Posted October 25, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Matt Nathanson’s Sometimes Uncomfortable Truths

Matt Nathanson
Matt Nathanson

Singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson released his first album 20 years ago and has been going steady ever since. His new album, Last of the Great Pretenders, is an introspective affair that begins with the spirited “Earthquake Weather” and then finds Nathanson dropping references to his San Francisco hometown as he writes about everything from sexy waitresses (“Kinks Shirt”) to bitter break-ups (“Mission Bells”). He recently phoned in from a Louisville tour stop to talk about the album.

It’s been two decades since your first album. Did you do anything to mark the occasion?
No. Somebody said that to me the other day. I was like, “Holy shit.” That’s crazy. I remember driving in my car and listening to a cassette of the mixes.

That’s when labels would send out the cassettes as advances too.
I know. I still have the second Radiohead album on cassette. That was the album that changed my life.

You have to respect music. You can’t hold back anything. You have to give yourself fully to it.

Your new album is called Last of the Great Pretenders. I know it’s a line in the song “Mission Bells,” but how’d you decide to make it the title?
Before I started making this record, I realized that I was managing how I was presented. I didn’t mean to do it, but it was an unconscious thing. When I wrote a song, I tried really off to shave off the parts I didn’t like about myself and shine a light on the parts that I like and that I thought people might like. I felt the songs weren’t as honest as they could be. I realized that all the records that I love are by people who are being one hundred percent honest and showing one hundred percent of themselves. That was what made me love records so much. You have to respect music. You can’t hold back anything. You have to give yourself fully to it. When people pull their punches, it doesn’t engage me. That’s how it all happened. It’s this idea of detonating that old part of myself with this record.

Does this mean you’re the great pretender?
I felt like I spent my life being that person. It doesn’t do the music any good.

I think you might be your own worst critic.
For sure. I wasn’t [consciously] dishonest in my records, but that’s why I started this record with the lyrics, “I would kill anyone who would treat you as badly as I do.” That’s a truth that I’m not sure I feel comfortable revealing. I thought not only did I have to include it, but I had to make it the first song on the record.

I love the fact that songs are so serious and then the whimsical “Kinks Shirt” comes out of nowhere. What’s the story behind that song?
That song was my ode to this beautiful waitress who worked at this diner. She had tattoos from head to toe and looked like she didn’t take shit. She looked like the kind of woman who would break someone’s arm if he touched her ass.  Mike, one of the producers wanted to make the lyrics an ode to the waitress we loved. I imagined what she and I might do if we got together and had weekend.

How’d you get Bobcat Goldthwait to direct the music video?
I’ve known him for a couple of years. He married a friend of mine from college. I know he’s a humongous Kinks fan. He directs movies now and his viewpoint on the world is skewed and incredibly empathetic. I texted him and he said yes and came up with the idea and it was great.

It was part of the being honest with my inner creative assassin who shows up during the creative process and says not to say certain things. I duct taped that guy’s mouth shut and threw him in the trunk of the car.

The album makes a few references to San Francisco landmarks. How has living in the city inspired your songwriting?
It was part of being honest with my inner creative assassin who shows up during the creative process and says not to say certain things. I duct taped that guy’s mouth shut and threw him in the trunk of the car. I was like, “You cannot fucking be here.” As a result, descriptions from my actual life started staying in the songs. I was self-conscious about it when I was putting it together. I realized there are a lot of songs that reference San Francisco. It’s the only place in my life where I felt like I have a home. I am so proud of the city and so proud of being able to live there for as long as I have. It’s endlessly inspirational, especially out by the beach. It’s fogged in and romantic and amazing. I can bust a move to any neighborhood and melt away into the different places, like Chinatown or North Beach. It’s just fantastic.

I love that opening track “Earthquake Weather.” Is there really such a thing?
Dude, if you asked my wife, she would say it’s not a myth at all. In theory, it’s slightly warm. It’s like walking into a mild soup. It’s not sunny, it’s overcast. There are people — my wife included — who feel very confident that it’s a truth. She lived through the earthquake that rocked the ball game, so I trust her.

Talk a little about your childhood. What first inspired you to want to become a singer-songwriter?
Kiss. Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over. All the posters of Gene and Ace. I was in. I saw a magazine picture of Gene spitting fire. I knew I had to do that. I wanted to spit fire and play fucking rock ’n’ roll. Then, I knew I wasn’t so good at democracy in a creative sense with the bands I put together. I wasn’t the lead singer good enough to sing like Paul Stanley. Then the new folk movement happened with Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls. That was hugely influential for me. I realized I could play acoustic guitar and my lyrics could actually convey something.

I was never a huge Kiss fan until I heard The Replacements cover “Black Diamond” and I realized they were actually better songwriters than they get credit for.
I could pick more great songs from them than I can from most bands. They put out two records a year for so long. “Detroit Rock City” and “Flaming Youth.” [Replacements singer Paul] Westerberg represented. If that’s not a stamp of approval, I don’t know what is.

I read that you were an English major in college. How did that influence your songwriting?
I don’t know. Maybe. Being an English major felt like the only thing to do in college. You got to read books and express your opinion about them. I had this incredible teacher in high school. We read Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. It blew my mind wide open. When I get to college, I just wanted to read books and express my opinion. In college, you’re in such a weird space, it’s hard to correlate. Now, reading like I do, I think it definitely helped.

I know the record just came out but are you working on the new album yet?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot. This was the first record I had a really good time making. We had a really small great team of people to make it with me. It wasn’t like it was easy on the level of the creative thing, but it was way more fun and it was way less anxiety producing and there was less bullshit. I’m starting to write new stuff. I can’t wait to see what the next thing will be. It was a joy to make this one.

Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates  































Birmingham, AL – Workplay

Tampa, FL – The Ritz Yabor

Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Culture Room

Orlando, FL – House of Blues

Charleston, SC – Music Farm

Louisville, KY – Headliner’s

Nashville, TN – Cannery Ballroom

Atlanta, GA – Center Stage

Charlotte, NC – Amos Southend

Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre

New York, NY – Terminal 5

Baltimore, MD – Rams Head Live

Philadelphia, PA – Electric Factory

Cleveland, OH – House of Blues

Toronto, ON – Danforth Music Hall

Burlington, VT – Higher Ground

Portland, ME – State Theater

Boston, MA – House of Blues

Pittsburgh, PA – Palace Theater

Madison, WI – Barrymore Theatre

Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall

Detroit, MI – St. Andrews’ Hall

Chicago, IL – Riviera

Minneapolis, MN – Skyway Theatre

Minneapolis, MN – Skyway Theatre

Columbia, MO – Blue Note

St. Louis, MO – Pageant

Lawrence, KS – Granada

Tulsa, OK – Cain’s

Austin, TX – Belmont



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].