When we spoke with Matt Popieluch about non-album track “Wander Aimlessly,” the Foreign Born vocalist/guitarist/”lo-fi renaissance man” mentioned that the song was partially inspired while he was driving to “a shitty temp job.” A few days later I asked him about his current employment situation and it turns out he works for the environmental non-profit TreePeople. As he noted:
I am a grounds-keeper in Coldwater Canyon Park, where they are based. I am at times a glorified, outdoor janitor, sometimes architect/handy man and street-sweeper (those dudes with orange vests). I catch run-away dogs and occasionally run into very famous people who are trying to jog like “normal” people. I water trees, take out the trash, and pitchfork tons and tons and tons of mulch!! I also get to destroy shit with sledgehammers now and then! I am surrounded by squirrels and lizards all day and find myself digging lots holes and sweeping lots of gutters. I’ve worked here full time for over a year.
He said if I had any additional questions I should feel free to ask them, so I did. After our discussion, you can take another listen to “Early Warnings” and the Quit Your Day Job-appropriate “Vacationing People,” both from the band’s sophomore album Person To Person.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain TreePeople a bit? How did you get involved?
MATT POPIELUCH: TreePeople is an environmental non-profit that was started in the 1970’s to help improve air quality in Los Angeles through the planting of trees. From there it expanded to include an educational wing and to focus on water conservation and reforesting fire-scarred areas. TreePeople is based in Coldwater Canyon Park, a 45-acre city park that we maintain without financial help from the city. We give eco-tours to 10,000 kids a year, teaching them about reducing their impact on the environment and the cycles of nature. Use a lunch-box kids!
STEREOGUM: Do you have any previous experience as a grounds keeper? Or were you assigned this particular role?
MP: I used to work at The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate park, but I was pretty much confined to selling tickets in a booth that can be compared to the size of a large coffin. I’d also have to chase the occasional escape butterfly from one of the exhibits, but no, not much actual experience as grounds-keeper. I got the job because my friend’s girlfriend worked there and threw me a bone.
STEREOGUM: What’s the actual job description? It sounds like they have you doing just about everything…
MP: My official title is “park assistant” in the department of “Park Operations,” but it essentially requires me to be lo-fi renaissance man.
STEREOGUM: How many co-workers? Or are you running solo out there?
MP: There’s another park assistant and we roam the park together, take out the trash together, shoveling mountains of mulch, talking about movies and shit. It gets pretty weird out there. I spend more time with him than my girlfriend!
STEREOGUM: Can you explain a “typical” day? Though seems like it varies. What are the usual hours?
MP: 9-5, 40 hours a week. My basic job is to fix disasters and make the park beautiful. There’s always something to do, usually because of the damn wind. An ill-timed sweeping job can be erased in a matter of minutes. So I sweep, spread mulch, check the bathrooms, sometimes there’s some weird drifter who craps in the woods or behind a shed — so that falls under my job description to deal with that. Hikers think I’m some authority on rattlesnakes because I work in the park, and I say “just don’t go near them!” I’ve developed some impressive and embarrassing tricks with watering buckets, and developed an intuitive relationship with most of the lizards and squirrels on the premises.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a uniform?
MP: I have a hat that’s been tie-dyed by sweat and sun and a few t-shirts.
STEREOGUM: What sort of handyman/architectural work do you have to do? What have you destroyed with sledgehammers?
MP: Our most accomplished architectural feet was building this hand-railing out of tree branches. That shit’s beautiful! Also lot’s of repairing things like picnic tables, railings, steps, walkways, digging holes and trenches to catch rain water, irrigation. Also, much like shooting a race horse with a broken leg, I’ve destroyed a few picnic tables with a sledgehammer that were beyond repair. I’ve also beat the shit out of some wooden sheds.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned mulching, etc. Are you a gardener/horticulturalist? Do you have your own home garden?
MP: I am not, I keep my mulching to the park. I might turn into one someday, but as of now I am a city-slicker making his way in the wilds.
STEREOGUM: How do you go about catching run-away dogs? Is there a proper technique?
MP: I try to think like a dog. That usually works.
STEREOGUM: Why are you always digging holes?
MP: Good question! I don’t fucking know! They just keep yelling dig!
STEREOGUM: Have you ever been injured on the job? Bitten by a squirrel?
MP: Bruises and scrapes, but nothing crazy so far. A coworker of mine just stabbed himself in the foot with a pitchfork! Something I’ve narrowly avoided a few times. As for the squirrels, we have an understanding that transcends violence.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like an active job. Are you tan year-round?
MP: I have a farmer’s tan year round, I consequently draw a lot of stares at pool parties. The whispering hurts.
STEREOGUM: You said you spoke with Paul McCartney the other day. What did you and talk about? Any other celebrity encounters?
MP: Yes, Paul McCartney asked me to keep an eye on his Corvette, because the parking lot was full and he parked it in the forestry yard (where we keep tools and things). He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts! And he was talking to me! It was a mind-fuck, the caliber of which is still being calculated. He did wink at me though, which I count as personal triumph.
We see celebrities all the time, because we are technically in Beverly Hills, 90210, bitch! Saw Steve Martin walking his dog, Will Ferell jogging in an outfit stunningly similar to Semi-Pro, Simon Cowell in the back seat of his Rolls Royce, Jay Leno … Britney Spears lives down the street so the Paparazzi hang out in our parking lot now and then. I could go on and on.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of encounters: Parks are active places with all sorts of things going on in them, from family picnics to first dates to pickups and hookups, etc. I imagine you’ve seen a lot. Any particularly interesting stories?
MP: Well, this being Hollywood, there are lot of people reading their scripts aloud in our amphitheater, which is embarrassing for everyone. I saw a guy singing Bryan Adams and Seal songs to either his girlfriend or his voice coach. Just lots of buff, tanned dudes hiking, and rich bored housewives walking their small dogs. A strange parade of delusional people. But there are normal people too. Once I spread mulch with a volunteer who turned out to be a screenwriter for TV and film. The guy wrote the 80’s John Candy movie Summer Rental!
STEREOGUM: After doing something like this, do you think you could work a standard office job?
MP: I don’t think so! I think I’d lose my shit.
Person To Person is out now via Secretly Canadian. Two of its songs:
[Matt’s the only member of Foreign Born not wearing sunglasses; Photo by Emily Ulmer]