Progress Report: Prepping their second album, the follow up to 1994’s Cardinal for release in 2011 (they are currently unsigned). Recorded outside Portland and in Cape Cod.
Eric Matthews is surprisingly friendly, talkative, and funny over the phone. During our interview, I had to put him on hold to open the door for someone, and when I got back, he’d been singing a song into the receiver. All this is only a surprise because of Matthews’s reputation as an exacting, serious musician who prefers to work alone. It all pointed to someone who doesn’t like interviews. Turns out, though, that the whole working alone part is mostly for convenience — he lives outside Portland, close to the woods and with his own home studio (and one he’s building in an old church). The collaborations over the phone and internet, with people like his Seinking Ships partner Christopher Seink, and Miki Berenyii, mostly take place via that way because others are too far away, or too busy, to record in person. In fact, the length of time between the last Cardinal record in 1994 and this one seems to have a lot to do with the time it took for the technology to get fast enough to allow cross-country collaborations. This same technology has also allowed Matthews to explore and record his ideas as quickly as he comes up with them, as you can hear on his excellent solo album The Imagination Stage.
In other words, Davies’s and Matthews’s intra-band arguments have nothing to do with why it’s taken so long. Well, it has a little to do with it. “With Richard and I, there are always ups and downs. But, where we are currently is pretty much in a up,” Matthews says. “And things are friendly. Often with us things can be tense. So this is a nice buffer, the space between us.”
Time also seemed to be a good buffer for the pair. Davies and Matthews released their sole LP as Cardinal in 1994 before disbanding in favor of separate and solo projects. Then around 2005 they had to start talking again for the Cardinal reissue. Matthews says that by 2007 they were talking again, and Davies hired him to write arrangements for his solo album Tonight Music. It went well enough for Davies to suggest that they make another Cardinal album. Matthews was up for it. And, he says, it happened the way it should have. “I would have waited for him, and that’s because Cardinal is a vehicle for his songwriting. His songs. I’m the helper. I play a bunch of the instruments and I arrange things, and I produce, and I sing harmony. But, really, it is his thing.”
Since then they’ve been trading recordings and ideas. Matthews became friends with a Boston-based musician and engineer named Luis Leal, who travels to Davies’s home in Cape Cod to record (Davies is a full-time lawyer now, so it’s hard for him to record elsewhere), and to add in his own instrumental pieces. Recording has been slow-going, with some breaks (and ups and downs) in between. One down was low enough that Matthews posted a few of the Cardinal album demos online, thinking that they’d never get released otherwise. But things are back on track.
“Well, when we argued it’s just been about music, you know, we never had any personal beefs really,” Matthews explains. “The only reason I ever took up with him in the first place is because I think he is a genius, you know?” And they work very well together, when they aren’t together. For instance, one of Matthews favorite songs they’ve recorded, “General Hospital,” is one that he also co-wrote, though he gives Davies much of the credit for it. “Richard came up with some of the best ideas ever on this song,” he says. “He has such imagination. The concept on ‘General Hospital,’ it’s a song sung by a near?dying patient at a hospital. There are several refrains: ‘Nurse! Nurse!’ It’s really urgent. He paints pictures, dreary pictures of disease and waiting.” Another, “I Am A Roman Gypsy,” also features a funny and strange Davies narrative, and Matthews thinks it’ll be the strongest connection to their first album, for their fans who have been waiting for their sophomore album for the last 15 years.
Their workflow isn’t really back-and-forth, or collaborative. Matthews co-wrote two of the 11 songs they have in mind for the release, but most of the tracks move from Davies to Matthews. For instance, with a song called “Her,” which Matthews describes as a “romantic pop song mellow, kind of early ‘70s,” Matthews got the track from Davies and added guitar and drums, then 12-string acoustic guitar, then 12-string electric guitar, piano, then horn. Each instrumental addition was sent back to Davies, who gave his opinion and sent it back. In some cases, earlier in the process, Matthews would send songs back to Davies, asking him to add on more vocals, or ask if the song was appropriate for Cardinal. The latter? Also part of the “downs” of creating a record via internet. “We are all generally kind of fragile and protective of the songs we are writing. And so, when your partner of many years tells you, ‘Well, I don’t think that song’s right for the record. Try another one.’ ….those are the downs that we had, where it would get rocky a little bit in discussing what songs to do and stuff like that, he says.
The back-and-forth takes time, so there isn’t a set release date or even a set tracklist for Cardinal album yet. Meanwhile both have had other projects. There’s Davies’s Cosmos project with Robert Pollard and Matthews’s Seinking Ships. Matthews also has two newer solo albums, one called Too Much World, and another almost completed. In December he’ll travel to New York, where an off-Broadway company is doing a revue (with choreography, scenes, multimedia) entirely made up of Matthews’s songs, titled Bible And Wine. He says he’ll looking forward to this rare trip to the East Coast, and to the city. For now, he and Davies don’t have plans to meet up.
He sent one of the tracks they’re working on for the Cardinal record:
Cardinal – “Carbolic Smoke Ball”
And here’s one from Too Much World:
Eric Matthews – “Exactly Like Them”
There’s also a ‘trailer’ for Bible And Wine: