Interview: On the Continued Musical Evolution of Matthew Dear

03/02/2012 12:20 PM |


With a decade’s worth of style-shifting, ranging from serious techno to smutty art-funk to sun-stroked psychedelic pop, New York City producer Matthew Dear is an artist who often seems in perpetual motion. Though his techno fans remain legion, his focus these days lies in leading a live pop band, a role he’ll play tonight in front of a sold-out crowd at Manhattan’s venerable Bowery Ballroom (with support from Blondes and Helado Negro). Ahead of the show, we chatted with Dear about his latest EP, Headcage, his upcoming record Beams, and his continued evolution as a singer, songwriter, and performer.

The L: You’ve said that the sound of Black City was heavily influenced by living in New York City. Do you consider Headcage to be also? Beams?

Matthew Dear: Most of Black City was made during the first portion of my time here. It reflects the brevity of the place really, and it’s effect on my psyche. I never sat down at a desk looking out over the skyline, and thought to myself, “let’s write a song about all this.” When talking about albums, you have to sort through a lot of undefinable and intangible feelings, and put them onto paper so people can talk about them. Black City reflects some hard times here, but only because that life was spent here. Who knows, maybe it could have been the same album living in Detroit.

Headcage and Beams were also written while living here, but have a far more optimistic tone. While music is so much more than its counterparts, perhaps one of those counterparts is an adjustment to life here in the city.

How did you come to collaborate with Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid on Headcage? Were you a fan of their work with Fever Ray?

Myspace, believe it or not. I decided to contact them after hearing they were working with Blonde Redhead, so I went to their Myspace page and found an email address. I was a fan of the Fever Ray production. They have a very cold and clinical sound that is at the same time very passionate and soulful. It’s a rare combination of electronics that doesn’t come across as too synthetic.

Did you know from the first writing stages that “In the Middle (I Met You There)” was going to be a duet with the Drums’ Jonny Pierce? What did his voice bring to the song?

I had written the body and melody for myself, and had even done a vocal treatment of my own for it. It was one I knew Jonny would shine on, and when I played him the demo, he was immediately drawn to it. He has an outstanding voice. When we were tracking his vocals, he had the music in his headphones, and his singing filled my apartment. I’ll never forget how beautiful it sounded, to hear my melodies sung like that.

I’ve read interviews where you’ve been a little self-deprecating about your own voice, talked about working around it, or working hard to figure out how to make it work within songs. With another album finished now, how do you feel you’re progressing as a singer?

I enjoy singing in my studio and I’m very happy with the way my vocals sound on the albums. There is something about the intimacy of producing, and being caught in that musical trap, with a song eating away at your day. Those moments are pure. I don’t intend to be self-depricating when I say I can’t sing a scale, or hit a run. I’m just being honest with myself. I have a very particular way of fitting my vocals into my music and building melodies within my songs. It was great to hear Jonny’s take on my vocals for this very reason, as it allowed me to hear the same melody done in a different tone altogether.

What can you tell us about the songs on Beams?

They’re far more colorful than the songs on Black City. They’ve got quite a bit more energy to them as well.

Do you consider them an extension of Headcage’s sound?

They are definitely more in line with Headcage than my previous songs.

What are they about?

Getting lost. Redemption. In one song called “Earthforms,” I sing, “Love is a moon in the sky with a string hanging down to the ground. I can’t touch it.” An assessment of our everyday obstacles and how to deal with them.

As you move further into pop songwriting, would you still call what you make “dance music” in general? If not, how would you describe it?

I haven’t considered my albums after Leave Luck To Heaven to be dance music. I have other aliases for club music. I’m not saying you can’t dance to this music, but my intention isn’t to put it on the dance floor.

Has playing Beams songs live taught you anything new about them, or changed ideas you had when you wrote them?

I’ve learned I need three more of me to sound like I do on the albums. I’ve added some new members to the group though, who provide wonderfully helpful backing vocals. We started playing two of them with the new band. “Fighting Is Futile” and “Her Fantasy” will be played at the Bowery Ballroom show. The new band now consists of Ian Chang (drums), Samer Ghadry (percussion), Danny Scales (Bass) and trumpet mainstay, Greg Paulus.

Watching you perform during the Black City tour, both in sound and visual style, I was reminded a little of James Chance, from his James White and the Blacks era. Has that early 80s period of NYC art-disco actually been an influence on your work?

I love James Chance. I wouldn’t say that music affects me directly in the studio, but more so on stage. There’s definitely a rawness I strive to attain on up there, when the uncomfortable is overtaken by a powerful synergy. I want people to experience a simultaneous letting go. I don’t want it to be a bullshit, hands in the air from the first song kind of letting go, but more of an earned feeling. More of a we-got-here-together type affair half way though the set.

Is it easier to whip a techno crowd into a frenzy as a DJ than it is to move a rock crowd with a live band?

Techno crowds want to be whipped into a frenzy, so yes, it’s much easier. But then again, I don’t necessarily play that kind of techno when I DJ. I prefer long, drawn-out breaths.

Which is more satisfying for you?

They each fulfill different desires. At the moment I am in band mode, playing around with vocal effects and atmospheric loops for the show tonight. It’s very satisfying.

Photo credit: Proxy Servlet