Matt Stevens Interview

Matt Stevens Interview

Matt Stevens, Portraits, Manchester, 4/7/15  

Anthony Firmin talks to Matt Stevens in a Teacup about weird stuff whilst being disrupted by coffee grinders, loud motorbikes and dragging tables…

I have been friends with Matt Stevens for a little while and although I had threatened to go and see him in London it never happened.  Matt was then announced as the support act for Steven Rothery gig in Manchester so an arrangement was made to go a little earlier and do an interview as well as review the gig.

However, upon arriving at the prescribed time I found Matt and some of his buddies had buggered off to get something to eat.  A quick exchange of messages on Facebook and I was off to interview him at Mr. Scruff’s Teacup whilst he tried in vain to eat his wrap. Also present were Matt’s driver/volunteer tour manager and a couple of members of the band We Are Kin who Manchester Rocks have agreed to do some reviews/interviews with in the future.

But this was about Matt and I started our chat by asking him about last year and that from the outside it appeared to be extremely busy for him…

"Yeah, ever so slightly."

With your own album, guesting on other people's albums, your work with The Fierce And The Dead and all the gigs that you did was it 50?

Yeah, between 40 and 50, it all got a bit blurry towards the end of the year.

And you have been doing less gigs this year…

It’s been a lot calmer because I am trying to get The Fierce And The Dead’s  third album written and out so with the combination of putting that together and we got a new The Fierce And The Dead EP out in August and with the new album out in the New Year it has just been writing that has mainly been focusing my mind.  It's good fun but there is still 15-20 gigs this year.

Matt’s coffee then arrived and when the milk was added it curdled which led to a discussion about whether it was alright or whether it was soya milk.  He stirred it again and it appeared to be okay for a little while, an interesting digression, the fun of interviewing someone whilst they are eating.

So what else have you been up to?

{laughs as the coffee grinder disrupts our conversation for about a minute} the new The Fierce And The Dead album, we are about halfway through writing at the moment and I have also just written a song with Judy Dyble who was the original singer with Fairport Convention so I have been working on some stuff with her, and she is amazing - proper inspiring to work with.  I played a gig with her about two months ago…

A very loud motorbike then slowly goes past – everyone justs wants to interfere with our interview, Matt just laughs again!

She is doing very well at the moment, she is on about doing some more gigs and is writing a book, an autobiography which I imagine will be very interesting because she knows everybody and she's really funny, really clever and really on the ball.  I love Judy, she is amazing.

At this point the staff in the restaurant start dragging tables loudly across the floor, Stevens laughs heartily…

"We just can't win, can we?"


Do you have any plans for a new solo album?

I've got vague ideas but for the moment I'm going to focus on getting this The Fierce And The Dead record done, I did so much solo stuff last year I'm going to hit the point of burnout and want to avoid that so the current focus is the newThe Fierce And The Dead record.  And I've got a few more guest spots coming up, just bits and bobs really, and The Fierce And The Dead are doing the HRH Prog Festival, the Summers End Festival and we are doing the ArcTanGent Festival.  Lots of big gigs that we need to stay in shape for and get this new album done so that will keep is busy for the rest of the year and lots of touring next year, I suppose a really busy year next year.  Usually I get one calm year and then it will go bonkers again.

I noticed your Rome gig was cancelled…

What happened was the flight I was due to go out on was cancelled that day because of the traffic controllers strike in France.  They offered me flights the next day but the gig was that night so there was no point me going.  They did try to get me there that day but it would have been a six-hour journey via Switzerland and I was to be on stage at 18:30 but we couldn't guarantee that I will be there in time.  When the air traffic controllers go for it like that there is nothing you can do about it, it was quite exciting.  The tickets had sold really well which I found amazing and I am currently battling with BA to get a refund for it.  I've been trying to get to Europe for so long but there is a chance I might get to do a festival in Germany this year and there are two German gigs so there is stuff coming together but it's a case of seeing if it works or not.  I can't afford to lose lots of money doing gigs like that, I have to make it work so I am happy to do it for nothing but I can't lose money doing a gig.

If you're in the UK you've probably endured my weird proggy music over the last couple of years so it is trying to grow the audience beyond that.  The Fierce And The Dead is beyond that sort of progressive scene, it's gone into more of a post-rock thing and it's a question of how we can grow that audience and keep it rolling which is the hard bit, to self fund and keep it going.

I think because you have been progressing with the music, you've not been doing exactly the same thing all the time that's helping to grow the audience as well…

The exciting thing with music is you can't go back the same way twice, you have to do something new with every album.  Whatever works before you have to throw away and start again.  Last time when we did a The Fierce And The Deadalbum we were really into Television, Robert Fripp’s early work when he was working with Blondie, and we were into Philip Glass.  We are currently listening to a lot of stuff that is more electronic and the lot of thrash metal as well and a lot of contemporary electronic music Aphex Twin, and Vessels we are a big fan of at the moment.  We are coming in with iPads making funny noises that probably will not be on the album but that process of discovery leads to something that is vaguely interesting and it's just trying to do new things all the time without contriving.  In which case it's not going to become something it's not because if you try to chase a sound that is contemporary and cool you have had it.  You have to do what is exciting to you whether it is the least cool thing in the world, you can't care what everyone else is thinking, you have to do what you are passionate about and you don't worry about the audience, you don't worry about the record company, you don't worry about any of that stuff, you worry about the stuff that makes you excited and hoping other people get excited by it.  It's a bit of a journey when you do it. It is a horrible word, journey, why are they always focused on journeys, where are they going.

You've got a column in Acoustic magazine as well…

I love doing that, it's good fun.  It's quite challenging each month to find stuff but I have managed to get lots of weird chords and odd timings, stuff you wouldn't get in guitar magazines normally.  Stuff that is a bit odd, lots of mentions of my friends bands so I have a lot of fun with that column.  Because I can be quite irreverent in it and I can do interesting stuff it will be interesting to people.  I enjoy doing it, the editor of the magazine is a very nice man and he keeps paying me to do it, so…

I remember when I was a kid they used to be a column in a magazine called Guitar For Practicing Musicians called Reeves Gabels who was a guitarist in David Bowie’s band and he plays in The Cure now, basically his thing was playing weird stuff on pop records and I'm trying to get that ethos across in the column and give people a vocabulary that might be useful in the wider context of rock music to play odd things that might be useful.  I'm just trying to keep myself amused really, I'm not on some mission!

And you have a full-time job too…

I work with people with autism and learning difficulties, which is the coolest thing I've ever done, I love it.  So between those three things they make up my income stream and they are all interesting things to do.  If you can control those to be an income stream then you can make the music as bonkers as you want because you have nothing to lose, you can just do mad things, you can do the things you are passionate about as you're not worried about the commercial concerns of the music industry.  If you look at Apple streaming now the music industry has changed so much, it is completely impractical to earn a living from it.

I was going to come onto that because on social media you were very vocal about Apple and they way they pay.  And then we had Taylor Swift coming along saying the way they are paying musicians is awful and this is no good for anyone.  I don't know about you but I thought the whole thing was all a little too polished, the way it all happened…

The music industry is largely a fiction written by PR companies. Whether this fiction on this occasion was written by PR, I don't know.  But yes, it is better that Taylor Swift came along and that bands are getting paid but the actual model doesn't work, if cult bands like us and solo albums like mine sell a thousand copies, which is quite good going with weird music it means they download it 1000 times and buy it 1000 times I get to make another record.  If 1000 people stream it 10 times I will get £50. It is the difference between £5000 and £50 and it is a massive deal and we wouldn't be able to afford to do it because I wouldn't have the money to pay for recording costs and the marketing costs.

So we have to ask ourselves do we want music to be created by people who are independently wealthy?  I have a friend who is into race driving, races posh fast cars, and you have to be rich to be in that game.  You can create an album on your phone, you can create an album in Garageband, but the level of detail to make a great album is beyond that.  The key to it is do you want to make great records or do you want to knock stuff out?  To make great stuff you have to use great engineers, you have to use great musicians, there is a lot goes into those records - I am really passionate about it.

 Tom Robinson made an album using Garageband shortly after it was launched…

Garageband is awesome but not every album is suitable, I am quite happy to use Garageband to make demos but it isn't going to make album like Paul Simon’s Graceland and it's not going to make Abbey Road because the mic techniques and the engineers, the people involved in that involves skill, it's not just technology it's real skill, it’s the brains behind it.  It is the human element that is really key to that.

Whilst Matt tried to tuck into his wrap we chatted about the range of interview questions he gets asked and ended up talking about the music industry again…

I've done so many interviews this year it has been mad.  A lot of the time people want to talk about the music industry and the way it's working.  I used to work at HMV and worked on the retail side, and I was a professional musician for a couple of years so I have a few different perspectives on things.  I found doing music professionally was affecting the quality because you end up creating music that you have to release to pay the bills and whilst I was never forced to do stuff and become weirdly commercial by releasing stuff that perhaps wasn't of the highest quality I was getting to the point where I might be putting a live album out to pay the council tax and that's not the point of releasing material.  So I was happier gaining another income like writing.   For everyone I know who is a professional musician it is a difficult thing to do because effectively you are a freelancer.  And most of the people I know who are professional musicians have other jobs, one is an antiques dealer, another is a painter and decorator, there is always another income stream that they have because the music is getting more and more unreliable as well, it's getting harder.

We then made conscious effort to let Matt finish his dinner before returning to the conversation where we started discussing whether his music is flying against convention or whether it is the new convention…

I make music based on the records I like such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Johnny Marr, Hüsker Dü, Napalm Death, The Cardiacs, The Beatles and lots of different stuff, I don't really think about it in the context of that although if music isn’t made in a vacuum everything is based in the context of what you're doing.  If you went back 10 years and tried to create an acoustic album with weird timings, with no vocals and no commercial value people would just go what the… and nobody would stock it.  But with the Internet you can go straight to the audience and you can get away with all sorts of murder now.  Now is about the only time that music like mine will get anywhere, apart from the early 70s when stuff like Tubular Bells came out.  This is the era to be making weird music but it is only going to appeal to a niche audience unless you get a Sigure Rós type thing where you get a placement in a wildlife programmes and such opportunities.

What about inspiration? You mentioned a number of influences their but when you going on to do a new song or album what sort of things do you listen to beforehand?

I hunt for ideas so the last album, Lucid, was inspired by Stewart Lee and a lot of weird stuff and contextualising ideas.  There is no such thing is being totally original so what you do is look for some obscure source and contextualise it.  Some stuff we're doing at the moment is influenced by Van Morrison, is not rocket science it's just finding interesting stuff that you like and inspires you, it's just fun.

Where do you get the titles of the songs from, they seem somewhat random?

It's weird because normally the title and the song find each other, I don't know why.  There is a song called The Bridge, which is an epic song, and is based on This Wonderful Life, no-one will know that when they listen to it but for me the references are there.

Any recommendations on what to listen to at the moment, I am always interested in finding new stuff?

Vessels, We Are Kin are very good {everyone laughs as 2/3 of the band are sat next to me}.  I am listening to Sepultura a lot at the moment, bits and bobs of The Orb.   Strange electronic stuff and strange noisy stuff basically.  Justin Broadrick too, Knifeworld, Emmett Elvin.

What song would you recommend people listen to which defines you and your music?

The problem is the first album is acoustic with flamenco, and the last album goes almost to death metal, which covers a big chunk of stuff.  But there is a song called The Bridge which I mentioned before which has got sections that move through space rock, really heavy stuff, acoustic stuff and really melodic soundtracky sort of things and because it's in sections gives you a real taste of the whole thing so The Bridge off Lucid would be great as a starter.

During the walk back to the Band On The Wall for the evenings performance we discuss the sad death of Prog icon and bass player Chris Squire of YES and also the potential future of the band.

On the way we stop off for a quick photoshoot and find an old Oxford car with a number plate that starts in ENO, spooky says Matt as Eno had been an obvious influence on him.  Across the car park we do some more photos against a mural dedicated to Alan Turing by Him Hallows who it turned out did the tour poster for Matt for the Stabbing The Dead Horse tour in 2012… even spookier he says!

The performance that evening was nothing short but triumphant with Matt Stevens not only winning over the crowd but getting some serious participation when he tries to engage them in clapping to a weird time signature with the prize of a pint of beer if anyone could work out that timing…and its not ninths!

Words, Interview & Photos: Anthony Firmin

Photos Exclusively shot for Manchester Rocks

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