Interview With Matt Stevens

Internet and illegal downloading have changed the music industry in a profound way. Record sales are declining, most of the major music labels are gone or about to fall and it even seems that traditional music formats are on the verge of oblivion. At the same time the current digital revolution gives musicians the change to take charge of their own destiny. The internet allows them to present their material to the masses without the aid of record labels or to release their music independently. One of those musicians is Matt Stevens, a very talented guitarist who uses social media to get his music across. I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with this remarkable guy. What followed was a very interesting conversation about his guitar technique, The Fierce And The Dead and his unconventional views on the digital age.

Earlier this year you released your Ghost album, a very soothing instrumental album solely based on acoustic guitar and electronic looping. How’s the feedback coming along and are you still happy with the way it came out?

The feedback has been really positive, far more than I ever could be imagined really. I never thought that the national press and blog interest would be possible for an indie artist doing the esoteric music that I do. I think you’re never really completely happy with anything you do but I put it into the category of interesting work, which is the best you can hope for really. I still really like the album and it really makes me happy that so many people enjoy, now I want to record the next one, most of the songs are written, its just a case of recording them now really. Maybe I will come up with a few more.

I want to do something that is different to Ghost, just to ensure I keep myself sane and interested in the music. You need to keep creating, pushing forward finding new ways of operating, the door to success in the arts does not lie in the past.

When you start to compose such an instrumental album, where do you start from? How does it differ from creating music with your other band The Fierce And The Dead?

Well Fierce and The Dead is also pretty instrumental as well, but thats a very democratic thing, I don’t get the final say. With my stuff I tend to start messing around with a chord sequence, a title and then get a melody. I then try and come up with an original arrangement, something I haven’t done before, something new.

The problems comes when you come up with all this stuff and then try and play it live with just an acoustic guitar and a few pedals, it becomes problematic if people expect you to be the same live as the album. I am going to post some live videos on my site to ensure people know what to expect, I don’t want people to be be disappointed. Live there can be a lot of lead playing, sometimes its more minimal, it depends on the context really.

I’m hoping to recruit a band in the near future if finances allow to play this material live, I don’t want to be “the loop guy” forever. Keep pushing and doing new stuff and all that.

You’re famous for using the so-called looping technique. Can you explain to our readers what this is all about and how you incorporate this into your music?

Sure, looping is the act of sampling your self while you are playing, then playing over the sample. This can then be overdubbed live to build up layers, like watching someone make a record in real time. Its a great way for one person to make lots of noise. I enjoy the element of  orchestration involved in building layer of harmony, originally I wanted to do arrangements for bands and its quite close to what I want to do. I suppose it comes from the way people like the Smiths and Radiohead arrange guitars, the way I do it.

Many instrumental albums are usually meant to showcase the musical abilities of the musicians involved. It’s all about technique and not about emotions. What’s your take on this?

I’m not really interested in showing off technique to be honest. I’m trying to move people and get an emotional reaction from myself and the listener. I kind of got the speed playing out of my system when I was younger although its useful to be able to play fast if that is what the song requires. Good technique is useful as long it don’t get in the way of the song.

Occasionally when playing live you can end up going a bit noodly and thats often when you’re nervous and perhaps compensating for sound issues etc. You can over play, never good. So if anything I’m focusing on playing less notes but more interesting ones.

Many musicians are complaining about declining record sales nowadays, due to illegal downloading. You seem to embrace the current developments and you even give your music away for free. What’s your philosophy behind this and how did it come to this?

Practically, you haven’t got much of a choice. Whatever happens your music will end up on a torrent, if you hit any level of popularity. I’d be more worried if people weren’t torrenting my music, it means no one wants to share it.

The most important thing for any musician is to build a community who like what you do, by trying to make money out of everything you stop people joining this community. Its far easier to make a living from what you do if you have an audience and building one is the most important thing. If you can make it so people actively want to support your work its much better than trying to force them to. Being honest and creating music you love and are passionate about seems to create a better relationship with listeners.

You’re also an avid user of social media like Twitter, Facebook and Bandcamp. What are the benefits for musicians according to you? How do you use those sites to maximum effect?

The benefits are the relationship with the listeners, the feedback, the ideas, the sense of community. I no longer feel like a musician working alone I feel like I’m part of a community.

I like the audience and they seem to like what I do, to be honest I’m only really interested in looking after this community – I’m not looking for massive growth, just doing it gradually, no hype, no lies just a honest connection between music and listeners.

Originally I saw these sites as a “marketing tool” now I’m just chatting to my friends. I drop in links to the stuff I’m doing but hopefully this is part of the ongoing conversation and people have chosen to support what I do either by telling there friends or contributing financially by paying for CD’s and downloading my albums. I’ve been very lucky – I really like the people who listen to my stuff, they are interesting people, I feel very grateful.

Social Media, downloading and internet in general have changed the musical landscape in a way no one could predict. Many of the so-called major labels have vanished or are on the verge of collapsing. What are your thoughts on this? How should musicians make the best use of the current situation?

The major labels and music retailers have been unable to change their business models at a rate fast enough to cope with the changes in the way people consume music. In the last ten years we’ve moved to downloading as the way people have consumed music, in the next ten years I believe we will move to streaming as the main way people are consuming music. This presents a challenge for people like me who make a percentage of their income from downloads!!

Really the way things are going is less professional musicians with many more musicians having a smaller audience, but at least more people have a chance to connect with listeners.  We’re living in a time of great change, nobody really knows how things will look in a few years time, let alone 10 years.

You also got your own online stage on which you play at certain times, entitled the Sunday Free Noodle. Can you tell more what it is all about and its origins?

I believe the most important thing for musicians is community, more important than trying to make money. You can’t make money from an audience you don’t have. As one musician I can only make a certain amount of things happen and connect with a certain amount of people. But if we work together we can do so much more.

The idea of www.cafenoodle.ning.com is to connect up artists with audiences and cross over the various audience each artists brings. So far its been very successful in doing this. Its not something I’m trying to make money out of, just cover costs.

In your situation being a solo artists and being active in a band, what are the pros and cons of doing everything indepently versus working with a record label? What do you prefer and what tips do you got for young and upcoming bands?

Well the problem is that you end up doing everything yourself. Whilst this is cool with the bits you like, its less good for the things you don’t. I like the doing the social media and press stuff but there are things I don’t like for example booking gigs, which involves an element of hard sell(and rejection!!). So I am at the point now I need some help to be honest with various elements of what I’m doing because things have grown so fast. I have spoken to various labels and nothing has really added up financially to be honest, I can’t afford to sign and loose a lot of my income.

For The Fierce and The Dead we’ve had some really good offers so it may be that will come out on small indie label and I will continue to do the solo stuff myself, which could be a good way of doing it and I will get the best of both worlds.

I think it  would be good to have some help with people paying for a niche advertising spend and some investment would be useful there for TFATD but you hve to consider the amount of money you loose. Is it worth just getting a loan thou? Its very difficult at the moment really, its almost easier when the involvement of labels isn’t option.

Also you have to factor in that so many of the decent tour supports go to bands signed to labels that know the people doing the organising. So much of the music industry is about who you know to be honest. Can you as an individual build up relationships with bloggers, press, promoters, podcasters, sync ops, fans, friends etc. Can you maintain those relationships and still have time for music?

Its like when you employ a press person to plug an album, what you are really paying for is the access to the relationships they have built over the course of years and many albums.  Its easier now to do it yourself but have you got time to build those relationships? It may be better in the long run if you know the people yourself. Difficult decisions.

Can you share some light on your influences? What artists and bands do you find inspirational and why?

I like lots of stuff. Carcass, King Crimson, Fripp solo, Napalm Death, Slayer, Nick Drake, Draw, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Dead Kennedys and The Smiths. My guitar teacher Richard Beaumont was a big influence, he got into the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Groundhogs, Beatles and Zappa when I was 14 which was really useful, getting me playing in 7/8 and 5/8 and learning about inversions and chord substitutions. Fripp and Marr are pretty important for me.

Time for the final question, what does the future hold for you in terms of projects, interesting collaborations and musical wishes?

I started a new collaboration today with a friend of mine the electronica artist Lextrical who also plays in the excellent electronic/acoustic project Datapuddle. I’m not sure what will come of that but we came up with some interesting music. We improvised some and then edit into a more cohesive whole. Maybe an EP will come out of that sooner rather later. That’s called Yonks.

There is a Fierce And The Dead album which is pretty much done which will be out early next year hopefully, we’re just in the process of final mixing and deciding whether how we will put it out. I’m really pleased with that project.

I will either have a new solo album or EP out next year, I have 4 songs recorded already. I’m not sure if it will be collaborative but this will be the final loop based one, I don’t want to repeat myself. Time to move on, after that I will do a few more loop/acoustic gigs and then that will probably be the end of that, I’m not sure how I will present the music in the future – maybe a mixture of loops and live musicians. I’m not sure but one thing it won’t be is just a bloke on a stage with some pedals and an acoustic guitar.

Thank you very much for participating. If you got any final thoughts or remarks, please put them here.

Thanks very much for interviewing me – its been a pleasure, its great what you’re doing with the site.

written by Raymond Westland

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