Hanspeter Kuenzler

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An interview with Matthew E. white, January 2013

"Big Inner", the first album Matthew E. White released under his own name, came out in Europe in spring 2013. I interviewed Matthew a few hours before his performance at the Rough Trade East shop in Brick Lane. I was amazed during the concert how different the band sounded live than on record. Rather than trying to add all the brass and strings of the album to the live sound via computer, these instruments were "replaced" by an analogue synth and pedal steel, resulting in a sound somewhere between Krautrock and Lambchop. Unfortunately, it was too late to ask Matthew any questions about this. Suffice to say that the gig was terrific.

You will appreciate that youwill be completely new to us Europeans...

 

And likewise. It's the same for me, you guys are completely new to me.

 

Are you just a littlesurprised at the fantastic reception and review your album has got over here?

 

Yeah. I am surprised. Funny, you make music as best as you can, I did my best on therecord. In that sense – I'm proud of the record. I'm certainly surprised that the record has gone from where I started to now we're sitting here, talking. I made that for a small label I was gonna start, it was gonna be the small little beginning to what I saw as a very long slow-moving journey to making a career. And it's gone from something  I was planning on pressing maybe 500 copies, press myself, doing what I'd always done, scraping together a little money to do something. And it's just gone over and over and over again, more people came to jump on board, enabled me to do this, coming over. Domino has come on board, releasing the album, and it's incredible. Certainly it's surprising we're over here now and playing.

 

Could you give me a thumb-nail sketch of how you got from the day you were born to Big Inner?

 

I was born in 1982 in Virginia in the United States, and grew up there. Spent alittle time overseas in the Philippines and Japan, I loved music as long as Iremember. I had a Chuck Berry and a Beach Boys tape I used to play over and over and over again when I was little. I grew up a lover of music, startedplaying drums in 6th grade until my mother had enough of that and made me do something else, so I started to play guitar in 7th grade. Spent the rest of my time in middle and high school trying to get better at my instrument. Kind of comes time in later high school to think about college, and I thought music was most fun thing I could do and I was kind of good at, sopracticed hard to get better and get into music school. Did that, spent 4 years in college, studying jazz arrangement, learning the nuts and bolts of music and how instruments and notes work together.

 

I got out of college and started a band, Fight the Big Bull, an avant-garde jazz band to focus on arranging and improvising, and all along I was listening to rock'n'roll and soul and jazz, all of the last hundred years of American music I've been dealing with, listening to so much since I was little. Out of that –dealing with a large jazz ensemble, and seeing around me this community I was living in in Richmond Virginia, I decided to start this label, Spacebomb, with the idea of making something together as a very musical community that was bigger than what I could do on my own. And to continue to do that under the umbrella of my label Spacebomb,

 

I volunteered to go first and make the record cause I wasn't sure it was gonna work, and if the roof came crashing in I wanted to be on me and not someone else I convinced to go through it. So with that in mind I wrote seven songs for Big Inner and we recorded them within a week a couple of years ago now, 1 ½years, 2 years. Mixed it, mastered it, and as it started to get into peoples' hands I started to see a lot of support. People have kept coming on – ever since I've started to pass round the rough mixes of this record I've had people jumping on board, trying to get it out. It's been levels, levels levels up until Domino jumped on board and released it. On Monday it came out, I think.

 

On first acquaintance, the first thing that strikes me – it's a wall of sound, but it's a whispered wall ofsound. If people use brass and strings, they tend to put them in with fullpower, probably to get their money's worth...

 

Pfft!Haha, that's funny, yeah.

 

…whereas you use them just – a violin plays one note, a piano plays one note. Where did that idea come from?

 

I don't know – some of it is just my sensibility with being sensitive and understated sometimes, and the idea that often you can say more with less. That’s not just in music, it is like that in a lot of ways in your life. And that's just me personally, so that comes out in the music. But there's also times – everyone on the record has a time where they're going all out. And it's really big, and it's featured. If you do that all the time it loses its meaning. If brass is playing high in the register double forte every song, that loses all its meaning. Will You Love Me is a good example of that. Everything is low in the register, relaxed until the last 30 seconds of the song and then the trumpets are way up there playing double forte, and that hits harder. So that's something that thinking musically you have to have that balance. And I have to deal with my voice. I'm not a belter. I know I'm singing in a certain way and that limits what I can do a little bit, at least if I'm sensitive with my arrangements. I have to downplay some stuff. In general, that's how I am. If we spent some time together, you'd say that's Matt. That's how he is. That comes across which I think it's nice, cause it is very personal.

 

It's in striking contrast withanything that's around now that's even vaguely soul-ish influenced, a lot of it is really garish these days.

 

Yeah, but that's not how it's always been. That's not what soul music is. If you look back there is stuff that's like my record. I think it's easy to take the loudest stuff. A lot of times it's easiest to win an argument by being loudest. Happens a lot in life. You see that over and over again. And you see that in people taking on sub-genres in different cultures and trying to move them on they often take the loudest part of that genre and take those things and go ahead with that. It's the easiest thing to learn from and move forward. Not that that stuff is not good. There's great R&B music, soul music, Jazz music, New Orleans and any of that stuff, there is the loud stereotypical stuff that will grab your attention but there is also a lot of nuance, it's deep, heavy music, and there's a deep well to take from it, not just the brash parts of it.

 

One album I kept thinking of when I listened to your album, obviously they sound very differently but the spirit is the same, it's that Curtis Mayfield album with the cover where the people are queuing for food under a poster...

 

Yeah, "There's No Place Like America Today". Yeah. That record is amazing. I love it. That´s a good example, I think. Curtis doesn´t play loud all the time. That song "Billy Jack" that´s on that album is – I like to call that my theme song. Not because of the subject matter, hahaha, but because I think that song – that horn line at the end of that song is the most killer unison horn line ever, ever ever. Every time I DJ I play that track first. I love that record. And that record doesn´t have a ton of horns and strings compared to some of his other records, and Impressions records. Curtis is a little laid-back in that same way, too. And as a individual,too, when you read his interviews, he's not like James Brown or Sly Stone, he's more reserved. Even though he has a lot to say. It's very effective forhis message, he's able to use this to push along his message. That record is awesome.

 

You describe Richmond as a creative hub where it is possible to bring together a musical family like yours. What makes Richmond different from, say, Portland?

 

It's got a great music school. It's got one of the top public music universities in the country and so you have a lot of kids coming there to learn their instruments. So you have that. And I think recently you also have the job situation in the music industry, especially jobs for horn and string players, people that are playing these, instruments that are relatively inefficient compared to guitar or keyboard or synthesizer or something like that. The jobs are just going.They don't exist anymore. So where there used to be a flow from places like ECU, there used to be a sort of channel from that to New York or LA, that's gotten really clogged up. So you end up with a lot of people coming to learn to play, and then no place to go. And not only is there nowhere to go, Richmond is a beautiful town in a wonderful part of the country where you can live cheaply and it's close to a lot of stuff. And it's got this great underground DIY tradition in punk and hardcore and avant-garde scene that go with that.

 

I'm part of a generation where those things have cometogether nicely, there's tons of musicians, wonderful people, who're willing tocome together and take some risks and attempt to come together and make cool things. I don't know of any other place in the States that's not LA or New York where there's that many good musicians that are willing to work together and make something. Close to 40 people are on my album at some point, it's close to a small orchestra, and it sounds good. These are kids – not kids, young people who are willing to get together, they are my friends. The Hopscotch festival in Raleigh where we did this, 3 hours South of Richmond where we were able to play - and everyone basically from the record was on stage. Looking around, 30 people,full horn section, string section, choir, rhythm section, keyboards, piano and stuff – these are people I hang out with, and it just happens that they are also professional musicians who are not in a position to be working all the time, and – this is the sad part – the job situation for great violinist isn't what it used to be.

 

My record is a great example to show the pros and cons of what's happened to music industry. The negative side, I got all those people to play for way less then what they deserve to play. They really should have been getting a lot more money. And you have to kind of do things on the cheap even to make it work. The positive side is, if you come together as a community with a long term vision and you have some organisational skills, you can make things happen for you that you could never have made happened 30 years ago. I ould never have made that record 30 years ago and have it end up in the hands of the people it has now, that would never ever have happened. And that's kindof where we're at. It's really interesting to see that really first hand. That's the idea of what we're doing with Spacebomb, the record label. We're saying: let's all sacrifice some time and energy and do some of these records and hopefully create an awareness and an energy about what we're doing and maybe create some real work. That's what rock'n'roll bands do every day, that's what getting in aband and touring round the country and sleeping on peoples' floors and eating beans out of a can is all about, but as a community we're digging in and tryingt o do something on our own. It's unique. I feel lucky, blessed and fortunate to be part of that community at this time in the arc of music history – not to be too dramatic about it.

 

What´s yourposition – there are so many people out there with the modern technology and downloads that aren´t even willing to pay the money for their music to pay musicians the reduced wages you can afford to give them?

 

You know – I think there´s two ways to look at it. Some things that are going on in the music industry really are dark. Like itcan be very depressing if you chose to aggravate your negative nerve. It´s not what it used to be. Everything is trending downwards. But this happens in every industry. There´s not so many blacksmiths any more or cobblers in the same way there used to be. The idea that things are going to stay the same forever in this particular industry is short-sighted any way you look at it. I try to think – things are changing, someone´s gonna be able to make a living here, someone´s gonna be able to make it work. Trying to make great art is different to being successful in the music business. I can try tomake great art for the rest of my life, I don´t need the music business for me to do that. I can teach private music lessons, work at the post office and try and make great art. That´s not unusual for the history of humankind making stuff. It´s kind of a short-sighted and privileged mind-set that thinks heought to make a living doing this for me to make great art. The idea of makinga living is associated with the music business. That´s a challenge on its own.I´d love to be doing that. Someone´s gonna end up doing, and I think it´s justa question of looking forward, of saying: there´s always ways of making money,there´s always ways to turn a profit. There are ways to make yourself usefuland marketable. Maybe the money doesn't come from the record sales, maybedoesn't come from the old ways of income streams. There's ways to diversifyyour income streams and make it work, at least I hope to. But if it doesn't –honestly, the best music in the world, the music that I love is coming frompeople that had it a lot worse than I do. If I end up working in the postoffice and on music at the same time in ten years' time, that's fine. I don't –you don't need the music business to try and make great art. They're different. Solving one problem isn't the same as solving the other. But I'm trying to do both.

 

How has Spacebomb developed since you made the jump?

 

Spacebomb, the record was recorded about two years ago.Spacebomb has spent the time since then making other records – there's four more records, for more recording projects in the can for us. Had to take things slower than we were thinking, just because this has taken on a life of its own. One of the most exciting things for me was getting past my record release. Not that I want to move on, but I'm excited what Spacebomb can do with other peoples' music. Cause it's a process, and it can stretch over any artist, any genre. The idea is of making music as a community, coming together and pooling talents to make something bigger together than we can make on our own. It's an exciting time for us. It's not just about my own record. Right now we're in the mode of mobilising to get the next thing out, figuring out what the next ting should be, what makes most sense. This has put us in a whole different stratosphere of awareness worldwide. To be perfectly honest, we weren't really equipped as music business professionals to really handle all that's come our way. There's been a lot of learning and a lot of swimming very hard to stay above water on that front. On the business side. It's been great. I'm certainly not complaining. The best problem to have is having a lot more success than you expected with your first record.That puts all our artists, all our projects on a bigger playing field, and that's exciting.

 

How many people are involved? What other bands?

 

Seven of us. Three on a day to day business administrative side, and there's me, and there's three others who're primarily musicians - the bass player, the drummer and the string arranger. And there's the lady who runs Hometapes who originally took on my label, releasing Big Inner in the States, she and her husband have come on board to help Spacebomb. Some people there. None of us have the experience – like when I walk into Domino we're talking about music business professionals. We're learning, we're learning fast, trial by fire.

 

On the music side, there's a girl called Natalie Press who's got a record coming out soon. That one's not with us, we did a record with her which will come out soon after. She's a singer/songwriter from Nashville. Along the lines of my record, about the closest one to mine. And then Karl Blau who's K Records pacific Northwest lo-fi icon, came and did a little record with us. Joe Westerlund a drummer in this band Megaphone, he did a solo record, psychedelic dark comedy children's record, insane, amazing, the best example that we've done so far of how the process of Spacebomb can fit over something that's not typical for how that process is usually used. That process of strings, horns, choirs and arrangers in the studio, that's usually a 50s, 60s, 70s thing, there's usually a certain style and genre that goes with that. And Joe's is not that genre by any stretch of the imagination. But it works. And then there's Ivan Howard who's the lead singer in a band called the Rosebuds on Merge records, he did like a soul early 80s soul 7" for us.

 

Originally those were the people – I had connections with all of then. Spacebomb is a kind of heavy-handed process, it can be intimidating in the culture of musicians these days to say to someone hey, we'dlike to work with you, we like your songs, we like your voice, somthing along those lines, but we're gonna write the string arrangements, and we're gonna do the horns, and we're gonna provide the bass player and the drummer and I'm gonna produce it. That can be a tough sell. So those were the first four people –we've known each other for a while, and I could tell them "it's gonna work". Now my record's come out it's a great business card for what we can do. It really is a very individual process for everyone. The last thing I wanna do as an arranger or a label is to cover up someone's originality or personal voice. The idea is to enable someone to express something they could never express on their own. But they sort of have a love or vision for. Joe's again, is a mind-blowing example of that. A really special piece of music.

 

Is your attituder ooted in Jazz background?

 

Not particularly. I love Jazz, there's a lot of pieces to the puzzle. Jazz provides a certain arranging skill set as well as the idea that there could be a little wildness, a little improvisation. But jazz isn't the only music that has improvisation. Gospel. Blues, a lot of American tradition has some element of that, too. It's ultimately an African thing, going all the way back. A lot of the things that have been influencing me are the last one hundred years of American music and what that I'm looking at and moving forward is what my version of that is. I haven't taken in all of it, I haven't mastered any of it, but I've been a listener for a long time and I see it in a certain way, see a certain number of ideas to try and say it again in my own voice, without sounding forced.

 

What did you listento as 15 year old?

 

In 10th grade – a lot of jamming guitar music like the Allman Brothers. A lot of Allman Brothers.

 

God, that wasn't very hip at all then, was it!

 

Haha. No, no. No. I'm a guitar kid. I liked that kind of stuff. So good. And then I listened to – I went through a phase, I hit middle school right when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden became radio music. That's what it was for me. Can't give myself any credit for being aware of that kind of stuff as anything other than radio music. And I enjoyed it. But I had very little independent punk rock background or influence. It was a weird circle of just trying to get better at my instrument and a lot of times that's been through Jazz. But also the key thing coming out of college for me was tol ink my Jazz education with what I loved as a kid, the Chuck Berrys, the BeachBoys, all this 50s and 60s rock'n'roll and saying, this is one story, the story of American music that I love like that – Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, Robert Johnson, Blind Willy Johnson, Staple Singers – all of that is one story. And I think when you can see that story, there's a way of continuing the narrative. It's harder when it's like separate genres and you see them separately. When it's one thing – I see what's happening, and I can take this somewhere else.

 

So Big Inner is also you finding this big inner American musical space in your head?

 

Yeah.

 

When you spent your time in the Far East, did that in any way shape your perspective?

 

I was younger but those were my first memories. The big thing about growing up there is it helps shape your view of the United States when you go back there. When I grew up listening to Chuck Berry in the Philippines, it wasn't music that was on the radio. This was music from America. It was like home. Chuck Berry, Beach Boys, this is American. And that's different from when you grow up and it's just there, around you everywhere. It's not around in the Philippines. You have one cassette and when that's gone it's gone. Also, it makes you realise when you get back what makes the United Statesthe United States. Everyone has air conditioning in their car. That’s new. There´s no cockroaches that eat your toast if you leave it on the counter. That´s little things, but to a kid it seeps into you: this is what my country is, bad and good. Other things – in the Philippines very near us was a massive squatter village, the amount of poverty there - you don´t see anything like that in the United States. Awareness like that sort of jumps out at you.

 

Finally, can you say a word about the concept of your strange and wonderful record sleeve?

 

My friend Travis did that, he had the idea of simple of picture of me sitting and these big wooden heads of a couple of my influences. And I didn´t want anyone I particularly sounded like. I didn´t want things that were like "oh, this record sounds like the people on the cover". But I did want to honour the fact that history is a big part of my learning. Particularly the Jamaican tradition and particularly the New Orleans tradition are traditions I take a lot from. Maybe not in the most obvious ways, but they have deeply informed my sense of awareness of how music works. I wanted a black guy and I wanted a white guy, and I chose KingTubby and Dr. John because I don´t particularly sound like either of them. We had a long list. We had my mum on it and all these far-out people, but we narrowed it down to those two. We wanted to have something with a very classic feel but also a little bit psychedelic and strange. Cause I think that’s what the record is. It feels very normal somehow, but also it feels a little bit weird.

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