Recently I had the pleasure of sharing some Japanese food with San Francisco singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson before his show in Boulder, catching up with him about his current tour, the music he loves, and new album coming in 2007. You’ve heard me talk about him before; a bonus discovery for me when he opened for G. Love and Special Sauce, of all people. He’s currently co-headlining a tour with Carbon Leaf, and has played with folks as varied as Fiona Apple, Toad The Wet Sprocket, O.A.R., and Train.
Matt is a compelling songwriter with a biting edge and a fiercely humorous energy. No moon-faced mopey songwriting here, he’d rather strike with a sharply incisive lyric or a driving melody. Even his acoustic shows rock pretty hard, and this current tour is with a full band, so it is exciting to see that side of his music as well. As Matt said once in concert, “Tonight is going to rock, I guarantee you. You are going to run home tonight, naked, and possibly on fire.”
How could you resist? I hear nothing but good things in the future for this fellow.
A CONVERSATION WITH MATT NATHANSON
Let’s start with a hard-hitting and serious journalistic question: If you were a white rapper, what would your street name be?
(no hesitation) MC Bitch Tits.
Niiice. I first saw you as an opening act last March in San Francisco, and the crowd was happy but not always, shall we say, attentive. What have you learned from being an opening act that you now use in your headlining shows? I imagine it must be quite an acrobatic stunt trying to hold the attention of some of these crowds.
Sometimes it’s a better fit opening for certain bands vs. others. When I opened for Tori Amos it was fantastic because the crowd was really ready to listen. G. Love can be a little bit more of a tough crowd. But I’d say I like being the opening act better, actually, than headlining. I like being the underdog and being underestimated and kind of trying to win my way. It’s much better than being in a position of, “Put on a great show. I came here to see you.” Much cooler. I mean, both are good shows, but I think opening is just fun in general. I like it.
It seems as if you are a total cover whore, which I can appreciate because I am too. Some are serious and gorgeous, like Romeo & Juliet, or Springsteen, but others are not so much (White Snake, Rick Springfield). How do you decide what covers to do, and what do you bring to it that makes it worthwhile?
People don’t always appreciate the Boss, but every crowd appreciates White Snake. For us as a band, it’s fun to do covers that are stupid, like last night for fun we did “Dancing With Myself,” didn’t really rehearse it. So it’s usually just like you’re in middle of a song and something makes you think of something, you follow the train of thought and all of a sudden you’re at “Crazy Train.” Occasionally, tags on the end of songs or at the beginning just pop into my head, like “Anna Begins” (or “Such Great Heights”) with “Bent,” or “Pictures of You” with “I Saw.”
Are there any covers you want to do that you haven’t tried yet?
Ohhhh . . . I want to do “Dreaming” by Blondie. I think that’s a great song. Ah, I love that song. But I don’t think we’ll ever do it.
Dual pronged question about music, take your pick:
-What do you find yourself listening to most often now?
-Top 5 Desert Island Discs
Oh, I buy records all the time, I go every Tuesday to the record store. It depends which one — Best Buy is cheap, but I go to Amoeba first . . . great. And Tower on Columbus, before Tower went belly up, they were great. My top albums? Man, how about…
U2 – Achtung Baby
Def Leppard – Hysteria
R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant
Lou Reed – New York
Jane’s Addiction – Nothing Shocking
aaand . . . maybe Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (Black Crowes) if I can take six onto this island.
Music that’s blowing my mind; John Darnielle / The Mountain Goats. I’ve known him for a really long time, since college and he’s just soooo good (see A Violently Perfect Song). The first song on the new Ani DiFranco record blew my mind. I was really excited about that new Black Crowes double record thing that came out. I bought the My Morning Jacket live record, and last week I bought ummmm . . . Fergie (yeah), and Luna’s greatest hits. It just piles on, stacks and stacks of CDs, and eventually I get there and find time to listen to it all.
Are there any songs that you ever don’t feel like performing because they are so wrenching and, well, a lot of the situations are pretty crappy? Like, Ryan Adams wrote:
“there are just some songs that are too painful, not in an emo-core way or whatev, but in a personal way, that i see in a way that makes me uneasy and unable to translate from the frame of mind i am in now . . . and that song [Come Pick Me Up] doesnt speak to me. it isnt what i would say if i were being myself . . . i respect the song enough not to sing it and lie.”
Can you relate to that at all with any of your songs?
There may be songs that I don’t sing, just ones that don’t translate anymore . . .But that stuff’s all still in there, inside me. It hasn’t been solved. You know, it’s all kind of still — you can get to it pretty easy. It just sort of sits in a corner and waits for you to sort of be like, “Heyyyy!”
I don’t think I’ve had any trouble relating still to my songs. That’s probably not a good sign for my development as a human, but I can still pretty much relate to everything in there, all the ones I play.
In the past 11 years that you’ve lived in San Francisco, are you finding any specific influences from the city in the music you’ve written? Is there a sense of place that comes from songs written in different locales?
Unh-unh. Songs may be about different places, that happens. Like this song’s kind of a New York song or that one is somewhere else, based on the characters in it or whoever I wrote about. But most of my songs are just really specific about events, they’re mostly letters to people.
Like, a record from me will be, like, 12 letters to the same person. They’re not hybrids of different situations in the same song — I try not to do that because I want to communicate something to that person that the song is written about, that’s usually how it works. Almost to a fault, I feel that I really adhere to that concept, like trying to explain this situation in a song, what’s really going on in my life.
As far as San Francisco goes, as a songwriter I haven’t really written any songs that for me feel like San Francisco. I tour a lot. I try but — in songwriting I am working on kind of expanding the palette a little bit, so things get a little more dynamic, a little more soundscapey, you know?
I was talking to my friend today and I feel like I do a lot of, like, “Here’s a song. Here it’s delivered, here it is.” And it’s time to stop doing that, it’s time to start delivering them in a little bit more of a — Like making greatness, or trying to make greatness. It’s like when you have a record like the first Sheryl Crow record, that’s pretty much a singer-songwriter record, but like “Strong Enough” is just amazing because they totally went left field with how they made it, like what kind of guitar they used, and rhythm.
Once you’re confident in the songs, I think the next step (and I’ve never been able to do this) is to sort of step outside the confines of the song and see what it can be. There’s a couple on the new record that feel like they’re closer to that.
What do you think it would look like to reach that elusive quality of “greatness” in a song that you spoke of?
Ohhh, I don’t know. Like . . . Springsteen. Springsteen has moments. Springsteen is actually an example of someone who does the opposite of that concept. He adheres to strongly to the traditional structure — they sound like a rock band, but the lyrics, that’s where he gets away with it. “Born To Run” makes you feel like you’re on the Jersey shore, but it’s not because of the music, I don’t think. It’s more about his lyrics. Or like with U2, you hear “Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World” and, holy shit, it’s like it’s 6am on some street corner somewhere, like you are actually there.
When can we expect a follow-up to Beneath These Fireworks?
It’s almost done, actually. There are 11 songs done, and we’ll record another 4. We’re recording it in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it’ll probably be out in April of 2007. I’ve got a couple of titles floating around; it can be hard to name the album but eventually it just comes to you. I was thinking The Knife-Thrower’s Wife, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen now. I don’t actually know what it will be called right now.
Here are some unreleased songs you’ve done live that we’re curious about. Can you tell me which of these might be on the new album?
(Looks at paper)
*Prove to Me — “that’s never gonna make a record”
*So Long — “that’s so long gone”
*Car Crash — “that’s new, yep”
*I Can’t Get to What You Need
*Winter Dress — “that’s called Wedding Dress now”
*Come On Get Higher
*This Heartbreak World
So, yeah, pretty much all of those except “Prove to Me” and “So Long”.
You’ve worked with some awesome musicians on your last album: Matt Chamberlain, Glen Phillips, David Garza. Who would be on your dream team of collaborators for the future?
A couple of records ago I had Charlie [Gillingham] from the Counting Crows come in and play piano and he is just great. I loved working with Matt [Chamberlain], who was in Pearl Jam for like three weeks. I just totally just saw Pearl Jam in Irving Plaza, it was a fucking incredible show.
David Garza is amazing, just constantly creating. Our bass player John played with his band for a while around the time of This Euphoria.
And Glen Phillips sang some backup for me, and that was great. I’ve known Glen for a really long time, I just played a bunch of shows with Toad and we had a great time. He and I have known each other for like 14 years, and we had a fucking good hang, it was great.
There’s not many guests on the new album — my friend Susie sings backup on a couple songs, she was on that show Rockstar. I’ve never seen the show but she just has a great voice.
The new one, it’s kind of a mix of electric and acoustic. We’ve been debuting some of the songs at shows recently, we’ll play a bunch of them tonight.
Last question. I love your “Starfish & Coffee” Prince cover, it is an inspired flash of glory. So . . . what’s the best Prince song ever, and why?
“Never Take The Place of Your Man” live from Sign ‘o’ the Times the movie. Now that’s a great song. Prince is just great.
Matt and his band did indeed rock Boulder that night with a crowd that was extremely attentive and tuned in to the vibe of the show. It was a pretty powerful aura of connection with the audience that evening, and the band seemed to be completely jelling together and really hitting their stride.
Matt played a mix of old and new songs, as well as a nice Violent Femmes cover and their cover of “Laid” by James. Of the new material, “Detroit Waves” was absolutely scorching, and I really liked the maturity and honest incisiveness of “I Can’t Get To What You Need.” Check it out, I think it’s great:
Here’s “Sad Songs,” one of my favorite songs of his off Beneath These Fireworks:
Finally, here’s a bit of his performance of “Bare,” another great song:
As a completely irrelevant postscript, I have to say that one of the funniest parts of the conversation we shared (and my personal favorite quote of the night because I am a total dog person): A golden retriever puppy comes up to our outside table. Matt asks the dog, very enthusiastically, “What are you doing?! Why are you perfect? Oh my god, you’re awesome. You’re so soft. What happened?!”
Come on, fuzzy puppies and good music. How could that not make for an excellent evening? Definitely go see Matt on tour if you can, and I am looking forward to hearing all of his new album next year. The strength of his lyricism and the goodness of the melodies make Nathanson one that I plan to keep an eye on.
(I think Matt said this was about being in an airplane over Detroit and not able to text message someone who you couldn’t control anymore)
(Matt said this was about sleeping with someone that you really shouldn’t be sleeping with, and how it gets bad)
Come On Get Higher
(such a pretty, simple song)