I met Matt on 4/20 of 2013. We were both playing some show at a weird warehouse I had never heard of in Houston. I don’t even know how I got on that gig and I never went there again. My best friend Cat and I were fixing up some Coronas with lime and salt with my folks when I saw Matt fumbling around kicking up dirt in some bell bottom jeans and mumbling to himself.
“You should go offer him a beer, Ris!” My dad has always been super friendly to musicians and we all figured he was playing the show because he had a guitar strapped to his back. I fixed one up and walked over. “Want a beer?” “Oh, thanks man! Sure!”
I asked Matt if he was playing the show and he said yeah, he was just traveling through. I asked who he was touring with. “Oh, no one. I prefer to travel alone.” I thought that was interesting. I was still very young and new to the road at the time. Now that I think back after years of boozin’ and fightin’ and all the other mess that happens from being stuck in a small metal box with 5-8 other musicians...traveling alone sounds amazing.
The show was a total dud, so Matt and I played a “battle set” in which we both set up on stage and played songs back and forth to keep our audience of maybe 5 people interested. Mostly just to keep ourselves interested if I’m being honest. After that show Matt and I have kept up with each other over the years. From dropping bad acid while wearing cowboy hats that sent Matt into a paranoid frenzy, to playing in hailstorms at our most recent Compost Heap Music Festival in Denver.
I tried to think of some more interesting interview questions than maybe a normal interviewer would pick. If you’re a somewhat known musician, interview questions can tend to be bland when you’ve been touring around for 20 or so years. And Matt's a weird guy, so I gave it my best shot.
Rebel Noise: You built your reputation and livelihood on touring to play live shows. Since the pandemic hit, artists can't do either but this must have affected you a lot more than many since your M.O. is to always be on the road playing shows. How has that affected your psyche? And what have you done to keep things on an even keel since you can't do what your life's work has been for more than a decade now?
Matt Pless: COVID has definitely put some things into perspective for me. I have an autoimmune illness myself, so, as with most things in life, I take precautions while at the same time doing my best to not live in fear or be paranoid. It’s fairly simple on that end for me, I wash my hands, I wear masks in public places, I limit my close contact with people and I hold my breath even with a mask on when passing people on the street. I’m doing okay so far in that respect. It’s basic consideration for my own well-being as well as others. As far as how it’s affected my lifestyle and career, that's a whole other situation. I miss touring, I miss playing live, I am not a fan of the live stream concerts and as much as I sometimes complained of empty house shows and filthy kitchen sinks with lumpy couches to sleep on, I will never again take any of that for granted once this COVID shit is over, if we ever even can return to such a world.
I’m not used to being stuck in one place for so long. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life since I was 17 on tour or playing live. Nothing beats getting out there and meeting people and performing for them in person. No computer or cell phone interaction will ever match up to that. I feel sorry for new musicians tryin’ to find their way in this new reality. I hope they figure out a path to find the joy I have experienced on the other side of all this. It’s also created a divide within the scene of those folks wanting to play live, outdoor, socially-distanced shows with masks and those who are adamant on not taking part in such activities until a vaccine or something has been administered to the public. I don’t know how that divide will balance out. This world has become incredibly toxic and divisive and it’s not helping anyone achieve any positive outcome or progress. It saddens me greatly to see the state of things. I have no answers.
Lockdown life is driving me nuts to be honest. I've never been one who does well standing still. I am always on the go and ready for the next adventure. This is the longest I’ve gone without playing live or traveling in nearly 22 years. It’s been really tough on top of the general anxiety of catching the virus or what could happen next as a result of COVID being a fairly unpredictable beast. All I can really do at this point is keep on writing the best music I can and have it ready for people when the time comes. Making money from merch sales online has been my primary income source during this whole thing, which has been steady, but I do encourage anyone who enjoys my music to head over to my Bandcamp page and scoop some vinyls or t-shirts or downloads off of other platforms because every little bit helps. Spotify your favorite DIY artists and continue to tell your friends about independent music you enjoy. The underground art scene is where it’s at, you just gotta keep an eye out.
RN: Sometimes DIY artists get confined to a box of sorts; in terms of music, which acts or artists do you love that some Matt Pless fans might be surprised to know about? Why do you enjoy them and why do your you think fans would be startled by this revelation?
MP: Very true, I don't care for boxes, I avoid them as much as I can. When it comes to musical artists I listen to or have been influenced by, I can relay a list consisting of probably many unexpected names. With respect to the genre that has helped me achieve so much exposure and introduced me to more amazing people and ideas than I could have ever imagined, I have to say I don't listen to much folk punk at all at this point. There are the classic names and figures in that scene which most folks enjoy, and I still keep up with what they are doing and throw ‘em on from time to time, but beyond that, my musical palette is kinda all over the place.
I love old Motown music. You wanna talk about DIY record labels and music, you gotta research Motown and its founder Berry Gordy, the man is a business and musical genius. Bands and songs he put together were untouchable - Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, “I Want You Back”' by The Jackson 5 is probably, in my opinion, the best pop song ever written. Anything Motown is top notch in my book. I love ‘50s music, the girl groups from back then, The Shirelles, The Ronettes, The Shangri-las, anything ‘50s, early ‘60s really. Dion, Ricky Nelson. The Monkees are one of my favorite groups - whoever wrote their songs was a master at pop melody, right next to the Beatles I'd say and beyond in some cases. Old folk music, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Elizabeth Cotton, all that old weird America stuff, songs that almost sound like ghosts on a dusty highway, ancient and new at the same time. Old blues like Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, early soul singers like Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke - one of the best songwriters ever. Of course I like all the ‘70s, Fleetwood Mac, Zeppelin, Canned Heat and ‘80s typical jams - Prince, Michael Jackson, Culture Club. I love classical, Beethoven, Mozart, “Canon in D Major” is one of my favorite pieces of music ever, I listen to it and imagine my wedding which never seems to transpire in real life, but it might be one of those things better left to my imagination considering how restless of a spirit I tend to be. Great music regardless. Punk from the ‘90s - Green Day, Op Ivy, Blatz, Rancid, The Muffs. ‘90s alternative music and hip hop is my wheelhouse, I grew up on all this type of stuff, it shaped my pop sensibilities I believe and I don’t think I would be writing the way I do today without a lifetime of exposure to all kinds of music.
Great hooks, melodies and lyrics, no matter what genre, that is what I look for, it’s what I try to stay in touch with psychically in order to keep writing consistent bangers. I don’t know if people would be surprised by my choice of music to listen to, if they know my songwriting style, I would imagine they could see the correlation between the aforementioned bands and artists and my catchy, heavily lyrical style of writing. When it comes to modern music however, I'd say the underground is where it’s at, stuff nobody knows about, the counter culture is really where it's at right now for good tunes, mainstream is a dumpster fire in my opinion, but keep your ear to the ground and you'll strike gold more than you'd think!
RN: What subjects are you interested in writing songs about right now and how does an idea evolve into a song for you?
MP: I’m interested in writing songs that include subject matter about anything that comes to me really. There is no rhyme or reason to how I write music. The process sorta starts with an idea that pops in my head from nowhere. A lyric or melody that strikes me in a certain way. It could happen walking down the street in New Orleans or while strumming a chord on a guitar. It’s like a lightning bolt hits you and you just know you gotta write about whatever that lightning bolt contains. Basically, I’m always ‘on,’ it’s 24/7 alert to everything that could hit me. I’m ready to write about whatever - relationships, love, politics, society, abstract poetry, usually it take the form of whatever I’m surrounded by or dealing with at that time. A song like "The Crayon Song," for instance. I was dating a girl who worked as a dancer at a strip club and we would stay up late doing drugs on her coffee table. One day a line popped into my head while I was fingerprinting and mumbling nonsense words into the air while tryin’ to catch a good melody.
The lyrics "off to wander with my lover in her bag of pretty colors" came from the invisible endless nowhere as a completed phrase over a progression of chords I had been playing. It all started there. I held on to that set of words and put it in the mental bank for a week or two. Then tragically, my girlfriend’s mom committed suicide. That was an emotional disaster for me and my girlfriend and all involved. To feel someone's heart break while you held them in your arms transmits an energy into your soul that, for someone as sensitive and intuitive as I can be, is shattering beyond anything I can describe. It left an imprint on me that I carry to this day. The following few days I spent wrestling with all the feelings that came from the whole horrible ordeal. At some point I sat down and wrote “The Crayon Song” in its entirety in a hour or so. It felt incomplete once it was finished however, but then I recalled the "pretty colors" lyric I had been sitting on for weeks. I tossed it in last minute as a bridge sort of change up and it fit as if it belonged there all along. Like a lost ship at sea that finally found land. I feel like a ghost floats within that song. Maybe my ex-girlfriend’s mom's spirit was guiding my hand during the writing process. As if she had a final message to send to the world. That song has become one of my most popular, it still astounds me the reaction it gets from people. How many people it’s helped. How many tears I've watched people shed when listening to it. I dunno. Its a powerful song. Someone told me recently that "the music sounds like heaven and the lyrics describe hell" ... it’s one of the songs I’m most proud of. It also gives me the creeps when I play it or listen to it.
I guess I don’t really know how I write songs. I have no idea what I'm doing honestly. It’s the hand of God or circumstance or whatever you wanna call it, at work through me, I can only take so much credit for the songs and things I bring into the world. Basically, I'd conclude by saying, if you're gonna be an artist, never get too comfortable. When life seems too consistent, do something to shake things up. Stagnation is the death of inspiration. Stand naked in the rain, look the storm straight in the eye and become a lightning rod.
RN: What subjects are you not interested in writing songs about?
MP: What subjects am I not interested in writing songs about? Interesting question. I would say I am not interested in writing about anything boring. I don’t much care for writing about political topics at this point, but I would be open to composing a song concerning them if the lightning struck me to do so with completed lyrics or melodies intact and ready to go. This isn’t because I am not concerned with the state of the world or politics or social issues currently, quite the opposite actually. There is a good deal of heavy issues going on in the world today concerning those topics. The issue I have with writing about them is based on the fact that, as anyone who has listened to my music knows, I have been writing about things going on in the world today for the last decade. Most of what I want to say has already been said by me in previous songs. “When the Frayed Wind Blows,” “Shots Fired,” “Nero,” “ The Breadline,” “Piggy Bank,” “When the Helmets Hit the Ground,” to name a few, all contain heavy political and social themes that fall right in line with concerns going on in the current climate. I just don’t really know what else I can say or how to say it better than I already have. I don’t want to repeat myself or tackle a topic previously explored in a way that comes off as inferior when held up next to older songs with the same subject matter.
However, once again, I will state that I am open to writing more songs that explore these topics, if the words and melodies come to me. What I have been doing is in some cases, donating money earned from the download sales of some of these older songs toward some of the causes and movements in need of financial aid during these turbulent times, while in the same breath, also attempting to keep some money in my own pocket to stay afloat and keep living my life until all this insanity is over and I can get back out on the road.
RN: Considering all this background on what you like to listen to and how you write, can you choose the best song you’ve ever written? Is it your favorite?
MP: My best song (laughs). Gosh, I don’t have any idea. “I Hope You’re Happy Now” is pretty universal and will stand the test of time. Anyone can relate to it, but it isn’t my favorite. “When the Frayed Wind Blows” is definitely one I am most proud of lyrically. I swear I don’t know how I even wrote that. I have no idea, sometimes I’ll hear it and say, shit, how did this happen? “The Crayon Song,” as I said earlier, is one I am also very happy with, it’s ghostly and other-worldly and just has something special about it. I am proud of my catalog of work, it’s tough to pick a favorite. I am grateful I was given all of my songs and I am forever in debt to the wizard at the gates of subconscious for blessing me with the privilege of writing them.
RN: Are there moment when the “wizard at the gates” doesn’t seem to be there? Do you have moments where your creativity stalls? What’s your advice to new or younger songwriters who experience writer’s block?
MP: I absolutely get stuck on writing lyrics and finishing songs sometimes. I have rooms and notebooks filled with lyrics scribbled everywhere that are either waiting to find their home or will just go unused in the scrap pile. It usually comes down to having one line I need to finish for a song to be complete and I have, in some cases, thought on that one line for days. For instance, in “When the Frayed Wind Blows” I had it all except the final line for the chorus “When the fury of the frayed wind blows.” I must have wandered around New York City for four days just thinking and feeling it out and trying to find out the selection of words that would sum up that tune. When it hit me it was like, bam! That’s perfect. I dunno what it means but it sure sounds like it says what needs to be said.
As far as advice goes to a songwriter trying to finish a piece, I would say stay focused, keep on living life with that song you are working on in the back of your mind and stay alert to the universe and what it’s trying to say to you. Scribble ideas of a blank piece of paper, write stream of consciousness, free-flowing verse in the mornings and sometimes that will jog an idea. Sometimes something you came up with years ago, finds its way into your work later. Some folks write daily for an hour or a period of time on a schedule, it’s like a job they have to clock into every day and hope they get paid. For me, writing isn’t a job, there is no schedule, there is no time frame. Writing is a way of life, a religion and a constant magic spell you cast on everything you do. Writing is a part of me, there is no time clock, you are always working overtime.
RN: When people ask you about the songwriting process, what question do they surprisingly never bring up? Of all the times you've talked with someone about your creative process, what's the thing no one ever mentions?
MP: I’m really having a hard time answering this question because honestly people don’t ask much about the writing process of my songs. Which surprises me because I am always really interested in what makes the artists I enjoy tick. What is interesting to me is on several occasions, I have inquired about the writing process with several writers in the DIY scene whose work I admire - Pat the Bunny, your brother Jesse and a few others, and their answers all sort of fall in line with the same way I feel like writing goes for me. It’s 50 percent chaos in order to gain initial inspiration and 50 percent order when it comes time to put the initial chaos-induced ideas on paper in a cohesive form that conveys some sort of message to the world in the form of a song. That is how I would put it at least.
Songwriting, art, creation in general is one of the most zen things I think I do in my life. Nothing compares to finding that center when chaos and order collide and form a sort of meditative psychic space where a piece of art comes together and everything that seemed totally insane before begins to make sense. I wish people asked more about the creative process in general, but mostly, people come up to me at shows afterward and just wanna smoke weed with me or something, which is totally cool with me, but like, I love to talk about the inner workings of creativity or any philosophical topics in general, so maybe that can come up next time someone passes a joint my way, I dunno. I want to compliment you however on the really cool nature of these interview questions. This is the kind of stuff I would prefer to engage in with someone as opposed to like, “So how is the tour going?” Let’s go deeper than that.
RN: What's your dream gig? If there was one place you could play that would be a bucket list venue, where is it? Who else would be on the bill?
MP: My dream gig. I would love to play on a huge, packed festival stage someday, or hell, I would love to get booked on one of the late night TV talk shows as the featured artist and play one of my more political or more striking songs that would shake people up when they heard it on a mainstream TV show. Just me and an acoustic guitar and some words. Saturday Night Live or the Tonight Show or something that would really get a hard-hitting lyrical message to the world and to people who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily hear it.
I have played with a lot of the underground artists and bands I admire already so, I guess let’s go for the big guns with this question. I would like to open for Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes, since they are two of my biggest lyrical influences. I think Conor Oberst is an incredible writer who sort of lost his hype after that whole cute boy emo thing faded, but the man still writes wonderful music that I feel gets washed under the radar these days. I would really dig opening for him. Playing any major packed venue or festival or arena would be a dream for me, because I have mastered playing to a house show audience and small-to-medium sized crowds, but I wanna experience the music world from every level and getting a spot or a tour on more major venue stages would feel like a graduation of sorts and a challenge to see if I could get the same reaction from a massive crowd with my songs as I can from a smaller crowd in the DIY scene. I have no doubt I would be able to do so, I just would like to have that chance.
RN: This one is just a variation of the either/or game. Choose a favorite and write one sentence about why you favor it, beginning with -
Hemingway or Faulkner?
MP: Faulkner, because he wrote in more of a stream of consciousness style, which I love, I am really into the beat writers and stream of consciousness is sort of how they put words on paper. It’s also the style which I use in writing my songs sometimes as well as my poetry. I love the free-flowing, unhinged style of verse that sort of, I think, can be the best way to tap into the void and bring back fantastic imagery and ideas. Hemmingway coined the term ‘Iceberg Theory’ which implies that greater meaning should be placed beneath the surface of simpler ways of putting things. I do like that idea, say a lot with a little, something I have not mastered, and also not sure if I want to, but I think it’s a cool way of describing a writing style. “The Old Man and the Sea” was boring as hell when I had to read it back in high school however, but perhaps revisiting that now, I would have a different opinion. Ultimately, I am going with Faulkner.
RN: Stones or Beatles?
MP: The Rolling Stones have grit and give off that early garage band type of vibe. I always liked their image more. The Beatles are master songwriters, and I don’t just say that because you are raised thinking you are basically supposed to love the Beatles. As a songwriter, there is so much to learn from them. Their chords are insane and how they put songs together is out of this world. Even for the most skilled songwriter.
Stones are punk rock when it comes down to it. Much easier to cover their tunes and a much more alluring and provocative attitude and image. I imagine John Lennon would have wanted the Beatles to look and act like the Stones but the Beatles got caught up in that wholesome boy band thing for a while, and all that Fab Four crap, which I think they probably did their best to shake later in their career. Both groups are killer writers and you can learn so much from them. Stones lasted longer, so I guess they have more banger tunes due to that fact, but the Beatles sound better on acid than the Stones ever will. Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote far more soothing emotional tunes than Keith and Mick ever did, so, The Beatles win for variety, and Stones win for attitude.
RN: In N Out or Whataburger?
MP: Whataburger. The end. But, on tour, by the time I reach LA I’m ready for a double-double with animal style fries. Whataburger has a bigger sandwich, though. My heart skips a beat when I see the giant W logo on the Texas horizon. I stop at Whataburger before I stop for gas.
RN: Motel rooms or a sofa at the house of a fan you barely know?
MP: Motel rooms, hands down, unless I’m really cool with whoever I am staying with and want to catch up. I’ve toured for two decades so at a certain point you really come to enjoy some quiet time in a hotel room to yourself after long drives and talking to a dozen strangers at a house show. There is something about hotel rooms that is just a good-ass time for me.
RN: Phone calls or text messages?
MP: Text messages usually because you can respond and answer at your own pace. I am also a better writer than I am a speaker. I like phone calls when it comes to catching up with old friends though.
RN: Bad vocals but great lyrics or great vocals but bad lyrics?
MP: Great lyrics and bad vocals will always win for me. I love a good voice but I love a good piece of writing more.
RN: When you're able to play your next live set - in person, not streaming - what song will open the set and what will be the prevalent thought in your head moments before you start playing it?
MP: When I finally get to play live in front of a crowd again, I think I am going to at first pause a second and take in the room and the people in it and be grateful that we have gotten back to this type of live performance. I am going to appreciate it so much more than I had before and I will probably start out with a classic to get everyone hyped, like my song “Ashtray” I can’t wait for that day to come. I’m sure you feel the same.