Matthew Dear Talks Ghostly International, Spectral Sound, and Urban Psyches
Whether he's fronting his eponymous avant-pop band or spinning techno records as Audion, Dear is challenging listeners with his taste for the edgy and experimental. But even if he doesn't hit your personal pleasure zone, there's no denying the indelible mark he's made on the underground electronic music landscape over the last two decades.
It helps that Dear spearheads two of the most respected imprints in the scene -- the eclectic Ghostly International and its more dancefloor-oriented sister label Spectral Sound. But it's his own work in the studio that pushes the sonic envelope the most. Take 2010's Black City, his fourth and most critically-acclaimed album to date, a record brimming with tons of conceptual, lyrical and musical substance.
Then there's Matthew Dear the DJ, of course. Expect the unexpected when he throws down with SAFE at the Electric Pickle this Saturday. And just remember not to make any requests. In the meantime, find out what the sonic iconoclast had to tell Crossfade ahead of his show.
Crossfade: You're only 32 but have lead a prolific career already. You must have been drawn to music from a very early age. What can you tell us about your early musical development?
Matthew Dear: Music was always a very clear and present language for me. Perhaps the only language that really made any sense. It was an endlessly imaginary world to live in as a child, while listening to the radio, records, tapes. From a very early age I was drawn into that world, and dissected songs in my mind. Songs existed on some other plane of reality altogether, and I felt that when I got older, I would be able to live in those worlds.
Your father is a folk musician. What influence, if any, did he have on your musical sensibilities?
Growing up around all his guitars, boxes of cables, and eight-track tape recordings of his performances had a huge influence on. Only in retrospect do I realize how much of an impact it had on me. Having it surround me like that made it seem like it was a necessary part of living. I was inundated with music at such a young age, that I never saw it as a personal trait or choice. I would visit friends and ask where their dad's guitar was. I assumed everyone lived that way.
So how does a Texas boy end up at the forefront of the Detroit techno scene? Did you find it hard to earn credibility in the insular community there?
[Laughs] Well, I have never been at the forefront of the Detroit techno scene. There are some legendary musicians in that lineage. Without a doubt, I have been affected by Detroit as a city. I simply tried to carve out my own way of doing things amidst everything else.
Ghostly International boasts one of the most eclectic and experimental catalogs in electronic music. As you guys must get a shitload of demos all the time, what is the criteria for selecting new artists and releases? What general style or aesthetic are you looking for to define the label?
We keep our ears wide open, and prohibit ourselves from any preconceived notions. You cannot shape someone else's music into fitting the label's vision. We have been fortunate enough to meet some very enlightened artists over the years, both musical and visual. We tend to feel very comfortable sitting in a room with our artists. We aim to sign people we can relate with on a daily basis.
Spectral Sound has also been pushing the house/techno envelope for over a decade now. What do you have in store for the label next? How do you see the label's output evolving in the next few years to parallel the evolution of the scene as a whole?
We have fine-tuned our release schedule to include only imperative releases this year. It's got to be something both Ryan Elliott and I will play out at clubs, and we tend to have differing styles. If it can make its way into our sets, then it has just enough swagger to work for the label. We have some new music from Subb-an on the way as well as a few other releases from our roster.
How did you transition from techno DJ-producer to frontman of a band? What was the creative urge behind it? And what does each outlet provide for your artistically, besides the obvious?
For one thing, it takes an adept short-term memory. I am constantly rearranging my live setup to accommodate the show for the night. I use the same effects pedals in my live show as I do when I DJ, so if I forget something at the rehearsal space, my DJ set is jeopardized. Really though, they are entirely different beasts. Performing with a band is not about a constant kick drum and long drawn out mixes between songs. I would never expect my band to play a 2 a.m. set at a nightclub. DJing is my escape into that realm. It's about getting lost within other people's music. It's about escaping, dancing, and mixing endless rhythm. Unfortunately, I'll often get requests for my own songs when I DJ. I feel it's not the time or place to play my own music. "Slowdance" is 90 beats per minute. Put away the requests typed on your phone.
Did singing come naturally to you or was it something you had to wrestle with at first?
I've always sung, and always with my own approach. What caught me off-guard however is not being able to recreate the intimacy of the studio on stage. I sing very quietly and closer to the microphone in the studio, but cannot sing this way on stage with an entire band behind me. The energy is different. Once I figured out which effects and ranges work best live, I felt far more confident in my delivery.
How do you typically approach the songwriting process? Where do you draw inspiration lyrically and conceptually?
Musically, I allow for completely random experiences. I do not bring ideas into the studio. Instead, I let the studio dictate the song. Once everything is up and running, it's a matter of which buttons get pushed or what synths I turn on. I rarely save presets or patches, as I don't want to rely on the same thing twice. Getting to a specific sound reflects the way you feel that day. You need to experiment daily, and let mood direct the song. Lyrics follow suit, and work in strangely the same manner. The subconscious mind knows far more than the awakened mind. I let it write my songs, and try not to question meaning until much later. They usually end up being about love.
You've cited Brian Eno as your biggest influence. Do you see yourself eventually following in Eno's latter-day footsteps by transitioning from musician to behind-the-scenes producer for other artists? Or do you plan to stay in the foreground for the long term?
I would like to produce other musicians. Touring can be very taxing on the soul, and being able to work from a central location will be very welcome. As for now, I have a need to say more on stage.
You described the concept behind your last album Black City as "an imaginary metropolis peopled by desperate cases, lovelorn souls, and amoral motives." As a former Detroit resident now living in New York City, how have these urban settings shaped or inspired your musical sensibilities? Do you think electronic dance music is inherently a product of urbanism?
Cities are heavy. Detroit and New York each have their own weights on the psyche. Detroit can be a vacuum of sorts, with an intensity that pushes you away from it. There are vast open spaces, surrounded with residues of the past. This lack of a presence can have a massive effect on you, as it gives you a sense of ownership for the void. Detroit has a very mysterious way of making those who live there devote themselves to it. New York, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Whereas Detroit expels you, New York is constantly sucking you in and teasing you with options. "So much to do, can you keep up with me?" You cannot escape the mass of humanity in New York, and you end up losing a lot of your individuality. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as it allows for escapism through the group mentality. In Detroit, you're accountable. In New York, you're just another number.
What have you been some of the highlights of 2011 for you? And what do you have going on next?
Establishing the live band and a solid live show was my highlight for this year. We were a part of some really great festival lineups, and were able to see some other amazing bands all summer. As for now, I'm just finished mixing the next album, which will be out early next spring. There is also a single with four new songs coming out next month, and I am finishing rehearsals with a new band this month.
What can Miami expect during your upcoming performance at the Electric Pickle?
None of my own music.
Matthew Dear with SAFE residents. Saturday, October 22. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 10 p.m. Call 305-456-5613 or visit electricpicklemiami.com.
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