Interview: Matt Watts of The Starting Line

The Starting Line

I’d have to say the “Screaming Is For Babies” tour is one of my favorite tours in a long time; how’d it get put together and how’s it been so far?

Well this is kind of like our first real headlining tour—we headlined the Drive Thru tour before, but this was like the first chance for us to go out and headline and pick the bands that we wanted to pick. We got a list of who we could take on the tour, and we wanted to make it sort of a diverse bill of bands that we’re all fans of, and we knew the Cartel guys a little bit before going into it, but not really all that well, and we met the Gatsbys guys on Warped Tour, and we’re just fans of all the bands on it. It’s a lineup that I’d love to see if I was going to a show because there aren’t really two bands that sound alike, and I love going to shows like that. Kids that come for us or Cartel may have not heard Copeland or Gatsbys, and to introduce them to a new band is awesome, especially bands like that.

How does it feel to have your most successful tour in quite some time when some people had maybe written you off?

It’s cool man. The fans are there and it’s proof that good work ethic and grassroots touring makes real fans. Kids support the record, although our record label hadn’t and didn’t really get it out there in full force, but our core audience seems to really like the record or people who didn’t like the last record might like Based On a True Story. It all comes down to the songs, and if people connect with the songs, they’ll support your band.

So after this tour you’re gonna go in and record your new CD, right?

Yeah, we are.

How many songs do you have written so far?

Kenny has either nine or ten written, and I believe we have four written as a full band so far.

How do those songs differ from Based on a True Story?

I’d say the difference between Say It Like You Mean It from Based on a True Story is kind of similar to what we’re doing right now. The songs that we’re writing now, it’s more of a classic song-writing structure. We’re really focusing on trying to write some classic songs where you could listen it years from now and not know when the songs were written. I love bands like Counting Crows and stuff like that, and when I listen to those records now, that record could’ve been put out last week and I’d love it just the same. That’s kind of what we’re focusing on. As of right now, the songs seem to be more in the vein of Coldplay, kind of more along the lines of the song “Ready” on the last record, and it just seems like a really natural progression, and I know we’re all really proud of the songs.

You guys have a touring pianist right now, is that gonna show up more on the new CD?

Yeah, he’s a great addition to the band. He pulls everything off so well, and he’s a really awesome dude, we get along so well. I’m excited to see what develops on that front and how that goes.

Is he a permanent member of the band?

We’ve been talking about it, nothing is solidified yet though. If that happens, we’ll certainly let you guys know.

Are the new songs gonna be similar to “Somebody’s Gonna Miss Us,” the song that people have seen a live video of?

We’re playing three of em live right now, and that’s one of the ones, but I don’t think they’re really in the vein of that, so to speak. The song that we’ve been playing called “What You Want,” I feel like the songs are more like that. I really don’t know yet, it’s so early on that I really can’t tell.

Is the song title “Somebody’s Gonna Miss Us” a reference to Geffen?

My perception of it, I feel like it’s a reference to us coming into our own as a band, and people wanting us to write “Best of Me” part 2, or “Leaving” again, and stuff like that. The thing is, we’re just not that band anymore, that was us, and those are still our songs and we’ll still play those songs, but as far as writing songs go, that’s not where we’re at right now.

We were talking about your live show earlier, and I don’t know if you’ve read the comments on message boards and stuff like that about the drumming and the tempos of the song, but I saw you guys last week and it sounded damn good to me. Is there anything you’d like to say to people about all that?

There were certain issues with playing live and stuff like that. We were always a band that wasn’t really concerned with tempo, and when we heard kids talking about it, it kind of really drew to our attention that it was an issue, and we’ve just kind of worked on it. This whole tour, the tempo’s been dead on every show, and kids have been talking about how much tighter we’ve gotten and how much better our live show is, so I guess kids talking shit is kind of like a blessing and a curse. Kids who know what they’re talking about, it kind of makes you focus attention towards it, and if there’s a problem, it makes you address it, and I’m certainly glad that our tempo is dead on now.

What criticisms or praise have you received for either your live show or Based on a True Story, and how do you take the criticism? Do you take it in a positive way or do you feel that you should just keep doing what you’ve been doing because that’s been successful so far?

We’ve always been a band that’s kind of done that we want to do, especially with Based on a True Story. Geffen sat us down and basically told us they wanted us to write a Simple Plan record—something more pop sensible and something they could put on the radio right away. And they were pushing for singles, but we fought to the death to write the record that we wanted to write. We didn’t want to put out Say It Like You Mean It part 2. Any criticism we get, I’m proud of that record whether it sold 10 records or 10,000,000 records. That’s the record I’m gonna show to my kids some day. This is the record we really wanted to do. Also, when Geffen was trying to send us back into the studio to re-do singles and stuff like that, they were saying, “Write more singles,” so that’s when we delivered them “Ready” and “Inspired By the Dollar Sign.” I don’t want to say the record was a big “fuck you” to Geffen, but it was one of those records where it was like “We got ourselves to this point, we want to call our shot for once and do what we want to do as a band.” And there’s nothing wrong with writing pop sensible songs like Simple Plan, I think that band’s a great band, but that just wasn’t the vein of songwriting that we were going in.

Could you tell us what exactly the problems were with Geffen, why you requested to be released from them, and how that whole process went about?

I feel like the problem was, you know, we were a Drive Thru band and Drive Thru had the upstreaming thing to MCA, and we got to a certain point—we sold like 300,000 records on Drive Thru/MCA, and MCA upstreamed our band. At the time, we were really excited about it—essentially, it could’ve gotten us out to a lot more people. And we thought we grew organically and in the right way where everything was cool to do that. And MCA suddenly folded when “Best of Me” was ready to go to radio, and folded into Geffen. There was no radio staff, there was really no one to work the record, which was fine, we didn’t really care about that. And we ended up on Geffen, and it just seemed like no one there would assume responsibility for our band. No one there really came out to the shows, they didn’t know anything about our band. When we first met with them, they were like “We’re gonna take you guys as a brand new band and pretend you didn’t sell any records.” For a band who toured years in a van busting their ass to basically have a label tell you that none of that existed, that was pretty much a really low blow. And from that, it just totally bummed us out. Making the record was an uphill battle, communicating with them was an uphill battle, the whole thing, it just wasn’t a good relationship for us to be in. Fortunately when we talked to Jordan Schur, who is president of Geffen, he kind of understood our concerns after battling for months and months to get out, and telling him “This isn’t working,” and he finally gave us the option to leave, and we did that.

You guys recently signed with Virgin; what made you guys say “Ok, lets give another major label a chance” after all the issues you had with the last one?

Well, we met with I don’t even know how many labels—we met with pretty much every label out there—Virgin was the one label that we met with that loved where we were going. They loved where we’ve been, but they loved where we were going, they loved Based on a True Story, they love where we’re headed, and it just seemed like a good vibe all around. A few other labels were like “Yeah, “Best of Me,” if you make it again, we’ll make it a smash,” and it’s like, “You know what? That’s totally not us.” Virgin, they came out to the shows, they’re really passionate about the band, they were singing along, they’re just legit, good dudes. Our A&R guy used to manage Texas Is the Reason, which is one of my favorite bands of all time. Knowing that people working at a major label have that kind of a background, makes me feel a lot more secure in this situation.

Do you know when your new CD might be out?

We’re shooting for before the end of the year. I’m hoping November/December. It’s all a matter of when we get in the studio and who we work with and stuff like that, but I mean we’re taking time off after this tour, like a month or two to solely write the record. The ideas are there—I know the ideas that Kenny has down, and I think we’re all so proud of them. It’s definitely a billion times better than anything we’ve ever done before.

Do you know what producer you’d like to work with?

We have a wish list of producers we’d like to work with. I don’t know, there’s so many. Eric Valentine, he’s amazing. He did the first Third Eye Blind record which is one of my favorites of all time, both musically and sonically.

What qualities do you look for in a producer?

The focus on the songs—producers don’t necessarily help with the songwriting, but they kind of peek their head in and let you know when a part doesn’t fit or shit doesn’t flow right, and I think that’s a really important thing to have, that extra ear. I love songs that flow well, big choruses, and stuff like that. There are certain records that have that, and others don’t, and every record Eric Valentine’s ever done, he has that. I also love organic sounds, natural, organic sounds. I think on our last record the songs that Tim O’Heir did especially, they have that organic feel where it’s not all computed and Pro Tools and stuff like that. Pro Tools and computers are great for some bands, but I don’t know, I think it’s all your style and that’s not what we’re looking for with this record.

You said you like organic sounds—how do you feel about Say It Like You Mean It’s production?

Trombino’s great at what he does—Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity is one of my favorite records of all time. That record is fucking amazing. I think the sounds he gets are great. As far as production goes, I think for this new record that’s not the type of production we’re looking for, but I respect everything the guy’s done, he’s an excellent producer.

There was a rumor going around that Geffen sent you a copy of New Found Glory’s Catalyst and were like, “Make your CD sound like this.”

We wrote Based on a True Story, we demo-ed it all in Kenny’s basement and we sat in the office and played them the songs, and they sat us down right before Catalyst was coming out. They took our CD out of the CD player and put New Found Glory in and said, “These demos aren’t this CD, you guys should sound like this.” And that’s not us. That was also one of the big problems with the label. They wanted to force us in a direction that we didn’t want to go in. They wanted Neal Avron to produce the new record—who I think is an excellent producer—but he was producing the New Found Glory record and the new Fall Out Boy record and we kind of wanted our own thing.

What was it like working with Max [Say Anything] on “Ready?”

I actually wasn’t in the studio for that, it was just Max and Kenny that day. But we know Max really well now. We were just a huge fan of Say Anything, especially during the making of that record, because Tim O’Heir did that record also and he did ours, and he played us the record when we went into the studio and we were just like “Fuck! This record is unbelievable!” and we seriously listened to it every day for months. They’re one of our favorite bands out there, collectively, and to have him sing on our record and that song was an honor.

You guys have been posting a lot of b-sides and demos online lately, are you planning on releasing a b-sides album any time?

We haven’t really talked about it. At some point, I’m sure, because we have so many unreleased songs that nobody’s ever heard, so at some point, yeah, I’d love to do that. Right now I don’t think it’s the right time, we just want to focus on putting out a new record.

How’d you guys feel about the demos for Based on a True Story leaking?

I didn’t really have a big problem with it. The thing is, I wish more people would’ve known that they were basement demos, because kids were like “Ahhh this is the record, the quality sucks.” And it’s like, “Yeah, when we demo songs we put a couple mics in Kenny’s basement and we record the songs and then we go back and listen to them.”

So people thought that was the actual CD?

Yeah, yeah, all over the internet, people thought it was the actual CD, and it’s like, they’re just kind of rough sketches of what we’re going for. I’d rather have the anticipation build until the record comes out, but unfortunately with so many file sharing programs out there, it’s so easy to just take stuff off people’s computers or just burn a CD and put it on the internet. There’s a program out there now called OurTunes, which is pretty much the most amazing program ever, but you can basically view what’s on anybody’s computer around you. Think about any band on tour, anybody can steal any band’s demos if they’re on the band’s iTunes. It’s scary as hell, but the program is fuckin’ rad.

What happened with the self-titled CD? Will that ever be released?

I don’t know, I think that’s probably one of those b-sides CDs, I’m sure a lot of songs will make it on there.

Are you guys thinking about putting another acoustic EP or CD?

I don’t know. At some point, I’m sure. If there’s a big space between records and the fans want to hear some stuff, then absolutely, but right now we’re just trying to write the record and head out as soon as possible, and keep the fans happy.

What bands did you guys look up to for guidance when you were younger?

As far as wanting to play music, I feel like Lagwagon, Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, and Blink were the bands that made me want to start a band. Touring with bands is a completely different story because you tour with so many different bands and they teach you the right way and the wrong way. One of the first bands we toured with was New Found Glory, it was like our third tour ever, and they kind of showed us that you can be a big successful band and still be cool to your fans and still work your asses off and maintain that level of work ethic and accessibility when you were a small local band. I think that’s awesome and I admire those guys so much for that. Fortunately we got to tour with those guys early on and we’ve tried to maintain that attitude through our whole career.

What advice do you have for younger bands trying to make it?

Do everything for the right reason. Don’t write a song because you think it’s gonna get you signed. Write a song because you love the songs you’re writing and be passionate about it. I feel like people will eventually see through all that shit, you know what I mean? If a song is honest and legit, people like it and attach to it. I think the internet’s a great way to promote, definitely MySpace and Purevolume. Let everybody know about your band without being overly annoying. Play every show you possibly can whether it’s a birthday party or a backyard show, we played so many of those starting out. Just be thankful for everything. Work your ass off and don’t expect anything to fall into your lap, because it won’t.

So you’re currently managing New Atlantic and Like Lions, how you’d become interested in being a manager?

We didn’t have a manager for the first two and a half years of being a band. We did a bunch of tours and stuff like that, and we kind of learned how to do everything ourselves which I think is so important for a band. It makes you become a better band, it makes you become closer with your bandmates, and it makes you appreciate what you do have once you get to the next level and have a manager. So I kind of miss the excitement of a band growing and stuff like that. I’d been friends with Dave Carlson who’s in New Atlantic for a very long time—he’s actually one of the first people to help out The Starting Line, years and years ago. He had this internet record label that never really took off called Jackpot Records, and he was trying to sign us, Don’t Look Down, and The Early November before they were called The Early November. He didn’t have enough money to put out records but he did a ton of online promoting for us and really helped out our band, and from that we became close friends with him. He played me some demos of New Atlantic like really early on and I was like, “This is fucking awesome, I see a lot of potential in this.” Knowing Dave and knowing the other guys in the band, I knew they had an incredible work ethic, and I knew together we could do this the right way and build it the right way. I’ve been managing them for the past year, and it’s been unbelievable so far. Like Lions is pretty great too—the singer used to be in Days Away and TJ, the drummer, used to be in Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer. We heard 6 or 7 songs they recorded probably like 8 months ago and we [Tom and I] were completely blown away by it.

What’ve you learned from being on a band that was on an indie to a major that fucked you over to being on a supportive major?

I learned that in the end of it, it’s always the four of us. The four of us started it, the four of us started writing songs in Tom’s garage and then Kenny’s basement, and no one can ever take that away from us, regardless of what record label it is. The four of us are way stronger than Geffen Records or any label we sign to. We just have to remember that and that we started this band because it’s fun and we want to write songs that we listen to and play every night.

How do you apply the experiences you’ve had to being a manager and helping your bands out?

We’ve gone through every possible scenarios there is. We’ve been fucked over, we’ve been in good situations, and it’s a learning experience. I’m here for them, to help them go through it all. Managing 2 bands, I’m sure we’ll make mistakes along the way. We might end up in a bad situation, but it’s a matter of making the best of it.

Some people have been wondering how you plan on being a manager while also being in a full time band yourself?

I’ve been managing for the past year and nothing’s presented a problem. Fortunately we’re in a bus now, so we get to the venue, I wake up, I set up in the production office, there’s high speed internet, and I basically have all day to work. It’s basically like being a full time manager, but I’m in a different office every day. Thank God for the internet though, because if I didn’t have that, I’d be fucked.

So you have a college degree in engineering?

Yeah, yeah, I have a degree in civil engineering. I’m a big time math dork.

Does it upset you when kids only talk about Kenny’s hair and when you get a haircut no one notices?

I think it’s just stupid. It’s hair, you know? It’s just weird.

What are you most proud about with the band?

I’m just proud that we’re doing this. We started this band with the intention of playing one show. Anything on top of that is just crazy, and the fact that it’s gone this big and this long kids will come see us and sing along in random cities, I think that’s pretty much the coolest thing in the world.

Any regrets as a band?

No, I definitely have no regrets whatsoever.

What are your favorite Starting Line songs?

I think “Ready,” “Inspired by the $ Sign,” and “Photography” are a few of my favorites, and what they all mean to all of us.

What are some of your favorite up and coming bands?

Definitely New Atlantic and Like Lions—I don’t mean to plug that, but the Like Lions stuff blows my mind, and the new New Atlantic demos that we’re doing with you guys, I’m so proud of those songs. I’m trying to think who else I’m listening to right now—I wish I had my iPod with me right now.

Thank you so much for your time. Anything you’d like to say to the readers? Any shoutouts?

Thanks for reading this, thanks for supporting our band. Thanks for coming out to shows. Come say hi when you’re at a show, we’re always hanging out by the merch. Whether you like our band or don’t like our band, we want to hear your voice. And thank you to everyone at for being awesome to us.

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