Wild Mercury Sound

Matthew E White interviewed: “I’m a student, and I learn from the past…”

Matthew E White interviewed: “I’m a student, and I learn from the past…”
John Mulvey

Seeing as how Matthew E White and his band are on tour in the UK this week (I’m seeing him play in London tomorrow), it seemed a good time to post the feature about my visit to Richmond a couple of months ago. I’ve put a few links to stuff in here, too, so you can get a taste of the really interesting music coming out of the scene that revolves around White. Long read, this one…

He might be one of 2013’s more acclaimed newcomers, but Matthew E White seems some way off being concerned about invasions of his privacy. On the first night of March, his rented house in Richmond, Virginia, has been opened up as a concert venue. Admission is free. There is beer in the fridge rather than any kind of bar. Just next to White’s bedroom, a ladder-like staircase leads up into a ramshackle, if rather tidy, attic studio, where around 40 people and a Boston terrier are listening to frantic, mournful jazz in the vein of Ornette Coleman, played by some of the local performers that White uses to flesh out his expansive musical visions.

Here, too, is where much of White’s debut album, Big Inner, was recorded. The evidence is everywhere: the Native American flute made out of a turkey bone that provides the squawking sound 11 seconds into “Big Love”. A piano, whose treacherous ascent up the staircase ranked as the scariest experience of White’s life thus far. A post-it note on the vintage mixing desk that advises, gnomically, “A little bit at a time”. And, most striking, a bunch of paintings that act as a brisk index of White’s heroes: Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, King Tubby, Dr John, Marvin Gaye, his mother, his father.

Matthew E White (the E stands for Edgar; not, as his British publicist hoped, Ellington), 30, is quite candid about a lot of things. There is his Christian faith, nurtured by missionary parents and pronounced boldly in many of the songs on Big Inner. There is his academic virtuosity, which means he can thoughtfully construct his tunes with university jazz graduates. And there is his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of musical traditions, a sense that his own work can evolve through the assiduous study of what has gone before.

White sometimes thinks that he can best articulate what he does by showing people his collection of music books: Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise, This Is Reggae, histories of Columbia, Stax and Motown, scholarly tomes on Louis Armstrong and every era of jazz, Dylan’s Chronicles. When he enlisted Trey Pollard, a Richmond contemporary, to write the string arrangements for Big Inner, he gave him three pointers: “<>Tropicalia<>, Ray Charles, The Impressions’ Young Mods’ Forgotten Story. That was it.”

“We talk referentially a lot when we’re working out music,” says Cameron Ralston, the bassist who is one of White’s closest and longest-serving collaborators. “We always come back to the great shit: Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Jorge Ben, Duke Ellington, Otis Redding, early Bob Marley - the big figures that we all adore. Those are the ones we reference, not the little fucking indie band that nobody’s heard of. We like the stuff that’s time-tested and keeps getting greater: it gives you a very tall top of the mountain to be climbing towards.”

The next day, after the empty bottles have been tidied away, White is talking about the musical project which he has embarked upon. Spacebomb is a record label built on an old-fashioned concept that is at once creatively ambitious and economically pragmatic. Artists, in theory, will roll up to Spacebomb and have their songs arranged, produced, played by the house band, recorded at speed, published and released by the same organisation. Skilled string sections, horn players and choirs will be available on a budget. The sort of rapturously orchestrated fantasias that adorn Big Inner – an album that was to some degree conceived as a showcase for Spacebomb’s skills - come as part of the deal.
“I’m a student,” White says, though he’s earned a living in recent years by teaching guitar, “and I learn from the past. That’s the vocabulary I know, but it’s important to me that we move this forward.”

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Matthew E White is six feet, three inches tall – too tall, it transpires, for the American Civil War. When Steven Spielberg and the <>Lincoln<> crew arrived in Richmond looking for men with beards, using the old Confederate capital as a somewhat ironic substitute for Washington DC, White’s attempt to be cast as an extra was stymied by his height. Abraham Lincoln apart, it seems imposing six-footers were not prevalent at the time.

White has lived in Richmond for the past decade or so, but he originally comes from the coastal town of Virginia Beach, 100 miles to the east. His family is, to say the least, religious. “My brother-in-law is a pastor,” he says, “my brother is a Christian writer and professor, my dad runs a mission, my mom helps my dad run the mission.” While still at high school, White co-authored a book with his father on flatwater canoeing in Maryland and Delaware. Before that, the family spent several years in the Philippines and Japan, where his father spread the evangelical word. As Big Inner makes explicit, White’s faith has remained constant, even as his political beliefs have diverged from those of his parents.

“It’s troublesome how the beautiful, unique part of what the Christian faith can be gets co-opted by a political agenda. I’ve been close to a Christian environment that’s been really good to me, and I appreciate a lot that it brings, but I also see how unhealthy parts of it are. There’s a little bit of me reaching across the two versions of America and saying, Hey, I’m a rock’n’roll musician. I’m around the most liberal people on the planet. I get this world. People have a lot of love in their hearts and a lot of desire for things to get better. And I’m also around a lot of incredibly conservative Christians and that world: Southern, politically conservative, economically conservative. It’s the same thing there.”

It was the church that provided White with an initial entrée into the music business. Among the family friends at Virginia Beach Community Chapel in the late 1990s was Rob Ulsh, who owned Master Sound Studios in the town, at the time the operational hub of Missy Elliott and her producer, Tim ‘Timbaland’ Mosley. The 14-year-old White’s keenness to hang around the facility led to him taking any work Ulsh could offer him – chiefly painting the studio’s outside wall. He passed on his “shitty” demo tape, too, though Ulsh mistakenly played a Parliament track White had put on the flipside: “He came out and said, ‘Who the hell is playing bass for you?’ I felt so dumb.”

By High School, White had formed a folk-rock band with his friend Andy C Jenkins who, typically, remains part of White’s creative circle (Jenkins contributed lyrics to a few Big Inner songs). But it was a move to Richmond, and to Virginia Commonwealth University, that really kickstarted White’s musical activities. “I’ve always been more naturally a rock’n’roll kid than a jazz kid,” he says. Nevertheless, he enrolled as a guitar student on VCU’s jazz programme, and found himself part of a generation of musicians with the energies and ability to radicalise a moribund local scene.

“There are a lot of really talented players, very strong voices, in our age group,” says Cameron Ralston. “We’re proud of the things we’re building here, and it takes a guy like Matt, who’s a great unifier, to bring it together with a vision.”
Initially, that vision was focused on “a sort of promotion organisation” called The Patchwork Collective. Soon, though, it evolved into a rambunctious jazz big band called Fight The Big Bull, co-ordinated by White and featuring most of the musicians on the Spacebomb team. “They had a pretty wild style,” remembers John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who hired White to arrange the horns on his 2012 album, Transcendental Youth. “A great amalgam of so many styles; curious, engaged arrangements.”

One of White’s many clubbable attributes is that he comes across as a subtle networker, and he soon made connections for Fight The Big Bull far outside Virginia, with established jazz musicians like Steven Bernstein and Ken Vandermark. Simultaneously, The Great White Jenkins (now featuring Fight The Big Bull’s drummer, Pinson Chanselle) were setting off on “bogus national tours – we’d book our own shows, tramp around and lose a shit-ton of money”, that established links within the indie-rock world.

“During this whole time,” says White, “I was voraciously reading about how records are made. I wanted to make arrangements on other people’s records, or get the Richmond community to guest on other people’s records. I wanted to produce a record and I wanted to curate - the A&R thing. I wanted to create an umbrella for all the things I wanted to do as a musician, because there are many hats that I like wearing.”

Inducting fellow “music nerds” Ralston and Chanselle as his house band rhythm section, and roping in other friends to help with the business side of the operation, White came up with the idea and the name of Spacebomb (he had no idea that Spacebomb was also a variety of marijuana; a “strong, spicy, citrussy, cheese-scented bud,” recommends one user at leafly.com). White’s knowledge of the workings of Stax and Motown, with house musicians, arrangers and producers working swiftly and efficiently, meant that Spacebomb would have economic as well as aesthetic imperatives. It might superficially appear to be a nostalgic exercise, but it was also one that would, ideally, prove financially viable in straitened times.

“When you’re talking about the industry right now, nobody is making a ton of money off one record. But if you can have your hands in ten records a year, then this can make sense. It all comes back to the fact that people could make those records back then because the musical language they were speaking allowed them to work quickly. I could only make Big Inner in a week because I could put music in front of string players and horn players to play. I think there’s a point where written music and trained musicianship sort of top out. That’s not where great things come from. But it allows you to get there faster.”

White likes dub reggae a lot, too, and finds Jamaican music “a huge inspiration. The idea of being excessively creative, experimental and selling product are not different worlds to them. We look at dub and say, ‘that’s some far-out shit’, but that’s a way to monetize a product twice.”

At High School in Virginia Beach, White was taught art by a woman who, he says, partied with Dylan and was “just too much to handle” for the Christian establishment. “Art,” she told White, “is never finished, it only stops in interesting places.”

“If you’re going to release something you have to be pragmatic,” he says, “you’re going to want it to stop in the most interesting place. But with dub music, you take a track, turn it around and look at it a different way, and I think the Spacebomb process really lends itself to that. I’d like to make a dub version of Big Inner.”

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Spacebomb’s first client was a singer-songwriter from the Pacific Northwest named Karl Blau, who they had met while touring with The Great White Jenkins. White, though, had a plan to test out his system by simultaneously making a solo record. “I had lots of ideas about what it was going to sound like. But, at the same time, there were a million things that could go wrong. If the roof was going to come crashing down on someone, I preferred that it would be me.”

Perhaps he is being disingenuous. “There aren’t any of Matt’s decisions or projects that haven’t succeeded,” says Pinson Chanselle, his housemate for the past decade. “That’s a big part of why I wanted to try this thing. It’s high-risk, but everything else that he’s done has done really well. I think of him as the editor, in everything.”

“Matt has a lot of great traits,” says Cameron Ralston, “and one of them is that he’s naturally comfortable in the leadership role. He’s great at organising people and events and bands, putting things together and on a well thought-out track.”
White’s general demeanour seems to be relaxed, but watchful. In many ways, his closest contemporary could be Jack White: another man of charisma, authority and knowledge, with an elevated DIY ethos and a gift for channelling his enthusiasms into far-reaching projects. Phil Cook, who currently plays in Megafaun but previously was Justin Vernon’s bandmate in DeYarmond Edison, first encountered Matt White in 2007. Cook arranged the choir on Big Inner, and describes his friend as “A ‘Big Picture’ guy. He lays it all out and plans things years and chapters in advance. I don’t think he anticipated the huge response his music has elicited, but let’s just say his Google calendar is thick as a brick.”

“This is a record that has been covered in every major musical place in the world, and I’m thankful for that,” White says. “But I’ll tell you this. There’s not one Christian journalist that has called me, and believe me, there’s a line out of the door of people who want to talk about shit. I’ve got friends who are pastors, and I tell them this is an undeniable example of how out-of-touch the Christian culture is with bigger world things. I’ve not had one Christian writer say, ‘Hey, you’re chanting “Jesus Christ is our lord/Jesus Christ He is your friend” for five minutes at the end of the record. You want to talk about something?’”

It occurs that this transporting climax to “Brazos” (appropriated from an old Jorge Ben song, “Brother”) might also encourage some of White’s growing live audience to chant along, even if they have no faith themselves; as if the evangelical mission of his family has found an outlet in White’s music. He’s not so sure, not least because of the song’s ambiguity. “Brazos” tells of two slaves on the run, relying on – or, perhaps, questioning – the Christianity that has been imposed upon them by their white oppressors. “It’s the most dynamic musical part of the record,” White acknowledges, “but when he says, ‘Jesus Christ is your friend’, is that true? Is this a faith that you can lean on regardless of the cultural world you’re coming out of, or is it just bullshit? To put it very clearly and unpoetically, there’s a question mark at the end of the phrase. And I think that’s, to a large degree, where I am.”

Nevertheless, the Gospel influences that permeate White’s work are a lot less ambivalent or metaphorical than those deployed by some of the artists he’s been compared with (notably Jason Pierce and Spiritualized). A performance at last September’s Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, was billed as “One Incantation Under God”, even though the vast majority of the 30 musicians in White’s band were atheists and agnostics.

The Hopscotch show acted as a kind of fanfare for the American release of Big Inner. In January, Domino facilitated a UK edition, triggering further ecstatic reviews and sending White on a trajectory for 2013 far from the one he and his band had envisaged. If Spacebomb’s plans for the next six months had been to hunker down in White’s studio, they now find themselves committed to the road, with a summer full of festival appearances stretching out in front of them.

“We’re ambassadors for Spacebomb, that’s how we’re approaching it,” says Ralston. “There’s a compromise. All these experiences are very new for us.”
“It’s certainly a balancing act,” White admits. “But the way I look at it, that’s the best problem you can have. You can have a bunch of other problems, like that the record sucks and you’re in debt. Fortunately Spacebomb has items that are recorded and ready to go.”

Beyond the distraction of promoting his solo career, White has four more-or-less extraordinary records in the can: the set by Karl Blau (“A far-out motherfucker”); albums by a fine Nashville singer-songwriter called Natalie Prass and by Joe Westerlund, the drummer from Megafaun; plus a seven-inch from Ivan Howard, whose exquisitely soulful vocals were last heard alongside those of Justin Vernon on the Gayngs album in 2010.

“You’re only going to see the whole Spacebomb picture when it’s a collage of records,” says White. “I guess people think of Spacebomb as this big ‘70s production, kind of Randy Newman, Motown. I have a certain affinity for late ‘60s and early ‘70s music that’s going to come across. But Joe doesn’t, so that sort of vibe doesn’t exist on his record in the same way. Natalie’s record has it a little, and Ivan’s record is much more like Sade or something - it’s groovy, early-‘80s type shit.”

“Spacebomb is us musically,” says Trey Pollard, “and Matt is the decider. He keeps things clear. Even though all the records sound very different, there’s a continuity, and that comes from the one person who has the final say.”

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Two days after the jazz show, White, Chanselle, Pollard and Ralston reconvene in the Spacebomb attic to demo a couple of new tunes. It is, at least by rock standards, an unusual session: White spends much of the two hours quietly poring over musical notation and even Chanselle, the drummer, makes precise emendations on his copy of the score. Perhaps to emphasise the idea of a Spacebomb democracy, they focus on a song by Pollard and Ralston, built on a Meters-like rhythm, then overlaid with a spacey, meditative piano line from Pollard that recalls Bill Evans. It’s a rigorous, old-fashioned way of working, modernised only slightly by Pollard keeping time with a metronome on his iPhone. A new White song, meanwhile, is bluesy and Lennonish. The Beatles are his favourite British band, and he enjoys posing a question to people he meets – who are the greatest American rock band? White’s own answer is corroborated by a boxset of CDs on the back seat of his car: Sly & The Family Stone.

The more successful he becomes, the more opportunities White has to study with the old masters. In New Orleans, he took Ivan Neville, son of Aaron and a onetime Rolling Stones keyboardist, out to lunch. In New York, he quizzed his jazz mentor Steven Bernstein for stories about Allen Toussaint, Dr John and Levon Helm. He tapped Howard Johnson, a veteran tuba player, to hear about working with Ray Charles, Gil Evans and Charles Mingus. A German DJ living near Richmond provided tales from his time on the road with James Brown.
White secured Les Paul’s son, Gene, to master Big Inner. He has visited the plantations where Robert Johnson and Charley Patton worked, talked with the last inheritors of the fife and drum music of Panola County, Mississippi, communed with scholars of Sacred Harp singing, painted the studio where Missy Elliott rapped. He knows the history, and he has an insatiable appetite to discover even more.

“There are a lot of people who are going to be leaving us shortly,” says White, “who were part of a real golden age. When you think about recorded music, it’s a hundred years old. It’s not that old. We’re still so close to the beginning. There are a lot of ways to learn, but there are certain things about music you can only learn first-hand. So I try to throw myself at anybody like that. You never know when you might hear something unique.”
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MATTHEW E WHITE & FRIENDS FOR BEGINNERS

The pick of their pre-Big Inner records…

THE GREAT WHITE JENKINS
Mussel Souls (www.thegreatwhitejenkins.bandcamp.com, 2008)
White cedes lead vocals to his old schoolfriend, Andy C Jenkins. Rickety indie-folk, for the most part, though the New Orleans horn processional of “Railroad” is a sign of things to come.

FIGHT THE BIG BULL
All Is Gladness In The Kingdom (CLEAN FEED, 2010)
Second album from White’s Mingus-like big band, joined this time by their mentor Steven Bernstein. Includes a rowdy breakdown of The Band’s “Jemima Surrender”.

DAVID KARSTEN DANIELS & FIGHT THE BIG BULL
I Mean To Live Here Still (FATCAT, 2010)
A North Carolina-based singer-songwriter, a little like Sufjan Stevens, recruits FTBB to back his musical settings of Henry David Thoreau. Interesting, if not entirely successful.

OLD NEW THINGS
Ghosts (www.oldnewthings.bandcamp.com, 2011)
A Trey Pollard-led project, also featuring Cameron Ralston on bass. Begins with an Albert Ayler cover, moving into unusual and rewarding jazz/folk hybrids. Hints of Jim O’Rourke, Robert Stillman.

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* When this feature appeared in the mag, I added some more detail in a blog about my Richmond trip. Also, belated acknowledgement and thanks to Joe Uchill, who transcribed the lengthy interviews for this piece.

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