IE: You channel Abbey Road-era John Lennon on the cover of your debut, Big Inner with a crisp, white suit.
Matthew E. White: If I don’t wear a suit, with the long hair and beard I look like hippie man or some rocker guy. The album is kind of classy. [The suit] lets people know it’s kind of a little fancy. I planned a whole bunch of outfits, but that one worked really well. It’s kind of a strong statement. I shined the shit out of my shoes. And they’re great. They look so good! Like, man, I’m so glad I shined my shoes.
IE: So, when you’re not turning Americana roots rock into heavenly exultations, you’re stalking Randy Newman?
MW: That’s pretty accurate. I was on tour and I had an off day in L.A. and me and a friend found Randy Newman’s address on this weird like old GeoCities star search website and we were sort of hopeful that it might be his house and we put it in our GPS and drove up Beverly Hills. And we got to the address and it’s totally like this massive house. It’s all gated and stuff, but there were these gardeners that were working on it so the gates were open. I’m not really a bold person. I’m pretty shy, but I was like, “Dude, I’ve got to do this.” So, I made a couple CDs. I got a piece a paper and I wrote him a note, like I love your music and love your arranging. I tried to put kind of music notes in there so he wouldn’t think I was like a weird super-stalker-super-fan and I went up to the door and rang the doorbell and this sort of houselady answered the door and I was like, “Is this Mr. Newman’s house?” And she was like, “Yes, it is.” And then she laughed at me ’cause she saw a 24-year-old kid and what 24-year-old guy is like stalking [her] 70-year-old boss?
IE: Like go chase some girls or something.
MW: Yeah, it’s not like I’m in some weird city. I’m in L.A., you know? Like of all the people I could be trying to find in L.A., I was at Randy Newman’s doorstep.
IE: Did you ever hear from him?
MW: No, I didn’t. I wonder if he remembers, like “I totally know who that is. I threw his CDs away like five years ago.”
IE: Like Newman, you’re focused on making music that lasts.
MW: That’s true. I take what I do seriously as a professional and because of that I want to do a good job at it. My sort of criteria for doing a good job is something that people pay attention to now and people will pay attention to down the road. I imagine that most people want their art to last, want it to do something that people remember. I’m not particularly good at making club hits, you know, and some people are very gifted at that – like really nailing the zeitgeist of the time and making a song that just skyrockets to No. 1. That’s an art in itself too. It’s very temporal in that way.
IE: Would you trade in recognition in the next century for a lifetime of accolades?
MW: That’s what’s so funny about artists wanting things to last. It can’t really be fulfilled even though that’s what you want. Because really, what I want is in 100 years people to be like, “Ah man, that record was amazing. It really has stood up.” But, I’ll never know. I want my art to last, but who really cares? I mean, I won’t be around to find out if that’s the case. So, I guess in some way I’d love for the music to last, but that’s not up to me. I’m just trying to do my best and hopefully my best is good enough to make a dent in the world.
IE: Big Inner is the first release on your DIY label Spacebomb. Explain the label’s mission.
MW: I’m going for making music as a community and making something together that is bigger than any of us could make on our own. I’m blessed to be part of an amazing music community in Richmond [Virginia]. I want to give us an outlet – an umbrella – to make as much music as we could possibly make. There’s a specific house band and then a loose auxiliary cast of musicians. And that’s kind of the goal. And not necessarily a sound. Since the same people are playing on every record there’s certainly an individuality that we all bring, but one of the cool parts about the process is . . . like the house band thing gets compared to Motown and Stax, but that’s a style, not a process. I obviously love that music, but I think the process is a lot more flexible than just being a soul music style. It can be the idea of working together as a unit on several different records and combining our skill steps to make something bigger.
IE: And John Darnielle wanted a piece of that for the Mountain Goats’ Transcendental Youth?
MW: The Mountain Goats are coming to my community and saying, “You guys have a bunch of badass horn players. I heard them on your record. I heard you play with them. Can you corral them and write some stuff and bring them down?” ‘Cause that’s what I do with Spacebomb. It’s rewarding to get those opportunities. I’m very thankful for them.
Matthew E. White plays Chicago’s The Vic (3145 N. Sheffield) with the Mountain Goats on Oct. 27.
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