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The Man in Black: An Interview with Matthew Dear
November 15, 2012 | 9:15AM

“It’s alright to be someone else sometimes,” Matthew Dear informs us with the opening line of “Earthforms”, the second track on the fifth LP under his own name, this year’s Beams.  It’s a telling line in the context of grappling with the career of the NYC-via-Detroit producer and songwriter:  Dear’s music and persona have shifted, mutated, taken on new forms so often over the past decade that it’s hard to get a read on who the definitive Dear is, or if such a person even exists.

The Matthew Dear of 2012 looks like he wandered off the set of a David Lynch film.  His raven hair is coiffed into something approximating a pompadour.  He favors a shoulder-hugging black suit and, under it, a white dress shirt that’s stiffly buttoned to the neck and held together with jewelery typically reserved for tuxedos.  This Thin White Duke redux is slick and a little creepy, much like the come-ons and the put-downs and the things that appear to be both that can be found in his music.

Dear and his band has been on the road for most of the past month, but his tour draws to a close with performances at DC’s U Street Music Hall tonight, Philadelphia’s Voyeur tomorrow, and NYC’s Webster Hall of Saturday.  BYT called the co-founder of Ghostly International a week ago and found him at a truck stop, slightly disoriented from having lost his driver.   (He would soon be found at the adjacent McDonalds.)  We asked him about following up 2010′s beloved Black City, moving to the countryside, and growing comfortable as a frontman.  His answers came in exactly the impossibly cool and deep, hollowed-out tone that you would expect.

Going into recording Beams, were there ways that you knew you wanted to make it different than Black City?

I felt like it was a natural progression.  Things are always changing, but I wasn’t shutting down any of Black City’s themes of being a bit more open-ended and some of the songwriting being a bit more optimistic.  In that sense, I wasn’t trying to control anything.  It’s tough to look back on it now – I definitely didn’t have these feelings as I was doing it.  It would be bullshit for me to say, “Yeah, I had this great narrative planned out.”  But, really, it was just the way that I was writing and making music.  That’s the way it happened.

Black City was in several ways your most popular record, or at least the most broadly appealing.  Were you nervous at the prospect of following it up?

No, not at all.  I had such a wealth of music that had backed up – a pretty big back catalog of tracks to pull from – that I really wasn’t worried about output or product, because it was already there.  The next album, I don’t know.  I’ve slowed down a lot, because I’ve been touring so much.  Maybe the next album there might be a little bit more nervousness or an uncertainty of what I’m going to put together.  But Beams was still part of this streak of songwriting that was associated with Black City.

This summer you relocated from New York City to someplace more pastoral.  Your last few records have evoked an atmosphere that’s felt distinctly urban and nocturnal.  Do you think the move will affect your music?  Or do you not see your environment as a direct influence?

I don’t know.  That’s a good question, and one that I’ve been asking myself.  It’s got to.  There’s no doubt that it’s going to.  But right now, it’s crazy, because I’m more busy than I’ve ever been.  I’ve moved to the country, but it’s made things more hectic, because I’m finishing the house there and building a studio, and, at the same time, I was rehearsing for this tour that I’m on now.  Literally every day was booked with something to do, whether it was family visits or construction related, so I just haven’t had the time to really get into my zone of writing music all the time.  In contrast, when I lived in Brooklyn, all I did was make music and go do my daily stuff and then come home.  We’ll see – I’m going to take some time off at the beginning of next year – about two months – just to be at home and work in the studio, and I’m hoping that I can just try to find a good creative place.

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Even if the songs came from the same well as Black City, Beams seems incorporate more 70s and 80s rock touchstones.  Was that a sound you were consciously reaching for or was it something that came about organically? 

It just occurs organically.  I definitely listen to a lot of music while I’m making music, and there’s no doubt that that music affects process, but there’s never a conscious decision to approach something in a certain style of song.  Really, it’s just that the way I’m feeling is the way I’m going to play.

Your recent albums have successively incorporated more and more live instrumentation.  What’s been driving that?

Playing with the band has definitely gotten me re-centered towards organic instruments, but the entire time I’ve been building a studio, I’ve been trying to collect more and more guitars and pieces of percussion.  As I’ve grown as producer, I’ve tried to learn how to incorporate all sorts of styles and sounds into my repertoire.  It’s just fun.  I don’t like sitting there, staring at a computer the entire time.  I’d rather try my hand at like, “Ok, well, let me pull out the guitar here and see if I can record something that I can use.”  It widens the palette.

“Her Fantasy” benefits from an expansive palette.  The beat is relatively straightforward, but there’s so much swirling around it, and several layers of sound to sift through, as a listener. How did that song come together?

That song actually took many, many shapes.  I remember working on that one for a while.  It started started with an arpeggiator synth line.  I used a PolySix synthesizer, a printed port synthesizer from the late 70s.  I’ve used it on a lot of tracks.  Sometimes I’ll just sit there and put the arpegiator latch on, which allows me to push a bunch of keys at once and get all these random poly-rhythms and note combinations.

For “Her Fantasy”, I had that sequence that all of a sudden came out of nowhere, that “kunt-a, kunt-a, kunt-a, kunt-a, kunt-a,” like a repeating synth line.  So, I did a eiffel progression with it and recorded it, and once I had that I was like, “Ok, cool, this is something I can build a song off of.”  I laid that out and I started adding the drums, and it really stayed pretty stripped down and very simple for a long time.  I remember that I kept trying to add a lot to it, but it just wasn’t working.  Once I had the bass, the drums, and the synth line – you know, the rhythm – the lyrics just fell in place on top of it.  I guess that’s how I work with every song, but that one in particular started with the synth.

Were there any songs that proved especially difficult?

“Shake Me” was one that had been floating around for a really long time.  I wrote the original demo back in 2003.  I knew I had to put a lot of time into it to bring it up to speed and make it current.  I had anticipated putting it on the previous album, but I never felt like it was ready.  For the Beams collection, I went back and rerecorded a lot of the vocals and wrote a new verse and fleshed out a lot of the drums and stuff behind it that weren’t there before.  That was one difficult, but only in the sense that it’s the only song that’s been sitting in my back catalog for a while and it was difficult for me to say, “Ok, this is finished.  It can be made public.”

You’ve said that your albums are “windows into your everyday life.”  What was going on in your life over the past few years that you think is reflected in Beams?

The basics that have changed would be that up until Black City, I was living a pretty full-on, kind of don’t-look-back, pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle.  It was not only on the road, but in the studio as well – there were a lot of no-holds.  I wasn’t trying to restrain anything.  It was go-go-go.  For Beams, I kind of hit that point where I could refocus and give more attention to, like, “Shake Me”, for example.  I was at that point where I could give everything the attention that it needed, which I really hadn’t done before.  My life had changed in so far as everything was coming more focused.

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What’s the story behind the cover art for Beams? It’s reminiscent of something Lucien Freud or Jenny Saville would produce.

We’d worked with artist Michael Cina before.  He’s done a few releases for Ghostly.  He’s done some wild art pieces that we’ve sold on the website.  Sam [Valenti] had suggested that we work together for Beams, so I called Mike and he as at his home in Minnesota and we started talking about different color ideas and just abstract ideas that could be album cover art.  At the end of the conversation, I asked if he would ever want to paint a portrait for me, and he pretty much said, “Hey, I think that might actually be the album cover.  Maybe all this other stuff that we’ve talked about doesn’t need to be the album; maybe your portrait should be.”

We came up with a really fun plan for him to come to New York City and meet with me, and we were going to record it on video and document the entire process.  It ended up being pretty cool.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the kinda video trailer that we did for the piece, but I wanted to incorporate a lot of different artists interacting with us, so I had a dancer, one of band members who plays trumpet came, and a friend of mine who’s a poet came and read poetry in between us, while the entire process was happening.  It turned out really cool.  I think Mike was influenced by that, and in turn the album cover reflects that.

Did it take some time to get comfortable being a band’s frontman, someone behind the mic every night?

I started doing the band right around the time Asa Breed came out.  I think there’s definitely a change from there to now.  In the beginning, I never wanted to force it.  I never wanted to be unnatural or come up with a character right away or be somebody else onstage.  There was a lot of time spent just trying to find out how to be onstage.

I’ve always wanted to be onstage with a guitar.  What the public sees is a techno artist or somebody who’s made techno records who slowly starts making more organic-based music and, finally, released some stuff with vocals, but in my mind, I’ve always worked on all these different types of music.  I was a young kid when I first started playing guitar.  It was just a matter of public product and that what’s been released reflects who I am as an artist.  In my mind, when I first started making music, I always knew that I’d have a band and I’d be on stage, but it took me, obviously, a few years before that caught up to me, to where I could do it publicly.

I guess I had a lot of catching up to do once I got onstage.  It was kind of like, “Whoa, ok, I started a band; now I have to work my way backwards and kind of deconstruct the process to see exactly how I’m going to perform onstage.”  It took time.  It took a lot of practice.  It took a lot of shows.  I still think I’m far from finished in trying to figure out exactly what to do onstage and how to do it best, but I like to keep it natural and not force anything.

What made you want to turn vocal duties over to Jonny Pierce for “In the Middle”?

He approached the label about a remix when the Drums were looking for remixes for their first album.  They offered me “Me and the Moon”.  I worked on that, and through those conversations with Jonny, we found out that he was a fan and I just kind of offered the idea of a collaboration to him and told him that I would be more than happy to work with him.  It worked out perfectly.  Our schedules synced up.  There was a really good window of time when he was in Brooklyn and I was in Brooklyn.  He came over and just really nailed it.  I played him a demo of “In the Middle” that I had had brewing on my end.  I had some vocals already laid down for it and he did those and then he wrote another verse on his own.  We completed the session in about five hours.  It was probably one of the easier experiences I’ve had working with somebody else in the studio.

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As your profile has grown and as electronic music has more broadly spiked in popularity across a wider spectrum, have received any surprising opportunities for collaborations or remix work?

I just did one for Ultraista, which is Nigel Godrich’s new project.  They’d heard what I’m doing through their friends and colleagues and offered me a remix.  That was awesome, just to hear portions of a studio session that Nigel Godrich worked on. He’s definitely one of my production idols.  It never gets old, I guess.  It’s always fun to work with people that you really, really appreciate and respect.  Hopefully, there will be a lot more of that stuff in the future.

There haven’t been any left-field pop artists that have come out of the woodworks? 

No, I mean, there haven’t been Madonna remixes or anything.  [Laughs]  Some of my favorite claims to fame would be the Charlotte Gainsbourg remix or Chemical Brothers.  Spoon was really fun.  That was pretty left-field.  I was not expecting to have a Spoon remix.  That was early on, like four or five years ago.

 Check out Marcus Dowling’s 2010 interview with Dear for BYT here.

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