Hitting position 19th on the Billboard chart, Matthew E. White’s debut album is in a bed of roses for both press and audience. Founder of its own label Spacebomb Records – what comes to be rather a creative collective of musicians at this hometown Richmond, Virginia – where music tends to soak all sort of influences from the region, now Matthew has announced the release of “Big Inner: Outer Face Edition”, a specially expanded version set for release by Domino on October 21st adding a brand new five songs EP.
A long story short, son of missionaries he went from guitar professor and jazz maker to label manager and sign a record deal in Domino for the worldwide release. White enjoys the better of two worlds, pulling off his strings as a composer with his team and pressing himself a few hundred copies of what later on has become an important record in the history of modern American folk. So, in this inspirit Big Inner has been done backwards, with the concept as a creative label in the forefront, using the same rhythm section for any release. We met in the very last show of this first step in a European tour ever.
We were talking about your promotional photo with the Navajo scarf. I was recently in Arizona and I couldn’t find something like it.
Oh I bough it in San Antonio, Texas. There is a story behind it. We were in the airport and barely had 30 minutes before departing; we met the photographer and we had to do this now, otherwise it’s not gonna happen. So it was this thrift store in front and we found the blue suite; it was wrinkled so we ironed the front part only, so we were like, what else…we were hangover, so I put these sunglasses; I bought the scarf drunk in a Mexican store the day before so it was like ok put it in.
I recently read an article about how musicians will survive the Spotify era. They were saying pretty much: keep your rights, work hard and use the Internet to promote yourself. What is your vision about it?
I think sort of every time there is a change in the media; it is a little bit squarely for a minute. It always tends to write it soft in one way or the other. Spotify makes total sense, it is gonna happen the same with movies too, it is the same thing, subscription-based ownership of a product. That’s not new, for the finance system balance the demand has to be there. It kind of works their way out. I particularly concern about people pay for music generally, for history of time in some way or another. Sometimes the market shrinks, and that’s fine, but basically what it does it just willing away. For me I would say –“I’m gonna be making music regardless I am working in another job or not – right now I’m not working in another job and I am thankful for that – so I try to make smart decisions and be aware of that. For me it is making art and I’m gonna be in it whether it is in Spotify or everyone is downloading music illegally. In American there is this great blues musicians, they spent their whole lives basically working on a plantation and then playing guitar. That’s making honest music and that is a fine way to do it. I’ve been ten years of my life from 20 to 30 teaching kids how to play guitar and then making music when I could. I can do it like that.
So do you think a good formula is to keep it simple?
Yeah, I think it is like “to keep it going,” and what it does mean? Well I don’t need anything to keep it going. I can seat in my place and play piano, record it on my iPhone if I have to. Every sort of era of music has its limits in a way or another. Sometimes it is financial, sometimes is the medium like maybe you have to compost things shorter or something. Musicians short of money or short of recourses is a thousand year old problem, definitely not new (laughs) not even close to new. People acts like if it is a new problem but it is just a lack of understanding. Who’s the supplier and who’s the demander changes but the basic kind of system stays more or less the same. So, musicians struggling to find ways to make them artists is not anything new.
I would like to talk about your album of course, “Big Inner”. I think this is your debut album in your solo career.
Tell me please about it. Have you produced it yourself? Where you did it? How long it took and so forth.
It was very backwards like I made it. I had this idea to make a label called Spacebomb Records. This was going to be like an umbrella for projects I would kind of produce, using the community enrichment, which is a very talent community I’ve been a part of for quite some time. I thought that if you put an umbrella over and you make the decision to be proactive, pull out resources, making things to create the energy that we would be connected to each other and we could make something really special. So this is the first picture, so ok we are going to do the label so we need a first album. It is a challenge to make music like that, it is a lot of dedication or roles, it is different that just sitting in your room and make music with your laptop or something. It can really fail pretty badly if doesn’t go right. I had some ideas so if it does go sort of badly just be on me instead of involve someone else in such situation.
How do you start to write the songs at this point?
I wrote some songs and then worked with the house band to get it done, I wrote the horns charts, the string charts, so we went to the studio and did it, you know. We spent 7 days doing it, it was very short, and a demonstration of what we could do. We press a few hundred copies.
That fast?
Well, it was like a punk rock band of something records a record and just presses it in… You know it was small, it was not supposed to be small, it was small…our resources. We did would not connect it to the industry in any way by then.
That was in your hometown?
Yeah, that was in Richmond, Virginia.
So do you produced everything by yourself?
And did you play different instruments?
No, I just played guitar and did the horns arrangements. This is pretty much what it was it worked out. The record is just bass and drums, a little bit of guitar, a little bit of percussion, me singing and then horns arrangements, string arrangements and vocal arrangements. All of this is very simple. In that way is big sounding because when we do a string or horn section it is ten people playing so it may be 30-35 people playing at the same time, but the elements are very [simple] six things or whatever.
Press points out the Gospel influences in the record. How does it affect to the lyrics or to your songwriting. What do you think about that?
It sounds by quite a bit. I’ve grown up in a very Christian family overseas in the mission field; my parents are missionaries. I think in general artists a lot of times in the songwriting you are writing from your past, from the tapestry of your past. There are lines a certain language and imagery, a certain sort of poetic devices that you are used to, or subject matters that you are comfortable approaching. Some of those are having a religious thing so that passes onto the record a little bit. It is just because that’s how I grew up, you know.
Do you think it is pretty much about cultural heritage?
Yeah, right, you know I have spend a lot of time in that community. It’s a language there, which I am familiar with.
In short, why did you decide to release the album worldwide in Domino and not with any other label.
Well, having your own label makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways and I did that because I didn’t know any other way. It was just a matter of getting something out there and creating energy. Domino came a long, a large infrastructure like that offers things you can’t do on your own. They offer opportunities and support, resources you can’t have in a small label.
Why Domino and not any other major or big indie?
Domino was the first one, a couple of other labels there were interested but Domino just seems to be the coolest people I’ve been interested sure about (laughs). Their understanding of the music and the other artists that they deal with; there is a history as a label. It seemed to be the right thing and so far it’s been amazing working with them, incredibly supportive, really practical but also smart supportive, very music group of people. Sometime you just go with the open door and Domino was leading there wide open, wanting us to be involved with them. It made a lot of sense.
As a solo artist I would like you to tell me about the differences between working in studio and the live act, if you work with the same musicians in studio and live. How are for you these differences between live music and studio work?
For me they are very different. Live music is something that goes by in an instant, it happens in one time. When I play live it will be the only time that me and all those people being in one room together, probably in our entire lives. That is unique. Recording in studio is obviously 180 degrees different like that. It is a moment that you can play over and over and over to the rest of time… It is exact same thing. On the road there is a couple of guys didn’t play on the record but bass player, string arranger, drummer we are the same.
How do you approach to them when you are in the studio?
You have to make different decisions; things that work live don’t work in the studio and vice versa. You hear a lot of people live trying to do what they did in the studio and kind of falls flat. Or you hear albums of great live bands kind of fall flat trying to do what they do live on the record. It is a taste thing, there is no rule, and you have to treat them differently. It doesn’t work to say – “ok guys we are gonna play a show, here is a record let’s learn all the parts and step up on the stage.” You have to bring different energy to it.
Do you think labels nowadays are loosing the distinctive touch becoming too eclectic on their roosters, instead of more classic approach with an equal certain method or sound, for instance like Motown?
Definitely the way people approach artists has changed a lot. It used to be a very vertically integrated world, you buy an artist and you produce the artist, you are the A&R for the artist, you decide which songs you gonna sing, you produce the songs, you provide the backing band, you are the publicist, you are the promoter. Artistic freedom-wise that can be a little too square, in some sort of broke out and choosing the band. There is a lot of different ways to do it. For us is a model some more similar to Motown, a little bit more vertically integrated that is what works for us because I am in a unique place in Richmond, Virginia. I can’t do that anywhere. If I lived in other places I couldn’t do it. Whether is that kind of model your goal is to make pretty art, that’s the point, or that’s my point running a label. So you have to create a world in which that is possible. Domino just take people in, and gives them freedom to do it, prove some resources and gives them the green line, puts them out. Each of those ways has their own ups and downs. Domino doesn’t have the resources to do what we do and we don’t have the resources Domino does. So my situation is very interesting for me because I’m running a small label and I am part of a much bigger label. I can be able to be involved in both and both ways can be successful. You make the most of your strings and my strings are working with my team in Richmond making music together and allowing people’s individual artistic goals to lift that up. Make that bigger, because we have the skills not anyone has so those are our strings.