After the widely-acclaimed Asa Breed, Matthew Dear has taken his melding of cutting-edge electronic production and pop in a darker direction with a distinctly noirish new album, Black City.
It’s every inch the sequel to Asa Breed, but that album’s romantic wonder and bleary-eyed self-inspection has given way to an altogether more worldly, knowing and even paranoid sensibility. Doubtless Dear’s relocation New York has begun to leave its mark on his art. But despite the album’s palpable darkness, Dear displays a typical lightness of touch throughout – gothic, jazz-tinged opener ‘Honey’ sounds like a more limbre, luminous Tuxedomoon; ‘I Can’t Feel’ and ‘You Put A Smell On Me’ offset harsh industrial elements with a kind wriggly funk derived from Talking Heads, Arto Lindsay et al.
Sublime pop moments abound – twilight electro cut ‘Slowdance’ and the beatless ballad ‘Gem’ are particuarly ravishing – but what’s truly remarkable about Black City is its uncompromising weirdness and its depth. This is the sound of an artist resolutely not resting on his laurels, endeavouring to create something that will surprise and challenge not just his audience, but also himself. In an era where the genuinely adventurous and self-possessed pop artist feels like an endangered species, if not outright extinct, Matthew Dear and his Black City ought to be held up and cherished.
FACT interrupted Dear’s vacation in West Texas to find out more about what’s inspired his latest work, his secret desire to make a wall of noise record, and the difficulties of rehearsing in a heatwave.
“I guess I’m taking a bit more time to breathe and think about emotion…”
The new album’s called Black City, it’s got a black painted portrait of you on the sleeve and a darker sound than anything you’ve released as Matthew Dear before. Would it be fair to say you were experiencing some pretty dark emotions during the making of the album?
“Definitely more than I have in the past. I’m never in a totally dark state, but I think just the move to New York City and just experimenting a bit more with open space and sound rather than keeping things really upbeat. I noticed on the last album things are a bit fast and still up in tempo in contrast to Black City. I guess I’m taking a bit more time to breathe and think about emotion.”
It’s been three years since Asa Breed, does that mean a lot of material was discarded during the recording of Black City. What was your criterion for inclusion on the album – what were you looking for in tracks?
“There was definitely a lot of material since the last album. I think in that sense the new album shifted up and down a bit, you know it would always kind of change, depending on which songs were included. Yeah, there was a lot of material out there and I think it kind of started directing itself into a certain direction at some point to become what it became.”
“I’m just trying to do what I’ve always done since I was a 15-year old kid messing around with music in my basement.”
In terms of your working methods, have you done anything particularly different with this album compared to earlier albums?
“I think a lot of it has stayed the same, but I was getting more equipment: I borrowed some more synthesisers, was using different microphones and recording techniques with my voice, but primarily the song creation of just me sitting in the studio and working by myself in my room coming up with the music and then adding the lyrics, that stayed the same. I didn’t do any drastic location shifts or go to any studios to record anything, so in that sense the music stayed the same, but I think just learning a bit more and pushing my own sense of production to a different direction within itself has definitely changed.”
Black City seems even less tailored to the dancefloor than Asa Breed which is probably less tailored to the dancefloor than the first two albums. With the stuff you record as Matthew Dear are you consciously trying to attract an audience that maybe has never even heard of Audion, or False or Jabberjaw?
“It’s not an intentional choice to try to break into different genres or attract different people. I’ve always been doing this kind of music since day one, you know, and I’ve realised that my first records, they were dance-oriented and they were techno-based because that’s where I was at the time and that’s where I’m at now still – I mean I’m not saying that I won’t make club music any more, 12-inch vinyl-based dance music – it’s just there’s only so much you can release at one time.
“I’d love to have it all out all the time – the dance stuff, the pop stuff – but in terms of just focusing attention and me touring and promoting an album you have to stick with one outlet within the mall for one time. So right now I’m just focusing on that vocal-based stuff. I’m not really trying to get a different audience into it, I’m just trying to do what I’ve always done since I was a 15-year old kid messing around with music in my basement. Just trying to get out all the stuff that I can make, not just one side.”
“I would love to do a completely crazy noise project or something – like wall of noise distortion – but I think that would have to be another time, another place.”
You already record under four different names, do you ever feel like you need even more aliases?
“[Laughs] Sometimes I’ll sit there and I’ll come up with a different song and think ‘this doesn’t really fit into Audion and this isn’t quite pop so maybe I should come up with a new alias altogether’. But then I quickly slap myself out of dreaming and say I’ve already got way too many. But eventually down the line maybe it would be good to retire a couple and then move on to some other ones. I would love to do a completely crazy noise project or something – like wall of noise distortion – but I think that would have to be another time, another place.”
What music was inspiring you during the writing and recording of Black City? The closing track ‘Gem’ reminds me a little of some of Brian Eno’s songs off Another Green World or Before and After Science: was he someone you were listening to a lot at the time?
“Yeah, definitely, there’s always the Eno influence, and I think he’s so influential because there’s so many different types of Eno you can take in: you can like Eno for his production work on other bands; you can like Eno for his co-writing work with David Byrne and Bowie on those albums; you can like Eno for his solo albums alone; you can like Roxy Music Eno. There’s so many different Enos you can get, so, for sure, he’s always going to be an influence to some degree.
“When I listen to music I’m just trying to take things in and learn what the guy’s doing behind the control, behind the microphone or behind the guitar: he’s definitely a master to learn from. I listened to a lot of later-early Gary Numan – Dance was a really big influence the last few years. I think just darker synthetic music in general – a lot of Can.”
Is the track ‘More Surgery’ based on a personal experience?
“It’s definitely about the life I live in general: “I’m a gross machine when I feel the plane”. Just all the travelling and all the zig-zag back and forth and maybe a loss of sense of self that you can get by grinding to the bone. But also a realisation that you have to keep going and the machine won’t stop.
“The way to get through that is to – this could apply to any kind of machine life, whether it’s just the daily grind of going to work 9-5 or a constant progression of things – realise that it won’t stop and that there is no eject button. In the story of ‘More Surgery’, the character’s realising he needs to adapt by taking medicine and getting surgery to maintain and to keep up with the demanding cruelty of life.”
“We’ve been rehearsing in New York during the disastrous heatwave that we’ve had, trying our hardest to learn the songs with sweat dripping from our noses.”
What are you planning on the live side for this album?
“I’ve been rehearsing again with the Big Hands who accompanied me on the last tour. I’ve got a live drummer and a live bass player and I do computer stuff and some synths. And it was us three for the Asa Breed tour but we’ve added another member now: his name’s Greg Paulus and he records as No Regular Play on Wolf + Lamb. He plays trumpet and keyboards and he’s kind of become the fourth member of the band. We’ve been rehearsing in New York during the disastrous heatwave that we’ve had, trying our hardest to learn the songs with sweat dripping from our noses. We’re on a bit of a break now, I took some vacation time and I’m in Martha, Texas and I’ll probably go back end of August/beginning of September and start rehearsing again, take that on tour.”
If you hadn’t moved from Texas to Michigan when you were a teenager, what kind of music do you think you would be making now?
“I don’t know. I always think that, you know. I definitely got more into electronic music (when I moved). I knew a bit about the more commercial-ended stuff, more of the industrial/new wave I was listening to when I was younger in Texas, but had I not moved to Detroit and been able to experience the underground scene there I always wonder would I have pursued more of the techno stuff or would I have gone more rock first? Texas is obviously very grass roots, more rock-based stuff. Yeah, who knows? I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now, that’s for sure!”
What’s exciting you on the DJing side at the moment in terms of other DJs or tracks?
“I definitely love playing. It’s weird because it’s like a totally split personality: I have to maintain that side of me while I’m doing all the rehearsal stuff. I guess what I am trying to do now is book these shows with the band a bit early and then be able to get afterparty gigs with just me DJing to keep the balance and to write the cheques and to pay the band, you know, make everything balance out.
“Inspiration-wise, I don’t know, there’s always so many people coming through. I’ve been listening to a lot of new Nicolas Jarr stuff, I really like what he’s doing. Koze’s always one of my idols, I never fail to play his new tracks when they come out and be inspired by them.”
Is there anything else you want to say?
“[jokey tone of voice] FACT magazine rules!…
“I’m just excited for the year and excited about touring. I should be coming through to the UK with the band in December. Look out for us there, hopefully we can get some really good shows lined up.”