We talk to Matthew Dear about the evolution of his solo work, his different outlets, collaborative work, and of course his new album Beams.
When you released Black City, I felt there was a distinct change in the feel of your music. There was a kind of switch from beat driven house to more melodic driven experimental music. Would you say that was the case?
Yeah, definitely. I think I was trying to get somewhere and maybe that reflects it, you know?
Why would you say there was a change? Was it a conscious thing?
No, it’s hard to describe how it happens. It wasn’t a conscious decision.
Would you say your music is at a parallel with your state of being, your life in general, or your mentality?
Absolutely. My studio is at my house, so I can go down there and just start working straight away. When I work, the mood that I’m in is reflected totally – it just gets thrown onto the songs. So, you know, Black City was a bit more difficult, a bit more intense, and that was really reflected in the album. There was a certain attention to detail that was projected onto the songs. Whereas, I think this new album (Beams) is not a clarity by any means, but it is certainly a clearing of the fog.
I feel like your music it really gone in a really steep incline and then levelled out more recently with these two albums.
I know, I’m worried! So what comes next am I going to crash?!
You’ve more recently talked about wanting your music to be more listenable, so do you think that you’ve achieved that with Beams?
For me, the goal is to make the music sound more dense, more rich, with more flavour. It’s about me just being able to do more in the studio, wanting to push different buttons, tweak things — but never to the point that it’s so out of hand that it freaks people out.
In my opinion Beams is more listenable, and I feel like there’s something going for it. I think that my lyrics and the vocals are a bit more present and upfront, and the melodies are a bit more attainable to the listener.
I noticed that the baseline of ‘Earthforms’ is quite post-punk. Can you talk me through how you wrote it and where the idea for that came from?
‘Earthforms’ starts with a segment of music like a loop of the bass, or the drums. After I thought up the rhythm, I played around in the studio, and started thinking that this might need a bass guitar. For ‘Earthforms’ I tuned second string down to an A, down lower.
I was listening to a lot of Sonic Youth the day before. The bass line tells me how I’m going to sing the song; the melody dictates which lyrics I’m going to pick. The music all just kind of falls in to place by itself, so I try not to get in the way.
Were you classically trained in music? Is everything just instinctive?
Oh I’m very, very, very layman as a musician in terms of what I can play.
Do you think not being classically trained holds you back, or do you find it more freeing?
It goes both ways. There’s a simplicity to my music that comes from me not really knowing how to play well – instrumentation doesn’t get in the way. At the same time, I’m sure there are a lot of really beautiful patterns and melodies that I could be playing if I knew how to play guitar a bit better.
Does your live band help to fill in those gaps?
Yeah, totally. They’re good musicians, they know what to do.
Do you think it’s important to challenge people to listen to your music? To make it almost harder, slower to digest, so that it maybe evolves over time? Or do you try to make it more immediately listenable?
It just comes out the way it comes out naturally. People say it takes along to figure out what I’m doing, which I think works in the end. I like riddles in life, I like mystery and non-clear forms of art; I think that music should be that way as well. I do like a pure, straight song as well, but for me it’s easier to convey messages when there are so many different outlets and angles that you can take.
That kind of applies to your lyrics as well. They’re more like abstract poetry. You were talking in a previous interview about creating more space between music, too…
It’s a mood you know? This album is more about the different things you can say with the groove and the structure of a song, and the moments of silence in between. I think ‘Shake Me’ would be a good example of that. It evolved in steps – I first wrote it in 2003. The demo was just the piano loop and me singing; now, revisiting it more recently, I really wanted to work on these big, broad drum sounds that kind of connect with each other.
How many songs on this album are old songs that you reworked and how many were brand new?
‘Shake Me’ was the oldest for sure. The songs mostly span over a year and a half. The most recent, I think, is ‘Fantasy’.
I really like the sense of bringing old songs back to life; I’ve said before, it’s like revisiting an old soul and seeing how I was when I originally wrote the piece. With ‘Deserter’, the lyrics are about me addressing who I am now – I wrote it to who I thought I’d become.
Was your prediction of who you thought you’d become an accurate one?
I think so, haha! I’m drawing a blank on the lyrics now but if you read them out, it’s pretty much just a letter to my future self.
What would you say is the most distinctive song on Beams?
I think ‘Temptation’, the last track on the album, is the most honest song I’ve ever written. I knew it had to be at the end. It’s about a certain chunk of my life; its placement on the album is a good stopping point, and a launch pad from which to start working on the next album.
How different are your individual musical outlets, as far as what benefits they give you as a musician?
DJing is different, like playing last night in London in a warehouse to 500 or so people losing themselves in a feeling and a groove is something I can’t do so much with my band. There are some bands that can accomplish that, but that isn’t my goal; my band is more about starting at avery low level, escalating to occasional peaks – it’s a very up-and-down experience. DJing is more streamlined for me – it’s not meant to be full of constant drops and peaks, but there’s meant to be this energy and groove that’s more consistent. Different people latch on to my different musical outlets it in different ways, but I need them all to make me feel whole.
Are there any skills that should be specific to say DJing, recording or playing with your band that you have found transposing on to a different project?
I learn things playing with the band that I take to the studio and reuse – whether it be effects, processing my voice on stage or generally making certain elements more present. Each project influences another.
Do you think there’s anything that is particularly viable that you’ve learned from listening to other artists?
Yeah. Sound quality is something I want to tame – the perfect mix – learning how sound is transferred into the live environment. Something that sounds good at home or at the studio sounds totally different on a huge system – the frequency changes. There’s a science behind the song, as well as the energy and the soul. So it’s about trying to hear all that and make it work in my music.
What do you think is harder to perfect, live sound or mixing recordings?
Live sound for sure – it’s so hard. There are so many things that change, so many variables – each venue has a different sound system. Being able to have your peak performance package with the equipment that you use on stage is difficult.
My setup isn’t just bass, drums and guitar – that’s pretty straight forward, but I could turn up and play anywhere if it was that way. I have computers, synthesizers, and all this stuff that could go haywire. I have sounds and frequencies that could work really well on a certain system, then not so well on a smaller system. I need to be able to change it on the fly to make it work. I have to tweak things constantly, so live can just be crazy.
A few years ago you were saying that the European population really loved your electronic stuff. Obviously the climate has changed so much now. How do you think your audience has changed within the last couple of years? Especially in America, where electronic and dance music has taken off on a whole new level.
It’s totally different now. I played PS1 in New York, which is a really cool outdoor Saturday party – and you see all the people there who are the same people you would have seen at a rock show four or five years ago. People just love dance music now. When I was doing this when the genre wasn’t so popular it was on the sidelines, the kind of music that people didn’t really listen to for fun. Dance music is more social now; it wasn’t always like that.
Can you tell me about your artwork? How does that reflect your music? On earlier albums they were very simplistic, but now it’s developed into kind of a more painting style. Previously it’s had quite a dark theme, whereas Beams is colourful. Is this aesthetic change strong reflection of the way your music has developed?
Yeah, my life is a bit more colourful now. I’ve been touring for over 10 years, and there are ups and downs with that. There are ways that you adjust to it all and take it in, and I think I’m on a different trajectory to where I was 10 years prior to now. Beams is an example of that.
In terms of the artwork specifically, I sat down with Michael Cina – he’s the guy that painted the portrait – and I told him a lot of ideas. He’s more of an abstract artist. We discussed goals and moods; I asked him to focus on certain colours, patches and certain areas. He came back with the idea that we should do a portrait together. It’s a very collaborative process.
Everything I do is all about the team – my label, my art, remixes, everything. I’m just the music; I can’t do everything. What’s to say that Michael’s cover isn’t just as important, if not more important, than the music? It’s a way for his art to be exposed to the public.
Two heads are better than one.
Yeah, or five!
Do you pay attention to new electronic acts or DJs? Do you listen to what sort of trends or sounds are emerging?
I try to, admittedly not as much as I should. I just get so caught up in my own little world of music.
Which artists have you seen emerging this year that you’ve been into?
I’ve been into Andy Stott – I really like his dark twists of filtered techno. And Blawan.
Any live dates coming up?
Yeah I think I’m back in December.