There was a time not too long ago when Eric Matthews was viewed as a savior. In the mid-’90s, Sub Pop Records was primarily known as the label that grunge built. But by the time that type of music began its slow descent, the label realized it had to branch out stylistically to remain relevant and financially viable.
Eric Matthews was as polar opposite as Sub Pop could get. His vastly orchestrated material was voiced with hints of fey romanticism, and the fact that Matthews was himself a handsome lad with a very distinctive style seemed to be a perfect signing for the label and the artist.
And for a while, it was. Matthews’ debut, It’s Heavy In Here, was both a critical and commercial success. It was a much-needed confidence builder for the label who then began to round out its late ’90s roster with a wider variety of artists. But by the time Eric gave the label his second platter, Sub Pop was financially overextended. And when 1997’s The Lateness Of The Hour failed to match the sales figures of its predecessor, Matthews was unceremoniously dropped.
For nearly eight years he remained silent, appearing only as a session player for the Dandy Warhols, Elliott Smith, and others. But when Empyrean Records began looking into the idea of re-issuing the first Cardinal album, a chamber-pop landmark from 1994 featuring Matthews and Richard Davies, they also offered him a chance to release some solo material as well. This must have fueled a creative surge as Matthews has provided fans with nearly an album a year since 2005. They were also treated with the rumors that he and Davies were again collaborating on a new Cardinal album for 2009. While that reunion again met with dissolution, Matthews found himself with no shortage of projects to keep him occupied including an instrumental collaboration with guitarist Christopher Seink named Seinking Ships and a solo effort that looks to be the most lyrically ambitious of his career.
Glorious Noise caught up with Eric Matthews to learn more about these upcoming projects and to get his thoughts on recording technology, Star Wars, and the golden age of Chrysler muscle cars.
GLONO: It appears that 2009 is going to be a busy year for you, but the Cardinal reunion sounds like it will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon. Why not?
Eric Matthews: That’s hard to get into. Speaking in a generic sense, I just think it’s a generally toxic idea to have two highly creative people on the same project. Sting once said that the Police worked so well because it was not a democracy, but instead a hostile dictatorship. Now, Richard doesn’t feel that way but I am more in the Sting camp. But I would never want to ride rough-shot over Richard or any bandmate. Things would have gone better with Cardinal if we had had somebody else in charge. With me being the defacto producer and arranger, and multi-instrumentalist it was just too much power in my hands given the fact that I didn’t write the bulk of the songs. Richard has a well-deserved ego and my working style, and all the control just wasn’t right for him, or for me. So we shut it down.
GLONO: On a happier note, there is no shortage of new material it seems, even with the Cardinal reunion on hold.
EM: The Seinking Ships LP is “in the can” as they say. The debut EP sort of came out on Empyrean last summer (MP3 sample) and we have a full-length mixed and ready for mastering. On the LP Miki Berenyi from LUSH is the guest singer. She did an amazing job in her comeback to the music business, singing for the first time in more than a decade. So, we are actively shopping that project to labels and really hope to get it out in 2009. I have my fans and Miki has a few million fans who loved LUSH so it seems like a no brainer. But let’s not overlook the music. The songs are amazing. My partner Christopher Seink starts all the songs, writes the core sets of chords and then hands them to me for further development and writing. I had never done anything like this with somebody else and it ended up a total pleasure.
And yeah, I just finished my next album. It’s mixed and ready for mastering. It should be out by the fall of this year if things go according to plan. It’s a real step up for me. I am working now with an expanded system of harmony and it’s starting to sound a little weird. It’s not by force; it’s the destiny of anybody like myself that is in search for the highest possible expression. I am really proud of this album. It’s called Too Much World and the lyrics are super-serious. It’s kind of a theme album on how I believe our society has gone out of control and down a series of very dangerous paths. It’s the kind of subject matter I have always dealt with but on a more over-reaching level. This time around, l have gone global.
GLONO: What does the world have too much of?
EM: No, you have missed the meaning entirely. It’s that I have had too much world. Like having too much drink or food, I am full of what I believe is a poisonous level of influence of what The World has had to offer. It’s about having reached a saturation point of those things that do not edify the spirit. It’s both a dark condemnation of our society as well as a crying out on a personal level that my soul become satisfied by things more spiritual. But again, I take it way beyond myself and speak more to the people of today, everywhere. I believe that there is a collective experience underway where people are reaching for all the wrong things.There is much religious imagery and end times discussed. I feel like time is running out on this whole thing. This is the first serious effort in what I hope will be a series of albums that are so miserable and full or fear-fueled warnings for humanity, and for myself…
GLONO: What are some noticeable differences that fans will notice between the new record and your previous solo output?
EM: Mysteriously, my singing has grown in its power. I am yelling much of the record through instead of the soft voice that has most often dominated on my records. And the arrangements/orchestrations – they are reaching new levels that are kind of shocking. There are far more stings and orchestral instruments on this one than on any of my records so far. This album has its first true instrumental song. Of all the people to have waited this long into this kind of career, I am the really strange to have avoided it.
It’s a mini-symphony. That should stand out because though I have been so known as an orchestral artist I had never actually sat with the purpose of making something that could stand on its own as a pure musical work, with no voice.
GLONO: Technology has made it easier for artists/composers/producers to incorporate huge sonic landscapes into their recordings. What are your thoughts on technology as it relates to symphonic pop music?
EM: The technology helps everybody. A slob with no business making music can now sit down and make impressive recordings of terrible ideas but because as you point out, that the sounds are so “sonic”, can sometimes pass for real, viable art. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so but it’s none of my business. But for guys like me this technology has been a blessing of unbelievable scope. If for no other reason, the fact that I can now have strings on my records without having to spend thousands of dollars (per song sometimes) is a massive advancement. I now use something called The Garritan Strings. It’s actual Seattle Symphony guys sampled, using up to date methods that very closely resemble the real thing. It’s not quite “Memorex” but it’s getting scarily close. But still, no matter what the technology, a great work of music will never come from a man who has a mediocre musical mind.
GLONO: Some of us were drawn to Star Wars‘ visuals, others the merchandizing and some were simply enamored with Princess Leia’s cleavage. You, apparently, were drawn to John Williams’ score…What was it about the score of this and other films that draws you in and fuels your own inspiration?
EM: Leia was a butter-face, let’s face it. But the music for that film was amazing. Primarily the romantic and slower quieter themes in that score got me. But even in some of the action scores there was utter magic. In fact, I put it on the other night and I would ask the readers here to put the movie on and go to the classic trench scene where Luke is trying to hit his impossible target. It’s when Obi is in his head saying to “trust the force”, Luke sets his sight equipment and trusts his instinct instead. Listen to that music over that scene and I challenge anybody to present to me a more terrifying and tense bit of music. Williams is a man filled with horror. He smiles, has daughters, big yachts, and all manner of earthly reward but trust me, the whole fucking thing (his life) is an act. He is filled with terrible monsters that have been eating at him and fueling the notes of his better work. I am like him but the baby idiot version.
GLONO: I understand that you make a mean soup and fancy yourself to be a decent gourmet. There are huge similarities between chefs and composers in my mind: a little coriander replaces a little cello, etc. When did you begin composing in the kitchen and what dish that you create are you especially proud of?
EM: Neither is an exact science. The great cook and the great composer know when they get it right but still there is the matter of the crowd, the review. Other than that, I am not sure I see the similarity. But when a plate of food is comprised of real complexities combined with perfectly performed methods it can be like a good piece of music the best part of your day. I have created many dishes but really just seek mostly at improving the classics. When I say improving, I mean to say, make them more healthy while the audience has not way of knowing what they are eating is good or, better for them than the traditional recipes. I am trying to think of a true EM kitchen original – but I can’t at the moment. I have a massive folder filled with what may someday become a cookbook. We will see.
GLONO: In high school, I cruised southeast Iowa in a huge Plymouth Fury III with a Commando V-8 engine. To paraphrase Willie Dixon, it was built for comfort and not built for speed. Nonetheless, the low-end rumbling of that 383 engine did make me a fan of those late-’60s Mopar cars. What’s your Mopar dream car?
EM: Part of this shift, that thing that produced Too Much World has taken me away from my concern for cars and the things of man. That said, there is still part of me that marvels at what “they” use to make. Mopar did the best job of combining aesthetic design with mechanical genius, power-wise. So, what’s my favorite Mopar? Sadly, I would have to say my 1965 Dodge Monaco. I found it in a book and fell in love. Then in 1996 I found one for sale one mile from my house. It’s just a lovely car and the one I have is a 413 big block with a 4 barrel carb. It is super powerful and amazing looking. I am more of an early ’60s Mopar guy. 1965 was the very beginning of a very drastic design era, no more curves, no more suggestion of a rear wings, long and low and totally elegant. The sad part is that I have decided I need to sell the damn thing. My house is my dream house but the dream did not come with a garage. I live in a downtown area of a very small town. The house is from 1909, once a church, and so it has no garage. And because of historical bull crap, I can’t build a garage. So, my classics are sitting outside on the street gathering dust and too much of this Oregon rain. It’s time to let go. In preparation I went out and got myself a big ugly ultra-modern-whorehouse Chevy Suburban. But you know, I love it. It weighs about 7000 pounds and rides like a Cadillac. And most importantly, if I get into a big crash on one of these mountain roads I am pretty sure that I will win, the other guy dies, and I walk away still breathing. Driving is all about combat in my mind.
GLONO: Classic cars and vintage gear go hand in hand in my world. What piece of vintage equipment do you have in your possession that you treasure most?
EM: That’s a tough one. I have lots of instruments. I have a 1923 E-Flat Euphonium and that thing is a gem. I have a 1959 King B3 Symphonic Trombone and that is a real pleasure to play on records, sounds amazing. And my hand picked 1984 Bach Stradavarius Model C trumpet is very important. I love my 1962 Gibson guitar amp, the tremolo is the best I have ever used. So, I don’t know, it’s a real debate that I am not willing to have. I can’t pit all that cool old shit against itself. And all that said, I don’t have a big hang up about old instruments or gear. Most of my favorite guitars and gear is less than 20 years old.
GLONO: Name a few artists that, given the opportunity, you’d love to produce or collaborate with and tell us why they’re on your short list.
EM: The crass truth would be to say that anybody who can write a big check. But the real truth is pretty insane.
I am already working with, or have worked with many of my heroes. I know work with some frequency with the guys from XTC and Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy. I like mostly working with unknown artists. I am not big on collaborations. I didn’t seek these situations out, they came to me. So, it’s tough, I think I could enjoy and be productive with anyone of my heroes but really, does David Sylvian need me?
Eric Matthews: web, MySpace, wiki.
Video: Eric Matthews – “Fanfare” from It’s Heavy In Here
MP3: Eric Matthews – “Little 18” from The Imagination Stage.
2 thoughts on “Glorious Noise Interview: Eric Matthews”
Good to know Matthews is out there busy making more of his haunting, wonderful music. (Man, I wish I had the cash to take one of those cool cars off his hands.)
Thanks for this.
I have loved Eric’s records since the start of his career.
I was in the band that followed Cardinal on that first night at The Middle East Cafe back in 1992. I can’t say that that Cardinal set was great but I kept up with Cardinal because the singing was so great. Months later I got the Toy Bell EP and I loved that thing. And that lead me later to Eric’s career at Sub Pop and later at Empyrean. Not all the records have been classics but they are all good.
But thanks for the great article and rare interview from this master.