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Matthew E. White: The ’60s Dream is Alive in Richmond

on November 14, 2013, 12:00pm

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When CoS’ Jon Hadusek reviewed Matthew E. White’s debut album Big Inner in the summer of 2012, he described White’s disposition as one “[looking] back with calm reconciliation, basking in nostalgic highs and examining the low.” Fifteen months later, the Richmond, VA-based musician is still one cool cat who calmly surveys where he’s been to better prepare where he’s going. Currently, his strange, soulful trip is finding audiences courtesy of his new relationship with Domino Records, who have recently repackaged his debut for a new, larger release. Included in this new packaging is White’s latest collection of soul-stirring sounds, Outer Face, a five-song EP offered either as a standalone release or an appendage of a grander, better Big Inner.

This new EP continues with the themes and approaches White pursued with his debut, at times even elevating the soulful feeling above that of its predecessor. Outer Face is soul music. Not the typical “blue-eyed soul” so often attributed to white artists singing the stirring sounds of rhythm & blues, or worse, a sanitized version of more traditional “brown-eyed soul.” White’s soul music is honest, purposeful, and, at times, elegant, but never pandering or clichéd. His approach in the studio is akin to legendary soul studios like Muscle Shoals and Stax, and his music has a unity and a power often felt with artists like Curtis Mayfield.

Consequence of Sound caught up with White to follow up on his past year in the glow of Big Inner. While we had his ear, we discussed what the move to Domino means for him and his music, some of the challenges he set for himself prior to recording Outer Face, the Richmond music scene, and where exactly his Spacebomb Collective fits into a town currently heralded for metal.

As this EP is described as “a continuation of the spirit and sensibility,” but also “a starkly ambitious departure,” when were these songs written in relation to Big Inner? Was there a conscious effort to bridge the two albums in any way?

Um, let’s see… when were they written? Big Inner was written in fall 2010, and these songs were written… they were all kind of half-written in the last half of 2011, 2012. They’ve kind of been on the table. I just kind of keep… I don’t really like to finish songs on the road, or when I’m traveling, or when I’m moving, so they’re all kind of in the bank a little bit. I finished them all in June 2013, right before I recorded in August 2013 for Outer Face. I’ve said before, in other interviews, you don’t want to let your creative process catch up with your record cycle [laughs], or your record cycle catch up with your creative process. Hopefully, you’re out in front a little bit. The songs had been written, and were worked on, and were being crafted, and they sort of got finished up for this cycle.

Your recording process is pretty fast then, if you recorded in August.

Yeah, tell me about it [laughs]. Every sort of artistic situation has its limits, and its boundaries, and things you’ve got to do. Yeah, this one was recorded in August and released in October, which is nuts. It’s really crazy. It was fun.

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I noticed in some of the press that you actually did recording to tape and did some Macero-like tape editing. When I saw that, I just thought of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, cutting all the tapes together and making a giant track out of it. What was behind that? Did you record the entire album to tape or just parts of it?

No, no, no. Just parts of it. There’s a lot of different places you can relate collage work to. Hip-hop is collage work. There is a lot of different kinds of music that are that. To me, a real touchstone for that is Teo Macero’s work on all the Miles Davis records. That’s how I’m thinking about it. When I go into it, especially with this one, I want everyone to lay down what they’re gonna lay down and then I’m going to do some post-production editing. That was something I wanted to try [laughs]. You make a list of things you want to do. You can’t do them all. And, for this EP, I just wanted to work on that part of it. I didn’t do any of that with Big Inner, any sort of sliding things around. I didn’t really do any post-production work on Big Inner, and Outer Face has a lot more compared to Big Inner. It doesn’t have a lot compared to most records, but for me it was a lot more.

You’ve talked in the past to your meticulous nature in songwriting, often working over pieces to some length. It’s been noted this EP was written over four days in a cabin. How much work in post, as it were, did you end up doing?

Not so much. All the stuff that was quote-unquote in post is kind of icing on the cake. None of the fundamental nature of the songs, or the melodies, or the chords, even the production ideas, like I went into post-production knowing specifically what I was going to do. It wasn’t like you throw a bunch of things out and then you clean it up into something. It was a little bit more focused than that.

This whole EP oozes of soul and smolders like some of the deepest grooves from 40 years ago. This is some deep, steady stuff. “Hot Hot Hot” is straight up Superfly. With the personal restrictions you set on your songwriting, no guitars, horns or piano, I am sure you were challenged. What was behind the minimalism and setting these limitations? Did it have anything to do with the big-ness of Big Inner?

Yeah, yeah it does. The first thing is, we sort of mentioned earlier, I didn’t have very long to do it, and I was on a really tight schedule, so sort of choosing to work with less made a lot of sense from a practical angle. But, it was also I wanted to write choir arrangements, and I didn’t have time to do horn and choir arrangements, and I hadn’t really done choir arrangements before like that. So, it’s sort of choose what you want to work on. And, also, a big thing was Big Inner is such a specific sound and to me, I wanted to do something that was different than that. It was obviously related to that. I didn’t learn a new vocabulary of music in the past year. It’s coming from the same place, it’s coming from the same influences. But, it’s also something that’s shaped by the practicality of having to record something quickly alongside a desire to do something different. Especially the horns. The horns are such a huge part of Big Inner. It’s very majestic. They bring such a big-ness to a project, and without those there’s an intimacy that’s unique.

So, you didn’t feel like something was missing doing these songs?

No, no, not at all.

At last year’s Hopscotch, you performed with the complete 30-piece band and orchestra. I can’t imagine you actually touring with that large a band. How often have you had the opportunity to perform Big Inner in that manner?

[Laughs] Just that once. Just that once.

Do you think maybe now, with the reissue and being on Domino, that you’ll have a chance to maybe do it again?

Maybe sometime again. That was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. That’s a very difficult thing to pull off, administratively. It’s actually easier to do musically than it is the nuts and bolts of organizing it. But, it’s fun. It’s funny to think about all the shows that I’ve played this year. I’ve played more than a hundred shows, and I think that was our third one, but it’s still, if not the best show that we played, one of the highlights. It was amazing to do that. I sort of look for opportunities to do it all the time, but you need a very specific situation to make it happen, because it’s not easy to make happen.

Yeah, it’s not something that you’re going to bring out on the festival circuit either.

Yeah, right [laughs]. Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

You also once said it was something of a concern of yours that your music has a lasting effect. How does that affect your creativity? Does that concern, as it were, contribute to your sense of focus and wanting to get it perfect, or do you find it more constrictive in nature?

No, I don’t find it constrictive. I can’t speak for other artists, but I would imagine I’m not unique in wanting to make something that lasts. Anything that is of quality hopefully lasts a little bit. It’s just about making something good. To me, those are synonymous. When you’re making your art, you’re just trying to make something as good as you possibly can. To me, that’s the same as saying I want to make something that lasts. I”m trying to make something good. Outer Face was an opportunity to add something to an LP. A lot of times you can phone in, or do B-sides, or something acoustic, but everything that I put out under my name, I am trying to make something special, something unique, something worth listening to. There’s so much music out there and there’s such a proliferation of music, which is great, I have no complaints about that, but it really raises the bar on what you have to do, because the media cycle is so, so, so short. It really makes sense and behooves you personally as an artist to really just try and make something worthwhile and won’t just get tucked under the rug in the next few weeks.

So, was it always the idea for Outer Face to be an EP and not a full-on album?

Yeah, it was designed to be an EP. A five-song set that stands on its own.

So, it wasn’t a marketing idea by Domino to bring awareness to your debut?

Oh, yeah, no, it was. For sure. That’s just sort of the nuts and bolts of the industry. Domino wanted new material or wanted something new, and there were a lot of different kind of options. That could mean a lot of different things.

You obviously liked the remix of “Big Love” that Hot Chip did. Did they do that on their own, or did it have anything to do with you now being on the same label?

They approached Domino on their own. Maybe they thought they had an easier path to the music since we were on the same label, but that wasn’t something I pursued just because we were on the same label. They got in touch and said, “We’d be interested in doing this if you would be into it.” I hadn’t heard too much of their music and wasn’t too familiar. It was cool. It was a cool opportunity.

So, did you work with them on that or did they just do it and present it to you?

No, they just did it on their own and presented me with a couple versions and I sort of gave some feedback, but pretty much they did it on their own. I think that’s really fresh.

Why Domino? Why not a label such as Stones Throw, a label that’s known for leftfield soul, which I think you certainly qualify for? Or perhaps Merge, a label only a few hours south of you and not over an entire ocean?

Well, some of it comes down to who’s most excited about your work. Domino came to me very early on and was very, very, very excited. Early adopters. That’s important to me, people that believed in the product early on. I wasn’t out there shopping the record, that wasn’t part of the plan. They came to me and really, really, really wanted to work together. I also think that… I love Stone’s Throw, I love Daptone, I love record labels like that, but I sort of like the openness. I think Domino has a really strong history of supporting artists for a long time, and really thoroughly, and really well, and opening up, letting artists do a pretty broad array of things. Look at some of their catalog, Robert Wyatt, John Cale, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective. That’s a really broad base. I just enjoyed what they thought about the music, and what they thought about me as an artist, and my potential, and what I wanted to do. It was really aligned, and again, I think the most important thing is they came on early on. They were the first ones and very excited. That certainly had a lot to do with it.

I’m sure. And it probably gives you a lot more confidence in their agenda, if you will.

Yeah, right, right. They sort of came on before things got going. They started making waves with us. That means a lot. It means that they believe in you as an artist, and they believe in the music as music, and not just as a sellable thing that they’ve turned it into. Everyone appreciates that, but they were in on the ground floor before that was really a reality.

Let’s talk about Richmond. In the ’60s, the city certainly was on the soul circuit, even name-checked in song by James Brown. More recently, it’s a scene currently noted for metal. Where do you see Spacebomb fitting in?

Richmond’s small enough, all that stuff crosses over, especially the metal community and my community. It’s very intertwined, just like on a social level. It’s not a big city, so you just run in your own music scene or you’re playing music, you run into people, whether it’s GWAR people, or Lamb of God people, or free jazz people, or whatever. They’re all swimming at the same pool… literally, in the summer. Spacebomb is what it is. It’s not trying to be any more or any less than it is, and I think it’s a strong statement of a particular group of musicians, but it’s one of many things that’s going on in the city. I think the city’s strongest when it’s a choir of voices that are doing things, and not just one.

I have my little voice that’s well organized. I try to promote it, and get it out there, and do my best to talk about music that we’re making. There’s all kinds of stuff. I think that’s what makes a vibrant community, is when it’s not necessarily all organized together, but it’s just happening all at the same time. I think that’s the most exciting thing, to hear about other people doing stuff. Pitchfork just did an article on the metal scene there. It was really cool to see. Some of those guys are my friends, certainly people that I see around. We’re in different circles musically, like the music business or press sort of sees us as being different, but at home we’re not that much different. It’s the same practice spaces and that kind of stuff.

spacebomb Matthew E. White: The 60s Dream is Alive in Richmond

Who are you excited about working with right now? Do you have any artists that you’re looking at maybe putting out through Spacebomb? Is there anybody exciting that gets you going?

Yeah, there’s a new 45 [rpm] 7” coming out in November by a guy named Howard Ivans; he’s the lead singer of the Rosebuds and Gayngs. That’s the first thing we’ll put out since Big Inner. Really, really stoked about that. That’s just as good as anything on Big Inner, even better in some ways. I’ve always said that Spacebomb is so much more. You only really see Spacebomb when it’s more than just one record, and we’re finally getting to the place where we’re putting out more stuff. We’re going to start to see what the community is, what we sound like. That’s happening in November. And then, Grandma Sparrow, which is a project of Joe Westerlund, who is the drummer in a band called Megafaun, sometime next year. We’ve got some other stuff on the plate too. 2014 will be very exciting for Spacebomb.

Will the relationship with Domino affect Spacebomb’s distribution, or is that totally independent?

It’s totally independent. As you know, I’m sure, the music business is a small world, and friends are friends. They can help out. There’s certainly some ways that Domino could help out, and they work closely with me, so therefore they work closely with Spacebomb, but not officially. It’s more people being cool and helping us out where we need it, and putting some weight behind stuff if we need to get in a door somewhere, but officially it’s separate.

Do you dig Richmond? Do see yourself staying there or do you think that you’re going to have to move up to DC, or New York, or someplace else?

I definitely will not be moving to DC, and I don’t think that I’ll be moving to New York… not any time soon at least. I love it where I am, and for this season of life, and to what’s going on now , I couldn’t imagine myself in a better place. I think Richmond has special things going on. Not just because I’m saying that, or others are saying that. It’s real. There’s special musicians there and special music coming out of that place. For me, just being there, in a special place in history, is very cool. You’ll never know how life kind of winds around in funny ways but right now, it’s a city that I love, that I’m dedicated to making it special and contributing to that dialogue.

richmond Matthew E. White: The 60s Dream is Alive in Richmond

I’m loving it. All of these independent vinyl shops are popping up in Richmond, and around it, and are thriving.

Yeah, it’s amazing. I moved there in 2003, and the difference ten years later is night and day.

I remember hanging out there in the early to mid-’90s, when I was in college. I graduated just up the road in Stafford County in ’89, so I’d come to Richmond every once in a while back in the early days before GWAR. It has changed. You could say it’s gotten worse in some respects and better in others. But, definitely musically, it’s kind of ebbed and flowed, but growing at the same time. Richmond is slowly becoming more in the public’s awareness outside of Virginia. Does that make sense, or am I just talking out of my ass?

[Laughs] It’s hard for me to see that sometimes, because I’m in the middle of it, right now especially. It’s hard for me to know what people’s awareness of Richmond is outside of people asking me about it all the time. Everyone knows who GWAR is. Everyone knows who Avail is. Lamb of God is huge. The metal scene everyone kind of knows about it, and then depending on what scene you’re talking about, there’s a lot of jazz stuff that comes out of there, and people who are very influential parts of the jazz community who are from Richmond or have come through. I don’t know. You run into it more places than you would think. It’s fun. It’s fun to be a part of it. I moved there to be a part of that. I’ve kind of been a community organizer for a long time, ever since college, and Spacebomb is just the latest part of that.