I got to speak on the phone with the ever-amusing and ultra-talented Matt Nathanson. In our interview, Nathanson described the disjointed but ultimately satisfying nature of his brand new album, Show Me Your Fangs. We also discussed the unpredictable audience-request format of Nathanson’s current tour, how some of the best records have “great topography” instead of being thematically or musically cohesive, and how elements of hip-hop and R&B have slowly crept into Nathanson’s singer/songwriter-oriented music.
Matt! How are you doing?
I’m great dude, how are you
I’m pretty good! Been a long day, but this is a highlight. Glad to be on the phone with you.
Yeah, man, I think it’s probably the highlight for me too, of a very long day as well. We lost our bus yesterday morning in New Orleans and then flew to Austin and then picked up another bus at the end of our set. We played like a spartan set with just acoustic, just Aaron and I and that was it. It was super fun. And then we did the radio this morning in Austin and then made it to Dallas. So yeah, I know the long day is never fun.
Yeah, I saw your tweet yesterday and actually got in touch with [your press person], because I figured if you were flying to Texas you wouldn’t be able to do an interview. (Note: This interview was originally supposed to take place on October 13th.)
Yeah, I’m sorry about that, it was just super fucked up. It was one of those things where everything kind of worked out, though. Like, a new bus arrived just as we were getting to the airport in Austin, or just as we were checking in, and then they drove to meet us, and it was like a nine-hour drive. It’s crazy.
Wow. Well, other than that, how’s the tour going?
It’s pretty fun! I think it was a neat idea, the wheel thing is a neat idea. Like, the wheel of all the old songs. The only thing I didn’t…I guess I underestimated how much I like control. And so, getting onstage and sort of ceding control to the wheel like five or six times in the arc of the setlist, and giving it to fate of this spin…I’ve been sort of mixed on it. I sort of say to Aaron…I’ll be like “That was fun, the wheel was merciful.” (Laughs) And then sometimes it’s like “Dude, fuck, I did not want to play that song,” you know what I mean? Because you can get two or three slow songs in a row, some of which I wrote when I was…you know, a fucking kid.
And like, last night, we didn’t have the wheel because of the bus breakdown, but I kind of did it anyway. Like, I asked what the crowd wanted to hear. And someone yelled “All Been Said Before,” which is from Ernst, like…you know, way back. And I played it, and it was fun to play it. Like, I invest in playing it. But there’s a certain…I get embarrassed, because you live your live thinking that you get…like, okay: creating music and thinking that the stuff you’re making now…in order to feel like you’re not a fucking sham of a human, you have to feel like you’re progressing with every record. It has to feel like “Oh, well that’s better than the last record,” whether or not people think so or not. For me, it’s gonna feel like “Yeah, this is a movement forward.”
So to go back and revisit songs that are so obviously written at a time that maybe I can’t access, or that reflect the way I played guitar or the way I wrote lyrics or any of that kind of stuff…it gets a little like showing your old haircuts. You know what I mean? Like, holding up a fucking billboard-sized picture of me with a mullet, or me with a fohawk (laughs). You kind of look, and you’re like, “What the fuck was I doing?” And so, it’s rad [to play those old songs] because people’s response to it makes you feel good. But during the experience of playing it, some songs trigger this real sense of insecurity. Like, “What am I doing? What the fuck am I doing? Why did I do that?” And these people are all going to think, everybody but these six people that want to hear the song, they’re going to think “I can’t believe I paid money to watch this fucking kid play music.” You know what I mean? So that happens. But other than, you know, being gripped by fucking complete fear of my past, it’s really been a fun tour! (Laughs)
Yeah, I was wondering about the wheel, like, if there we any songs that got voted for where you were just like “Oh, hell no.”
Yeah, it was funny because there was…I did as best a job as I good kind of weeding out [the stuff I didn’t want to play], but there were some songs that hit really high numbers on the list when we compiled them that I couldn’t say…like, I looked at Aaron and was like “Dude, I can’t believe that song got X amount of votes.” Like, I can’t even think of the ones, but we ended up just…I kind of sucked it up, and I was like “I got this, we can make this work.” And I put them on the list, but like…”Miracles,” which is…I mean, that song is like nine minutes long, or it might as well be. And people want to hear it, you know, so we put it on the board and I just pray that it passes by. (Laughs)
Do you have like…a binder of lyrics or anything, to help you navigate these songs that you haven’t played in like 10 years?
Yeah, I’ve got this huge binder full of shit. And after playing…every song’s been landed on now at least once, if not multiple times. And so some of them have come back. They usually come back after one or two times of playing them in front of people. Like, no matter how much I rehearse them in my basement in front of no one, I don’t feel them sticking. But as soon as you play them in front of people, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got that one.” But yeah, I’ve got a binder full of all my songs.
Well yeah, it’s not fair, because like Springsteen, he’s got his teleprompter…
Yeah, that guy’s got a teleprompter for fucking “Born to Run.” I feel like, maybe when I’m that age, my brain will forget as well. But yeah, Springsteen pulls up shit…so many songs. Just like the Elvis Costello thing. Because we got the idea for the wheel from Elvis Costello, and that guy sort of has…he has so many fucking songs. I mean, it’s nuts. That guy just shit records throughout his life. (Laughs) So yeah, I’m amazed that…I used to think it sucked that people had a teleprompter up there. Like, Springsteen can’t remember the fucking lyrics to “Nebraska”? And then I started pulling this together for this tour, and I was like “Oh my god.” Because if that guy fucks up in front of 25,000 people, he kind of looks like an idiot. If I fuck up in front of…you know, most of these are small shows, so if I fuck up in front of 500 people, we can laugh it off.
Well, the first time I saw Springsteen, he forgot he was in Michigan, so I think you’re doing okay.
…Wow. When did you…when? Wow.
I saw him in 2009, it was on the Working on a Dream tour, and he played Born to Run front-to-back, but for the first like…I don’t know, five or six songs, he was like “Hello Ohio!”
No! No! Oh no! (Laughs) Did he at least apologize when he realized?
Oh yeah, he apologized profusely. But, he was like “At least now that I’m getting to this age I can just claim the onset of early Alzheimer’s.”
(Laughs) Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah, no, that guy’s got fatter fish to fry. I guess he’s just like…he’s saving lives with his rock and roll, man. He doesn’t need to know where he is. He’s just making it happen (Laughs)
For sure. So, moving to the new record…just because I need to ask this, it feels like there are some pretty heavy songs on here, so…are you doing okay, man?
Oh yeah! Thanks! The good news is that, if I write a really heavy song, I’m usually far enough past it…this isn’t actually true…but on this record anyway, I feel like I got past my problems enough to be able to write about them. When I’m in them…like, that record Some Mad Hope, when I made that record, I was like deep into…not awesomeness. But I was sort of…I was on the way out of it I guess? Maybe? And this one’s the same way. I felt like I could address things un-self-consciously now, because my life is kind of going pretty great. My personal life is going pretty great. And my relationship with my wife is in such a good spot that I’m not…I don’t feel like I’m doing a disservice by talking about things that don’t work in our relationship in songs, because we’re sort of like…we’re finally in this great place. So all of that stuff feels like it’s very in the past.
Okay, that’s good! But, I mean, there’s also a lot of the more optimistic pop songs, like “Giants” and “Headphones” and “Summertime,” and you’ve got that stuff in there next to “Washington State Fight Song” and “Disappear.” Did you intentionally create that sort of balance, or did it sort of just happen as you were writing the record.
It kind of just happens. For me, bands like R.E.M. and U2 are examples of bands that classically made albums in a way that kind of had this great topography. Like, for example, an album like R.E.M. – Green had songs like “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt,” which are these two sort of heart-wrenching songs, and then a song like “Stand,” which is sort of goofy. For me, it’s like…okay, Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker is an incredible record, right?
Like, as a whole, it feels like you put it on, and it just takes you to this place. I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t make records that way. I’ve always fallen into the kind of R.E.M./U2 model, where it’s like, the record has to take you on this journey that has highs and lows. And, it’s funny, I think it comes down to being self-conscious as well. It’s sort of like, at shows…my shows are like, here’s the quiet sad song, here’s another one, and then, okay, here we’re gonna go up. Like, I don’t want you to stay down there too long, because if you don’t want to be there, I don’t want to seem gratuitous. Or, here’s the happy song, I don’t want to beat you over the head with happy songs because that also feels gratuitous. I want that dynamic to be there. So the record…all my records have sort of consciously tried to have that, whether I’ve succeeded or not. But, I feel as I get to make records more, I feel like the more dynamics they have in terms of the energy, the better they work for me.
The new record feels like it’s been in the works for a while. You put out “Headphones”…it had to be last summer, right?
Yeah…that was…it was two summers ago, wasn’t it? Maybe? Summer of 2014 or something. Is that possible? Yikes. I thought the record was going to be done sooner. We were going on tour with Gavin DeGraw and we were like “Let’s put the single out in advance of the record!” And then the record was kind of just…not finished.
Yeah, I think I remember reading that it was supposed to come out a year ago, originally. But that song was always meant to be on the album? I just didn’t know if it was supposed to be sort of a one-off thing, or if it was always going to be on there.
It’s a funny thing. It was always going to be on the album, but I always thought I could remix it after the fact, because I wanted it to fit the record more. And I hate when people do that. I hate when people put the songs out and then when they put the record out it’s a different version. But I was determined to do it anyway, because “Headphones” is really poppy. Like, it’s got a sheen to it. And the rest of the record was shaping up to not have that sheen.
So I was like, “Great, we’ll just remix it and it’ll all work!” But the way it works on iTunes is that, if you remix a song, it’s a brand new song. So, they wouldn’t allow us to do, if you bought “Headphones,” you can complete your album. So it was going to end up that all the people who bought “Headphones” as an individual song were going to have to buy the song all over again for me just remixing it. And I was super fucking bummed. I was like, “Well, I don’t want to do that at all, I don’t think people should pay for the song twice, and I don’t think I feel that passionately about remixing it.” But it ends up, like, when I was sequencing the record [“Headphones”] wouldn’t fit in the way that I wanted it to fit. So when all was said and done, I put it at the end of the record, because it sounded so much different than the rest of the record. But then it ended up being a rad kind of positive way to close out the album.
Yeah, it’s like a victory lap or something.
Yeah! Yeah, I try to always end with something that is uplifting. And this record has so few uplifting songs (Laughs) that by the time I got to the end, I was like “Oh my god, we can put ‘Headphones’ at the end.’ And that was totally why it’s there, because like, sonically, it worked best for me at the end and then also it was a positive thing. But I think if I could have remixed it and done it that way—and then there were also a couple of songs that didn’t make it to the record that were almost done, that just…I couldn’t finish—then the structure of the record, the sequencing would have been a little different. But yeah, Apple kind of held all the cards on that one.
Gotcha. So, where did the title of the album come from? And the art. I think the art’s really cool.
Dude, I’m psyched you think the art’s cool. There’s so many fucking people that…that when I posted the art on Facebook, they were like, “Ku Klux Klan!” And I was like…what? That would be the most subversive…I mean, I’m a Jewish man. That would be incredible if I put the Ku Klux Klan on the cover of my own album. But I came upon the art, there’s this woman named Angela Dean, and she’s this artist, what she does is she paints over found photographs. And I discovered her work a couple years ago on Tumblr, and it was just so…that particular picture…I mean, all the pictures are great, but that particular picture that she let us use for the cover is just so heartbreaking to me. Like, it kind of stopped me and made me super sad, and also super kind of blown away, because it’s just a very moving image of these, like…it’s a family disconnected from each other, but connected to each other, you know, in this beautiful, serene setting. And so I was so moved by it that I threw it in a pile in my “This is an awesome image file” on my computer.
And then when I was looking for a record cover, I came up with the title Show Me Your Fangs because Sleater Kinney put out a reunion record, and when I read about it—it was like, in January or whatever—I read about their reunion record, and I said “Wouldn’t it be awesome if they called this record Show Me Your Fangs?” I don’t know why it just happened, but I was like, “I wish they had an album called Show Me Your Fangs. I wish they had a song on this record called ‘Show Me Your Fangs.'” And then I started going…I’ve done that before where I sort of imagine, bands that I love, I imagine song or album titles, and then I just kind of make them up for myself. And Show Me Your Fangs was one of those ones where I was like…because, you know, I thought No Cities to Love was kind of a neat title for their record, but I thought Show Me Your Fangs would have been way fucking cooler. So I was just like, “Well then I’m just gonna use it.” And then I paired it with the image independent of that, like I was flipping through this folder I have, and I was like “Oh my god, this fucking picture would be incredible,” and I was like “Show Me Your Fangs. Fuck. Let’s do this.”
And then Angela Dean said yes and I felt like…that’s always this weird moment, of putting the album title with the album cover. I feel like, on the last record, we lucked out with that guy Mr. Toledano who did the picture of the guy’s exploding head. And I found that on Tumblr, and I was like “Well, there’s no fucking way this guy is going to let us use his art.” And I felt the same way about Angela Dean. There’s no fucking way this woman who’s this talented is going to think I am even remotely cool enough that she’s going to fucking want to let us use her photo. And she ended up being super cool and so did Toledano, and both of them let us use their stuff. So that’s been pretty neat.
Awesome. So, who produced this record? I couldn’t find that info anywhere. I think I read that you worked with a number of different people, but I just wasn’t sure who.
Yeah, it was kind of like a hodgepodge of folks. The album was all mixed by this kid Jake Sinclair, and I think he kind of brought the uniform-ness to it. But it was all a bunch of disparate people. Some of them were people I had written with, who I’d written songs with. Some of them…this record, I had a really hard time finding one person…I don’t think I knew what I wanted, and so it was going the opposite direction from strengths. As opposed to, like, moving forward and being like, “I want the record to sound like this,” I was sort of stumbling around trying to find it. And in the process, we were amassing all of these songs. And it was funny, when the record was finished, I got really kind of down on feeling like…I’m a very perfectionist type of person, a completist. So for me, a record that’s made by a bunch of people always sort of represented to me, like, “Well this record can’t be good, because just look at all these fucking people that worked on it.” You know what I mean?
And then I started to realize, well, this was the record I had, and…because to me, the ideal like “pipe dream” record-making process is me and one other person, fucking hammering out this thing with this passionate concept in mind, and you’re kind of sticking to the concept. But because I didn’t have a concept for this record, it was just like…the concept just ended up emerging throughout the process. And sometimes, I think that’s sort of the strength of the record, and sometimes I think it does the record a disservice. Like, not to go into specific songs, but there are certain songs that I wanted to find a way to make them work differently, and I just couldn’t. And I felt like if we had had a producer and a vision before, then we could have followed it. But instead, we kind of found the vision as went. And it ended up working just as cool, and in retrospect, it works and it holds together as a unit. But it didn’t start that way. You know, it started as kind of a disparate bunch of songs.
It sounds to me that there are a lot of R&B and hip hop and modern pop influences on this, along with sort of what you’ve always done. I was wondering what you were listening to when you were writing and recording the album, and if you meant to include those influences or if they just happened as you were trying to find the concept.
It’s funny: being brought up as a kid, I listened to metal and I listened to folk. And then, as I’m getting older and exploring things on like Spotify and playlists and things…there’s like no barriers now to music anymore, as you know. It’s this incredible thing where it’s like the world is an iPod that switches from Slayer to Taylor Swift to Kanye to…you know. And so for me, my listening habits have changed over the course of time. And records that I may have never given the time of day, because I sort of had an elitist idea of how things should have worked or…”Well, you know, there’s not real musicians playing on this” or all these kind of constructs that I had put in place listening to music, and the biases that I had had before, they really like…they sort of don’t exist anymore.
And now it’s like, well like, what moves me? What blows my mind? And a record like…I mean, in my opinion, the Lorde record, the Kanye records, the first Kendrick Lamar record: these are like incredible records made by people in their bedrooms. You know what I mean? Or, you know, their very expensive bedrooms, but you know what I mean. Like, there’s no…I used to think “It has to be this, it has to be that.” It has to be people playing together…and the togetherness of that thing. And now I just think, whatever it takes to get something to move you, that’s what it’s about.
And so, hip hop has become part of the way that I listen to music in a way that it never was before. And it’s starting to infuse itself into playlists I make for myself, or records I buy. And so…I love the acoustic aspect of things, because I think I’m storytelling. And I kind of think that Kanye West…well, acoustic is the wrong word. The spartan idea, where it’s like, you have a rhythm, and then you have maybe one instrument, and then you have the story being told. And I was super motivated by that on this record. I really didn’t want to have a band of people in a room, banging out shit. Because I’ve done that so much, and it just wasn’t exciting to me to be like “Let’s do this again.” So it was like, “Okay, how do we make this work as best we can where it’s like the stories are coming out and there’s this rhythm underneath?”
And that was kind of how it happened. Again, it it was intentional, but still not intentional. It wasn’t like I went in and set parameters for myself, which I think would have been a better way to go. To accept limitations. Instead, it was kind of like, “I have no idea what I want, we’ve just gotta find it.”
I think my favorite song on the record is “Bill Murray,” which is just a completely fresh and quirky take on a love song, without being too quirky. How did that idea come to you? Did you actually have a dream like the one you describe in the song?
So, the funny thing about “Bill Murray,” I had this song, and when I wrote it, it was just piano and myself. And I wrote that “Let me be your man” part. The original lyric was “I want to be your man” or something…I forget what the fuck it was. But it was so…I’m so not into the idea of, like, “I want to be your man.” I’ve never thought that way: “Let me be your man.” That’s just not how I approach my relationship. Like, I was sort of turned off by it.
So I sent an email to my friend John Darnielle, who’s in this band The Mountain Goats. And I’ve known John for like 25 years. We went to college together, and I sort of always bounce lyrics off him. So I sent him this thing and I said, “Is this sexist of me to say, like, ‘let me be your man’? Like, where does this land?” And he sent this incredible email…he’s very articulate. And so he articulated to me this idea of saying “It’s not that. It’s not that it’s sexist, it’s that it’s earnest…” I forget exactly what he said; I could read it to you. But it sort of put me at ease about the lyric, and then from there, “Well, I’ve got this lyric and it sings really well, and I love it, but I’m self-conscious about it. How do I make this work?”
I don’t know how I married them, but I’d always wanted a song called “Bill Murray.” I thought that Bill Murray was the best. So I said, “Maybe this can be my Bill Murray song.” And then I was like, “How the fuck can this be my Bill Murray song? Is this something maybe he would say?” And then I was like “No, man, imagine if I was getting love advice…” I watched Lost in Translation for like the 200th time, and I was like “Imagine if that guy was my friend.” Like, of all the people on earth, that guy just seems like the kind of famous person you want to hang with. Whereas most famous people are fucking idiots. And you want to hang with that guy because he seems like he understands passion and un-self-conscious living and all this kind of stuff. And I just kind of created this idea of Bill Murray and I, and of him giving me guidance in my relationship. And it made it all work, for me.
So, that’s a very roundabout answer to your question, but yeah, it was super. I’m super proud of that song. And I’m proud of them all, but “Giants” and “Bill Murray” to me feel, when I play them, they feel like they’ve always been here. Which is a really neat feeling.
Alright! We’re out of time, but thanks so much!
Hey, you’re the man. Thanks so much, Craig, for being so…fucking awesome. (Laughs) Your reviews are so fucking dead-on that I almost feel like you know all of these things I’m telling you before I tell you them. Like, you know that some records feel disjointed or that some feel…just, you’re super insightful. It’s really flattering to have you listen to the music the way you do. Number one because I listen to music that way so I can relate, and then another part of it I’m just so flattered that anyone listens to my music that way. It’s incredibly humbling. So, thanks, man.
The Bonus Questions
Our phone interview got cut off after a half hour, because Matt had another interview right after. I still had a few questions left, though, so Matt offered to answer those queries over email. Here are the final three questions from the interview:
When you play live shows, you will often fit snippets of other artists’ songs into the middle of your songs. I remember one time when I saw you, you incorporated “Exit” by U2 into “Detroit Waves.” How do you decide which songs you want to do snippets/covers of, and by extension, how do you decide where to put them?
I don’t usually decide before hand what snippets I’m gonna do. I usually just wing it and try to jam a song I dig into one of my songs. Sometimes it fails EPICALLY. Yikes-city. But when it works, I usually keep doing it for the rest of the tour.
Because I love the hell out of this record, I’ve gotta ask: any chance of us ever getting a vinyl pressing of Some Mad Hope? I guess the 10-year anniversary isn’t too far off now.
Oh man, first off that fucking rules that you dig it. I love that record too. It was a heavy time in my life, and it really is a snapshot of where I was at. That isn’t usually the case with records of mine, but it is with Some Mad Hope, for sure. As for the vinyl pressing…I wish. I hope. Who knows? My label got bought by another label recently, and that record is probably not high on their priority list to re-release on vinyl. But who knows, anything is possible!
And since I know you’re as big a music fan as I am: what are your top five albums of 2015?
It’s tough to only pick five. I’ll just list the ones off the top of my head that are ruling me:
Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Awolnation – Run.
The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
Faith No More – Sol Invictus
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect