From across a small table opposite a recently vacated chair, Matthew E White sees me enter the back room of the pub and makes a peace sign. In hindsight, though, White could just as easily have been surrendering: as I sit down on the still-warm seat, he reveals that our impending conversation is the last one of a promotional trip that’s taken him from his home in Richmond, Virginia, through six European countries in as many days and placed him in front of a parade of approximately sixty interviewers who all want to know the same things. “If you ask one new question I will be very excited,” he tells me, with warmth but also weariness.
With White’s busy schedule in mind, and taking into account boring things like magazine lead times versus the easy, instant proliferation of online Q&As, the chances are that if you’ve gotten even this far into a print article about Matthew E White, at this point in the promotional cycle, it’s not the first you’ve heard of him. You’ll probably already know about his early upbringing by Christian missionary parents in the Philippines, and how his sleeper-hit first album, ‘Big Inner’, was initially conceived as a demonstration record to show off the dexterity of his Spacebomb studio and label before unexpectedly blossoming into a perennial of 2013’s best album lists. It’s likely you’ll also have heard about how Spacebomb is built in the mould of Stax and Motown, with a strict recording ethos and on-call house band, deliberately making old-fashioned soul music the expensive way, with live ensemble musicians and full horn and string sections. Hell, you might even have read about his physical appearance – bear-sized and bespectacled with hippie hair and straggly beard – that leaves him resembling something between charismatically eccentric university English professor and bizarro pseudo-religious cult leader, and which dovetails eerily well with his predilection for venerating Jesus in his songs.
You’ll probably know all this because White dutifully plays the interview game: “It’s okay,” he begins, as I look down at my open notebook of questions, wondering if this is going to be a long hour for us both. “I really like to talk, and I don’t mind talking, and I can fill up your recorder with way more than you’re ever going to need, and I like music writers…” – then he trails off, suddenly self-aware, perhaps realising he doth protest too much.
So instead of making White do all that again, I let him steer the conversation, asking him simply to tell me the story of how he came to make his second album ‘Fresh Blood’ – a mellower but more purposeful older brother to ‘Big Inner’’s naïvely excitable reading of 1970s Curtis Mayfield soul that contains, as he puts it at one point, “higher highs and lower lows, lighter lights and darker darks” – alongside whatever tangents arise in the telling. Obligingly and, one suspects, not for the first time, he starts at the beginning, with his childhood and his university training on a respected jazz studies music course. However, when handed the conversational rudder, White seems far more engaged with the bigger picture than the finer details, preferring to talk less about the album he’s flogged round Europe for the past week – at one point he even suggests that albums don’t really do it for him anyway, and that he’d rather be making one-off singles – and more about all the attendant distractions that surround being a musician and “the way you make records”. Indeed, that phrase crops up so often in our allotted hour together that it starts to feel didactic: while White is never anything less than loquacious and courteous, with the kind of bonhomie – earnest but friendly – that defines the classic US Southerner, he also has strong, often contrarian opinions on how musicians should operate, and what labels you should apply.
For a start, he insists that despite his status as an alumnus of the jazz studies programme at Virginia Commonwealth University and the undeniably jazzy flourishes in his work, he’s no jazzer. “It’s an insult to jazz musicians everywhere when people call me a jazz musician, because I’m not one,” he says, flatly, when the topic of what music he thinks he plays arises from talk of his university course. “Jazz shouldn’t be this fluid term,” he says. “It’s tempting for journalists to use that label when someone knows the nuts and bolts of how music works, or writes things on paper. But there’s a level of improvisation, and of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic knowledge, and the ability to interface those all together, that makes you a jazz musician, which I can barely do. I’m not saying it’s a higher-level art, but it’s a deep craft that takes an extraordinary amount of time, energy and nuance to master, so it’s disingenuous to jazz musicians everywhere, who have given it that time, to have journalists say about me, ‘oh, he’s a jazz musician’, because that’s not true.”
While White might feel that way about how he plays and about his technical ability, and be fine with it (“I’m very comfortable with never being the best player in my band – I think that’s the way it should be,” he says subsequently), listening later to him explaining the exacting way he likes to make and record music certainly has a lot in common with the “deep craft, extraordinary amount of time, energy and nuance” that he so reveres in jazz musicians. Because for all the easy charm that a record like ‘Fresh Blood’ exudes – all the cosy pillow-talk vocals, lolloping groove, inviting informality and classily casual, what-this-old-thing presentation – it turns out that White tackles his own projects with the sort of approach normally reserved for obsessive professional sportsmen.
“If you hear a problem in the mix or the performance and just go, ‘oh that’ll be okay’, then you’re going to end up with average shit,” he says, like some hard-nosed head coach, as we discuss his self-imposed rules for making ‘Fresh Blood’. “Actively encouraging yourself to be frustrated about inconsistencies you hear in the music is extremely mentally unpleasant, but if you solve them then you’re going to make yourself better.
“But it’s hard work,” he laments, softening his teacherly tone, “and that’s why people make bad records when they’re fifty: they’re fucking tired! It’s tiring! I mean, I’m mentally exhausted, deeply tired, because I’ve just spent the last six months going, ‘how do I fix that’, ‘this isn’t right’. But that’s what making a record is all about.”
Indeed, a sense of objective rightness seems to guide the way White works. Repeatedly, as we talk, he frames his working practices as being informed by measurable improvements, which makes for a refreshingly candid approach when set against the tedious, oft-expressed relativist mantra of ‘I’m just making music for myself and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus’. “Something I’ve said over again is that I wanted ‘Fresh Blood’ to be better, not just different,” he says at one point, emphasising the b-word with a rap of his fingers on the table. “Each element – the songwriting and the communication with the team, and the vision that I lay out and the writing of the arrangements, the recording of the band, and all the other shit that you do, and the mixing – each one of those elements can be better. It’s not subjective. ‘Big Inner’ was not the best record that’s ever been made, so there’s plenty of room for improvement in all those areas.”
But without, thankfully, any universal scoring system for creativity – no objective measuring stick or goal line beyond saying whether or not a note is in tune – doesn’t all this talk of making things objectively better really just come down to personal taste? White’s not convinced: “But some people just have better taste, and that’s just the truth,” he counters, with a smile. “I mean, I could hand my song to Bob Dylan and he would say, ‘nah, uh-uh, nah, flip it around, that’s better’, and he would be right, because he’s a better songwriter than I am. Sure, some of that taste is fed by innate subjective feelings, but not all. It’s also fed by understanding of tradition and context, what worked historically, the form, the rhyme scheme, the voicing of a chord…” – he pauses when I raise my eyebrows at the idea that one arrangement of notes in a given chord can be objectively proved to be best – “some people voice chords better than other people!” he insists. “You can look at that throughout history, read about it, analyse someone else’s writing. Sure, there are a lot of things that feed your taste, but that’s what makes making records hard.”
One consequence of this sort of striving for assessable perfection is that while ‘Fresh Blood’ is undoubtedly an easy listen on first play, full of playful melody and engaging songcraft, it opens up to be quite a record of extremes: in essence, White’s approach means that when he wants to write an uplifting song, it has to be the apotheosis of joy, and, by the same token, a song like ‘Tranquility’, about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s heroin overdose, is precision engineered to provide the most sombre experience possible. While technically impressive, the effect on the listener is to be constantly buffeted in opposing directions, but White isn’t fussed: “I just wanted ‘Fresh Blood’ to cover more, and have a greater emotional dynamic range [than ‘Big Inner’], so it would be more worthwhile to the listener. I wanted people who were going to invest in these songs to take away something. Whether that was happiness and escapism, or a seriousness and embrace of the hyperrealism of life, I don’t care – and ‘Fresh Blood’ has both of those – but I wanted it to be a deeply worthwhile experience.
“But that is hard,” he concedes. “I mean, you can’t put dub music and EDM and symphonic pop on one record, because it won’t work. But I try to get the spectrum as wide as possible, because for me, that’s the sort of record I like. And, at the end of the day, there’s never been a bad record that had ten good songs on it.”
There follows a discussion of the virtues of the album as a vessel for “good songs” and whether average songs can appear on great albums, of why the music industry is still built around album releases despite consumers favouring singles, and White’s bafflement at people buying Taylor Swift and Beyoncé vinyl LPs.
Our hour’s nearly up, and having veered off topic one more time, and with White glancing at his nearly finished pint, I decide to ask at least a couple of the questions I came in with. Would White call himself a Christian? “No,” he says, bluntly. Does he ever go to church? “No,” he says again, and asks me why I’m interested.
“Because I was wondering,” I reply, “with the multiple mentions of Jesus in your songs, what your relationship with Christianity is.”
“Are you wondering,” White asks back, pointedly, “Or are you asking?”
I explain that I’m asking, but also understand if he’d rather not discuss it. “No, I’m fine talking about it,” accepts White, a glazed look replacing the flicker of prickliness. “I don’t think of the term ‘Christian’ as something offensive, because people call me that, but I know people who do call themselves Christian who live in a certain way with a certain faith that I don’t have.” One suspects that as rehearsed speeches go, that’s one that White’s wheeled out a few times in the past week. “It’s basically a part of my past. It’s not something that I’m ashamed of, but when I do have the opportunity to clear things up, I tell journalists that while I use that vocabulary, I’m not writing from a place of faith. Like, the last journalist,” he says, pointing at me, “was straight away, ‘so, you’re a Christian’ and I had to be like, ‘okay, stop there!’”
There’s a pause while White drains what’s left of his drink, and plonks the empty on the table. “Cool, well let’s wrap it up sometime, you know,” he says amicably but also slightly pleading, anticipation of the week’s end written across his face: he’s come here, worked hard, done what he needs to do in the best way he can, and now wants to rest. “You work on the songs, bring them to the team, write the arrangements, record the band, record the arrangements, do some other shit, mix it, and call it a day,” he explained of his creative process, earlier in the interview. For White, it seems, it’s an approach that he applies to more areas than just making records.
The Gospel According to Matthew:
“If anyone tries to make records like a math problem, they’re dead in the water. But there are elements of it that work like that, where it’s helpful to have the knowledge. It’s helpful to know how songs work.”
“I get obsessive about the forms of songs. Like, how are they organised? Are there good ideas? Because I’m confident I have people who can translate good ideas into actual sounds, but the ideas have to be good, and that’s really hard.”
“I’m interested in working hard, and I’ve worked as hard as I possibly could to make this record, and working hard is hard work. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s just hard.”
“I work to a schedule. It was like, ‘okay, record-making starts last week of February, songwriting starts at 10am and ends at 6pm.’ You go to work, and you work hard, and repeat as much as you can.”
“I’m more of a singles than an album man. But my contract says that I need to deliver a ten-song record, and I’m talking to you because I’m in a ‘record cycle’ – if I only release one single every two months, you wouldn’t want to talk to me.”
“I’m a streaming guy, except for music that I can’t find there. If I can’t find this weird Brazilian record from the 50s, and I’ve got to go and buy the LP for $50, then fine – but I’ll listen to Kendrick Lamar on my phone.”
“I like the Spacebomb ‘commune’ myth, but afraid it’s not like that! It’s a fucking business! We pay people to come and play on the records, sign artists to contracts, print the records and sell them to the distributors. It’s very square.”