The hirsute composer, arranger and songwriter Matthew E. White, who opens for the Mountain Goats on that band's North American autumn tour, self-released his low-key solo debut, Big Inner, this summer.
The soulful White, who counts Randy Newman as a major influence, thought himself more of an arranger than a vocalist for years until he recorded Big Inner. Smartly assessing the mercurial state of the music industry, he started his own label, Space Bomb, and recruited many of his musician friends from the Richmond, Virginia area as his own house band.
The Mountain Goats' four shows in New York — October 13-14 at Music Hall of Williamsburg and October 15-16 at Bowery Ballroom — are sold out, but White also plays,sans the Mountain Goats, at Club Helsinki in Hudson, New York on October 12 and at Union Pool during the CMJ Music Festival on October 17.
White and his bandmates recently visited Studio A for a fascinating, insightful interview and session. Listen to it on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, October 12 at 11 a.m. EDT, streaming on The Alternate Side.
Matthew E. White: It’s in my attic. When we moved in it was just a wreck; an unfinished second floor. Now it’s not much more than that, but we can record music in there.
Alisa: Your idea was to get a house band going. Although this is your debut record, you’ve been making music for a long time.
Matt: It came about pretty organically. I was in a band called Fight the Big Bull which was an avant-garde jazz band and it has a lot of horns. I went to school for jazz arranging and so I was doing a lot of horn writing. Fight the Big Bull was based around arrangements. Slowly I was asked to do arranging on other people’s records and Fight the Big Bull did a collaboration with a guy named David Karsten Daniels and I did all the arrangements for that. We did it in three days. I wrote all of the arrangements, we practiced for a few days, and then we recorded it in three days.
The next summer I did a lot of the arrangements for a project called "Sounds of the South" [with] Megafaun, Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten at Duke University. That was a musical director-heavy-on-the-arrangements things for me. I really enjoy that. I enjoy the idea and the efficiency of getting people together, planning out what you’re going to make and then making it. Instead of letting projects come to me I wanted something where I could have an umbrella where I could build a lot of projects on my own or curate the projects I wanted to work on. There’s such an amazing community of musicians in Richmond that we can do that. All these things were coming onto my path. As a solo artist you can only make a record a year, at the most.
Alisa: Why is that?
Matt: With the album cycle it’s hard.
Alisa: So you’re a true believer of an album cycle as opposed to EPs or single songs?
Matt: I think there is, right now, still an album cycle sort of thing in the way people are receiving you. I think it’s changing a lot. It is similar to how the house band is a '60s or '70s thing; that’s how people were consuming music then. Even if I could make more, I wanted to put on more hats and this is one hat — my solo record. I made a lot of decisions on this record and directed its growth into what it is. I enjoy working with people in a lot of different ways, whether it’s as a horn arranger or producing. Space Bomb was a way I could do all of that and a way I could make music with my friends and people I feel are extraordinarily gifted. We could make something together, over and over again, that was bigger than what each of us could make on our own. We could throw our skills together into a pool and do some special stuff.
Alisa: I didn’t know of your previous work so I was blown away by [this album]. There’s so many different players — I know there are four core players, but you must have brought in tons of others.
Matt: There’s a community in Richmond that’s kind of grown. When I came to Richmond and was going to school at [Virginia Commonwealth University], there were a lot of horn players, string players and a lot of talented people going to music school there. There’s been a shift in the industry, in New York or L.A., where there’s not as many jobs for instrumentalists. Music school probably isn’t a great career choice. It’s tough. You end up with a lot of people who are excited to make original music and it’s an exciting community.
Alisa: So when you take these songs on the road, do you have to change up the arrangements?
Matt: Yes. I think that’s necessary. One of the important things for me is treating an album, a recorded piece of music, as one piece of art and a live piece of music as a different art. It’s a different things. You might let songs go a little longer live and I just wouldn’t do that on a record.
Alisa: There’s a 10 minute song on this record!
Matt: That’s true! There’s just specific things in the way we’re delivering the song. Some are practical. From a practical point of view we can’t bring all of those people — cost. Even if we did, it’s tough unless we were playing in Radio City Music Hall every night. I’m excited about the band because I think it’s a great representation of the record. It’s not the record or trying to be the record. I really try to view them as seperate things. I spent a lot of energy making the record; I don’t think about the live performance for two seconds while I’m making the record. What do I want people to hear long after I’m gone? It will be around forever. A live show is not around forever. And that’s very different. I make decisions based on that.
Alisa: It used to be a lot more common for musicians to get work as session players, but it doesn’t seem that these days there’s much work for them at all. If you’re a musician or going to music schools, you’ve got to start your own band.
Matt: Well, there’s still those jobs. Not as many. I was listening to rehearsal audio of Bugs Bunny cartoons and it’s crazy; it’s basically an orchestra. You’re listening to all of those people being paid to make this music; it’s insane. Old movies, cartoons and radio shows — that job of going to a studio and working 9 to 5 is almost extinct. It’s there; there are people in New York and L.A. who have that job. But it’s certainly going away. That paints a dire picture of things and you can get down about the industry, but my record? I couldn’t have made it 25 years ago. Not in a million years could a kid in his attic with college kids get in a studio, make a record like this and then get it out. It wouldn’t have happened. There’s some exciting things about the industry in which things are opening up. You can experiment, really go for things and utilize resources in a way you wouldn’t have been able to when things were more codified in the way they had to work. That’s exciting.
Alisa: This is your first solo record … and first time singing? That’s surprising.
Matt: I sang in high school, but for some reason, going into college, I’d stopped doing that. I was in a band called The Great White Jenkins and we had another singer and songwriter. I was the music guy and he was the singer/songwriter guy and that worked well. I was learning so much about another side of the musical world and I was really taking that in and enjoying that process. Fight the Big Bull is an instrumental thing and it wasn’t time for that to happen. When [Big Inner] came around, I [wanted to sing]. It was fun. I sort of think of my singing as the alter ego of my writing. My writing is very put together and I know what I’m doing. With my singing, I don’t really know what I’m doing; it’s what comes out. Because that’s what it is!
Alisa: With lyric writing had you been writing all along?
Matt: No, I wrote for that record. That was fun too. That’s another thing where I don’t feel I know what I’m doing; I feel very untrained and that’s fun. I’m really lazy, so I put a date on the calendar and said, “Well, that’s when I’m going to record the record,” so I’d better write some songs and arrangements! That’s the way I have to work. I went to work writing. A lot of times I feel that I listen to arranger’s records and they’re light on the song depth and lyrical material. I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t want the songs to be bad! But I also didn’t want to do so much with the songs that they got in the way of my strength in arranging. I wanted them to say something, but also left room so I could say something with the arrangements. Randy Newman does this a lot. He’s a singer/songwriter and an arranger and he lets his arrangements add to the narrative where his lyrics can’t or he chooses not to let them. It adds a three dimensional nature to the songs which I really enjoy.
There’s only so much I can say because of my skill level as a lyric writer. And there’s only so much that words can say, period. There’s a certain amount that music to say and then that ends too. With this record, I really tried to leave room for both of those and let them work together in a way that made something greater than what I could have either of them do on their own.