Q&A: Matthew E. White On The Unexpected Success Of His Debut Album, Big Inner, And What Happens Next
In a year already frontloaded with critically beloved and big name releases, it might be easy to overlook one of the year’s most wonderful records — Matthew E. White’s Big Inner. Originally released in 2012 on Hometapes and given a proper re-release earlier this year via Domino, Big Inner is, in some ways, something of a lark. Recorded in White’s attic at home in Richmond, Virginia alongside the Spacebomb House Band (a coterie of local Richmond musicians White has assembled to work as an ongoing collective), the album originally created as a kind of experiment. (“Originally I was only supposed to press, like, 250 copies of this thing!” he says) After sharing the recordings with friends, the album eventually took on a life of it’s own — eventually garnering a deal with Domino and sending White out on the road with his band for the better part of two years. Garnering comparisons to everyone from Allen Toussaint to, more frequently, Randy Newman, Big Inner is a fascinating hybrid of American roots music and jazz-infused gospel — a sonic experiment that addresses religion and human failings with the kind of open-hearted earnestness that is exceptionally rare within the milieu of contemporary indie rock. I caught up with White during his recent visit to NYC to discuss just how Big Inner came to be and how the record has essentially changed his life completely.
STEREOGUM: I know you recently came back from playing in Europe. How were the shows?
WHITE: They were great, they were awesome! Crazy, and sort of surreal. I’d never done a tour over there before.
STEREOGUM: You played for a lot of people?
WHITE: Yeah, lots of people. A lot of energy, and just a lot of interest in the record. It’s really cool.
STEREOGUM: Have you been surprised by the reaction to the record? There’s been so much love for it.
WHITE: Yeah in a way, I mean … I think you make art, at least I do, because you think you have something worthwhile to say. So in that sense I felt like I had something to say musically. But you don’t know … I didn’t really have any expectations … and I certainly would never have anticipated the amount of positive feedback I’ve gotten. I hoped that people might pay attention to it and give it a chance, but yeah, I have definitely been surprised by how many people have done that and responded to it and kept responding to it. At this point the record has actually been out since August of 2012, but the growth isn’t particularly fading. It seems like, in terms of my schedule, it’s not fading at all.
STEREOGUM: How much touring have you done so far?
WHITE: It hasn’t been totally constant, but I’ve played like 70 shows or something in support of the record.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy that? Playing live?
WHITE: Yeah, what’s been interesting about it is I certainly didn’t expect to be playing live this much. I made the record simply to make a record and I feel very at home in the studio and working with other people – other musicians – and that process was sort of the point of the record. I didn’t have a band; I just made the record to make music. I was actually laughing today, because when I got the band together it became apparent that we’d have to tour a bit – well not that we’d have to, but that we’d play a few shows since we were being asked to. Stuff was popping up here and there. What was originally gonna be this three week run with the Mountain Goats last October has basically turned into what will end up being a year-plus of playing shows pretty nonstop. So what’s been interesting about the tour is that it has really grown from something I really didn’t expect to do to at all into something that I’m more or less doing for a living. That was not expected. And it’s been fun to sort of grow into that. There’s a challenge to playing live that’s different than making a record – to me they’re totally different things. Playing live is different energy, it comes and goes, the moment passes, and with a record it’s something you can listen to over and over again. They’re just fundamentally different and capturing a musical moment on a record is different than capturing a moment live. I think that’s fun. It’s a fun challenge, it’s different from making recorded music, and it’s just fun playing music and getting the opportunity to play your own stuff and have people pay attention. That doesn’t happen to everybody. It’s actually relatively rare that anyone’s asking you to play 150 shows. For me that is something to just be thankful for – that people are paying attention to it and want to hear it and that I get to do it and play music with one of my best friends. It’s something I’m genuinely happy for and thankful to be doing.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny, I was talking to a friend about your record and he was like, “I really love this record and it’s so unlike something I wouldn’t normally like. I wouldn’t normally be into something so gospel-y but for some reason I really love this.” Do you often have that kind of response from people? That “Normally I wouldn’t be into this, but for some reason this I’m into.”
WHITE: Yeah. I’ve sort of felt an unusual attraction to the record from the start … since I started sharing rough mixes of the record. You know, originally I was supposed to only press like 250 copies of this thing. That really was what it was. I was a music teacher and I just made a record on my own with some friends and made a pressing. It was totally DIY. And it was the foundation of this label, but Spacebomb had this long, long-term vision of “Let’s do a bunch of this local DIY kind of shit and maybe over the course of years it’ll build into something.” But from the get go things happened really fast. I shared the mix with Hometapes, and they were like, “Listen this can’t just be a local release, let us put this out” and so it went to Hometapes, which led to signing to Domino and then the international release. So I felt like people responded to it, and what for me has been very abnormal, especially since all the music I made before this was very avant-garde music. I’m sort of used to difficult music and music that’s not particularly audience friendly the way music is that has songs with lyrics. Also what’s interesting about it is the age difference at the shows, there are 20 year-old kids there and there are 60 year-old people there, consistently, and that’s been fun. It’s fun to share music with a live audience; it’s rewarding. So anyway, I’ve had that – maybe not that exact thing – but that spirit of, “Hey this music seems to be unique in some way,” vibe from the beginning.
STEREOGUM: Coming from the background of making what is ostensibly much more “difficult” kinds of music, what was the impetus for doing this? Were you raised up around this kind of music?
WHITE: By “this kind of music” you mean songs … with words? [laughs] I mean yeah, I think that was a thing. I went to college for jazz studies and jazz arrangement and I think there’s a sort of … when you’re growing and learning about how notes work together and how rhythms work together, you’re just pushing the boundaries of what music can be. That also meant listening to hours of avant-garde jazz and experimental music and noise. You come back to a place where you’re like, “Okay what is the music that you sort of loved in a very pure emotional way?” Like when I was 3 years old I listened to the Beach Boys all the time, I didn’t listen to Albert Ayler when I was 5, you know what I mean? [laughs] So it comes back to you … and you’re pushing, pushing, pushing, and there comes a point when you’re like, “Well let me take what I’ve learned and that sensibility and make something that’s more ‘natural’ in some way.” I want to take all that knowledge and experimentation and then … make a song. That’s what it comes back to. That’s what I grew up loving. You can push all you want but I think the real challenge is taking that knowledge and taking all that information and having that feed back into something that is a little bit more structured, because that is what is hard. It’s tough to take a four-minute song and make it really mean something lyrically and musically and make it go on its own journey. There’s a great Bob Dylan quote that, “a song is anything that has legs that can walk.” It’s true. You want to make something that is alive. And you can do that in a lot of ways, and for me it was a challenge and kind of a kick after 10 years of making free jazz. At some point it’s like…I just wanted to sing a four-minute song. And now that I’ve been on tour for six months playing this music it makes me want to play noise for 10 minutes on stage.
STEREOGUM: I think that might have something to do with why it resonates with people. Not that there aren’t bands making songs or making music that’s traditional sounding or beautiful — there are. But still, as someone who gets sent like five or six records a day I’d say that sometimes you’re sort of overwhelming with things that are – and it’s not even the band’s fault necessarily or even a bad thing–but when you’re confronted with really dissonant music or just really weird shit almost constantly when there’s something that comes across your desk that is really beautiful and gentle it really … it’s so refreshing. And it sticks out.
WHITE: Cause in a lot of ways that’s – and I’m not saying this applies to my music – but that’s the hardest shit to make, to make something that works for everybody and works for your ears – and is rewarding. It’s not like singing “happy birthday” or something. I think about people that really go there, whether it is classical composers or … Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong is a great example or Duke Ellington. That music often seems so easy, so simple, but it’s soooo hard. Or Count Basie! You listen to Count Basie’s band and then you listen to Albert Ayler or John Coltrane and by comparison Count Basie’s music is so clean, so organized, but it is SO hard to do that. You hear music that tries to be like that all the time, or there’s a lot of music that tries to be like that. Like Bob Dylan, everyone has tried to be Bob Dylan since Bob Dylan first emerged … but you can’t do it. It’s so hard to distill all of our influences and what we’ve learned into something that works in the same way … it’s tough. It’s easier sometimes to play like a crazy person. I think of it like, jazz has been such a big influence, sometimes it’s easier to play with a lot of energy and a lot of noise and play very visceral than it is to play like a sweet 12 bar solo over a ballad or something like that, even though it seems saccharin or not as pleasing in some ways but it’s like, that’s hard. Hard hard hard. They’re different things, but … distilling things into something that’s your own is tough.
STEREOGUM: The subject matter of your record is also really unusual within the world of what people would think of as Pitchfork-y indie rock. Like there are certain things that people don’t often tackle in a very earnest way, either because it’s difficult or it’s simply not fashionable. To talk about religious or spiritual ideas in a really honest way that’s not ironic or flatly dismissive … is really kind of rare. Also, things that celebrate joy or happiness in a non-ironic way are almost equally rare.
WHITE: That’s sort of a bummer, huh? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Anger, melancholy, romantic despair … those seem to be much more easily accessible emotions in contemporary music.
WHITE: Yeah, it’s funny because I didn’t really think about that. That was something I worried about a lot less than the sonic quality of the record. When I made the record I was aware that how it sounded was going to be different than a lot of things, but as far as the songs concerned, I didn’t really … the last five minutes of “Brazos” I knew was going to stick out, but at the same time I thought about 200 people were ever going to hear this record, so it didn’t really concern me. It still doesn’t really concern me. But the stakes … I mean, I was making it without much of a big audience in mind. People will tell me the record has a sense of hope and a lot of people will ask me if that was the intention … and the answer really is no, that’s wasn’t intended [laughs]. I don’t even know if you asked me about the theme of the record if I would have even said that … or if I’d known what the theme really was. I think it comes across really almost sub-consciously from my point of view, obviously I’m writing stuff but I’m not … I’m just writing. I was writing songs and I co-wrote with my friend Andy, and was just writing songs that … basically I didn’t want them to hinder anything. I wanted them to be good enough … so that people didn’t look at them as being bad. Does that make sense? I want to be able to play the songs and not have people be like, “that song sucks!” Cause I’d never really written traditional “songs” before so I didn’t have any goals beyond that. If the lyrics have something to say, if the arrangements have something to say, if the players have something to say then I can make something special. I don’t need my voice to dominate; I just need it to be good enough that it can be an appropriate piece of the puzzle. So I wasn’t writing with an agenda in the sense that I was trying to say something really. It was very natural. I didn’t have an agenda in mind, but when people sort of bring that up — the apparent themes of the record — It’s pretty satisfying to hear because that’s very much just me. That’s how I view the world, in this hopeful way. That people pick up on that is an affirmation that a very sub-conscious part of myself is coming across that I’m not really even attempting to put out there … and that’s kinda cool because you want your music to be sort of particular to you in a very natural way. I do that in pro-active ways when it comes to the music and arrangements, but to hear some things like that about the lyrics and themes … it’s cool because it wasn’t so pro-active. It was very subconscious.
STEREOGUM: You are subconsciously optimistic and unknowingly spiritual. Also, I love the idea of something taking on the life of its own and going somewhere you don’t expect it to. Do you have a sense of when this cycle of touring will be done … and what you might do next?
WHITE: Yeah, I think towards the end of the year the touring will be done. I recorded the record in the beginning of 2011. So for a long time now I’ve been focused mostly on this. Spacebomb has other artists coming out soon, so even though that’s not directly me that involves all the records that I’ve sort of A&R’d, and curated, and produced, and arranged … so this throughout this summer and fall and into the beginning of next year that’ll be happening. And for a long time I’ve sort of been brainstorming about what I want to do next. We recorded this record in seven days. It was just like, “Here’s an idea, let’s just do it real quick and see what happens.” That’s not to say we didn’t work out butts off on it – because we did – but the idea was kind of … “What if I wrote songs, worked them out with a rhythm section, we booked a few days in the studio, I did horn arrangements, someone did string arrangements, someone did choir arrangements, we threw them all together, we did some other shit, and mixed them all together…what would that sound like?” That is basically what Big Inner is. The idea of making a more fully developed kind of recorded, artistic statement has [laughing] sort of been on the table since before that record was made. The great thing about Domino being so supportive involves having the resources to making a real recording project sort of along the lines you always hope for as a musician and that’s really a dream come true. I know that sounds really cliché but to be in a position where I get to look at my next record and say, “Well this is what I really want to do,” and know that I’ll really be able to do that and really go for some special stuff, I think that’s amazing. You know, you don’t know how many records you’re going to get to make in your lifetime. Not only because of what’s going to happen in your life personally, but because of outside support and … you don’t know, you don’t know what’s going to happen. So I look at my next recording project and it’s like, “Hell yeah, let’s do this, let’s swing for the fences!” because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a lot of ideas.
STEREOGUM: Do you imagine it to be something very different from Big Inner?
WHITE: No. Well … yes, and no. There’s … I feel like Big Inner is very much a seed, and things I want to do are sort of outgrowths of the basic idea of working with a lot of musicians, working with written music, but we’re also working with experimental music–and finding a spot where those all meet and support a song in a unique way. I think that was the goal on Big Inner and I think there’s a lot more to do with that idea, you know? So yeah, I’m sure a lot of it will be different, but to me at least the core will be similar … I’m not gonna make like a synth and drum machine record. At least not on the next record [laughs]. That’d be totally fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’d be a big change conceptually from what I’m doing now, and that’s not gonna happen … at least for the next one.
STEREOGUM: How does the success of this record impact doing the label and the continued growth of the Spacebomb collective?
WHITE: Well really, more than anything, it helps us. It allows us to get on our feet a little bit, and in a lot of ways the idea of Spacebomb was built on resources that weren’t there. It was a sort of “build it and they will come” mentality, and it really worked out … in a better way than any of us could ever have imagined in that sense. That there are people interested worldwide – because my story is so tied with the label – and people that are interested in my record hopefully will be interested in the next Spacebomb thing and to how that ties into the bigger picture of making music in a community. It’s always a challenge when you’re a working musician to find time for the things you want to do, but that’s also the best problem you could ever have. The best problem I could ever have is, “Oh … am I going to do this Australian tour or am I gonna get home in time to mix this new record and get some A&R ideas for this fall?” That’s the best thing that could be happening, and if I’m stressed out or if I’m worried because of things like that then … that’s where I want to be. And again you don’t know how long people will be paying attention and I don’t take that for granted. Also, I don’t expect people to pay attention unless it’s good, especially in today’s sort of musical world and infrastructure you don’t get … there’s just so much out there. You don’t get a watchful eye from everybody for very long. So for me it’s about taking advantage of how people are paying a little bit of attention to not just my stuff, but the Spacebomb stuff and to work my butt off to make it as good as it can possibly be so that we can do more of it.
Matthew E. White’s Big Inner is out now on Domino