September 23, 2010
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Arthur Phillips interviews Mike Mattison of Scrapomatic and the Derek Trucks Band:
AP: So Scrapomatic is now in its eleventh decade and has released 600 albums. Did you think you'd make it this far?
AP: A little behind-the-band story: you and Paul [Olsen, guitarist and songwriter] played in a lot of combinations before you founded Scrapomatic in – in what year?
MM: We met in 1993 at a P-Funk show in Minneapolis. Paul, a self-described "maggot" was there, long in hair, possibly on drugs. He thought I was actually a member of P-Funk. I didn't think much of him – actually avoided him and his crew -- until I saw him play a few weeks later. I said, to myself, "Oops. This kid is fucking magic."
AP: Anyhow, did the idea of Scrappy feel different than the other bands? Does this music somehow feel more "you" than the work you were doing in, say, The Mouth Almighties? You can sing funk, southern rock, jazz, gospel, pop. Are some of those genres more of a performance or a knack, or are they all versions of something that's yours, that comes before genre? This is a lot of questions, but now you have to answer all of them. Quickly. QUICKLY!
MM: This band feels right. It always has. Founding Scrapomatic was like going from jockeys to boxers: A breeze between the knees. With our previous bands Paul and I were trying to make humorous, thoughtful music you could dance to, but there was an unspoken compulsion to be "hip," which – for the same unspoken reason – removed whole swaths of musical history and expression from our pallet. With Scrapomatic, we just cut out the "hip." A lot of young players accept difficult personalities, corrupt behavior, and self-absorption as a fact of making music. It doesn't have to be that way.
AP: And yet, you've captured that special hipness that attaches to old, drunk men on porches.
MM: Is that hipness? Or is it tragedy? Either way, it's a win.
I don't really think in terms of a specific genre when I'm performing. For me, as a singer, it's first and foremost about the authenticity of feeling. I consider the lyric and try to interpret it to the best of my ability. There's an element of method-acting in there, but really you try to bring your personal experience to bear, and mean it. It's like the Austrian whore who makes herself have an orgasm with every client in that terrible John Irving book. Jesus: I'm a whore from a terrible John Irving book!
AP: Don't box yourself in. And, by the way, let's briefly discuss the desire to please. You write and then you go tour and perform. Does any part of you wish music was something you just did without an audience?
MM: No. Music requires an audience. Music, by definition, is a communal activity. Writing music is a different story. But as an artist, you really need to perform your stories in front of an audience. Otherwise what's the point? I'm continually shocked by these younger artists, propped up by record company money, who have never even played a gig in their lives. It's insulting.
AP: I first saw you sing for an audience (an adoring audience, I would add) when you were in 8th grade. When you look at what you're doing in Scrapomatic and for Derek Trucks, do you feel like you've followed a logical path? That your musical history makes a certain sense, or story?
MM: That's very sweet of you to say! I was probably singing "I'll Melt With You" or some shit, right?
AP: INXS, as I recall. One girl passed out.
MM: I think my path is logical in that singing is the thing I'm good at. We all know the cliché of how perilous the music business is, but I really don't feel like I had any other choice. I've been a shitty journalist, and a sub-par high-school teacher. Why make the rest of the world suffer for my career choices? By the way, I would chalk up my so-called "success" not so much to fortitude as spite. Tell me I can't do something, and I will. Spite is terrifically underrated. You should alert the self-help industry to this.
AP: You suspect a lot of singers are out there just spitefully?
MM: Well, no. Most of us are incredibly needy and require validation. Narcissists, for the most part. Some, quite talented. Others, not so much.
AP: How do you know what lyric is worth setting to music? What song is worth recording? What cuts are worth including in an album?
MM: That's a good question. Lyrics are poetic, but they aren't poetry. They need music to lift off. I usually write to a melody, fitting the words to the music. Come to think of it, I've never done it the other way. It would be a good exercise.
Paul and I are very picky about songs, and work them over handily until we consider them "finished." We don't bring half-assed material to a recording session. That said, once in the studio, you never know which songs will congeal in performance and which won't. Oftentimes it's the lesser siblings who really blossom, and your Leonard Cohen-inspired masterpiece sounds like dog crap. As Nina Simone said, "It be's that way sometimes."
AP: Come to think of it, do you even think in terms of albums still? Is an album an artistic unit that carries some importance to you? Does it mean anything economically anymore?
MM: Yes! It takes a whole album to really make a statement. People have been talking about the death of the novel and the death of the album. I don't see it. We need novels and albums more than ever now. It takes length to gain traction, to create resonance. I know you work in the short form, but your main medium is the novel. Do you feel the same way?
AP: Don't try to turn the tables on me. I don't fall for that aikido shit.
MM: Scroll through your iPod. Half the "artists" on there are only represented by one song. Isn't it depressing to click on "Cee Lo" and realize you've only got "Fuck You"? Singles are nice, but they're snack food. I wouldn't try to live on them.
And economically, who gives a shit? Record companies are rightly becoming obsolete. They are run by lawyers, accountants and beverage salesmen who are out of their league. They destroyed their business. They shat where they ate. Now the power is back in the artists' hands, where it should be. I hope we see more and more coherent albums, set-pieces and song-suites in the near future.
AP: Are you really angry at the music biz? Or, maybe a better question, what is the music biz now? How's it supposed to work?
MM: Sure. When I say "music business," I'm really talking about the major labels. They've flushed a lot of wonderful talent down the drain. The Internet, etc. didn't wreck the music business. The music business did it to itself, by promoting and releasing AWFUL MUSIC. Even in the old, mobbed up days, industry people understood the wisdom of nurturing talent and building it up over years. They understood talent, period. Not that it was all ribbons and bows. But somewhere in the late-70s/early-80s, the industry moved over to a model based, perhaps, on an inscrutable ape who throws his shit against the Plexiglas to see what sticks.
That said, there's a lot of great little labels out there. Watch them for the signs of life.
AP: Songs of pain and longing: pain and longing feel plenty different at age 20 than they do at 40, married, kids, mortgages, all that. How much of your songwriting is "fictional", by which I mean it's remembered or it's imagined, but it isn't necessarily how you feel right now?
MM: I would describe my overarching aesthetic as "commiseration." From folk to blues to jazz; from Tolstoy, to Hemingway, to Grace Paley, commiseration is what appeals to me. The plight of the attentive, heartfelt initiate. If you're open to your reality, you'll never run out of pain and longing. I mean, I know people now who are in pain and longing because they WANT marriages, kids and mortgages. Commiseration never exhausts itself or goes out of style.
[Phillips begins to weep, pulls himself together as Mike sings "Cat's Cradle" softly]
AP: I remember you once telling me you'd been impressed by something Wynton Marsalis said. Something along the lines of, we all of us have youthful fire. The question is what you do with that fire as you get older and leave youth behind. What's your thinking on that idea nowadays? Not that I want to say you're "old". You'll always be that cute 8th grader to me, don't you worry.
MM: The fire never goes out. Right? I think it was Ralph Ellison who said, regarding the "literature of protest" that ALL literature, or art for that matter, is "protest," in that it "protests" death and the fact that life is short, tough and problematic. With art, we're trying to give life meaning. Hence there's always something to write about, to explore.
Popular culture is fuelled by the energy and disaffection of youth. But popular culture is boring and disposable. I'm glad to be older. I LIKE middle age. I'm glad I have a certain amount of distance from youthful joy and agony and can write about it somewhat dispassionately.
AP: Meeting your musical heroes: good or bad thing?
MM: Bad. Trust me, your musical heroes hate you.
AP: Which hero/songwriters do you still think about (if any) when you sit down to write? Do you think of pertinent lessons from your forebears or are you free of them? At what point in the process of a song—inspiration, writing, arranging, recording, performing, touring—do you think "This is Scrapomatic material, not one of my heroes. Something only we could have done."?
MM: Anybody who wrote a song that sticks in my brain. And I don't mean musically, necessarily. Somebody who captured that vulnerable moment, whether it congratulates one as a character or not. I love songs by Bruce Springsteen, Rodgers and Hart, Curtis Mayfield, Chrissy Hynde, Sam Cooke, Tom Waits. The list could go on forever. I miss the songwriting of Chocolate Genius. He was on my "most awesome" list for a long time.
The great thing about Scrapomatic, to me, is that any song can be a "Scrapomatic song." By definition, we're open to any style, genre or approach. We have a few tricks up our sleeve to make sure every song has the right "stank," but I can't tell you what those are.
AP: Stank. Nice. Austrian whore stank. Album name, perhaps?
MM: We were thinking: "What Happens Down There?" And then the cover photo is a Lithuanian wearing a miner's hat.
AP: Not referring to a technical structure or chord pattern, and not embarrassing yourself, what are the blues, and what place do they have in music in 2010?
MM: Blues, they say, is a feeling. The Blues are emotional honesty. The Blues are funny. The Blues offer "too much information." The Blues plug on when they should give up. The Blues saved my life. The Blues aren't embarrassing at all. I love them. I hug them every night.
AP: Who are the musicians you can't believe aren't widely known and should be? Set us straight...
MM: Scrapomatic, first of all. I'm done with this self-effacing Midwestern bullshit. Paul Olsen is the greatest songwriter of this generation. Every working writer today should line up and kiss his ring. Then beg for forgiveness.
I'm partial to the Wood Brothers. That's Oliver Wood and his bass-playing brother Chris Wood. They have a terrific spin on the blues: unique, passionate.
That said, I can tell you what I don't like. I'm tired of these bearded whisper-singers. Where do they come from? Canada? And why so quiet? I like what my stepmother said when we were watching a PBS thing on drunk-assed Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. They were singing an IRA anthem in a Dublin pub. Screaming it, really. And my stepmother said: "Now THAT'S a man."
AP: When you imagine a listener listening to your music and really getting into it, really being taken by it, where are they? Are they invariably hearing you live? Alone in a room? In a forest with an iPod? With other people?
MM: In a forest? Are they ok? Should we call someone?
I think most of our listeners, if we have such, are probably drinking alone. I respect that.
Arthur Phillips links:
Mike Mattison links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)