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Major Matt Mason USA

Major Matt Mason is part of New York’s “anti-folk” movement - acclaimed by everyone who sees him (including the Guardian), Mark Whitfield caught up with him on his recent UK tour and asked him, among other things, what exactly “anti-folk” means? Interview: January 2002

From Americana UK


How’s your time over here been so far, and how were the initial London gigs?

It’s been great. The London gigs were incredible. Every single gig was sort of a different atmosphere. I was a little bit worried about doing four shows in a row in the same town, and it’s been like four different towns – different people came out, a different feeling to each evening. I started out at the Borderline with a bigger sort of vibe – it was in a pub with just standing room elbow to elbow.  And in the Golden Lion, Camden, there were kids running around [laughs], an intoxicated forty year old lady jumping around on the barstool, we had a nice little conversation during the set, it was crazy.  So it’s been nice to see all ages.  I mean, I’m 31 – I don’t know if I’m old or not.  I don’t feel old mentally, but I do feel it physically sometimes, you know [laughs], and like, sometimes I feel like I’m more orientated to a younger crowd and it psyches me out. I love it when I see an older group of people and then kids too. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s nice – it’s still cool.  There’s still some alt-y looking people there too.

 So how did the tour come about in the first place?

Um, basically I was originally going to try and come over in September and do an opening show for Jonathan Richmond but it didn’t work out, so I ended up talking to Francis [Shoeshine Records’ manager] and just said I wanted to do something, and he set it up and Hoverground too.  And it’s just been fucking perfect – first night this rock club, second night a more artsy crowd, then a raw bar… such a variation and pretty nice small rooms. I’m psyched that I can pull it off in all these different places!

 The Guardian recommended you as one of its choices of the week in the Saturday Guide, but it seemed to be confused a bit by the term “anti-folk.”  Did you coin that? Or do you know what it means?

No, I didn’t coin it.  Um, I think it means different things to probably everybody who’s supposedly or admittedly involved. I think it was originally coined by this guy who runs a club over in New York called the Sidewalk Café – he set up a kind of alternative to the Village.  Greenwich Village kind of got popular in the sixties as being a kind of folk counter-culture area – Bob Dylan started playing down there.  By the time I got there, 1993, they’d pretty much exploited the area for all it was worth, and I think most of the bands that played there, if it wasn’t a set of covers – and by the way I love folk music – it wasn’t happening.  And there were kids who were really serious about their folk at the end of the eighties, great songwriters who were concerned more with the song and not the presentation, who didn’t fit into this very slick adult-contemporary kind of scene it had turned into.  Nobody could basically get a gig – if you were trying to write original songs that maybe had a dirty word in them or were maybe criticising something blatantly – so people started playing in the East-side villages, and saying “If the other stuff’s folk, then we’re anti-folk.”  That’s the story. To me personally, it’s sort of bigger than that right now. Oh, and the other thing is that it sort of combines this punk aesthetic. More often it’s obnoxious or loud, the strumming’s more aggressive. It’s a DIY kind of thing, and it’s not just acoustic. The fear is that once you make too many rigid rules, you end up turning into what you were rebelling against before. It’s very inclusive, anyone can come and play if they want to - even people from the West Village. But nobody does! Because there’s no money in it!

 So what is your musical background?  Were you in a band originally?

I used to play in punk bands in college with an electric guitar. I didn’t start playing acoustic until I moved to New York, because I was basically too lazy to haul my amp around to places – it was too expensive to practice and I couldn’t get a group of people together. I mean, it sounds over-romanticised, but with my girlfriend dumping me about a week after I moved into New York from Kansas, and the frustration of not being able to put anything together, I just started playing acoustic more. She also introduced me to Daniel Johnston who was incredibly inspirational due to the fact it’s pretty raw stuff, not such a focus on production.  So from all that I started to write songs, record them in my apartment, draw little covers and sell them to my friends [laughs] Plus, like, I was pretty poor, and you get desperate!

 What made you move in the first place from Kansas?

Basically to be with this girl.  I owe quite a bit to her – her name’s Wendy and she’s a fairly successful fashion designer now, but she started her work out of her apartment. That was inspirational to me – when I was growing up, it was like you really weren’t anything until you had a record deal – that was always the thing. And if you recorded, you had to go into the studio and you needed to have a band.  So that created this whole feeling that once you got a record deal, your dreams would come true – and I knew a couple of guys who did that but then got dropped and it was so messy.  Daniel Johnson made me realise I didn’t have to do that.  He does the same thing – he sells tapes he just recorded with hand drawn covers.

 And after all that, how did the deal with Shoeshine over here come about?

Well I recorded my record and put it out with Olivejuice music which is a little collective I started with some other bands, some other anti-folk people, just to do our own thing. So Latch helped through some distribution contacts, through Fortified Records in America, and he just sent one to Shoeshine – I hadn’t heard of them – and for some reason Francis liked it! [laughs]  I still ask him sometimes “Where do I fit in?!” 

Have you actually met any of the other artists on the label then?

Yeah, I got to meet Laura Cantrell and Michael Shelley at a Teenage Fanclub show – we got to go in the Green Room and chill with the band!  It was very fun… 

Are there artists you consider yourself to have been influenced by then?

I’m pretty influenced by all the people that play in the anti-folk scene and have for the past eight years since I’ve been there.  That’s the biggest influence – you just hang out with people who play every night. Sometimes I might go there five nights in a row and just see bands play.  Some of them aren’t so good and some of them are incredible.  I definitely think being influenced by your contemporaries is a good thing, an important thing. On the other hand, I think no one can argue against Bob Dylan – he’s just God – I love Hank Williams and I love Sonic Youth. I’m a big fan of the Velvet Underground too which is probably where those two meet.

 Do you feel any kind of affinity with the americana movement then?

I have to be honest – I’m not totally clear what it is.  I think maybe we call it alt-country more back at home. I do like a lot of the Palace Brothers, Will Oldham and that kind of thing, but I was never a big country fan growing up.  I’m learning things backwards at the moment.  I like Leonard Cohen – I guess I’m a pretty kind of mopey guy too. And I’m just getting into Gram Parsons.  It’s strange – I’m learning a lot about americana by coming to Europe!

 One of your previous interviews says that your lyrics are like a “particularly amusing diary being read out loud.”  Where do you get your ideas from?

The “Me Me Me” album – about three quarters of it, the inspiration’s mainly from the relationships. It’s nothing any more grandiose. In my case it was a female, but I think those things crossover regardless. I’m just trying to be honest, and therapeutic.

 I saw you mentioned Raymond Carver too.

Yeah – I’m a creative writing major from my English, and he was my absolute favourite writer – I got so much from his stuff, and I imitated him all through college .

Do you have any favourite stories by him?

I loved the “Where I’m Calling From” collection, but I actually like “Minnuendo” which is a later one.  It’s funny, because I had an argument with someone over what punk means. In my opinion, he like a really “punk” guy, because you read it the first time – nobody has a name, it doesn’t seem to have a beginning, a middle or end, etc.  but then you go back and re-read it and discover there are all these things that are connected – maybe a bit more like foreign movies.  Like with the alcoholism – I’ve never had a problem myself luckily – but the way he wrote about it, it was so real but it didn’t glamorise people.  And the economy of writing – I remember the mastery of the seven word sentence, which is perfect for songwriting.  When I first moved to New York I was a runner at this video post-production place and had to ride trains uptown and downtown delivering packages, and like, you’d just sit on the train and try to think of a good sentence with seven words.  It was enough – I think I just got lazy [laughs] so it was a lot easier to write good songs!  Anyway, Carver was supposedly working on a novel just before he died, and it’s a real Sex Pistols kind of thing – he died right at the peak. Who knows what it would have been like if he’d written a novel.

 What are you up to when you get back home then?

I’ve got two shows upstate next weekend and then I’m looking forward to spending some time with my girlfriend which would be nice!  I actually have a whole other record finished – I call it a demo, recorded it in my apartment again, and I gave it to Francis, and he’s like, “It’s great!”  I’d love it if we did put it out, and he’s alluded to me coming back later in the year which I’d really love. 

Thank you Matt!



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