Matthew Dear: Goin’ Up the Country

Goin' Up the Country

Oct 11, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


Several essential Gotham-based artistsGang Gang Dance, Beirut, Dirty Projectors-have for their most recent records decided to take a break from the big, often distracting city, to head for the tranquility and seclusion of upstate New York. Add to that crew of indie émigrés the electronic innovator Matthew Dear, though his move is more long-term. While Dear's latest, the danceable dazzler Beams, was done in his five-year-plus home base of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as of this interview, Dear was waiting on the arrival of moving vans to take himself, his wife, bulldog, and home studio north to much more rustic surroundings. How will the man who created the profoundly dark and urban Black City respond to the crunching of autumn leaves replacing the rattle of the subway and blaring car horns? That remains to be seen. But it's how we began our conversation with Matthew Dear.

There's an article on Matthew Dear in the print version of our current issue of Under the Radar (the Summer Issue/Protest Issue). These are extra portions of our interview, mainly quotes that didn't make it into our main print issue article on Dear. Both the print and digital/iPad versions of the issue include more frames from our photo shoot with Dear. Be sure to check out both the print and digital versions of our Summer Issue, on newsstands now, for much more from our interview and shoot with Matthew Dear.

John Norris (Under the Radar): Matthew! You're heading out of town. Is it sort of a creative move for you? Has Brooklyn just become too much?

Matthew Dear: You know, I've been doing this, telling people that I was gonna move to a ranch in Texas or upstate, this weird little threat of mine since, I remember back like eight years ago telling people this. So it's kind of been this long brewing thing with my wife and I. And we found this barn, we'd been looking at it for about two years, it's been this long marination process, seeing if it was right for us. So yeah, it's not as overnight or as attached to the immediate music stuff. But there's no doubt that it's gonna totally change the way that I make music, and, I don't know, I think for better. Maybe for worse. It's so quiet up there. Like right now, maybe you can't hear it, but there is this scrap yard right next to me that is literally like throwing massive amounts of metal on the ground. And you've got the train here of course, and a bar that's right down the street that's always loud.

You've been in New York nearly six years, and made some great records here. Was it for the most part a positive time for you?

Absolutely. I mean we didn't do it with an end cap. It's not like we came here and thought, 'Well let's do it for five years.' I really think we thought we were gonna be here forever. But it's just the grueling nature of the city. I think you come to New York to kind of prove something to yourself. At least I did. New York is this kind of vision, this thing of like cinematic dreams. You know, coming from the Midwest it's a place that my wife and I always really wanted to experience, or conquer. And then halfway through it you kind of realize, oh shit, the city just beats you up. It conquers you no matter what. And you can make it, and you can survive. But unless you are, I don't know, living in an apartment on Central Park West, New York always seems to hold you under its foot. And it makes you feel like, 'Hey you are just part of everything else, and you are no more special than the next person.' Which is awesome. But that back and forth-and I'm sure you know it toocan really like mess with your head.

For sure. Obviously the earlier records got no shortage of love and attention, but it seems like Black City had this level of acclaim that brought a new degree of attention such that there's more eyes on this record. Do you feel that way?

I feel it more now than I allowed myself to, I don't know, a year ago. It's definitely not the kind of thing you want to think about when you're making an album. And luckily, a lot of the music was made beforeyou know, I try to separate the head space. I would be naïve and lying if I said I'm not aware of what the arc means, and what you're trying to do musically, and trying to make a career out of it. But I would also be very truthful in saying that I separate that from the creative process. When I write, I just let it go. And I just do it, I go in the studio and you have to find those moments of just weird subconscious expunging. Just getting it out. You can't let any of that other stuff get in the way of that, so none of that got in the way of writing Beams.

For some time now, I feel like people have tried toand I'm not sure very successfullyto kind of characterize the Matthew Dear evolution, you know? The arc of where you're headed?

[Laughs]

They look at Leave Luck to Heaven and say, "OK, well he's going in a more song-oriented direction." But then I think you threw them for a loop in a sense with Black City, at least if people thought they knew where you were headed with Asa Breed it was certainly different. It seems like at every time when people think they have a handle on what direction you are going in, you like to trip them up?

I don't know, I think a lot of my artists have changed things up, and I don't think they're doing it to provoke anybody. I think mainly I do it for myself. And I'm just trying to have fun with music. I would be really bored if I used the same tools and the same method to kind of create an album as I did with the last album. Just because, I figured that out already, you know? I did that, I made that sound. And it's just in my own desire to try something different and to move on.

You never find yourself fighting a tendency to do what you did on the last record? Or are you always eager to try new things?

I find it almost impossible to recreate it. There's many times that I say, "Oh, that song did really well. And people really liked that. Let me try to do that again." And I can't! I'm just really letting the music do itself, kind of thing. And the way that I'm living, the experiences I'm having, the people I'm meeting in my day to day life, you know, they're different now than they were two years ago. I'm 33 now and-this isn't huge but-there's a big difference between 33 and 29. You know Black City was at the tail end of this kind of massive twenties roaring train ride through, of, you know, "Oh, I can hop on a plane and be in Tokyo and play this crazy club at like 4 in the morning." And you know that appealed to me then in a different way than it does now. And the way you think about those kind of things just gets inside the music as well. So I can't, it would almost  be like lying if I was like "let me try to write a song like I was when I was roaring and raging".

It definitely seems like the most lyrically dense record you've done. Is that fair?

 Yeah I think so.

I mean, it's still not necessarily easy to get obvious meanings from a lot of it. But on the last couple of records the lyrics are pretty discernible. How important are lyrics to you?

They are very important to me, and my approach to them has changed. In the past, the label had asked me, "Hey you should put your lyrics online. You should tell people what you are saying." And I would always kind of back off and say like, "No, I like it when the listener has their own ideas." I liked seeing people writing them differently than what I actually said. Because I was giving them that kind of open door. I was like "Make this yours."

Well, on those lyric sites you definitely see some real, a minefield of mondegreens, you know...

[Laughs] Definitely. So at some point I thought well maybe it's better if I just post them anonymously. But now it's totally changed, now I want people to know what I'm saying. And I will put lyrics online. Because some of my favorite albums in the '80s and '90s  had that kind of stuff. I like information. I think you can give people a lot of information. Like [U2's] Achtung Baby, it's dense. There's just so much stuff in there, and pictures. And it just represents such a time. And I like that, because looking at all that you still don't feel like you have them all figured out. There's still a lot of questions, a lot of mystery.

So how did working on this record compare to the last couple? Were there struggles?

There were a couple. Like, you never know when to say "stop." For me, at least. I go in the studio all the time. Right now my studio is totally unplugged and sitting in the corner of the barn, but when it's on, I wake up, make my coffee, and then I just go in there and start working on music. And it's just fun. I've equated it to like doodling. Not everything turns into a song, or even an idea. A lot is just sound experimentation that needs to happen. There's no question that I can't go in there and start doing it. And I've been doing it since I was an early teenager. But then, how do you call that an "album," you know? When do you say what you've done is enough to make an album? So that's when it gets hard. 

One of the tracks on Beams that I keep coming back to is "Up and Out," which has this bright kind of funk thing to it.

 Yeah, actually, that's one that's been done for about four years. There was a sample on there that we needed to clear and we finally did. 

Can you say what that was?

It was a group called Empress, and it's a song called "Dyin' to be Dancing"-I think it was around '81 or something like that, New York disco kind of stuff, and so that was part of it. But "Up and Out," something about that, like the lyrics are the kind of thing where I'm going into this more fairy tale style. Like I picture somebody totally different, singing the song, and all the musical elements align in this weird kind of cartoon-esque environment. But it's a song that, from beginning to end, is pretty clear that is about the life of a musician who is completely content with just being a sap that's just riding on these laurels. It's like, "I'm not convinced, I'm a mistake, flirting through life, isn't it great?" It's just this couch potato musician who while being very successful and getting all these accolades, he's like, "Yeah, this is cool," and is just very content with things.

Do you know musicians like that?

Well I think when I wrote it, so much of that is me. But it's the fear of becoming something worse that you really are. It's the "Hey lookout man, or you're gonna end up like this if you're not careful." It's just total self-awareness and skepticism, a message to myself about what could happen.

www.matthewdear.com



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