Monday, February 2, 2009

Interview: Matt Jones - CD Release for "The Black Path" - Feb 7 - Elbow Room (Ypsilanti)

“And all at once the memory dances like a bandy-legged broken throated child …”

DC Interview: Matt Jones

(words: milo)


"I started taking piano lessons when I was 8. I had to walk about 3 miles home from my lessons with this nun, Sister Annette. The neighborhood bully lived across the street from me and he would beat the shit out of me every Tuesday as I was walking home. I was always afraid that this prophecy would remain with me forever, in regards to playing music: walk for miles only to get beaten up right in front of the finish line…"

Ann Arbor's folky baroque-pop sage, Matt Jones, pauses… "But I've lightened up since then…"

Matt’s story is almost too dense to cut into…where do you begin? The bloody-nosed kid, stomach first on the sidewalk with his sheet music scattered and a nun standing helpless nearby shaking her head, or the 16-year-old ragtime Scott Joplin-lovin’ player who expounded enthusiastically to his friend that when he got older he wanted to find a community of musicians, to have around him at all times, (quite prophetic considering now he finds himself enmeshed into the spokes of Ann Arbor’s stalwart folk collective), or do we go back to his ancestors – romanticized sepia-toned imagery of Civil War veterans or his traveling circus performing relatives, including a musician grandfather who played baritone, banjo, guitar and mandolin under the big top (not to mention a pappy who “brought a crocodile church”). Or, more contemporarily speaking, we could go through the numerous bands he’s tenured: Delta 88, Barzin, the Great Iron Highway, the Descent of the Holy Ghost Church, Dabenport, the Shy Violets, Kyle Norris…and recording with Dumb and Ugly Club, Emily Bate and many others…

To briefly efface him – Jones is part of an integral quartet of innovative writers and performers in the Ann Arbor scene, (all of whom follow their own solo writing projects but are often aided by one, two, if not all three of their fellow players) – which includes Jones, singer/songwriter, collaborator and engineer Jim Roll, singer/songwriter Misty Lyn Bergeron and singer/songwriter Chris Bathgate. Bathgate and Roll both have a few albums already recorded and released; Bergeron debuted her first full-length For The Dead last month; meanwhile, Jones, who put out an EP Right To Arms, recently finished the feather in his cap, the substantial, string swathed storybook The Black Path.

So I guess we should go back to the 8 year old and the nun. “I hated my lessons, until my teacher gave up on teaching me anything theoretically significant and let me choose my own music. I chose ragtime, and took lessons till I was 20.” He absorbed Joplin, noting his lilting capricious style to be the most important contributing influence to his own writing.

“I love the way [Joplin’s] melodies weave and ramble and you think what you are hearing is this playful little song,…but really, if you listen closer, you can hear the history in it and it haunts you, especially if it gets played slow.” The same can be said for Jones’ own distinctly murky take on Americana and orchestral folk – born from ragtime and a certain whimsy marked by the theatre of the circus.

An ardent nerd for history – he boasts an antique Kalamazoo Guitar, from the 1920’s, inherited from his grandfather, Roy Juday. “I remember as a little kid, dancing around my uncle James and pulling his long hair and beard while he played guitar, because I thought he looked like Jesus. What else would a 5-year-old kid do if he encountered Jesus?”

After the piano, Jones learned the baritone, then the tuba, then the guitar, drums, bass and “everything else.” He joined numerous high-school bands with names like “The Purple Jacksons, The 4 Geniuses, The Trailer Park Wife Swappers and Lightning Tits, etc…”

Armed to the teeth with a knowledge both musical and historical (and spurred on by a family rich in tradition and adventure), the young Jones started d contributing flexible instrumentation support (drums, among them) to the numerous Ann Arbor-area folk and alt-country bands named above. He didn’t actually start singing till he was 25; not out of fear, but “I didn’t want to waste my time sounding like shit. I started moaning when I decided that I didn’t want to waste my time being in bands anymore. I started playing more acoustic, writing my own songs, and naturally, I had to sing them. And boy, was I terrible for a period of about 2 years. I mean, I don’t think I’m great now—but back then…

“…I used to do this horrible Jeff Buckley impression…unintentionally of course. I would just hit the vibrato switch and commence breaking glass and fraying ear drums. It was Misty Lyn who finally told me to cut that shit out.”

He notes Misty Lyn, and Bathgate as “my first musical friends. After playing 4 shows as a trio, they decided “we should do shows at our FUCKNIG HOUSES!” So, every other week at his house on the southwest corner of U-M’s campus, they had a different group of people over to play. “I met tons of songwriters that way.”

Going back to that 16-year-old daydreaming of an artist’s community – “Now, I feel like I have that [through Ann Arbor; Bathgate/Bergeron/Roll].” And, even “…if none of us played music, I know I would probably be hitting up misty for free beers at old town, and trashing Bathgate at cribbage, teasing Davey Jones (from Frontier Ruckus) about his moccasins, and tackling Greg McIntosh (Great Lakes Myth Society) outside, or inside, every bar we went to. I would probably still be making an ass of myself on stage, singing Springsteen songs with Carol (Catherine)...sometimes the music doesn't really matter, as long as you can do these kinds of things with people you really love.”

Though he notes that, lately, he can’t get enough of The Boss, he charts other influences, prime among them, Scott Joplin: “I can’t get enough. Sometimes [Joplin’s] music relaxes me, sometimes his music scares the shit out of me. For every lilting melodic line, there is something creepy happening. You can feel the history dripping off of every note and I think of all times and places long dead.” (Again, check Jones own signature tall-tale/goth-folk for mirrored reference.) “Richard Buckner, got me going too,” Jones adds. “He plays guitar with such power sometimes, even when just hitting a few strings, you know he means it.”

Admiringly, on music and history, Jones can start to ramble with a Kerouac-ian “mad-to-live” burn… “I try to think of what my grandparents in the circus would have liked, what my ancestors in the civil war would have liked.” And sometimes the carousel of wordy regaling spins too fast – “Maybe lyrically I write about shit that is happening now, but in my mind is always this historical backdrop…I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, do you, Jeff?”

Black Path’s opener, “Threadlines” explodes the rustic vibe with a calamitous rush and a shiver. Tambourines rattle like falling icicles and cellos waft like the dagger winds over the sun-less winter horizon. The rousing acoustic guitar, sternly strummed, starts marching along with the drums and Jones’ high-range coo wraps around and brings you into the cabin – by the fire. The album is so well-dressed (aided by Roll’s work on the boards). Take a song like “One Cotton Shot Short,”- where, on the surface, we’re patted by a chut-n-bounce acoustic riff and Jones angelic voice, but so much swells beneath – a very subtle banjo pick starts to push the door open and soon an organ and cello spread out their solemn poignant saws through the spaces in the chorus. The drums trod in and back-up vocals join Jones, building to one of the most moving crescendos of the album – with violins– and this swaying foggy mountaintop breathe-the-deep-air exuberance and reverie – all packaged in what seems to be a modest folk song.

Black Path drifts from the playfulness of Right to Arms - a wavy limbed stomping march outside the circus tent and into the dark forests ahead – (see the dizzying spindly guitar/organs and building tapped march of “Jugulars, Bones & Blisters”). On Path he balances capricious, playful hooks with a steady burning melancholy that feels comfortable away from the city lights.

“The lyrics themselves aren’t happy, but I try to cover that fact up with the playful music behind the words. It’s kind of like I’m still not comfortable enough to just say things straight…I still need to disguise what I’m saying with music that is totally contradictory to it. [Black Path] is about how memories shape you. And if you have done things to distort your past, whether it be drugs, alcohol, sickness, etc...then imagining a future seems so difficult, if not impossible. Maybe the next record will be called the golden path or something, and it'll be about the future. I dunno…”

Jones raves of two key components to the successful completion of Path. Firstly, his new manager, Laura Schwartz (who helped to motivate Jones and point him in the right direction, supporting him through the mastering period of Path) and secondly, engineer and collaborator Jim Roll: “Maybe i pissed him off every day, but he never let on, and for that, there was no pressure. I really can't say enough about Jim, and how fucking good he is at what he does...of course, he has a total tweaker's knowledge of tech shit, but on top of that, he lets you run with ideas, and he gets just as excited about them as you do.”

Then, looking around at the musicians who aided Path’s completion: “I have never met another musician with bigger balls than Colette Alexander (cellist with Jens Lekman) – she can play any part you give her about 100 times better than anything you had in mind. Carol Gray (violinist, Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful) is the heart and soul of every band she is in…Serge Vandervoo (upright bass, Orpheum Bell) almost brought me to tears just from the fact that he went home with a demo and came back for the sessions with parts written…actual melodic parts…[inspiring] me to build whole song sections around them. I also had Jeremy Peters (trombonist co-owner of Quite Scientific), Tim Monger (from Great Lakes Myth Society), Meril Hodenfeild (from Orpheum Bell), Misty Lyn (needs no introduction), Ryan Wilson and MC Trashpedal (from Drafted By Minotaurs).” He warmly regales “…having my sister and musical genius Betsy Jones play the euphonium on two tracks – believe it or not, the day she came into the studio was the first time she had ever heard my music. That was insanely special to me.”

On the horizon:

“All I can think about is releasing the record. It’s been [more than a year]-in-the-making, and there’s something really special about finally seeing my own name on a cd that I didn’t have to screen print myself on every disc. I have another entire record written, and arranged in my head right now, so starting work on that is exciting.”

After the release show – February 7th at the Elbow Room – Jones leaves for a month long tour, 36 shows in 35 days.

Also, “I really want to concentrate on Misty Lyn’s band. She is the best songwriter I know. She never lies, or writes anything exaggerated, or even half true. She never writes anything that she or anyone has to question. There is nothing in her lyrics that is verbose, or vague/meaningless for the sake of sounding poetic. i respect that immensely-how efficient she is. So I really want to see her project take off, and i cant wait to be part of that….”

Listen at:
/ DC /


Kevin said...

What an amazing dude. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Nice interview of a strange, fascinating, elliptical man. (P.S. The "bagpipes" you hear on "One Cotton Shot Short" is actually violin, unless the final version of the album is different than the copy I have.)


Kelly said...

Two great guys. One awesome interview. Can't wait till Saturday.

Steven said...

What a great article. Michigan is blessed beyond measure to have Matt Jones living and playing and creating within its borders.

Betsy said...

This is a poetic interview with a poet. . .the review is almost as gorgeous as the album itself. And, for the record, I had my brother's EP and went to a couple of his shows WAY before I went to the studio that day! I probably just didn't tell him, since the ways of our people dictate that we don't talk about such things.