“Rock & Roll as a movement is over” Interview with Matthew E. White

Matthew Edgar White

Matthew Edgar White is a pretty interesting and genuine musician. The warm welcome given to his debut album, wasn’t by chance. Matthew is a meticulous artist obsessed to get better with every album.

In a time where big record companies have hard times to get benefit with the new releases, Matthew created his own company, Spacebomb Records, in order to release his own music and some other names. Does Natalie Prass ring your bell?

Now he presents the outstanding “Fresh Blood” (Domino / Spacebomb, 2015), which offers a deeper and heavier sound than “Big Inner”.  Matthew always has a story to tell, and this is it:

You are an artist who is a songwriter, producer, arranger, and founder of Spacebomb Records. But if I had to ask yourself, to describe who is Matthew Edgar White in 2015, how would you describe yourself in your own words?

All of those things work together to make music. I’m a music maker. The reason I started my label was to facilitate a vertically integrated label system that had a lot to do with the actual notes that came out on the records. The reason that Motown sounds like the way it does, the reason Phil Spector sound the way they do, or the Beach Boys sound like the way they do had a lot to do with how the back end of those records were organised, how the infrastructure was. And every record interfaces with a schedule and interfaces with a budget and interfaces with a support staff of some kind usually. And the reason I’m a record label founder or producer or songwriter or singer, any of that stuff, is to make art. That’s what I do.

I’m not in the record label business to make money as an end game, I’m not in it for any reason like that. I’m in it because it facilitates making art and allows me to do it freely and allows me to do it in a unique way that I believe makes something very powerful. So that’s why I do all those things. They’re not different things. It’s one thing and it facilitates me making music.

What’s the meaning of success for you? “Big Inner” was a very popular album when it was released, but you’ve been making music way before the success of that album.

Success to me has a lot of things that go into it. At the end of the day it’s making something that you think is artistically successful. Part of being artistically successful is, I think, is finding some sort of audience. That’s really a grey area. But I think it’s important. I make music to listen to. And the purpose of pop music and songs and singing is to experience that in a group, is to experience that back and forth between a performer and a listener. And that’s part of what I do.

I think ‘Big Inner’ was successful, more successful than the other things that I did, because it was better than the other things that I did. There’s a reason why that was successful and The Great White Jenkins and Fight The Big Bull wasn’t as successful. And it’s because those other things weren’t as good.

It’s not just a matter of luck. Sometimes it is. But in my case there were elements that were very fortunate but it was more commercially successful and successful on a broader scale than those other things because it was better. It was actually better art. To me that’s what success is – making something that is a good piece of art.

“There’s a difference between being unique and being worthwhile. There’s two different things but you aim at being both.”

You’re about to release Fresh Blood, what are your impressions of the album now that is finished? What are the differences with Big Inner?

The goal is to make something better, as opposed to making something that’s just different. We tried very hard to do that and I hope that that’s the case. I think the songs are better, I think it sounds better, the vocals are better. In general I think it’s slightly more mature and it gets to some really nice places. I think our goal was to make something a little bit broader, that had a bigger spectrum and I wanted it to be louder and softer, darker and lighter. I think it achieved those things. I wanted it to be groovier and it’s all that stuff. I wanted it to be more aggressive and it’s that too.

I think we got to it. It’s hard for me to look back on it objectively but it is kind of my job to do that and I like doing that but it is a challenge. But I think most of the goals we set out to achieve we got to and I think it’s better than Big Inner and that’s the main thing.

Did you take a step forward in that sense?

Did I become better at all the things I’m trying to get better at? I think I did. But there’s a lot of voices that will go into that conversation of course, not just mine.

Matthew Edgar White

How about “RNR is Cold”, what is your message to the listener out there? It sounds like a pretty honest critic to me…

First and foremost the song is playful. It’s not too serious, it’s supposed to be fun. I hope that’s clear, I think that it is. But it’s also, at the heart of it there is a little bit of a message, I don’t know if message is the right word. It’s just a thought

To me, rock n roll as a movement is over. It’s 55 years old, it’s become a caricature of itself. It started to become a caricature of itself with the Rolling Stones, with the Beatles. It has slowly continued to slope away and become more of a caricature of itself. It’s becoming codified and structured in a way that genres often do and it leads to it becoming really formulaic and cold in a way. And it’s becoming codified in books and universities and has people speaking for it as elder statesmen and all of that is fine, it’s what happens to every genre, but it’s happening to rock n roll. And that’s ok. I think the important thing to remember is, really important art doesn’t necessarily come from a genre or movement, it comes from individuals. I’ve sort of listed jazz. Jazz as a movement, a cultural movement, is done. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t play it in a way that’s really alive and really important and really artistic and really beautiful.

I think with rock n roll, as a movement it’s done but as individuals people can play it and it be really lively and important.

The other thing of course is that I think rock n roll comes from the black American experience and that experience has been the life blood of culture in the United States for a long time. And the artists that are still very close to that I think are Kanye West and Beyonce or Kendrick Lamar or Tyler The Creator or Frank Ocean. Guys like that, girls like that, are making really lively, really important music. And it has not floated away from the thing that gave it its energy and its life, and that’s important to remember. Not only in big ways but for small reasons. It’s important to know the history and to not get sidetracked. Culture portrays rock n roll as the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zepellin, that kind of thing. The Ramones, whatever. That’s all good. Those artists are all really, really, really great but they’re not where that music comes from.

“The music industry has nothing to do with art”

What annoys you more, in the way the music is conceived nowadays?

No, music will be alive and vibrant and important, artistic, all that kind of stuff. Technology or culture, all that kind of stuff, is a revolving door. But music’s powerful and it will always be that way. There’s really vibrant electronic music, there’s really vibrant computer music, there’s really vibrant acoustic music. It’s way too big of a statement to say that things are not well. There’s certainly parts of the industry that are not well but the industry has nothing to do with art – that’s just a business. Art will find a way, it always does.

You’ve recently released a tribute to the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, how did you empathize that much with the career he made?

To me, he was as important an artist as I knew in my time. He was more or less a peer in the sense that he was alive and making art the same time I was and I am. He was everything I could ever want to be in an artist. I think that’s the best way to put it. I was really challenged by him and learnt a lot from him by watching him and when he died it was really sad and I wanted to write a song for him.

I think that the fact of having so many different styles together makes a very unique sound, very recognisable own sound. Is this something every musician is aiming at when he’s making a record?

That’s very cool. I appreciate you saying that. That is certainly my goal. My goal is to have a voice, artistic voice, that’s unique and can stand on its own.

There’s a difference between being unique and being worthwhile. There’s two different things but you aim at being both.

I can’t speak for other artists but I imagine that’s most people’s goal – to make something that’s uniquely themselves. And that’s kind of what art is – it’s a reflection of who you are and some people reflect it in a more interesting way than others but it’s always coming from inside. There’s no rules, you just do whatever you want to do, and that’s what makes it so cool.

Every decision that’s made is ultimately under my supervision and that’s a cool thing. That’s what makes the record my record and not somebody else’s record, and that’s cool. I really love that. I can’t speak for other artists but I imagine that they want to do something along those lines. Every other artist I’ve known has. I can’t say how successful I am at that but that’s really what I strive to do.

You’ve worked with many artists and I also see that you have also produced the Natalie Prass new album, which is also receiving very good reviews. In which role are you more comfortable? When you’re producing other artists, with your own records…?

I would say there’s pros and cons to both. Producing other artists in some way isn’t as hard because you have a little more objectivity and a little bit more distance from it. In some ways that makes it easier psychologically and emotionally, which is nice, and you can still get the same product.

Producing for yourself and making your own record as an artist, you’re diving in to yourself a lot more and that’s hard. It’s really hard work but it can be really rewarding. I think for me the most rewarding thing, emotionally rewarding, is to make records for myself but that doesn’t mean I’m less comfortable producing art, work, for other people. I love producing with other people. It’s really great. It’s easier to do that, to just not. It’s more of a collaboration, you’re actually working with somebody else. When you’re making records with yourself, even though there’s lots of people in the room, ultimately when you go to bed at night it’s like you’re just fighting with yourself over decisions, and that’s hard. It’s hard, hard, hard work to make a record yourself, produce a record yourself. But I guess that also makes it a little bit more rewarding.

You’re part of the music industry also in the side of a label owner. Everyone in this industry I ask is kind of pessimist about the industry. Do you have the same feeling or does Spacebomb works well after all?

Negativity towards what’s going on? Well I think there’s a couple of things to remember. One, that’s really important, is that the music industry doesn’t have anything to do with making art, it’s just a business that enables it. And I don’t mean that in a dirty way I just mean it enables art and it capitalises on art’s relationship to the public in a sort of supply and demand way. But it’s not the art itself, it’s just the distributer of it. For me the most important thing, is that art, is that creation, and that’s not going away. And that’s what I’m concerned with.

 “Whether I have to work at the post office and play my guitar and sing or whether I get to be paid by a record label to play my guitar and sing, it’s going to happen anyway, and that’s OK”

That sort of leads me to the next point of being the world of art, or the American economy, doesn’t owe me a music industry. There’s been plenty of times when there wasn’t one in world history. Now there happens to be one, and that’s great, that’s a result of a very high achieving economy, and artists are sort of the last people to get paid and the first people to not get paid as things sort of descend. That’s ok. If we’re sort of in an economic downswing, you know the big picture over the long term, and all of a sudden artists aren’t paid, that’s ok. I don’t think that economies owe industries. Industries will come and go. Art will not come and go, it stays the same. Listen to John Hurt or Robert Johnson or Skip James. Those guys, they didn’t have a music industry, they just played their guitar, played a little bit in front of a microphone and then went back to work. And that music lives forever.

That said, these problems aren’t particularly new problems. There’s money seeping out and everyone has less money. But that’s just the way it is.

There’s way more clarinet players 55 years ago than there are now. Resources leave certain parts of the industry and find themselves resurging in other parts of the industry. There’s not big bands anymore but there are EDM festivals. That may or may not be a good thing but it’s the case. And that will continue to cycle.

I do think there’s a reality that there’s money leaving. Nobody’s going to make as much money as they did twenty years ago or fifty years ago. There’s less money in it. But that’s not necessarily the worst thing. Some of the greatest records ever made were made on a shoestring budget or were made under labels with a little bit of economic duress. Like I say, Skip James, Robert Johnson, those guys made records for no other reason than they could just find a microphone and play guitar in front of it, and that was amazing.

It will stabilise. It’s the wild west for sure. And I like that it’s crazy and nobody knows what’s going on. But I’ve found a way to make it work and Spacebomb’s found a way to make it work. I feel good about those things. But if in fifty years there’s no record labels and no industry and everything’s free and I have to get another job to support myself, that’s just the way it is, and that’s ok.

Sometimes we hear the gospel influence in your songs, are you a person of tradition things? Where does it come your love for gospel?

There’s a couple of things to point out. I’m not a christian, I think that’s important. I did grow up in that tradition and I do use some of those elements in my poetic vocabulary and as metaphors and narrative devices for stories. The only time Jesus is mentioned in this record is in ‘Circle ’Round the Sun’ and that is a song about suicide, a song about a person of faith committing suicide and the darkness and light that is in a story like that.

That’s very different than gospel music as a style. Gospel music as a style is not something I grew up with. That’s an almost exclusively African American musical expression, from its roots at least. As I learnt more about American music history, the more I realised that that’s a secret beginning. That is rock n roll, it really is.

You listen to early gospel music and you’re listening to proto-rock n roll, proto-r’n’b, soul music. It is a prelude that sort of ties all those traditions together. In that sense it was something I delved into really, really deeply, just because it helps me connect the dots between folk music, jazz music, rock n roll and soul music. I think the way big bands are organised was highly influenced by the way gospel music was organised and vice versa.

It’s a music I love. I think it’s a beautiful, almost perfect music, as a style. For that reason, just like the other music I love, it finds its way into a collage that is my records.

“I don’t want to listen to ‘Fresh Blood’ and be content because it means that I won’t have the drive to make the next one”

Is there any particular style you feel more comfortable with?

I see myself in the r’n’b and soul music tradition. I see myself in that way much more than I do as a rock n roll guy. Loosely I’m more comfortable with that. R’n’b and soul has always interfaced with culture in a different way than rock n roll. Fashion and culture has been a prominent piece of the pie when you talk about rock n roll artists. Although r’n’b and soul are tremendously stylised and nuanced and fashionable in their own way they are not fashion statements in the way that rock n roll is at times. And I see myself much more in that tradition.

My music is very stylistic, it has a lot of style to it, it has a lot of nuance, it has a lot of fashion to it. But it’s not a fashion statement. It’s about being good and being powerful in the moment. And I think there’s something to the history of r’n’b and soul music that’s slightly different to the history of rock n roll music in that regard. And I sort of see myself along those lines.

And last question. Matthew, are you happy?

That’s good one. Yeah, yeah I am. That’s funny. That’s a tough emotion.

I won’t spend too long talking about this but being happy, I relate that a lot to being content. Being content is something that for an artist who is trying to get better and better and better is something that you really habitually push away. You don’t want to be content with your record. I don’t want to listen to ‘Fresh Blood’ and be content because it means that I won’t have the drive to make the next one.

So you live your life in a very weird paradox where the thing that’s most important to you, that is central to your professional life, your psychological life to some degree, your emotional life, your art. You are driving yourself to be not content. That is the key, to stay curious and stay unsatisfied. It is very difficult to live that way in one big piece of your life and in the other half of your life be content. It’s a struggle. And I think that struggle has a lot to do with happiness. I would like to be more content than I am, just in general, but that’s really hard. And I think part of the reason that’s hard is that I spend so much of my mental energy driving myself to be discontent with what I make. So there’s a paradox there that’s hard. It’s a day to day, month to month, year to year struggle. And I’m trying to get better at it. But yes I’m happy but it can be hard to stay that way.

David Bernardo @rockasting

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