios declines to specify her age, citing sexism and ageism in the industry, but refers to teenage years spent during the 90s.
Pachios says she didn’t always know she wanted to be a musician, but she always knew she wanted to help people and transform the world for the better. Her chosen medium just happens to be music.
“There’s this switch that everyone has that just turns on — if you wanna call it Jesus or the universe or collective conscience,” she says. “I’m doing my part to keep people hopeful and inspired and moving forward.”
Like a family
Lately The MJJ plays a lot of shows, some of which help raise money for various causes. In the past few weeks, bandmembers have played at three charitable and political events, including Beers for Bernie and last week’s outrageously fun Llama Lasagne Ladies’ Night for Safe Passage.
While the band kicks off another event — a comedy show raising money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure — guitar player Josh Hirst riffs off into a parallel universe, his fingers flying across his strings. Bass player Chris Ball grins wildly and looks lovingly upon his bandmate as he wows the crowd. Pachios smiles and nods. Hirst’s success is their success.
The following week at Beers for Bernie at High Horse, the full regular band plays. It’s Ball on bass, Hirst on guitar, Monte Arnstam on drums, Nick Borges on trumpet, Jeff Fennell on saxophone, and Kathryn Rapacki on trombone. High Horse’s space, which lacks a sound person, doesn’t really do the full band justice, but I check them out a few days later at Hinge for the full experience. For this show, they have nine members — adding guitar player Dan Thomas and Steven Yarbro on sax. At this venue, the band’s big sound has more room to breathe and it shows, especially during their signature song, “The Mary Jane Jones.”
“That Mary Jane Jones,” Pachios sings with yearning. “Who the hell she thinks she is!” the bandmembers respond forcefully.
Pachios, who’s an outspoken advocate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, says she’s attracted to Sanders’ respect for unions, and for fairness.
Her support for Sanders comes with no naivete, however — as “I have no heroes,” she says. Only people she admires.
“The whole thing is,” she says, “is if you can help someone you should. Not everybody’s got bootstraps.”
Nina Simone is another example of someone Pachios admires for her ability to address issues that were going on in the world at the time. “She continues after her death,” says Pachios. “People can hear her and be forever changed — that’s something I hope I can tap into.”
Like many Valley musicians, the band’s traction has come in fits and starts. They played their first gig in 2011 and recorded their first album in 2013. Besides Pachios, none of those musicians involved in that first gig or album has remained part of the group — they were lost, says Pachios, to other projects and other parts of the globe. Dan Thomas, who still hits the stage with the band periodically, is the regular band’s most recent loss.
Maintaining a steady lineup, band members agree, remains their biggest challenge.
“There’s 20 different musicians in the Valley that know our book,” says Pachios. “The band is actually larger than who’s on stage. I had to embrace that.”
While it’s a challenge, Pachios says it’s also a blessing. “The show’s never the same. There’s always this fresh energy.”
Though they’re not saving any money, that energy, she says, keeps them alive. During one song on the album, “Have Faith,” she whistles a line of the chorus. “I did that for the first time in studio,” she says. “No one knew it was coming.” They had a live setup at Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst, she says, so they were able to capture their improvisational edge.
“And it kept going with stuff like that,” says Pachios. “That’s where I think it started really opening up.”
“The only life we get”
At Northampton Coffee, Pachios takes a sip from an espresso. But the tiny cup she gets during a busy mid-morning rush does not impress her. “Meh,” she says, her red lipstick leaving a kiss on the cup’s lip.
“We had a lot of money,” she says of her family growing up. “Then when I was 12, we lost everything.” Her father, she says, was part-owner of a family business, and was kicked out after an argument.
She recalls winters without heat. At one point, she says, the family nearly lived out of their car until someone from church took them in. “I’ve lived both sides of the coin.”
After moving to the Valley, Pachios began working as a preschool teacher at a Montessori school. She worked there for a year and then worked for Amherst’s Headstart program, which she remembers fondly, recalling how she felt she was serving an important purpose when women dropped off their children “so they could do what they needed to do.” Pachios says she always did her best to “send the kids off happy,” so that they’d have a pleasant evening with their tired, busy moms. “I loved the job I did.”
Through her work at the school, she quickly got involved with union organizing for the now-dissolved Hampshire Community Action Coalition. She ran for union rep and lost. “I was 29 and I almost did this 80-hour a-week union job,” says Pachios. “I lost by two votes. At that point I decided I had to do music.”
Up until that point, she says, she’d dedicated her life to directly helping people. But she realized she had to help herself.
So Pachios entered the jazz program at UMass Amherst.
One of Pachios’ peers, she says, stood out. Her name was Dora Magrath and she was a Hampshire College student in her vocal tech class. “There was something different about her,” says Pachios. “She acted with less fear than I had at the time.”
“She didn’t fit in a box,” says Pachios. She says she watched in horror as Magrath suffered from depression, withdrew from college, and went missing in February 2008. She had killed herself, Pachios says.
“That for some reason really rocked my world,” says Pachios, who still listens to Magrath’s album.
Shortly after Magrath’s death, says Pachios, she lost another important person — Jazz in July summer music program director Mark Baszak.
“Losing the two,” starts Pachios, “that’s when all the switches flipped.”
Life, she realized, is fleeting. She dedicated herself to pursuing her music in earnest and divorced her husband after years of marriage and counseling.
She says the marriage counseling was productive for their friendship, but it couldn’t save their marriage. “It didn’t work for me,” she says. “He would come to my gigs with a book — that’s how different we were.”
Shortly after her breakthrough in 2008, she wrote a song called “The Mary Jane Jones.” Laughing with her friends one night after their failed attempts to find marijuana to smoke — “everyone in the Valley was dry” — they chuckled over their pangs for Mary Jane. A song, and a band, was born.
Next, says Pachios, the goal is to get on the road and do more touring outside the Valley. And for Valley music lovers, she’s working to organize a first-ever Jane Fest — a music festival to highlight the Valley’s many fantastic female musicians.
She’s also putting together an album of lullabies she’s written specifically to help put youngsters to sleep.
Talking about where her life has taken her and how much the band means to her, Pachios chokes up.
“These songs are my babies,” she says. Her eyes get red and glossy. She looks past me and shiny pools form. “I don’t have kids. This is my contribution.”•
Contact Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org.