Interview by Harry Kaplan
The best interviews are not those laborious Q & A sessions, but the ones that are like two people just shooting the breeze. That’s the way it was talking to Matt North. For a guy with a very impressive career and a new album on the way, he is incredibly down to earth. He made the interview so easy because he is so honest and open. We were able to talk about his album that comes out on February 21st, Above Ground Fools. Matt also talked about the musicians that played on his albums and his unique songwriting style. It is a very insightful look into a great singer songwriter.
MN = Matt North – TL = Twangri-La
MN: I’ve got to ask you a question first. Did you come up with the name Twangri-La?
TL: I did.
MN: My wife’s a big music fan like me and we think it is such a great name.
TL: Well, thank you so much. Truth be told, I wanted to use Twangville but it was already taken so I panicked and thought up Twangri-La (laughter).
MN: Kind of funny how things turn out isn’t it?
TL: It is. So, it’s nice to finally talk to you. I’ve read your bio so much, I feel like I know you.
MN: Uh oh (laughter)! I guess it all looks good on paper, doesn’t it? I wish I could make my day-to-day life as interesting as a one-page bio (chuckles). I’ve been pretty busy. I define it as 35 years of music with a three year sabbatical in film and TV when I was living in LA. Which was a much-needed break from music.
TL: You have an album release in about a month with Above Ground Fools. Are you pretty excited about that?
MN: Yeah! It’ll be up on ITunes February 21st. I’ve been a drummer my whole life and now a late-blooming songwriter.
TL: I read that you didn’t start playing guitar until later in life either.
MN: I tell everyone I play guitar just well enough to write a song and make a home demo so I can call a real guitarist (laughter). I also play piano, I write a lot of what I do at the piano. I grew up doing nothing but drums, honestly, from age ten to 27. Around the time when I explored other curiosities. That’s how I sum it up.
As far as writing goes, I write pretty much all my songs from behind a drum set. That’s where I start. It’s all about that relationship between the kick and the snare drum and how it synchs in with the vocals to make the song float along. I can hear the chords in my head, but I sit behind the drums and sing at the same time and I write that way. After I get it into good shape, then I will go over to the guitar and piano and painfully decide what I am going to do with the chords.
TL: That’s first time I have heard of that, usually I hear that someone had a riff in their head that leads to a song. I have never heard anyone say that they write behind the kit other than you. That’s pretty fascinating.
MN: It helps me figure out what the groove needs to be, what the speed of the song needs to be. So when I do grab the guitar and sitting at the piano, there is a real clear blueprint. I’ve always viewed things from a drummer’s perspective. Like putting a frame around a picture. I think that’s the role of drums in a song. To make listeners pay attention to the vocalist, not the drummer. The wrong approach on the drums can completely ruin a song.
TL: I guess the best drummers are the ones you don’t know they are there, but when they aren’t you can really feel that void.
MN: That’s my whole philosophy. I feel if someone is listening to a song I played drums on and they’re paying attention to the drum parts instead of hearing the vocals, then I failed.
TL: You have the great ability to use humor in your songs and make them thought provoking. How did you develop that skill?
MN: I’ve always been a real fan of comedy. There was a period of my life where, still to this day I am surprised, that I used to do standup comedy and made money doing it. I was part of the San Francisco comedy scene. I worked at The Punchline when I was in my late 20s. When I was growing up, I didn’t see much difference between comedy and rock and roll. I considered the original cast members of Saturday Night Live to be much like a punk band. When I look at great comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, those guys, in my view, are the same thing as rock stars. They are just as iconic as John Lennon. Lenny Bruce is just as iconic as Bob Dylan to me.
Here I am…..A guy who’s been a drummer…..I’m stepping up…..I am singing and I am in front of a band…..There is a lot in common between standing up in front of an audience and doing your material with comedy and being a lead singer. The two jobs have a lot in common. Listen to the first three Bob Dylan albums and you will hear it. I don’t think anyone did a better job of combining wit and rhythm better than him.
TL: I think you use comedy perfectly to make people think. There were times when I was listening where I smiled like in the songs A Good Day In Nashville, Seventeen Days, and Jesus And Fireworks. I think you use humor to drive your points home, but I would never consider this album a comedy album.
MN: When I’m writing, I never deliberately say, “I got to make this funny”. But I’m writing and something happens naturally that makes me laugh….It’s going in the song. If your agenda is to make people think, listeners are going to rebel against that.
One of my top influences is John Prine. When you listen to Prine, he’s got stuff that gets so dark and haunting, but then he will throw in humor also. I also think that if you do you use humor, if you want to say something that is totally dark, your listeners will go with you.
TL: When I listen to a song like Cronkite And Cosell, there is nothing humorous about that song. It is completely nostalgic and brings me back to a time watching the news or sports with my dad in the 70s.
MN: That’s my favorite feedback. I don’t want people to think about my life or my living room where I watched TV with my dad. I love when people talk to me about that song and say they can see their own house where they grew up or the color of the carpeting and sitting in front of a big ole’ Zenith. When I am writing a song, it belongs to me, but once other people start hearing it, I am irrelevant.
TL: I looked at the list of musicians that played on Above Ground Fools and it is the who’s who of Americana. For someone like me who is not a musician, how do you go about assembling such a talented cast of players?
MN: I really got some bad asses on this record, I was lucky.
I moved to Nashville from LA in 2010. I was 40 years old and I made a deliberate decision to naturally work my way into the community and take the time to get to know the right people that I have something in common with. I didn’t try to force any relationships, they just developed naturally. Nashville is a small enough town where that can happen rather quickly. I lived here for maybe three years before I felt like I knew enough people with similar tastes where it would be a fit for us to work together. I had made home demos of my songs and I knew these guys well enough to email them my demos and to ask, “Hey would this interest you to play on this?” There is only one musician who was on all ten songs and that’s the bassist Chris Donohue. He’s worked with Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, and he is currently in Emmylou Harris’s band. What I love about him is he has all these skills, but my music requires players to play like a teenager in a garage band. He is one of the few musicians in Nashville who gets that.
I am very influenced by American garage rock and punk like Iggy Pop, The Stooges, and The MC5. That’s in my DNA. My album does not sound as raw as an MC5 record, but when I work with other musicians, that is the spirit is has to be. I don’t want slick Nashville tight pants bro country crap.
TL: Can you mention some of the other folks that played on Above Ground Fools?
MN: Michael Webb played keyboards. He played on Sturgill Simpson’s and Chris Stapleton’s records. He is just fantastic. It’s hard to find guys who can really play rock and roll piano. Michael Webb gets it when I say I want him to play something like Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones, The Who).
TL: Your guitar player used to play with Lucinda Williams?
MN: He still does. Yeah, Stuart Mathis. I have recorded four new songs with him. I am off and running on making a new record. So far it is just a trio of me, Stuart Mathis, and Chris Donohue. But I cannot sing the praises of these guys enough because they brought nuances to this album that I never could have written. All the songs are just a blueprint of lyrics and chords and I had my idea about the direction to go. But when guys like this come in, they bring it up to another level.
TL: You picked the right people, that’s great.
MN: If I have one talent it’s that I hire well.
TL: That’s the most important part of being a good manager or project leader in any field, the ability to evaluate and hire talent.
MN: When I’m looking at a song I’ve written, I have a picture in my mind of what I want it to be. If I bring in the wrong guitarist, that can kill it. What’s interesting is that guitarist might be a great guitarist, it has nothing to do with their talent level. It’s like casting a movie, if you put the wrong actor in a specific role, it’s over. The same thing with making albums.
My favorite thing about being a musician is getting near other people’s talent. Not making something and patting myself on the back and saying, “Look what I did!” I could give a shit about that. I am thrilled when I am sitting in a recording studio and I am looking around at these guys and hearing what they are doing.
TL: So the album comes out in February. Are there any plans for a tour to support the record?
MN: I’m playing in Nashville, just no plans to tour. There are two kinds of musicians: musicians with kids and musicians who don’t have kids. I try to stay around Nashville and be a dad. My wife and I have this deal that if something came along that I couldn’t say no to, sure. The spirit of this album was a Nashville studio album.
TL: So where can people buy Above Ground Fools and find out what you are doing?
MN: My website, Mattnorth.net, or the Millennials can get it at ITunes or Amazon.