|Matthew Dear: Slowdance
The many monikered musician used to be full of energy. Nowadays, though, he's ready to slow things down. RA's Todd L. Burns talks to the Ghostly star.
Maturity: It's a tough one for electronic musicians. Audiences are constantly in search of the new. Something brasher. Something louder. Something faster. As Matthew Dear said to me in a café in Berlin last month, though, his latest album is the sound of everything that electronic music is not: Getting older, getting tired, saying more with less. Playing it a little bit slower. His new album under his own name, Black City, has proven that this can be fertile ground—as long as you handle it carefully.
It's yet another step in Dear's (already lengthy) discography, showcasing his further comfort in the studio as an electronic pop artist, following in the lineage of heroes such as Brian Eno, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan. And, as Dear explains, because things are slowing down in his world to allow for such concentration, it's making for his best work yet.
I wanted to ask about the responses to your work. Obviously that's not something you can control, but do you sometimes get frustrated when people focus so much on one side or another when coming to your work? Like, "I only know Audion. This is my perspective, and it doesn't fulfill my expectations."
I think at the beginning I was a bit more concerned, but with Black City I had a realization that it's a good thing, you know? I used to be like, "Don't talk about me as a DJ when you're writing about this album." But that's who I am, it's fine. I know who I am, and I know that I can do DJ shows and feel great playing house music and techno music, but then can kind of set that aside and know what I'm doing with the band and when I put out an album like Black City. It's just cool. I'm really happy that I can do both and I don't need to shy away from either. I'm feeling comfortable.
You talk a lot about how it's quite nice to shut one thing down, and begin to focus on another. When you shut Audion down, do you only write Matthew Dear stuff for a while? Or can you do both at the same time?
In the past it used to be everything all at once. I think it was easier: I was more energetic, I was younger and was hungry for everything. But in the past year, year-and-a-half it's been more and more based around stuff under my own name. I think it's just more personal now. I'm buying more instruments and synthesizers. It's just more fun to play with that sound...
Do you think it's helped to focus so intently?
It's been a struggle not to produce anything else like Audion, but you have to be in that headspace. The good thing is that I do that more now on the road. When I'm in DJ mode, and I'm bored on a plane or in a hotel, I'll open up Ableton and work on loops. I get in that headspace when I'm full-on touring.
You said you were listening to a lot of highlife and juju music around the time of your last album. What were you listening to around this one?
It's definitely a generalization to say that I was only listening to highlife or anything back then. But, for me, the constant has always been Can and Bowie, some of the Dark Wave stuff, Gary Numan. I'll just have shifts towards things, and start listening to a bit more of it and then just try to take in what I can. Eno has also been a constant.
Have you used ever used his Oblique Strategies in the studio?
No, but they're awesome.
Are there things that you feel like you've taken away from listening to Eno?
The song "You Put a Smell on Me" on Black City, for instance, I didn't want to take and just ad lib stuff so I'd do weird, kinda guttural noise and I'd go back later and fill in the words.
"I remember singing along to something on
the radio, and my father said, 'You're singing
is really good...but you're a bit flat.'"
Are the words very important to you as far their meaning? Or is it just sound above all?
It starts as sound, and then they become very important, because they all apply to things in my life. I mean, they come from somewhere inside of me and that means something. But they're not entire stories. They're almost like pieces. Each sentence means something in itself. But I try to leave it very open-ended. When I sing, I'm not trying to tell somebody how to feel. I don't want them to think a certain thing, I want them to take a little nugget of a line and be like, "Oh cool, I wonder how that could apply to my life."
What do you think most people would be taking away from your lyrics?
[laughs] That life is very confusing! But that there's a resolution at the end of that confusion, you know?
Do you feel like there's resolution with the end of the new album?
Absolutely. "Gem" is the last song on this album. It's the ray of light. I wrote it in 2003, right before "Deserter" in the same little session. I was in this little apartment in Ann Arbor, living with five other guys and making music on little laptop speakers.
It seems like a very emotional song to be writing while living with five other guys.
Yeah, I know. I had the back room in the house. Maybe that was my little sanctuary. "Deserter" was in the same room. Those were definitely two songs I wrote almost as if I was writing it for me now, addressing myself knowing what I was about to go through. I listened to it recently and I just felt like, "Wow! Thanks." Like thank you to myself in the past kind of. I finished it this year, touched it up with all the new equipment and everything.
The new album is quite dark [though]. Do you regard yourself as a dark person? Or is that something [that happens when] you slip into in the recording studio?
It's just what happens. It's definitely my mood in the way that I'm feeling about life in general, so things have been a bit darker in that sense. After five or six years of touring and getting more tired, just doing it over and over again. I think, in that sense, Asa Breed was also part of that arc. I was still in that rush, "Ah! This is the world!" Whereas this is a bit more on the end of that arc. It's not a sad thing or a bad dark place. It's just realistic I think. The studio, also, I've been just getting more and more equipment, spending more time in the studio concentrating on knobs and dials.
Was there a piece of equipment that you got for this album that changed the way you worked from previous albums?
It was really a combination of three things. I got an Eventide H8000 effects processor which really opened up my belief in reverb, choruses on the vocals and delays. I just built a lot of atmosphere with that thing. Also, a better microphone set-up. I got some really good mics that allowed for more richness to be captured in my voice and in guitars. That, and more synthesizers like the Korg PolySix. It was fun to finally get into the warmth of analogue. It wasn't that way on the last album so much. I moved above a shop in Brooklyn where I was peeking in the window all the time, seeing if they had any new pieces. I got a Korg MS-20, a Roland SH-101, the PolySix.
"It's all about learning how to pull back live,
because I think you always want to jam out
first and do it as hard as you can."
You mentioned the mics and the effects processor when you talked about the vocals. Everyone seems to mention the vocals when talking about the records. Is that something you were cognizant of when you were coming to Black City? That you wanted to do something different with the way that your voice sounds this time around?
Not really. I think the next one is more important for that. This one, for me in my mind, was kind of just perfecting my inability as a vocalist. To make it sound listenable, palatable. [laughs]
I mean, I'm not a particularly great singer, I can't sing scales. I can work within my own range.
Did you have to work around it in some cases?
I had to work within it. I've always done that. I remember when I was 14, in the car with my father who is a musician. I was singing along to something on the radio, and he said, "You're singing is really good...but you're a bit flat." I was like, "Flat? What does that mean?" Even since then, I've known that I'm not a profound vocalist. But I make music where it's more about me just fitting within the soundscape of the whole song rather than trying to stand apart from it.
One of the things that strikes me most about your music as Matthew Dear is how much it opens up over time, how the things that sound "wrong" or "off" become part of the fabric or the appeal after a while. How long do you listen to songs once you've recorded them? Do you let them sit for a while and come back to them to make sure? Or is it more of an instinctive thing?
I work on loops in the studio for a long time. I'll build a core of a track or song just by building it up. Sometimes even before I've added the vocals I have all the music down. But I think it has to get to that point of completion within the first few hours of working on it. Not every break and every bridge, but that core chunk of "this is the feeling of this song." Usually within that, there has to be that sound. That feeling of something that's wrong, but it all kind of fits at the same time. That's important for me, to reach that in the beginning.
I guess in your dance music, in a way, you're always looking for that one sound and then hammering it.
Yeah, there's definitely that one sound in the Audion tracks. I think I got to the point, though, where I was writing Audion stuff and I said, "OK, I have to change it, I have to tone it down. That's why in 2009 I went way more "tracky" with some of the releases, I was trying to make more middle-of-the-road stuff that can fit in the middle of a set. I didn't want it to all be massive sawtooth synths.
Was that a function of just DJing more?
Yeah, absolutely. It's funny: I read a lot of reviews from things from the last Audion series, and people would be like, "Wow! It's no 'Mouth to Mouth,'" or "It's not as angry as his earlier stuff like 'Kisses."' And I felt like, you can't make "Mouth to Mouth" every time. If you do, then what's the point? I love to make stuff you can play at a quarter through your set that isn't going to be a massive thing.
You'll be touring again with the band soon. But you've added Greg Paulus, a trumpet player. How does he fit in?
Matthew Dear with his Big Hands band.
Yeah. The trumpet is a good addition. I think a lot of the album has a strings and dense parts and just atmosphere that we can't really do live because we can't bring all the gear out, so the trumpet kind of fits in that mood. It's not like he's playing marching riffs...
Were you surprised at some of the things that come out of certain songs or surprised at how certain songs sound when performed by the live band?
Yeah, totally. I think there's a subtlety on the album that we have to capture live. It's all about learning how to pull back in the live arena, because I think you always want to jam out first and do it as hard as you can. In that sense it's really cool to see how the songs take new shapes. There's never a live drum set or live bass guitar in the album so to transfer that to a live environment is kind of like remixing the songs into a totally different atmosphere.
Was it hard for you to adapt to being up on stage, singing, in front of people? Have you been more comfortable with it?
Absolutely. But I wanted it to be real for the audience. I think the most important thing was learning how to put on a good show and be very comfortable with it, and concentrating on the music being the best it can be but also being entertaining and offering the audience something that they came to see. With the DJ thing and the live shows as Audion, it's about the left and right channel and the mixer and what's being heard. You could put a mask on your face and hide behind a curtain, and no one is going to think anything of it.
One of the things that you said in an interview around Black City that I found interesting was that there was a song on the new album where you faded it out just as it was changing, so that the listener felt like they were almost left out of this great other song. That they weren't there to hear where it went. Do you do a lot of things like that? These inside jokes?
Yes, for sure. Some of my favorite albums are all-encompassing experiences. There is a world created within the beginning of track one straight through to the last track. Inside, there's so much that happens and it goes to all these different places. We had a hidden track on Asa Breed, which was "Vine to Vine" that wasn't listed. I liked putting intros and weird interludes on Leave Luck to Heaven and things that just weren't really part of the album. It's always been important to me to create a narrative.
Do you worry that with digital that it's almost impossible to put these interludes and other things on an album anymore? When someone goes to iTunes, I can see them saying, "Why would I buy that 30 second track?"
I think this album was a realization that you can't really avoid that. So you do have to straight track, track, track, track, but then there are little fade outs and little things you can do, like at the end of "Little People (Black City)" where it kind of goes into some weird sound footage that I had recorded out on tour. I like putting in pieces of my life that are not really explicit.
In the press release to the album, it said that Black City is a city that no one has ever found or is imagined or something like that, right?
It's not an overt concept. I think the press release kind of leaned a bit more on that than was intentional. A lot of people are asking me "What is the Black City? Where is the Black City?"
Obviously New York, where you live, is part of it. But do you feel like it was effected by your travel as well?
That's why it's the Black City, it's about the travelling. I mean Berlin has a lot of Black City in it, especially in the winter. There's Tokyo, London, New York, Detroit...
Where does Texas, where you grew up, fit into all of this?
Oh Texas is so far from that [laughs]. Texas is like "put your feet on the coffee table and drink a beer and go fishing."
Do you feel like any of your father—or any of the Texas vibe—ever creeps into your music?
"Vine to Vine," on the last album, was pure Texas. That was actually about an experience that my family had. My father told me the story of Texas Rangers stealing some land from his great grandfather. I think there's more acoustic guitar at the end of Asa Breed than there is now. But I've been listening to a lot of Townes Van Zandt and folk country lately. Ideally, one day, I would love to put out a finger-picking folk record, but do it my own way.
Was your father a guitarist?
Yeah, he can finger pick. He's a really good folk musician, very streamlined.
It's all technique.
It's technique, but he does it so effortlessly, it's not showy technique. Back then, you had to have your repertoire. And he can play like [Gordon] Lightfoot and do it just like Lightfoot does. But it's not showy, it's just him, it's what he's got. You have your songs, your library, in your head. I like that idea of a man and his guitar and his repertoire. It's kind of like how DJs have their style or their DJ bag. You have the songs you can pull, and know when it's the right time to play it and when the audience is ready for it.
What's part of your repertoire as a DJ?
Oh, I don't know. It's always changing, it's more just the energy and tracks and what I'm buying at the moment. I've always been so horrible with keeping track of names and everything.
Were you happy with the mix you did for Get Physical? I only ask in the sense that so many DJs talk about the mix CD as a format being somewhat restrictive.
Yeah, I was. But it is such a short window. It's funny, though: I'll have great nights in clubs, what I think is an amazing set, play awesome and it feels so good, then I'll listen to the recording and I think, "Oh, it sounds so flat" because there's none of that club feeling you need to experience it. In that sense, dance mixes can always be a bit contrived and they don't work for the most part. I'm not saying Get Physical didn't work, though. I kept it really slow. I was trying to avoid, I don't know, more happy stuff.
Have you been playing more slowly these days?
I love playing slow right now. I did a show with Lee Curtiss in New York earlier this year and we kept it at 118 the whole night and went up to maybe 120 max at the end. People were loving it, and this was Santos Party House in the main room. You can just hear so much more. There's that space between the music, and that's why I think Black City was so slow too. There's more of that, I don't know, nuance. A synth just sounds better when it's elongated, and you're not rushing everything.
Published / Monday, 06 September 2010
Photo credits / Header and inpage portraits - Paul Clement
Live with band - Merlijn Hoek