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Matthew E. White

Home Is Where the Sound Is

Feb 06, 2014 Web Exclusive
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“Shenandoah Valley, you’ve really got a hold on me,” Matthew E. White sings on “In the Valley” from his recent EP, Outer Face. Where cities like Memphis, New York, and Chicago have produced music that will forever be associated with their creative locales, White sees his work as inextricably linked to his base of Richmond, Virginia. Following up his 2012 debut album, Big Inner, White wraps his southern-soul vocals entirely with strings, percussion, and backing voices for the EP’s five songs. It’s an entrancing brew, and considering the stylistic departure from his debut’s band record, the new songs suggest that White might head anywhere from here. As long as he’s operating from his home base, that is.

Hays Davis (Under the Radar): Earlier today I recalled something from listening to Big Inner. Hopefully you don’t take this as a negative comment, because it’s not intended that way, but when I first heard the song “Gone Away” I thought about Skip Spence’s Oar album, though with a much steadier voice. And I like Oar, by the way. Have you heard that album?

Matthew E. White: I haven’t. I don’t know how to take it negatively so I’ll just take it positively.

The reference there is just in how stark Spence’s vocals are on that album, though they’re very expressive, and I was thinking of the minimal presentation in your song. Oar is considered more of an outsider-music record, which yours is definitely not. Big Inner drew a very positive response overseas. Everybody loves a local-boy-done-good story, and chances are I’ve passed you a time or two shopping at Plan 9 Music in Richmond. Did it shock you that those songs touched a nerve with people the way they did, particularly considering the response you found with the overseas music press?

In some ways, yeah. I can’t really say that I expected it. I was pretty confident in the record being a strong musical statement, and having some legs to walk, but having people talk about it in some of the ways they have, and the support, both from critics and fans…. And it’s not just internationally. All over, there’s been a really amazing support system to grow up in Europe a little bit, but it’s really been all over.

It’s really surreal. I’m a year and a half into it and I haven’t really stopped since the record was released. I’ve pretty much been on tour the entire time, so sometimes it’s hard for me…there’s this overall gratitude and thankfulness, but it’s hard to distill into much perspective because I’m still staring it right in the face every night, playing, and I haven’t had much time to sit back and see what’s happening.

It’s crazy, because that’s what I do. A year ago I was teaching kids in Short Pump [Virginia] what the sixth string on the guitar was called. Just a guy teaching music to kids. I actually just had one of my students email me today and be like, “Hey man, how you doing? Where you been?”

I’m just looking forward to having some time off and then doing it again. As a musician, that’s all you can ask for, is just a chance to do it again and have some support behind it. [For] so many musicians, that’s a dream, and they never get it. For me, at this point, at least I’ll have a chance to make one more record with a little bit of support, and you just try to make the best record you possibly can. Hopefully it keeps on going.

When did the Outer Face songs come together?

They sort of progressed over a long time. Some of those songs I wrote very soon after Big Inner. I would write part of them and then tinker with them on and off during rehearsals and during down time here and there. So I had a group of songs that were kind of together, then, in June of this year, Andy [Jenkins, friend and co-writer] and I sat down for a week and finished off a bunch of them, and I picked out the five that I wanted to record. It’s been over the course of the last year that those things have grown out of the next phase of songwriting.

After Big Inner had been presented multiple times in different releases, you were probably relieved to get something new out.

[Laughs] That was a big deal, because the record was coming out on Domino, which is why you guys are doing a review again. It’s just kind of the nuts and bolts of the industry. They wanted some new material to generate some new press, and you can do that in a lot of ways. I just asked if I could make something new. They weren’t really expecting that because my schedule had been so insane, but I had some ideas and I had some songs, and I felt like I could do it quickly and effectively. I just really wanted to get back in the studio.

What led you to completely wrap those songs in strings?

I love strings. I love the sound of them. I think they can be very emotive. It’s just a cool texture to me. I’m also really close friends with a guy who’s really good at it [co-producer Trey Pollard], and we have a really great working relationship. When I’m talking about a song or what I want, he’s a great arranger. And I knew I didn’t want to write for horns, because I’d done so much of that on Big Inner, and I knew I didn’t want that on Outer Face. So, to me, it was a chance to really give him an opportunity to write, to say, “Hey, all this is going to be in bass and percussion and strings and vocals, so you have a green light to write more than anyone’s ever going to give you liberty to write.” [Laughs]

Also, I wanted to write choir arrangements, vocal arrangements, and I hadn’t done that before. For me, having the strings there really helps. In this day and age, it’s so common to fill space with keyboards and guitars and synthesizers. The interesting thing about strings is that people like them, but that’s what strings are. Strings are made to fill space. They’re made to be big.

People didn’t use string sections a hundred years ago because they liked the sound. They used them because they were practically the best way to fill up that space and to fill those frequencies. They were what was there to use, and so they were given sort of a practical role; not only, “Oh, I like the sound of strings.” There are no other chords on this record. There’s no piano, there’s no guitar. You have to fill the space, so it’s a very practical thing, as much as it’s a sonic, textured thing.

It had never occurred to me to think of strings in a strictly utilitarian way. I like strings, and I thought it was a very interesting approach for these songs, with only strings, percussion, and voices.

I think a lot of the times, as an arranger, I get asked this a lot: “Can you add horn arrangements for this record?” And then you get sent tracks with guitars, background vocals, synthesizers, and what people don’t realize is that’s taking up the space that the horns are supposed to take up. You can’t really write for horns when stuff is there; you can kind of write fake shit, but you can’t really write for horns because it fills up all the frequencies.

You’ve had a chance to do some traveling since the album came out. Did you land anywhere that got you thinking about leaving Richmond?

No. There are places I like a lot, but Richmond’s special. Some amazing things are happening there and it would be a very bad time to leave. My musical voice is really centered there right now, and Richmond has a lot to do with what my music sounds like. That’s a thing that’s hard to wrap your mind around because in an age where so many people are playing instruments that are sort of triggered, like a synthesizer or a drum machine or something like that, you lose the sound of the community.

Memphis sounds like it does. Those are actually people from Memphis that live in Memphis playing, and whether it’s great drumming or kind of a shitty string-playing, that’s what that community sounded like, and you couldn’t get it anywhere else because you couldn’t play drums like that guy. You can’t play strings like that guy. And Richmond is the same way. On my record, there’s thirty people playing instruments and every single one of them is from Richmond, Virginia. And if I went to L.A. and I put the same charts in front of people, recorded it the same way, it actually, very literally, would sound different. I actually enjoy that about the music and the music I’m making now and going forward. There’s a community there that has a unique sound because it’s actually people playing their instruments. Everyone has a unique sound when they pick up their drum and play it or they pick up their violin and play it.

I’m really dedicated to that community right now and making the most out of it. Organizing and encouraging and making something special from where I live. I feel really strongly about that. Although I have traveled quite a bit, been around the world a couple of times now, there’s a lot of great places, but I still haven’t come across a community that’s as vibrant musically as Richmond is, and I think that’s really special.


Matthew E. White vs. Sports Trivia

For some interviews, we offer our subject a list of side topics for a completely different direction, and White chose sports trivia. How did he fare in Under the Radar’s full-on sports trivia assault? As you’ll see below, the Richmonder basically twisted the list of questions into a pretty bow and handed it back to us, you might say.

I mentioned to friends at work that we were going to be discussing sports trivia and solicited questions, and here’s what they came back with. You’re getting some softballs with the first ones. Who won the first two Super Bowls?

Packers.

How many NBA championships does Michael Jordan have?

Six.

What was Muhammad Ali’s birth name?

Cassius Clay.

Who was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl?

Doug Williams.

Who is nicknamed “The Great One” in professional hockey?

Wayne Gretzky.

What is Serena Williams’ sister’s name?

Venus.

When was the first time pro basketball players participated in the Olympics?

1992.

What native son of Richmond won Wimbledon?

Arthur Ashe.

Who broke Hank Aaron’s home-run record, albeit under controversial circumstances?

Barry Bonds.

What is the nickname of the former Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena named the Civic Arena?

I don’t know that one.

I’ll give you a hint. It’s a structure that penguins might hang around.

The Igloo?

Yep.

Killer.

And here’s one from someone I know who use to play minor-league baseball. Who are the last four 20-game winners from the same team and same year?

So…four pitchers that all won 20 games, all on the same team? Is it the Cardinals?

No, but it is a bird.

Shit. Four 20-game winners in a year. That’s crazy. That’s gotta be old. It’s a bird, so…is it the Orioles?

Yeah.

The Orioles. Pitchers. I don’t know that. Who are they?

Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Pat Dobson.

Yeah, that’s a tough one. I wouldn’t have got that one. That’s sort of in a gap for me. Late-‘70s baseball.

And the last one. Which two Cleveland Indians hit 50 home runs in a season?

In the same year?

No, these were two separate years.

Is it Jim Thome? Is that one?

Yep.

And Albert Belle.

Very good! Top-notch job there, Mr. White! I wish I had some morning-zoo radio sound effects to play in the background for your big score.

www.matthewewhite.tumblr.com



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