Monday, March 30, 2015

The As-Of-Yet-Untitled Michigan Musicians Basement Tapes -by Matt Jones

Music Scene Therapy 

A conversation with Matt Jones & Jeff Milo 

Matt Jones
photo by: Doug Coombe

Matt Jones:    I was mixing some of these recordings. And, I've done a really bad thing…I mean, in terms of recording these things.
Jeff Milo:    What’s that? Did you erase them?
Matt Jones:    I haven’t backed anything up yet! And, I have all these things on the machine, and if something happens to the machine, if it gets jostled, if it comes unplugged unexpectedly, I lose everything.

Matt Jones: ….everything! Forty people have recorded here in my basement

Casual Sweetheart recording in Matt Jones' basement

Matt Jones is an Ypsilanti-based singer/songwriter who has distinguished himself with his august folk songs, steeped in history and dissecting darkness. His music blends into a baroque elegance that's haunted with bittersweet poetry of plainspoke chivalries soaring in this fragile falsetto like a frayed silk scarf billowing through a chilled autumn breeze, emoting words wrung with inspiration as much as frustration, self-deprecation (particularly for himself) and a reverence, (…particularly for the Civil War.)

But Jones is a particularly reverent guy, overall; at least he’s grown into one over the last ten years spent on the scene, with three albums under his belt and collaborations with fellow songwriters like Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful.

Back in 2006, Fred Thomas organized a compilation to celebrate the local scene called Ypsilanti Folk Singers, inviting several regional songwriters down into his basement to record on a modest cassette 4-Track. Scene stalwarts such as Chris Bathgate, Actual Birds, Annie Palmer and Grey Ghosts came down to contribute to Thomas’ project, as did Jones.

Matt Jones:    It was very lo-fi and really seat-of-the pants. But, it was something to be totally proud of, and it made people around it listen to one another. These days, the music scene is there, but it struggles… We don’t have the kind of venue in Ypsi that we’d had in the past, like with Woodruffs shutting down. And, that vital connection between venue and artist has been lost. So, it doesn’t feel as inclusive, though there are people and groups trying to make something happen. I’ve never been one to go sit on a panel at a meeting and talk about how things can get better.
Jeff Milo:    I’ve been on one of those panels, once…
Matt Jones:    I know you have, I was there! You moderated…at Woodruffs, right? I’ve just always had an idea, maybe a good one…maybe a total shit one…and I try for it, whether it fails or not.

Prawnces Albatross recording in Matt Jones' basement
Jeff Milo:    So this is the idea for your compilation…with forty musicians coming into your basement just as they’d had before with Fred…
Matt Jones:    This was my attempt at making people listen to each other. If it never gets heard outside of Michigan…fine. This compilation is for the people making the music.
Jeff Milo:    That idea didn’t come up at my panel, sadly. I think it needed to come up. I think… and, I wanna know what you think here, but… I think a scene needs something like this, something tangible. They need to see what they’re building together, otherwise they only say it out loud, there’s talk of a scene “forming” or “coalescing” into something bigger…
Matt Jones:    Or they say “…the scene sucks.” I got tired of hearing that, or that the scene was dead. It drives me fucking bonkers. So…I do this, and everyone goes home and rehearses. People think it’s a big deal as they get ready for it and IT IS! And they want to shine at it!

Matt Jones is currently finishing up an ambitious project where he hopes to record up to 70 musicians and groups (if not, more) and release it in the late summer (or early autumn at the latest). What began as a desire to record his neighbors bands as a “register” of the soundtrack of a place and a time and of a community, has expanded into capturing the entire state, as far west as Grand Rapids and back over to SW Detroit. There’s no title for said-compilation yet, but you can anticipate something harkening to the Civil War, or something comparably noble and nostalgic… The Civil War, to be fair, continues to be on Jones mind as he recently returned to school, studying history, to attain his masters. When he isn’t working on his History major at EMU or preparing for a speech the EMU Research Symposium, he's regularly welcoming musicians from around the state down into his "...shitty basement" for an invigorating one-take session to capture a song on this forthcoming compilation...

Matt Jones calls this compilation “Music Scene Therapy…”

Mary Margaret Giroux recording in Matt Jones' basement 

Jeff Milo:    So, this comp of yours can be the boulder that you present, at the top of a hill, to roll down towards all the naysayers and topple them…
Matt Jones:    I would love the comp to be proof that people, even the naysayers-themselves, are still doing stuff. A lot of the naysayers are people who could make the biggest difference. I’ve been a naysayer.
Jeff Milo:   Reformed naysayer.

Matt Jones:   But here’s the thing. I got started and…a few people into it, I was like, “Wow, I’m having a blast, and I don’t know why!” And then I figured it out: You can’t have people sit two-feet away from you and have them do what they love most, and not come away from it loving it as well. It’s impossible.
Jeff Milo:   You’re right. Unless you’re heart’s empty or you’re cold and have no compassion. That’s an intense exchange, there, having their energies emanating, through a song, just two feet from you, in that intimate space.
Matt Jones:    So I’ve had all kinds of that. So many good people in here. I think every musician-dickhead should have to do this….

“Music Scene Therapy”

Matt Jones:  ….should have to spend an extraordinary amount of time sitting with other people, with no spotlight, and try to make the other person feel like what they have to say is the only important thing being said. Because down in my basement, it’s totally true. When they pour their song out, two feet away from me, there isn’t anything else that matters, anywhere.
Jeff Milo:   You’re kind of becoming a documentarian, here, not just a producer. Almost a journalist, something like, I dunno…an Ypsi-Alan-Lomax.
Matt Jones:   You must love it. Oh, man, though…you’ve been listening to me for years saying that I was sick of telling my own story. I think I was sick of it waaay before I started telling it, publicly.
Jeff Milo:   In your basement, you have to create a certain vibe for them to open up, to ask the right questions or no questions at all; to create the right ambiance and present this project in a tactful way.
Matt Jones:   There’s always 10 minutes or so where I just want people to talk. No playing. Let’s not worry about the mic or about the fact that I haven’t seen you play before. Just shoot the shit. I’ve had guys down here visibly shaking…But, I’ve always known people want to talk, they want to be comfortable, no matter how much people want to get their art out there, to get some fucking validation for their artistic efforts. They also want to talk and just feel comfortable. Some people sacrifice that and their art reflects that and it sucks.

“For the songs to be good…in the basement…people that come down have to be comfy…”

Matt Jones:   How much are you going to move anyone with your song if you can’t stop shaking and you’re worried about this chord or that chord or which song you play. Fuck that. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Misty (Lyn Bergeron) always says that and it makes total sense.
Jeff Milo:    Well, you approached this fully sensitive of the one thing that could have been its biggest downfall. Nerves. You musicians can be neurotic sometimes, eh?
Matt Jones:   Oh, god, I know! But, more than that, I was scared of just making another Cool Kids compilation. I wanted a whole slice of the scene. Everyone. All styles.

Jim Roll recording in Matt Jones' basement

Jeff Milo:   Even if you can’t quell the naysayers…you can at least re-spark something inside all of the musicians who are coming in to play for you, right?
Check up on Matt Jones facebook page for steady updates of each contributing musician/group’s session w/photos and info...
Matt Jones:   Yes. I’ve seen it happen! To see the pics online after coming in and playing and rocking out and having that positive reinforcement from people online.

Jeff Milo:     What have you got down there? Pro-tools? Couple of o’ mics?
Matt Jones:    No dude. The rules are very strict. Tascam digital 8-Track. No computers. Fuck computers. One $100 condenser mic. One take. One song. Even if it’s an electric band. They have to adjust their volume in order to get the sound they want and the sound that’s possible, out of this limited set up. And so far, everyone’s been impossibly cooperative and the sounds I’ve gotten have been absolutely stellar.
Jeff Milo:   It’s one thing to see a band on stage and the sort of pageantry involved with a great live show.
Matt Jones:   Right, but a band inside a studio, that’s where the real skill comes out. Not like I’m a real studio, but…still. I love seeing how bands adjust. I’ve been floored. I get to see how bands work, adapt, how they play when they’re not under the lights. I’ve always thought practice was a lot more fun than shows. I don’t care if it’s a new song, an old song, whatever. It’s going to be heard in a very different way than usual. Jim Roll wrote his song right there in my basement.
Jeff Milo:   Were you nervous, early on, or as the idea was gestating? Did you ever feel the urge to just say: “Aw, hell, it’d be easier and more fulfilling just to do another record of mine…”
Matt Jones:   I figured, I don’t have the money right now to start a new record, so maybe I can make one for everyone else…with EVERYONE ELSE on it…I’ve wanted to do it for years. That’s how things are for me, always. Everything is the end of the high dive board for me…

Jim Cherewick recording in Matt Jones' basement

Jeff Milo:   So, what’s your big takeaway, now? Having this intimate experience and composing a grand portrait or sonic collage of your neighbors…
Matt Jones:   Waking the artists up. Just letting them know that people want to hear. That they can do whatever the fuck they want to do.
Jeff Milo:   You’re also getting a profound observation of what makes the Ypsi scene or the Michigan music scene special…
Matt Jones:    Yeah, but I think if I did this in any community, I could get the same re-wiring. I think every community is special. All I’m saying is everyone has potential. Everyone, everywhere.
Jeff Milo:   This is each musicians opportunity to really contribute something to posterity… I mean, if it all pans out, right? This is their chapter, their monologue, their Oscar clip.
Matt Jones:   Right, and the experience of them coming down into this rather shitty basement, it’s not even close to being finished, it’s cold as hell and the lighting is terrible. But, you’re down here with just one other dude that you kind of know, and he is rocking out on his headphones to your song. I try to make it magic. It’s not easy. There is limited magic down there.

Jeff Milo:   I think, often, singers, musicians, working every week, trying to tour, putting out their own records, they just need a deeper or a different kind of acknowledgement, something beyond applause, of their song, of their efforts. Are you giving them something like that?
Matt Jones:   We all need acknowldgement. It’ll be hard nailing it down for the release show, though. Like, who plays and who headlines… Meanwhile I’ll be cackling in the back somewhere, like a fucking Skeksi…
Jeff Milo:   Wait, what?
Matt Jones:   You know…like from the Dark Crystal. The bad guys.
Jeff Milo:   Those things.
Matt Jones:   Yes, those things. The most evil fuckers.

"...history & memory..."

Jeff Milo:   What do you envision, going forward? 40 songs? 60?
Matt Jones:   More. It’s up to 75. The vision got way out ahead of me. At first it was something fun, to include Ypsi people in- to get this music scene looking at itself, listening to itself. then, as more people expressed interest, it extended to Michigan as a whole, to people who DO listen to themselves and each other...(Kalamazoo has a really strong scene right now...) I go back to my obsession with history- I've always wanted a register of things- I make lists, I draw maps on napkins, and white boards at school when no one is listening. I HAVE to have everyone recorded. It won't feel right unless I have a complete register of the current musical landscape. It has to be "put on the books," as the boys in The High Strung would say…
I also want this thing put into the library of congress. Immortalized
In me, something is always missing until the history is complete
I always want a complete story
Because real stories to me are better than any fiction
And everything is a story

Jeff Milo:   You once told me that there was only one thing you wanted out of "THIS" (be it music, the scene, touring, writing, performing, yadda yadda yadda) you remember? It's stayed in my brain ever since…
Matt Jones:   Yes! That’s like these recordings. A register, rather. If I can make my mark by helping other people make theirs- that’s SO MUCH BETTER THAN MY OWN…

Jeff Milo:   Memorable sessions, so far?
Matt Jones:   Red Tail Ring blew me out of the fucking basement. Cash Harrison came in and played a song that was so raw and real that I played it around my house for days. Jenny Jones, someone I’ve never heard before. She works for other bands and asked if I could get one of her bands in, but I was like: Jenny, YOU have to come do this! Stunningly good. Ben Collins was phenomenal. Fiona Dickinson and Sam Cooper blew my fucking mind. Casual Sweetheart was so good. JT Garfield, Greater Alexander, Stef Chura, Jim Cherewick, Fangs and Twang. Pat Elkins was brilliant. Let's see, Chris Dupont and Betsy King are so pumped about this whole thing, they came and killed it! Michael Anne Erlewine was just in, last night, and was so goddamned good!
Soon…(Josh) Malerman will be here, Plus, Ryan Allen, Ryan Spencer, Jo Serrapere…35 more to go in two weeks.

Jeff Milo:   This is the history buff in you… Recording current events for posterity.
Matt Jones:    But, I should point out, much of the Civil War history is from memory and history and memory are two real different things. Generals wrote formal reports of every battle based on what they could see, and they admitted that what they “could see” was often not very much… I’m getting as many people from around Michigan as I can but…some of them I can’t see…The singers who have come in where I have no idea who they are, they’re still making an impact with listeners all their own, on their own front, so to speak. And if memory becomes history, so be it. This thing in my basement, it’s a document. Someday you’ll find it in the archives. But it’s also a story. I think you are responsible for that, really.
Jeff Milo:   Me?
Matt Jones:   Yeah. You always write the story.

Jeff Milo:   And, as a History Major, now, you're getting into a certain aspect of storytelling... By the way, how'd did your speech go, at the EMU symposium?
Matt Jones:   The presentation was good. I tend to go overboard on things. But, I was insanely nervous, couldn't sleep... Sarah Campbell, my squeeze, said: "Dude, talk about this stuff the way you talk about it with your friends, with all that enthusiasm!" She was absolutely right. It worked. I was standing there, staring down really, really smart people and I was having a blast. And thanks goes out to (Campbell,) too, especially for this comp, as she's had to work with me through all 40 contributors, so far!

Jeff Milo:   Okay... LAST QUESTION: Think back to your most jaded days. When you were pessimistic about the scene or just a naysayer yourself… And, now, after this great, rejuvenating experience, what would you tell your prior self?
Matt Jones:   Just like Misty always tells him: You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. I just want everyone to listen to each other…

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