Matthew E. White: Rock & Roll is Cold
Matthew E. White did not just step out of a time machine from the seventies.
Although from looking at him — in his signature white leisure suit, long brown hair and bearded glory — you’d be hard pressed to find an era that better fits the 32-year-old songwriter, musician, producer and label founder.
His music, and especially his approach to making it, only serve to emphasize his love and devotion for the Sixties and Seventies.
In an age when all you need to write, record and release an album is a bedroom and a laptop, White is a stick in the mud, an exception to the rule — a walking anachronism, if you will.
Situated in his hometown of Richmond, VA, lies Spacebomb, White’s recording studio and imprint label, which comes fully loaded with it’s own session ensemble.
By their own description, the collective says, “We are a house band, a unified crew of arrangers and musicians, artists, scribes, vibe-gardeners and business men who feel it takes a village to produce a record.” In other words, they believe that making music – good music in particular – takes people, time, and not cutting corners.
The inspiration comes from legendary soul studios like Muscle Shoals and Stax. But according to White, the Spacebmb mantra has little or nothing to do with nostalgia or romanticism. White and his people just like it this way. That’s how they stay creative, he explains.
“I like to make music with other people – to me that’s what music is about. And this model leans heavy on that and facilitates those opportunities too. That’s what we want to do, and that’s what we like to.”
2012 saw the release of the first Spacebomb creation, White’s debut album Big Inner, an unsuspecting success and critical darling that changed White’s life completely. Now, after extensive touring and the recent release of another Spacebomb diamond — rising star Natalie Prass — White is back with his sophomore LP, Fresh Blood.
Very much in line with its predecessor, Fresh Blood finds White & Co. spinning another intricate yarn of rock, gospel and R&B revivalism, all while sounding utterly contemporary.
The underlying conflict of the record, and perhaps for its creator, is the post-modern dilemma of revering yesterday’s glories while witnessing their shriveling relevance.
Case in point is White’s grooving lead single, “Rock & Roll is Cold,” where in separate stanzas he decries,
You said you found the soul of rock and roll
Hey hey, rock and roll it don’t have no soul
You said you found the key to R&B
Hey hey, R&B it don’t have no key
You said you found the trick to gospel licks
Hey hey, gospel licks they don’t have no tricks
White’s cynical, albeit melodious, conclusion for each is, “Everybody likes to talk shit,” or more plainly, everybody who has to claim they are making the real thing is full of shit.
Of course the self-aware irony is that White is a front-row student of those very schools. It’s a strikingly similar, if not less melodramatic, approach to Josh Tillman’s evolution into Father John Misty, which found the former Fleet Fox abandoning his folk naiveté for something decidedly (and fantastically) more misanthropic.
For both artists, it seems the only honest way to make vintage rock in 2015 is to fully embrace the defeat of its own chastity – and to do it very well. What isn’t in conflict is that Fresh Blood is a lush, joyous and addicting album that’s relentlessly meticulous in every detail.
We caught up with Matthew E. White to talk about the new album, being inspired by Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and the disparaging state of rock & roll.
There’s a constrained quality to your music – a lot of people fell in love with your album for those exact reasons I think. It seems you scratched an itch that hadn’t been scratched in a long time in any other modern music. Why do you think people responded so well to the album?
It’s hard for me to say. When I released Big Inner I was pretty self-aware that there wasn’t anything out there quite like that. But that doesn’t always translate into success. Instead if often translate into nobody caring.
But I was aware that we were making some unique stuff. I want to make music that I love and that I want to listen to. And I like my record, I listen to my record, I think it’s good. And for me it’s scratching an itch that isn’t scratched anywhere else.
If I had to name an album or an artist that are doing some of the same stuff that you are doing it would be a guy like Frank Ocean. I hear some of the same subtleness in your music.
That’s interesting that you’d say that, because that is the one guy that I would say too! It’s weird, because it’s not a direct connection at all. But for me Frank Ocean is making some of the most exciting music around. I thought his first record was phenomenal. It takes a lot of listening, the songwriting is brilliant and the production is so good.
I don’t mean to compare my music with his, but we talked a lot about Frank Ocean when we made this record. People will say a name like Harry Nilsson when defining my music, but I never say Harry Nilsson in the recording studio. I would never say that. Not that I don’t like Harry Nilsson, he just doesn’t come up. That’s not a touchstone for me.
But a name like Frank Ocean comes up a lot more in the recording studio when we’re actually discussing things – so I’m actually pretty excited that you’d recognize that. I actually debated whether or not I should mention his name in the bio of the album, because there is a connection. He’s the one guy I would like to work with. That would be badass.
It’s a rich, delicate listening experience. Did you know what kind of album and sound you wanted to make before entering the studio?
That was the most rewarding thing about making Fresh Blood. We did pretty much what we said we were going to do when I laid out what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted the album to sound like. We pretty much nailed it on the head.
The album didn’t get to sound the way it does by accident at all. I wanted the album to be more dynamic. I wanted there to be louder moments, and softer moments, and darker moments and lighter moments.
Everything on the album does sounds carefully planned. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Not really actually. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to what the process is going to be and the big picture of the album. But once I set that into motion I kind of let it happen. I’m certainly careful and try to make really good decisions, but a song like “Holy Moly” is a first take. It just happened to be a really, really good first take. [laughs]
There’s a time and a place for perfectionism. There are moments on the album where I’m very hands-on and want things to be exactly a certain way. And then there are moments when you just let the process and the players make something unique.
What did you grow up listening to, and what has influenced you as a musician?
I grew up listening to Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. My parents are older – so they belong to the Elvis generation, not the Beatles generation. They’re not hippies at all. They are old school sock hop rock’n’rollers. So I listened to a lot of that kind of stuff.
Later I got into grunge. I just wanted to get really good at guitar. And then I went to school for jazz, but not because I was particularly good at jazz, it was just the only way to create an opportunity for me to learn more.
Do you remember you first musical experience?
Yeah, I remember Chuck Berry and listening to “Johnny B. Goode” for the first time. It blew my mind. I turned it up so loud in my house. I remember The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” and “Good Vibrations” as well. I was very young, like three, and I would just play those songs constantly. I loved them.
Then when I was in sixth grade I started playing drums, and as soon as I could play anything that resembled a rhythm, I started a band. But my mom didn’t want drums in the house, so I switched to guitar.
Very early on I didn’t really want to learn other people’s songs. I wanted to write my own. I was much more interested in making up stuff. The band, by the way, was called the Internal Spinning Light Bulbs. I’ve never told anyone that in an interview, that’s exclusive content. [laughs]
On “Rock & Roll Is Cold,” you paint a rather depressing picture of rock & roll today. What’s in your opinion of the current state of rock? Do you like it?
No, not really. That’s just my opinion. I think rock & roll as a cultural movement is dead. Just like jazz. It doesn’t mean there can’t be really exciting individual performances and important, honest moments, but rock & roll is at it’s tail-end of it’s cultural significance. There’s not going to be another Elvis or another Beatles, but that’s not abnormal for a genre to have that happen.
The energy and creativity that rock used to have. Where do you see that today?
In hip-hop music. No doubt about it.
Any artists in particular?
I think Kendrick Lamar made one of the best records I’ve ever heard. His last record was just phenomenal. Hip-hop can do anything. It has created a space for itself where it can take in a lot creativity and spit it back out.
You’ve recently been quoted saying, “For me, my career is about making records and it’s about making records that are better than the ones before.”
I can see why that approach makes sense as an artist – but it must be really exhausting as a human being.
I agree. [laughs] It is hard. You have to really breed discontent. It’s not something that’s particularly pleasurable. I have to look at Fresh Blood, find everything that’s wrong with it, and find the parts that can be better. It is challenging. But it’s as rewarding as it it’s challenging to make something that didn’t exist before. That’s pretty cool.
(Photos: Shawn Brackbill)
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