The man himself on all facets of his new record, the current state of the music industry, and why artists should never be afraid of sticking to their guns
Jonah Matranga is a man who needs little in the way of introductions. Thanks to his critically acclaimed work in Far, New End Original and under the onelinedrawing moniker, Matranga's influence looms large over today's post-hardcore scene. Back in 2005, the Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter looked set to hit the jackpot once again, when his new band Gratitude signed to Atlantic Records and released their well-received eponymous debut album, only for them to unexpectedly fall apart a few short months later. Currently residing in San Francisco, for the first time in his illustrious career Matranga is intent on going it alone under his own name, with September marking the release of his sparkling solo album And (Click HERE for our review). Before the recent London leg of the Softcore Tour 2K7 alongside kindred spirits Frank Turner, Jacob Golden and Joshua English, Dan Jones caught up with the man himself at the soon to be closed Spitz venue, to discuss all facets of his new record, the current state of the music industry, and why artists should never be afraid of sticking to their guns...
So you're coming to the end of your tour with Frank Turner, it's been your longest tour in the UK for quite some time. How's it been going?
"It's been fantastic. I was just saying to some friends that this tour, more than ever, I've felt the UK as a home. I've got shows back in the US that I'm excited about as well, but it just feels really solid here. There's a lot of people I've known here for a while and a lot more people to meet."
There's a special tour EP that's been put together, with you guys all covering classic hardcore tracks. You've covered Guns N' Roses and another band who I hadn't heard of?
"Yeah, it's a really obscure Boston punk band called The Freeze. Actually, no one ever would have heard of it!" [both laugh] "I'm the only one who contributed a more mainstream rock track, the rest were all more old school hardcore."
Where did that idea come from?
"Well I always love doing stuff like that. Any tour I do with people, I like it to be as interactive as possible and like to create some sort of memento of that. I actually originally had the idea of us either doing soft versions of our old band's tunes, or covering each other's tunes and doing that kind of thing, but somehow it just got to 'just pick any two songs'" [laughs] "But the idea was pick a hardcore band and in my case I just went over to Guns N' Roses because I think they hold an interesting place in the history of hardcore and hard rock."
Is touring the world guitar in hand a lot less romantic a notion in reality than we may think? You've got family ties too, so is it hard going out on the road for long stints?
"I think it is simultaneously yes, very much less romantic than most people may think, and also I think more romantic than people can possibly imagine, but in ways that aren't usually associated with it. It's just really simple things for me. In some ways waking up somewhere near dawn and being really tired out in someone's country home and eating breakfast in this kitchen you've been welcomed into 'cos you've called into town before. I just love that."
And you've recently been to Japan again and played the Fuji Rock festival, what was that like? Do you have a favourite place to tour?
"The UK for sure. Japan is cool. I've only been there twice and the strange thing about it is that you can't really tour there for more than a week or two. Two weeks tops as it's a really small and dense place. I guess [Fuji] Rock just do it differently there. I've never really been there long enough to get a real sense of the culture, but it's cool and I'm getting to know people there. What I found in a real sweet way, for me at least, is that people who love my music regardless of culture share a certain sensibility that feels familiar to me wherever I am."
Ok, so you're here touring in support of And, what can you tell us about the album? Is it everything you hoped it would be looking back on it now, or do you think you need more time to be objective?
"I'm incredibly happy with it. I think having a little distance from it, it feels like a very..." [long pause] "a very unaffected record. That's not to be down on anybody's music, but a lot of music right now is very affected, it's subconsciously trying to be one period or another. But this one for me, I just really rely heavily on the songs and singing them as plainly as I could. In writing the lyrics I've tried to be as un-clever as possible and not hide. I think a couple of months along I feel really comfortable with it and can stand behind it."
After being in a rock band again, you've gone back to being on your own. A lot of your career seems to follow that cycle, was the record a reaction to Gratitude at all?
"It was, I've got to say. Gratitude in some ways sort of broke my heart in a musical sense. I really loved the music and we went into it with a lot of big aspirations, professionally and personally, and it was just a nightmare. But the good thing about Gratitude was that it reminded me of what I really love about music. So this record and the way I'm doing it is very much a reaction to that time. I think I needed something like that to kick my ass a bit and drop all the band names and just to go out in my own name."
What exactly happened with Gratitude? It was surprisingly short-lived!
"In short, there were a lot of big dreams going on and it didn't seem that they were going to come true as quickly as lots of people may have hoped. For whatever reasons, one of the guys quit and then proceeded to make it very, very difficult for us to continue. It was bit like the kid on the ball field who goes home and takes his ball with him."
Can you ever see yourself being in a full band again?
"I think it would have to be a group of very dear and old friends or someone who I felt really, really comfortable with..." [long pause] "but yeah, mostly no! I'd like to play with people more, but I don't know if I'd want to be in a band, it would take a very special set of circumstances. I don't think I'm that good at it frankly, I just think I'm not that good at being in a band!" [laughs]
Are you happy with the response And has been getting?
"It feels good to me. Some people very close to me who have heard a lot of my records seem very positive about it. I was noticing that some publications that like my older stuff, don't seem to have enjoyed it as much. But publications that had never reviewed my stuff or heard of me before have been very receptive towards it, which is exciting to me I think because it means I'm pushing myself."
On your forum you recently wrote on the subject of reviews "...the other thing about reviews is that they're pretty stupid really, I think they always have been, but especially now that anyone and their dog can start a music site, get a bunch of free stuff and slag it off for fun, the level of journalism is pretty low, whether positive or negative". Do you believe the internet has helped lower the standards now that everyone and anyone can get their voices heard? Given that are you still bothered by bad reviews?
"Well in the sense that I have a very fragile self esteem as most performers do, yeah, of course. I liken it to that thing when you're five and you draw something in crayon and bring it to your parents, you know, you want them to like it. It's not like I'm still a five year old, but I think the creative spirit has a lot to do with that sort of vulnerability and exposing yourself to people that way. But that said, I think I'm growing out of it a bit which feels real nice for me. When I say that bit about standards coming down, I didn't really mean that technically - I mean I like it when reviewers know their music history, I think that helps to make a good review – but more often than not, it just seems people are more interested in themselves becoming notorious or known than actually talking about a piece of art. I think that can be unfortunate for everyone."
Ok, moving along, you've shot a great video for the song 'Not About a Girl or a Place' with your friend Mel House. How did the idea behind the video come about? Are you a big fan of Zombie/B-Movies?
"Not really, it was a really simple thing. Here are the two things we both love most in the world. It happened to be his favourite song on the record, but it's also one of the more chipper. None of the songs would probably be a natural fit for a gore video, but that song especially [wouldn't], and so we decided that rather than move either of our ideals towards the other we would both do what we loved the most and let ourselves be. My friend directed it and I just sort of swung the axe when he told me too!" [both laugh] "It was great fun for me with the blood and gore and zombies. I mean, who wouldn't love that and a really beautiful co-lead so it was great!" [laughs] "So it was just great fun, it was just two friends having a laugh, and ironically it kind of became poignant in its own way, in that the song is about wrestling with one's demons and so quite literarily I fight with them and then end up doing a sing-along together!" [both laugh]
Jonah Matranga - 'Not About a Girl or a Place'
And came out with different packaging around the world, where did you get that idea from? Did you just give people artistic freedom or was there something you had in mind?
"All I did was rather than put it all out through one label, I found several indie labels in several different countries who wanted to do their own small pressings of it for that country, and so all I did was to send the cover art out in high res to all the labels with the liner notes, and outside of that I said, 'do whatever you want with it'. So it was nice for me to see what come back. Some are digipacks, some are dual boxes, some are printed on recycled paper."
From reading your website it appears that you were quite surprised when Kerrang! recently did a piece on your career. But it seems a very natural thing for me that they'd cover you as you're regarded really highly by other musicians and Far influenced so many people, so why did you feel so taken aback?
"Yeah, taken aback in definitely the best sense. Nothing ever I've ever done has ever really sold a lot of records and to hear people who are so enthusiastic about it and to say it's their favourite record... My favourite records are really, really dear to me and so when someone says I've made one of their favourite records it's pretty great. I mean if they're musicians and it influences them that's cool too, but it's more the idea that I hold that dear a place in someone's life, it's really nice."
Talking about Far, I've read in some places that there may be plans for a DVD?
"The next thing I could see happening with Far, or the thing I'd like to do personally, is actually release some of the older recordings properly. There's the EP, Quick, which goes on eBay for way too much money. We all feel a little silly about that when one copy sells for six-hundred bucks. It's not that we think it's that great to tell you the truth, it's more that people want it and we'd like to at least give them a version that we feel is representative, so that's the next thing I could see [happening]. The DVD, it would just take a lot of gathering of footage, and unless there was someone who really spearheaded it I'm not sure how it would happen."
So are you still in contact with the Far guys then?
"Yeah sure, we don't talk often, but it's not like we don't talk." [both laugh]
Like your old band mate Shawn Lopez, I understand you've been doing some producing? Is that a field you're interested in?
"Yeah, whatever seems exciting around music or around anything frankly. I love making things, I love having ideas, I love being curious and so whatever form that takes would be good."
I understand you were asked to contribute to an 'Iraq Veterans Against The War' album. What can you tell us about it?
"Yeah, some label just wrote to me and I'm just really open minded when it comes to any ideas people have, but especially the idea that, unlike the vast majority of us, they actually know what the hell they're talking about when they talk about war. I like the idea of supporting them and supporting that voice. I happened to have a song that I thought would make some degree of sense."
Are you a fan of the Michael Moore and Supersize Me type of films? The way they use the sensationalist approach to get across their valuable points...
"Not the sensationalist approach. I'm not a fan of that..."
The reason I bring this up is because Fahrenheit 9/11 was played a week or so ago on British TV and a lot of critics of the film point to the way it's selectively edited...
"Here's the thing, I'm going to get obtuse on you. Back in the States what we call college and you call High School, there's the yearbook when everyone graduates. Usually the people who made the yearbook were the ones who liked getting good grades and liked having a yearbook on their résumé and the people who couldn't really care less about that sort of stuff didn't. But generally they were the kind of more creative minded ones who would sit around and complain about how the yearbook was made and the yearbook people kinda would say, 'well, you're just being lazy, you're not doing anything to help'. So you've got these two sides.
"So what I enjoy, bringing this around, is when someone who has a different thing to say than what is being said in the mainstream media gets their shit together to say it. So that about Michael Moore I applaud in a huge way, and the same with Supersize Me. But both to me are wildly flawed pieces of art and in some ways I don't really enjoy when, whether or not I agree with the opinion, it gets as sensationalist and as combative as that. I just think it's like Rush Limbaugh" [American conservative radio talk show host – DJ] "but on the other side. I really don't think that gets anyone anywhere. I'm interested in dialogue, so on that level I'm actually not a fan of that type of persuasion. But to go back to it, I feel that what Michael Moore has done has been wildly impactful on our culture. It's easy to look back and say it looks a bit dated and that's a bit suspicious, but what was on TV at that time was just as gross but was officially sanctioned by corporate news."
Are you talking about stations such as Fox?
"Yeah, but not even Fox, I mean more normal channels!" [laughs] "And so to me, that sort of voice, it's easy to criticise, but it's hard to get off your ass and say it. So on that level I totally applaud it and applaud anybody that stands up and says their piece."
So do you think artists have to be careful when they delve into politics...
"No they don't have to, and that's what I hate..."
I've been to a lot of shows when I've heard people in the crowd moaning about being preached too
"Yeah, and I was that person. Actually in Britain, in particular, I remember I was in London when the Abu Ghraib photos broke and there was a lot of things in mainstream British press that were relatively laughable, saying 'it might have been the United States troops but it couldn't have been the British troops', and I just thought, what do you think war is exactly? What do you think is happening over there? Do you think people are like having tea? People are fucking killing each other and they're in horrible conditions, they miss their home, they're being paid shit and they're generally not that well educated to begin with which is why they only had the option to go to the army. How do you think they're going to act when they're given someone to hate and someone to dehumanise? So I said that, 'anyone who thinks that their soldiers aren't going nuts over there needs to go take a fucking reality check on what a war is', and plenty of people went 'Boo!' because they thought I was being anti-British somehow. Not at all, at all, at all! And I certainly wasn't trying to be preachy, if anything I was like, 'Just wake up, there is no Santa Claus, this is war'.
"But plenty of people said exactly the same thing, 'I don't want to be preached to', and in the States when 9/11 happened, I was the first one to say, 'I'm sad about what happened too, but not starting wars about it'. People were angry, angry, angry, angry. I'm not saying that because I'm a singer and because I think my opinion holds more weight or because I have a microphone in front of me, I'm saying that because that's what I'm saying off the stage to my friends too, and I'm not going to censor myself and my emotions because I'm onstage. If you're saying that because you're on a power trip up there, sure, shut the hell up, but I think anyone who expects an artist to be neutered socially or emotionally to give them what they came for, to be entertained, they don't belong in my show. I think we should all turn our TV's off a bit and talk a bit more, especially when we disagree with each other."
Moving onto the subject of the internet. Via your website you've got almost unprecedented interaction with fans, is that something that's really important to you?
"It is, and it always has been. The artists that I've grown up loving are artists who I felt really reached out to their fans in one way or another, and cared about the fact they were there listening to them but didn't pander to them. I felt they were responsive and I like that sense of community. I liked that as a listener of other bands, so I've always wanted to try and generate that for my own music. Partly because I just enjoy that process, that discussion that we just talked about, and also I figure if it's fun for me it's probably fun for someone else."
On your site, am I right in saying that there's plans for your own direct download store? Personally, I've got a problem with downloading music, and stores like iTunes, because I think that they devalue art and allow people just to handpick tracks rather than listen to an album as a whole, as it's meant to be heard. There's bands like Radiohead who don't allow their music on iTunes because of that, does that issue concern you at all?
"It does, it does. I actually have a fair degree of nostalgia for 35's though to tell you the truth, which were all about the singles. To me the Motown era and the 35 era, in fact the 78's before them. It used to be that you couldn't fit that much content on them, so the idea of the album is actually a relatively recent advent. Because usually it was longer pieces played live and pretty short pieces reproduced. So I'm not actually totally against that, art as individual pieces. But that said I can't tell you the amount of ways that art is being devalued and messed around with. So I guess what I really enjoy about finally having the infrastructure to do direct downloading is that at least I can have it as interactive and personal as I enjoy. I don't enjoy the lack of context that music has on music downloading services. Yeah, you're getting the song but yes, you're not getting the record, you're not getting the artwork except for the photo on the cover, you're not getting so much. But on downloads, I often say this, be it legal or illegal, being anti-download is like being anti-sun, it's here!" [laughs] "So I'm trying to make friends with it, so I hope Radiohead, rather than be reactionary against it or dogmatic, is as creative as it always has been and discovers cool ways to share it with us."
In the UK, over the past few months, there's been a bit of a crisis with a lot of music chains closing or downsizing blaming the digital age. What's the state of play like in America, do you think the likes of Amoeba [Small but excellent American indie record store chain - DJ] will always be safe as there's a certain type of person who will always go there?
"I think there's a certain kind of niche record store that will last pretty well, but I guess I can't say, I mean things are changing pretty quickly obviously. It's funny, over in the UK and mainland Europe was the first time, this is like five years ago now, where I thought, 'Oh boy, people do not even know what's going to hit them'. Because every house I'd stay at, there was mountains of burned CDs, mountains of them! I just thought this is something different to what anyone really understands, unless you're in a different kid's house every night checking it out. So we'll see how where it goes. The thing I hate about iTunes is actually that once again it's someone else like a record company that's getting in the way of the artist and the listener and basically trying to get their cut and not doing that much in some cases. So again I'm just back to Artists, empower yourselves, figure out a way to make this DIY and personal in the way we all love."
With all this talk of record sales going down a lot people are saying the live show is getting more and more important once again for an artist, but again in the UK there's famous places like The Astoria that are set to close.
"Yeah, I think a lot of venues are taking as big a hit as anyone."
In fact this place tonight is closing at the end of the month."Really? So we're at the funeral, basically. I think the sad thing is that it's everyone, I'm not just going to blame the man, you know, it's musicians not taking responsibility for themselves and wanting someone to come and save them and make a career for them and make them famous like they've always dreamed they'd be from age six or whatever. It's consumers wanting things cheaper, faster, better, free-er and eroding this landscape that they love so much, and yes it is globalisation, it is one person wanting to consolidate all of these different little sources of income and make a ton of money for themselves. It's a perfect storm for art taking a huge f**king hit."
A lot of people I've spoken to over the years are really against Live Nation and Clear Channel...
Oh god, yeah.
But in places like London and Manchester if you're an act of a certain size it's getting harder not to play one of their venues.
"That's the situation in the States too, I say to my booking agent, "Please, if you can avoid it" and it's harder and harder to avoid."
While we're on the subject of the industry, you've had a lot of different labels through the years, from Equal Vision and Jade Tree to Sony and Atlantic, and are known for your sceptical opinion of the industry. Do you think fans put too much emphasis on labels, particularly majors? Are they really that different to each other?
"I'm far more sceptical of people's judgement about labels than I am about labels!" [laughs] "I think people like to wear their affiliations because they're scared to actually have a personality. I've met really beautiful people working at very high levels of the major label record industry and I've met really awful people working in the coolest, punk-rock, DIY world and vice-versa. I mean to be totally clear on it, I think the main disease of the indie world is that it can be very exculsive and very elitist and overly ironic, overly stoic, and not willing to be just be a little kid about it. At the majors you find those very same things being really devalued and commercialised in a pretty gross way."
Ok, finally, you lived in Sacramento for a number of years. Were you ever surprised how far your group of friends went, Far, Deftones, Will Haven...
"It was a beautiful place man. Don't forget Cake too, who were a totally different band but they were bigger than all of us, practically. A few other bands came out of there too. I think it had the best recipe for a scene as it was far away from a media centre, a place where there was really cheap rent, so you don't have to worry about the bottom line too much and just worry about making stuff, and kinda being a place where there are people from a lot of different places, you get a natural mixing of demographic and culture, and I think that will almost always yield a pretty neat body of work and yeah, I'm really proud, I think some pretty good stuff came out of there and I think it's all aged well."