Matthew E. White: A musician with opinions
Singer-guitarist Matthew E. White has racked up a good number of accolades in a short amount of time including being named a Rolling Stone “Artist to Watch.” He just issued his new album, Fresh Blood, on Domino Records. It’s a soulful collection of tunes that suggest just how unique his approach is. White, who comes off like a modern-day Curtis Mayfield or Phil Spector, recently phoned us to talk about the album and about Spacebomb, the label/studio he runs.
Talk a bit about your background. What initially inspired you to want write and record music?
I started listening to music very early on. I picked up the guitar in sixth grade. I started playing drums first but my mom didn’t want drums in the house so I started playing guitar and I became a pretty serious guitar player. I was mainly interested in doing my own thing. I know very few other people’s songs. I never learned them. I constantly wrote. I went to music school to get better at all things music. I had a mis-educated and simple opinion of school. I thought I would get really good at something and come out with a job at the other end. If that thing was music, that’s how that was work. That’s not the case. I got out of school and was active in organizing stuff and playing in bands. I started Spacebomb in 2009.
You initially formed Spacebomb as a label and house band?
I wanted to make a house band label similar to Stax or Motown. I needed an artist to come in and debut the process and I had a lot of ideas about a record I might want to make. It’s been on from there.
Did things proceed like you had envisioned them initially?
We’re very flexible and committed to flexibility. We wanted to facilitate music-making possibilities for ourselves. We wanted doors to open. The success of my record took us by surprise but we were built for that. We were built to have records do well. That was the goal. We started the label to succeed. The surprise is more in how quickly people were recognizing what we did as something unique. It’s a complicated thing. I don’t think I saw it any particular way. I just wanted to create energy. I wanted to spin the wheel as fast as I could spin it. You know what’s going to happen. The solo career hasn’t been the most expected thing but it makes sense for the skill sets that I have and what I have to share as an artist.
What was it like making your first solo album, 2012’s Big Inner?
For me, it was about making records that were centered on arrangements and utilizing that process. You record a rhythm section and then the horn arrangements and you’re done. Tons of Motown records were made in this way. It’s complicated in the process and it takes a lot of accomplished musicians so it takes administrative efforts. Once you get that on the table, it’s pretty simple. There’s a lot of trust in your collaborators. There’s purity to the process I was going for. I wanted the songs to be good songs with good arrangements and good playing and see where that ended up.
What are you going for with Fresh Blood?
There are things that I wanted to improve upon. Beck has his country album or his funky album or his dark album or that kind of thing. I didn’t want to get into that. I wanted to take the vocabulary I had started and add to it, continuing to develop my own voice and digging deeper into those ideas.
It sounds like quite a few backing musicians were involved. Is that the case?
There’s a lot of people who play on the record with horns and strings and stuff. In terms of input and creative content, there’s me and I have a songwriting partner. We have known each other since we were 16 and have written together for a long time. The bassist and drummer are also key to getting the ideas from my head to something that’s real.
You have to rearrange songs when you play live?
To me, the record is about songs anyway. All that ‘bigness’ or preproduction or arrangement is there to support the songs. The songs hopefully can live on their own as songs. They’re worthwhile in their own right. There’s a rawness and different energy but I think the spirit is the same. It’s not too different.
What inspired the song “Rock & Roll is Cold?”
Nothing in particular. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. As writers and musicians we all like to talk about what we love and don’t love in music. Generally, people I meet in this field have strong opinions and like to share them. It’s fun. For me, rock as a cultural movement is finished. It doesn’t mean that really great music can’t be made. Just as a cultural movement, it’s over. To me, rock ‘n’ roll has become a caricature of itself. That started early on with Elvis and the Stones. Rock comes from the black American experience. Very quickly, artists were capitalizing on that in not necessarily malicious ways. As the music has floated away from that, the colder it’s become. R&B, which is as old as rock ‘n’ roll, hasn’t aged as ungracefully. A record like Beyonce’s is very R&B and it is much more alive to me than its peer. Or the same goes for Frank Ocean, who made one of the really good records of the past few years. That music is still alive and transformative and rock ‘n’ roll has floated away from that. It’s a stale bit of music right now to me.
Do you think of yourself as a throwback?
Not at all. I know that a lot of the things I do are that to some extent because the process is that way. I think some of that is me figuring out how to do it still. You only get to do it once every two years. You don’t get a lot of practice. You don’t get the chance to make improvements. For me, I’m still learning so much. There’s absolute truth in getting musicians together in a room. I think that’s what music is about. It’s about community. I believe in that. I also believe in making things as a team. Marvin Gaye’s record What’s Going On was so personal to him. No one could have made that but him. He led a team of people and made music he couldn’t make on his own. That’s a powerful thing. I want to do that. Believing in a team and believing in musicians playing together has nothing to do with genre. It’s has to do with what you believe in as a musician. There’s a great tradition there. Big Inner is me figuring out how to put the pen to paper and make something. I view it as a multiple album thing. It will continue to get more adventurous and modern to me as I figure out how to wield the sword a little bit. It’s such a big, heavy, unwieldy operation to make a record like that. You can’t move at the same speed as if you were doing laptop shit in your room. I don’t say that in a derogatory way at all. Not at all. It’s just harder to push forward as fast as I might like. I would make records every three months if someone would let me but they won’t.