It takes effort to make a pop album that’s convincingly dark and stylish without seeming at least a little bit hokey, but that’s what Matthew Dear has managed to do for five solo records so far. Dear’s latest is Beams, out now on his own label, Ghostly International. Before the album’s release, we talked to him about getting older, straddling the line between band leader and techno producer, and leather pants.
You’re in Ann Arbor right now?
No, I’m in Michigan.
Your number said Ann Arbor on my phone, so.
Yeah, that’s my cell phone. I’ve had it for almost like 15 years.
That’s a long time.
I’m visiting family in Michigan but actually I live in upstate New York.
Have you recorded there at all?
I’m building a studio there so I’ve set up the control room and I’ve made some tracks –nothing serious yet. I’ve been on tour the last few weeks so they should be done building the live room when I get back. I’ll be able to plug in drums and a guitar, all that stuff and really rock out.
Do you have any idea what might do to your sound? I guess you’ve mostly been an urban artist, living in Detroit and then Brooklyn.
I know, it’s gonna be crazy. I already know going in the control room, I can blast it. And I’ve never been able to make music that loud since high school, when I lived in my parent’s basement.
How would you characterize your personality on stage?
I don’t like to be very overt. I’m not gonna have these Seinfeld-ian communication skills with the crowd. I don’t think it’s about that, It’s about the show. I look at live performing as a way to really just go up there and gift yourself in a public arena. It’s very internal, it’s very inward. I like to lose myself on stage in a very weird calculated manner.
Beams definitely feels like it has a brighter, less heavy record than Black City.
Yeah, it’s just different times in my life, you know? I wrote Black City at the tail end of the whirlwind of youth, and really flooring it; for ten years straight I was just full on, head to the floor and just trying to do everything I could, whereas Beams is coming off the end of that. It’s the other side of that intense journey, so Beams reflects a calmer state of mind, and learning more about the studio and my abilities in it. My life is less chaotic now.
You once described the enthusiasm for techno in Europe versus people’s appreciation for pop music in the states. Does it still feel that way?
I think so. It’s all convoluted now, it’s all twisted. I go everywhere now, I just DJ’d at the Berghain in Berlin and a girl leaned over and asked: “Are you gonna play “Her Fantasy?” Panorama Bar is the last place I thought I’d ever get a request for a song from one of my albums. In Europe, the presence has gotten stronger. The last show we did in Paris was a lot bigger than the show before it, and they came to see the band. It’s the same in London: we’re selling out shows there with the band. That didn’t use to happen before. You kind of just have to keep beating people over the head with what you want to do, but it never works the right way. I’m going to do an Audion show next year and then a new Audion album. Then when I’ve finally started getting people onto the band thing I’m going to start doing the live techno thing and they might get confused all over again.
I was actually going to ask you when you thought you were going to put out a new Audion album.
Next year I’m taking some time off to make a new album. Hopefully I’ll have it ready by early summer and start touring it a bit in the summer.
I guess you’re known mainly as a techno producer and a recording artist who’s made dance-y pop music. Is there another type of music you’d like to try?
Yeah I definitely have goals. There’s only so much time, you gotta do it right. I play a lot of acoustic guitar at home and moving to the woods might allow my music to get a bit more organic if I allow it.
You might make a Bon Iver album.
[Laughs] Yeah, you know, I might have to get mono too and have somebody break up with me and get really sad. I wouldn’t mind taking that approach, but it would have to be done wholeheartedly with the right amount of passion. I don’t do things to see if I can do them, I do them because I feel like I should do them. I’ve always flirted with the idea of doing a totally unplugged non-electronic album, but to do that right I’d love to tour it with my band without computers and synthesizers or anything.
When you were younger, did you fantasize about what life would be like as a recording artist?
Absolutely. I think by the time I was 13 or 14 I knew that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I had big dreams. I’d go to concerts at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit, I’d see the Beastie Boys and be like “I can’t wait for that to be me up there.”
I also read that you’ve re-recorded songs for an album that were written years before. Do you think that’s necessary to get things right sometimes?
Sometimes. It’s also a way to revisit old procrastination and laziness. I’ve got so many songs that are pretty good songs but that I’ve never finished for whatever reason. Sometimes you move on and you lose enthusiasm for a certain idea or theme, but there’s a few that always nag at you like, “Come on you gotta finish me. You gotta come back.” “Shake Me” was one from this new album that I did back in the day. I did “Shake Me,” “Gem,” from Black City and “Deserter” all in 2003 within the same two-week span. It was cool to include each one of those on each album. It allows you to revisit an older mentality. Especially since now I have much more gear–I could remix and remaster all my albums, redo every song with a more contemporary approach. I look at music as being very malleable. Songs aren’t ever finished really. They’re just finished enough to put on an album and then that’s what you present. The beauty of going live is that you can reopen them again. We do “Don and Sherri” live now and it sounds absolutely nothing like it did on the album.
When a song is in your head, how do you know if it’s a pop song or something that would be on an Audion record?
It really depends on the day. Many times I sit down and I think ‘Ok, I’m gonna make a techno song and I start playing with techno rhythms and speed and tempo’, and something will happen to change it. I hit a certain sound or hum something in my head, or I come up with a melody and I think immediately ‘Oh man, this can’t be techno anymore, I have to slow it down’ and it ends up becoming more of a pop song just because something happened in the studio. It’s just a spur of the moment kind of thing.
When you’re recording by yourself, are there ever moments in the process when you wish there was someone else there to share the creative load, or is it always enjoyable for you?
The thing that I am looking forward to now that I have a full on studio is calling up like, my drummer and saying “Yo, I’ve got this song, it needs you.” And he can come in and just play drums and I can record it and all of a sudden it’s got live drums. I’ve never had that before. I’ve produced with other people and I’ve found that there’s kind of magical thing that happens if you work with the right person; you get this back-and-forth bravado and you can really encourage people to do better. There are many times when I get zoned out by myself and I go down a path that’s very internal, and it can almost be unproductive because you get caught up in a certain sound or loop or rhythm and you work on it for five hours and at the end of the day you don’t really have anything to show for it but a really dense piece of music. Nothing really happens. Whereas when you’re with somebody, that partner can be “Snap out of it. We have to move on. You’ve gotta make it sound like this right now.” It goes both ways. Sometimes working with somebody else gives you this motivation you didn’t really have. Because you’re performing not only for yourself but for someone in the studio with you.
Last thing: are you a Matthew or a Matt?
Either. To my friends I’m Matt but for everything else I’m Matthew.
I was just curious. I’m pretty firmly a Matthew but some people are always “Matt.”
I just hate it when someone bills me as “Matt” on the fliers. God that annoys me.