September 11, 2006

Interview: The Matches

When I first heard Decomposer, the second album by The Matches, I was instantly struck with a sense of intelligence that is sorely lacking in today's music. Sure, superficially, one might be reminded of bands like Hot Hot Heat or Stellastarr*, but scratch that surface and you'll find a band that is writing songs that are sometimes scathing but almost always critical—not necessarily of society in general (though there is a bit of that), but there's also a bit of self-criticism and complaint. It's an interesting mix, made even more interesting by the unique circumstances surrounding the recording process, wherein the band utilized nearly a dozen producers, including some rather big names in the punk community. That the record is on distinctively punk imprint Epitaph makes the band's story even more interesting, as they are decidedly not what you'd expect from the label, and it's something that Harris touches on below.

I had the opportunity to speak to lead singer Shawn Harris a few weeks ago, and I think our conversation was quite interesting. I'll let you be the judge of that. I will say, though, that Harris's enthusiasm for making music was quite apparent; he struck me as a young man who is excited to have the opportunity to do what he does, and utilizes his opportunity to the fullest, and the results of his passion prove it. Decomposer is a surprisingly wonderful album that I will examine in more detail soon, and it is one of this year's better releases.

Listen To: Papercut Skin

One of my habits when I receive a record is that I listen to it before reading the onesheet. What really took me by surprise was the number of producers who worked on this album, because Decomposer has excellent continuity, it has a very natural feel and flow throughout. I know it's a dicey proposition for a band to seek out multiple producers on the same album. Were you surprised by the results?

My familiarity with more than one producer on an album stops at something like a Jay-Z record. (Laughs) The thing about our project is that they were more than producers, that's the technical role these guys played on our record, but it's more than that; this record had a different project vibe from the start. Producers were invented by record labels that needed to tell their artists what to do, but some guy in a suit can't be the guy dictating the art, so there's this middleman between the label and the artists, often for falling-apart bands or messy fuckin' bands. We're a messy fuckin' band. (Laughs) WE have so many ideas, we're all over the place sometimes and we need somebody to kind of take over and give us some direction and hone our scatterbrained visions. But these guys are all artists themselves, so they've had the record label middleman guys and they weren't functioning in that role on this record. They were functioning as artists with us.

It seems like some producers see what they do as an art in and of itself, and there's some validity to that. But from what I've gathered with you guys, these producers took you under their wing, saying, "You've got your sound, let me help you polish it up," and it seems more of a "producer as mentor" role.

Yeah, that was definitely a huge element as to why we chose to do the record this way. One of the first producers to come through and help us develop and blossom the idea of doing Decomposer as this crazy octopus tour of studios was John Feldmann, who produced two Used albums and the Story of the Year album. The first two Used albums are two of my favorite contemporary records—they're really heavy, really melodic albums, just really creative. Feldmann tends to really push the bands he works with. After recording our last record in our basement, we were really curious to see if we could have somebody make us uncomfortable. The last thing we wanted to do is become comfortable with a sound or with a style of making music, or, for that matter, the parts we're able to play on guitar. What drives progress is the inability at the start to do what you are setting out to do. That's what drives a band to change and a band to evolve. I knew from stories that Feldmann is hands-on; some say overbearing. I heard stories of him in the studio with Story of the Year, and he is an intense guy. We met him on tour with Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish in Europe a couple of years ago. He was an intense guy then, yeah. Back then, he said, "I want to record you guys at some point, I really want to do that," but then he rather explicitly said, "don't fuck me around. If you guys aren't gonna be a band that has a 40-year career, I don't want anything to do with you." (Laughs) Right off the bat—wow!

That's intense! (Laughs) I'd imagine if I were in a band and someone said that to me, that would be mind-blowing.

Yeah, it was quiver-inducing, indeed! (Laughs) It took a while for the sessions to come about, and there as this fear, like, was he going to take our stuff and make it something…a watered-down version of us or something? However, I think he is one of the most inspired producers and inspired individuals that I've ever met. To have him take us under his wing, the most we could do was our best. We were struggling—and I mean struggling—to meet his expectations. Of all the sessions we did, his were, we were sweating that one out. I love the guy. He's vegan, and I'm also vegan, so I'd sit there in the kitchen and his wife would make the most amazing meals. In order to record with him—and the rest of the guys in my band are all normal carnivore guys—if you record with him, you have to sit down on his couch and watch the Meet Your Meat video, which is a PETA propaganda film, if you will, with slaughterhouse videos and such, and my god! It freaked me out. (Laugh) I don't eat meat and that upset my stomach. But it's a requisite thing for recording with John Feldmann. Yet how could you say no to this guy? He's offering to bring you into his house and record with you merely for points on the album. Of course you'd want to work with that.

He sounds like the kind of guy that, if he doesn't scare the hell out of you or scare you away, then he's really great to work with.

(Laughing) Exactly! It reminds me of a Karate movie, where some young, bull-headed kid gets a Sensi, ya know?

With a project this varied with producers, especially with big-named producers, I'd imagine a young band like you would have a moment where you think, "wow, I'm working with Brett," or "wow, I can't believe I'm working with Tim Armstrong!" Did you have that moment where you were overwhelmed by the reality of what you were doing?

We had our moment of flipping out with Brett when we signed our deal with Epitaph the first time. He came to our show, said he wanted to sign us, and like a day later we found him, sat him down, and said, (meekly) "Um, Brett…are you sure? We want to sign with Epitaph…but, um…we're not really punk. Do you want us to sign to Epitaph?" He said, "I don' fuckin' care WHAT you are, you guys are a good band, and I love you!" Wow! I think, definitely, that was kind of true when we showed up at Mark Hoppus's studio, because we'd never met him. I'd met him over the phone through Motion City Soundtrack, who did their last record with him. They gave him our demo and he called me up and he'd liked three of our songs, and he said "I got this one, this one, and this one, I hear you're doing a multiple producer thing, these are mine, so don't give them away!!" (Laughing) So we showed up at his house. To be honest, I'd only ever seen him on a music video, or in a magazine with no pants on, so it was a bit surreal! It was a bit awkward, too, thinking about what to do to impress Mark Hoppus, because we all know what his persona is like in the media, being a crazy, goofy dude who takes off his pants and slaps your forehead with his penis and stuff. So, upon meeting him, it's like, you tell yourself, do you jump in and just do that kind of stuff? (Laughing) That's not really us. So, we wondered if he was going to be bored with us, just four music guys. But as it turns out, he's a really nice guy. The first thing we did when we got to the studio that he and Travis Barker had just bought—no one had recorded there, we were the first ones—we put down our guitar cabinets in his hallway, and we dragged it across the floor, and (slightly embarrassed) we put this huge gash across his and Travis Barker's newly-laid parkay wood floor in the entryway. He didn't flip out about that! (Laughs)

The one big thing that comes out, though, in talking to you is that making this record was something of an experiment for you guys, plus it was also to keep the band's music vital and fresh, but ultimately, it sounds like you guys had a lot of fun making this record.

Oh, yeah! Believe you me, we stole tactics from every session that we're definitely going to need. We had some sessions, like, one producer would be a strong believer in the notion that anything worth hearing for a long period of time has a magic at the time of the recording, so beyond any other producers, he was adamant about capturing the songs live as a band. Hexum would be like, if I stopped singing, it'd be like "stop!" and we'd start over again, which was something we'd never done before. That's a recording style that's passed, with multi-tracking and ProTools and such, where you'd rerecord a drum track to tape and then you'd go in with ProTools and layer and do studio wizardry to a track. We did that also, though.

So you pretty much went through every kind of modern form of recording to make Decomposer. When I listen to the album, I hear four guys having fun in the studio, but I think what makes Decomposer more interesting and what attracted me even further to it was in looking at the lyrical content. It seems that underneath the good-time feel to your music, you're making some pretty biting social commentary about modern-day popular culture.

I figure we're starting with the politics of self and moving outward. (Laugh)

I read that you played Warped Tour. And my perception about one of the things you seem to be railing against—and this is my own speculation, and I wouldn't state this as fact—would it be fair to say that part of where you're coming from, would be, like, when you look out into the audience and you see a bunch of kids who are into a scene that promotes rebellion and nonconformity, yet they're all dressed exactly the same, and you know that when they leave the show, they go home and do almost exactly the same things. Is some of your commentary a reaction to that?

Yeah, I think that some of everything I do is a reaction to that. I won't put myself outside of that realm, though. A lot of the spite and disgust is aimed inward. I'm the exact same way, and I wish I could say I wasn't the same way, that I didn't go to Warped and didn't dress the same way like the people around me, a slave to my influences, but shit, I still am. Every time some time elapses, you wonder what you were thinking at the time! (Laughs)

Well, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It's a natural characteristic of youth and youth culture, and I think that when you look back at youth culture—how old are you, by the way?

I'm 24.

Well, when you look at it when you're older…when you're in your twenties and you look at teenagers, you think "Wow, these kids really think they're being original and rebellious and creative, and they're not" and then you think to yourself, "I don't want to admit that I was like that myself when I was their age," conforming to the conformity of nonconformity. But, you know, when you get older, you realize, hey, it's okay. It's all a part of a phase, and it is what you do to break out of that trap which separates you from the crowd. Like, if you can show kids that staying like that for the rest of the life is the problem, not necessarily focusing on who you are at fifteen or sixteen. I'd imagine the commentary you guys make may be sarcastic or cynical but I think that, as a band, you guys would probably say, "Have fun with the culture but don't become a victim to it"

Right, or if you do become a victim to it …

Get out of it!

Not even necessarily that, I'd say, "Be aware of it." I think the worst thing to be is to have the wool pulled over your eyes. If you are self-aware of it, fuck it, have a good time. There is something to be said about brash, hasty, bull-headed, black-and-white thinking. There's a Billy Joel story, someone was asking him about the music he was making when he was younger, in comparison to the music he was making as he grew older, and he said that as he aged he gained a worldly temperament for everybody's views, and the music he was making when he was younger, back when he wasn't so well-tempered, he'd go off on things, he'd make hasty statements, being the angry young man. He said that he can't write "Uptown Girl" now or any of that brash kind of stuff any more. I'm a little afraid of becoming too understanding of any side of an argument. Sometimes it helps to be an idiot, ya know? (Laughing)

I'm glad you mentioned Billy Joel, because I noticed an influence in your style and your singing. With me seeing that, is it a correct assumption?

Yeah! I do admit I listen to Billy Joel. There's an influence coming from Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, that kind of stuff. Our manager gave me part of his record collection a few years ago and I really got into that. I identified with how they fit in with the music at the time with their contemporaries and punk—being on the melodic punk fringe of the scene at the time. I really identified with that.

Not knocking out bland songs with three chords and that's it, but using melody to make a statement that's just as meaningful emotionally as someone pounding out on a guitar.

Yeah, there's something subversive about them that appeals to me, things which I didn't find in a lot of punk and pop music as well.

Oh, all of those guys are great. Have you heard Aztec Camera?

Aztec Camera? (Curious) No. Tell me more.

Oh, man! Stop what you're doing and check 'em out right now! They're great. Their first album, High Land, Hard Rain? A classic. Roddy Frame, he made that when he was just a teenager, and it's impressive music. He's older now but he still makes music that's wonderful, because he's doing his own thing, and he's still making music. He's overlooked. Anyway, man, I've enjoyed talking to you, and I really dig your record, and I seriously hope you guys do really well.

Thank you, man!

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