by Jesse Popeski
Stylus: You have your take on “Billy in the Low Ground” on the album and fingerpicking guitar on songs like “Don’t Lie About Your Dreams”. How does folk music fit into the picture?
Matt Foster: Protest music would’ve been how I found folk music. The power of bringing people together, politically throwing a wrench in the gears. There are all kinds of things in folk music that I love, how you don’t have to be good in terms of playing to get up on the stage; it’s very equalizing; it’s everyone’s music. In terms of direct influences, I don’t pull on it directly. Live, I’ll slow “Billy in the Low Ground” down and play a crooked version. I’ll reference the tune, but I’ll play the B section first, I’ll play it super slow. No one plays fiddle music really slow; everyone’s racing to be that athlete. But if I just let the strings ring, let them create chords in the sustained spots, there’s a beautiful harmonic sadness. I try hard not to define anything lyrically, harmonically, I try not to let anything get boxed in, so the ear settles – I like this sense of the unsettled.
S: How do you communicate these unsettled arrangements with your band?
MF: Take “Hospital,” a song about assisted suicide and the idea of passing on. I wanted there to be this feeling of the other side, whatever’s beyond the veil, as a constant presence in the song. I want it to feel a little wobbly like there are almost two things happening at once, not just what’s happening now, but also everything that’s not happening right now, occurring simultaneously. One of the characters in the song is very close to being gone, and there’s a choice of how the last moments are going to be. It’s not threatening, not looming…the rest of the record, there are these darknesses that are creaking and grinding, but in “Hospital”, I wanted a similar presence but to levitate, with relief and this lifting. So that might be, ‘can you suspend a two like a drone through the whole song?’ So the one and the two create this wobble. It’s such a simple song, and the chords just go back and forth, but it doesn’t resolve.
There are moments like that where I’m asking for very specific things. And also just sharing and inviting people to stew in it long enough to get the vision, and then we start speaking the same language. I’m not standing over everyone and telling them what to play; Quintin knows a lot more about playing the hurdy-gurdy than I do! I might say, ‘what’s the worst sound you can make?’ I try to egg him on to find the corners of the instrument.
And similarly, with the upright bass, I was researching what the weirdest strokes were, like col legno tratto, where you turn your bow over and you’re playing it with the wooden part of your bow, or when you’re actually striking bouncing it, and you can get a rhythmic bounce, or when you’re playing the line, you’re actually bowing with the wood of the bow. What I love about these strokes is that a good player that otherwise has incredible control of the instrument when they play with this terrible-sounding piece of wood…the notes are all there, but the instance of tone is a struggle. This music is barely here, dying to be here, and almost doesn’t get to.
S: “Hospital” sounds intimate and personal; does a song need to be autobiographical to be meaningful?
MF: No song I write is cut and dry, a scenario in my life. It starts with some sort of insight about a relationship or a moment. I ruminate on it, I get in there through that, but then the writing is about removing myself out of it, so I can see all the truths or possibilities and try not to exclude any of them. If I’m specific in imagery, I take the approach of it being a page in a novel, and you’re going to come into it not understanding the beginning, and you’re going to leave before you understand the end. It’s going to be a vignette where you get characters, and whatever I’m saying is only so important as whatever I’m not saying. If I say something and it sounds like I’m being too clear, I feel like I’m writing about myself.
S: What’s wrong with writing about yourself?
MF: Those aren’t the ones that stick around. In the long run, talking about myself doesn’t feel like what I’m in there to do. Just by virtue of the fact of opening my mouth, I’m talking about myself, so I don’t feel too attached to my viewpoint.
I’m really scared of recording anything or even writing it down. I just started using a cell phone to capture ideas; in the past, I would’ve been too scared to crystallize things. I wouldn’t write anything down until I had the song from start to finish, and I would play it hundreds of times. And when I was confident that that was the way it goes, I could write it down. It was debilitating. You can only write so many songs at a time like that. I would especially not record it; I was so scared of capturing it the wrong way. Once you record it or write it down, the act itself freezes the possibilities of what it could be. When it’s unrecorded, it’s still in that infinity situation, any change can be made.
What I’ve carried through to the present process is that I don’t want anything to feel too locked down. It’s more true of our physical reality – like quantum physics. Anything that’s here in a material sense, when you go down to the smallest observable or calculable level, nothing’s actually here permanently, it’s popping in and out – things are only here on average, and that’s a more true representation. The truth is things aren’t really here, and if they are here, they’re also somewhere else. I try to reflect that in the delivery, in the tone, and the way I make music.
As soon as you open your mouth, you’re wrong. Whatever you’re trying to sing about, the moment you say it, you’ve missed all the other ways you could’ve said it. But you have to commit to something if you’re going to say it at all, so you start on a path, and along the way, you allow that you’re also wrong. So you build that into the music and the writing.
S: When I think about the sound of the recording, words like immediate and intimate come to mind. How did you achieve that sound?
MF: In the studio, it’s an opportunity to do a magic trick, to have the listener’s ear up to a ceramic wheel rubbing against this gut string, you put a mic in front of it and find that sweet spot where you’re creating a whisper. The whispered elements can be the protagonists, and all the pounded, banging instruments are tucked way down in supporting roles. I like inverting those power dynamics, letting the quiet and meek be the voice and then the power and heaviness mixed in a way that it’s the scenery for the protagonists to walk into.
S: The drums are interesting – they’re mostly panned to one side, and there are few, if any, cymbals.
MF: In a rock band, the cymbals cut through, all that bright quality – it’s a frequency that is tiring, and everybody’s instruments are fighting for that space, so I get the cymbals out of there. The strings on my guitar are three years old! I try not to be scared to use the stereo mix in an old-school way. If you listen to something like Johnny Cash, the whole kit and even the bass are on the left, and each element is its own character, accommodating each other.
S: Why did you choose to include two instrumentals on the album?
MF: They were just made while I was making the record. For “From a Poplar Near the Hayland,” I found a field recording, a vinyl LP from the thrift store, and had it playing in the other room and was mucking around with some chords, and then this sad goose comes in syncopated over the chords I was playing. It was soooo sad. I’d never heard a goose be so sad. But it was also groovy, I had to laugh almost. It was so accidental, unintentional, and the power of that chance feeling, I couldn’t let it go, so it made it onto the record.
“Dream” is a guitar exploration that I found. I kept trying to put words to it, and the more I said, the less I was saying. I had lyrics that wanted to be in there, so I ended up recording it through gear that make them disappear, and there’s a reprise buried in the Roland space echo so that what comes back is just the echo, the tape swishing around and feeding back, so instead of my voice coming back it’s the dying echo of the machine.
S: You’ve done production for other artists. How do you see that role?
MF: I discover it in each scenario, and it’s different from case to case. If someone wanted me to come in and run the show, we would’ve ended up with different records than what we made. The happy place we found is meeting each other in the middle. Putting the right team of people together, knowing the artist like a good friend, knowing the music, having conversations about it, trying to translate from their vision to the engineer to the session musicians. A friend from the business world said, ‘you’d be classified on the assets ledger as the intangibles.’ I really like that.
Leonard Sumner didn’t want to play guitar on this record, so how do we start from his feeling, lift it away from his hands into a band but retain his spirit? The music is flooring, I can’t believe I get to make music with a friend like that. In the end, it was a lot of work, and I love what we made.
With Slow Spirit, these people can run circles around me musically, but it’s about being a sounding board, trusting each other’s opinions. Eric told me he wanted me to make sure they were emotionally on track as we go through the process. The attitude is we’re going to get two songs done today, and in between the takes, we’re going to hang out, make food, joke around, love each other, and be in each other’s company so that by the time we hit record, we’re grounded. When we’ve done that emotional work, the music plays together because everyone’s connected – we’re not dropping in at 6 p.m. after work and slamming a song out and ‘see you later’ because we’ve all got our lives to get to. It’s about slowing down. When you’re not recording, you’re making the record just as much as when you are.
S: How do you feel now that your record is out?
MF: I like the idea of an author putting out a book on release day. The launch of an album now is reduced to the click of a button, and you’re alone, you hit send. Your pocket lights up a few times, and people sending some congrats, but ultimately you feel alone. I didn’t put on a show or big gathering, I didn’t want to get on stage before anyone’s heard any of the stuff and try to compel everyone to be into it. It’s like putting out a book because no one can consume it in a day. They have to take it home in their own private space and read it to themselves, and have their own relationship to it. You put out something for a moment, it’s not a big climax like your ego wants it to be. It might be a birth, but it might be more of a planting into the ground, a beginning.
I feel scraped out. The night it came out, I was hanging out with some friends, and we were trading new songs back and forth, playing new music for each other on the day my record came out, and it felt so appropriate. All of a sudden, there was this room; I can make another one now.
It’s such a lonely endeavour to make music and feel like ‘I have to do this,’ and not know exactly why. I don’t know. You turn a lot of time towards it.