Instruments: Banjo, Guitar and Vocals
Genres: Bluegrass instrumentation with no boundaries (influences: Blues, Folk, Hip hop and Spoken word)
Matt and I met and shared a delicious lunch and an ice cream sandwich at the Degrees restaurant in the University of Manitoba. While we ate, Matt shared his knowledge of the Winnipeg music business and some really great advice and stories that I know are really going to stick with me through my own musical career. I’m also really happy to share that The Crooked Brothers very recently released their album into Germany Austria and Switzerland with the record label The Instrument Village! Way to go guys!
Ashley: How long have you been playing your instruments?
Matt: I started taking guitar when I was in grade 4 and probably [only started to ] like playing the guitar in about grade 6. It took about 2 years to stick. Once I could start making noise in the basement with some buddies, it didn’t just feel like studying or working. It was like recess, I guess. The banjo, I don’t know, I think I started at the end of high school. I borrowed a banjo from my friend Devon and still haven’t returned the thing. I keep trying to give it back to him but it’s complicated. He just says “you just keep it” and I’m like “uh, okay” but it’s been years!
Ashley: I guess its okay then; he must not miss it?
Matt: Yeah, it’s like - is this mine? It doesn’t feel like mine so I treat it [well].
Ashley: In terms of practicing, how hard do you push yourself?
Matt: Lately it’s been happening without pushing. I’ve been teaching guitar lately and just getting into the mindset of constantly breaking down things that you do as a musician. Breaking down technique and dismantling things into their smaller pieces, then talking about practice, technique, goals and sharing all these things with students and conversing about them; it just has my mind in the place that’s got myself doing the same thing, in my spare time. Teaching has made me sharper as a player than ever trying to get some kind of rehearsal schedule for myself. I’m not very good with schedules; I’ve never been able to stick to one. It’s like a dream of mine to have a schedule but I don’t know how people do it. It’s nice that I created these conditions that invite [practicing] and it happens regularly.
Ashley: I guess if you can teach it, you must really know it.
Matt: I think everyone can be a teacher if they not only know what they’re teaching but how to teach it. I don’t feel like I’m an incredible guitar player, I feel like I have a million things that I would want to learn but I also feel like that I am very confident with what I do know and my ability to convey how I got there. Anybody that would like to do what I can do, I’m very happy to share and talk about how to achieve it, what makes the difference between a bad sound when you strum and a good sound when you strum. It’s fun talking about it. I think there are teachers at all levels, you do have to know what you’re doing but you don’t have to know everything. Knowing how to teach is just as important as knowing the instrument itself.
Ashley: Who inspires you and your songwriting? What do you listen to?
Matt: I really like honest people so when I say that, people who come to mind are Bill Callahan from Smog. He’s very eloquent and beautiful and sort of off center. Beautiful stark songs that are kind of about incredibly deep things that he paints from a strange angle. It’s really cool. I also really liked listening to Haden when I was really young. He’s sort of blazed the way for me that you can say sensitive things in a song and [still] have it be strong. A strong person, especially in terms of male figures, being so strongly sensitive like that; especially with incredibly heavy dark and angry music is really inspiring; so in terms of songwriting, things like that. I also like with both of those writers they linguistically put a lot of weight on the actual lyrics so the music fits to the words. If there is an extra line, or extra syllable, or an extra sentence the form of the music with shift to accommodate the language because there is an importance put on the lyrics and it has to be said this way. You get this sense that it has to be said this particular way because it might have the most truths, you can see it the most ways or something. It’s most beautiful like this and I’m not going to change the words to fit the song I’m going to change the song to fit the words. I really like that and I feel I’m drawn to the [importance of] lyrics over music idea.
Ashley: With the band, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Matt: Seeing the world. Totally getting to bridge the gaps between friends and me I never knew I would make in places like Belgium, Germany and Poland. All over Canada, we have been to every providence and territory except for Labrador. We’re going to do it, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Yeah, just the accumulative accomplishment of just continuing to do it over and over again. Watching it grow to this beautiful thing that I’m kind of just along for the ride in some ways. We work very hard and have worked very hard and now things kind of have their own wheels. We can feel things starts to pick up and just manifest in the form of knowing I’m going to be on tour in the fall next year. Being able to project that far into the future in my life. It’s the band that’s doing that for me and it’s my job. To be self-employed and to grow that ourselves, to have done so much work and to have been flexible to change and allow our relationships with each other to morph and to move along and be flexible enough for the band to carry through all that is incredible. The accomplishment really is treating each other like a family first and for most so when is comes down to it, it’s a long lasting never ending relationship that has just gotten richer and richer and richer.
Ashley: So when you’re traveling and doing your touring, what’s stressful or what are things that is a challenge for you when you are touring?
Matt: They are definitely there. It’s an interesting lifestyle that I think truck drivers know and traveling strippers know.
Ashley: That’s a thing? Traveling Strippers? I didn't know they needed to travel.
Matt: Absolutely, all kinds of performers travel. It’s a way to work every night. Any kind of act that benefits from having a new audience every night and space between shows to let excitement grow for coming back benefits from constantly being on the move. The entertainment business by its nature has to move to stay alive. Just the interesting routine you have to develop on the move to remain grounded and sane. Your life is basically traveling an average of 100 kilometers an hour. Let’s say you’re driving 6 hours a day, which is a lot, but that’s 25% of your time. You spend your whole life 25 kilometers faster than someone who is just walking to work. You’re just moving and so trying to find the sense of home when the physical place is not part of your reality is always changing so it’s hard to keep grounded. You’re living in a tiny car with everybody and other people have their own quirks. You just live in very tight quarters for most of the time. Sleep together, eat together, work together, drive together, wake together, eat together, and share a shower. Everything is scheduled and you’re all tethered.
You’re traveling, which is amazing! You feel like “Oh my god I’m in Paris, France!” But unless it’s a day off, which happens once a week, you can’t go see something. It’s an awesome way to travel but it’s also not as free as you might think. You’re tethered to the car, you need to get somewhere for sound check, you’ve got a few hours to eat, you play the show then you need to get to where you’re sleeping and when you get up in the morning you might have a little time but you’ll still need to get into the car because you’re driving hours to the next place to get to sound check and that’s kind of the routine. Finding a sense of balance on the go, if you can’t do that you won’t last. A lot of people burn out traveling or touring because you get homesick.
At first it’s all excitement, you aren’t even thinking about [being homesick]. That challenge starts to creep up you when you do it longer and longer and longer. It becomes an integral part of your lifestyle. You’ll tour for three months or even half of a year at a time and it becomes part of you. At first your screaming and having a good time out the window, and then it’s still so exciting but you relax into that fast pace-ness; then the issues kind of creeps on you.
Ashley: So, how do you deal with your nerves before a performance?
Matt: I used to throw up before the show and at the time that felt like dealing with it. It wouldn’t be this gross, disgusting, heaving, wretch or anything; it would just be that my stomach was upset and I would [need] to go gag in the toilet or in the bathroom or out back in the bush. Over time you relax and start to see it less about yourself. It dissolves a little bit and you aren’t so concerned about what people think about you. I think that’s really what the nerves are; it’s [the feeling of] being uncomfortable. You feel watched and you’re watching yourself and there is some kind of nervousness about doing [well] or doing badly. There is some kind of weight that you put on [yourself to make sure you are] doing it properly. But if you just relax about it, just doing it is doing it properly. The less you draw attention to yourself and the more you draw attention to the song [the better]. By focusing on that instead of yourself, your nerves slip away. I think that’s a practice among itself. Performing a song well, I think that means getting out of [the music’s] way so that you aren’t sitting there thinking to yourself while you’re singing the song. If you think about yourself while you’re singing, it shows. It’s really visible when someone is self-conscious on stage. It’s a sign that they’re watching themselves in the same way I’m watching them.
But someone who appears confident it’s not because they think so highly of themselves, I mean that exists I suppose, but people I’m drawn to are the people I think aren’t caught up with themselves. They’re singing about what they are singing about and there is no room for anything else. They are so fully engrossed in the song and sounds, the words, the meanings and maybe even the moments of the song leaving the stage and sharing it with that many people. Having a good conversation.
Rarely do I find myself in that state the entire night, but if you can get there even for a little bit that’s kind of the thing [as to why] I’m addicted to playing music. That feeling of nothing else matters.
Ashley: What does the name The Crooked Brothers come from?
Matt: There is a book by William Kennedy called Iron Weed and it’s a book about a man who kind of fucks everything up. In the opening scene he is traveling to a cemetery, he’s gotten some work there and nearby his mother and father are rolling around in their graves speaking with one another. They’ve been long ago buried. The Dad is picking the roots from the grass and the dandelions that have been growing above him, drying them out in his pocket and then smoking them in his little pipe underground. The mother is doing something similar like crocheting. There’s sort of this deep sadness, he has these dark ghosts follow him around and he’s of the world of the living and the dead, there is a thin gauze between the two for him. [At one point] he drops his young child, he basically drops his baby and the baby dies. The description of the baby is that, I think [the baby’s] name was Gerald, he says “Oh little Gerald’s all crooked, why is Gerald all crooked?” I’ve never heard the word ‘crooked’ used so darkly and I had just been walking around trying to name this band forever.
I love the idea of people who sing sweet melodies like siblings like Roger Roger. They are twins who sing like honey, their vocals are impeccable. In country music, families and siblings [singing together] is a common thing. I had it in my mind the idea of playing a family; the idea of making my own family. I kept thing “The something family” and when I read that book the word just slipped into that blank spot and I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Ashley: What is your songwriting process?
Matt: I wish I had one. [laughs] it would be so much easier [laughs again]. I’ve been thinking about this alot lately actually because I want one so bad. We had been talking earlier about how I’m bad with schedules. I’m just bad with structure, I don’t naturally create it for myself.
I really focus on words, so a sentence will get in my mouth and head and it will just tattoo itself there. Looping and looping and looping and kind of driving me crazy so I’ll say it out loud until a second line kind of spills out.
For the song Blackbird in the snow I had the words “I don’t know why I’ve though of you” for forever. I would just keep saying it over and over and it was driving me insane. There was something so true about it, it’s nice to say and it means something but what does it even mean? What the hell was I talking about?
I think from there I can split off and investigate myself and interview that frame of mind and be like “who is you and why don’t I know why I wouldn’t think of you?” Just ask all these questions and pursue the idea or just keep repeating the line again until another idea came along that felt equally fit in that place and naturally spills out. Once I’ve got a few lines, I think the melody comes from me trying to say it the way it sounds the most true or the most honest. I [might say] the sentence “I don’t know why I thought of you.” instead of “I don’t know why I thought of you.” I think for me the melody is very much related to natural speech and wanting to have a conversation with an idea. I sing something honestly and then the melody develops there and later on I’ll put chords in.
It’s like the song is there and I’m just searching in the dark. The more practice I do as a player and by learning other people’s songs the more readily I can discover and sweep away all the unnecessary things. I can quickly discover the elements that have asked me to be brought out, to sweep the dust away.
Ashley: So when you’ve finished a song how do you bring it to the band, what is the process of introducing it? Do you sing the lyrics and melody and they make their own arrangements or are you very particular of what everyone should be playing?
Matt: If you have an idea, it’s really helpful to convey that to people. If you are hearing something, say so. “I’m hearing a mandolin play here, can you make this happen?” Sometimes you’ll just be like “okay this is what I’ve got, everybody do something” and then you feel it out. It kind of just depends on each song. I love working with people that I love and trust and love their playing enough that I am not just directing everybody all the time. Which is one way to do it, it makes great music.
I think putting yourself in the situation where you are playing music with people who love what they’re doing and you love how they play for other things [is a great idea]. You learn the song in it’s skeleton form and play it and play it and play it until it gels and it becomes it’s own thing. And if you were to play it with someone else, it could take up some other life. If you take this thing you always do with the song and try to get different people to do the same thing, it’s going to fail every time because no one can recreate something. It’s nice to be able to relax about that, let the song breathe as it’s own with whoever is playing.
Ashley: What is a practice session with the entire band?
Matt: Specifically a rehearsal would be when we have some kind of goal in mind. That might be a big show or doing a small show but we haven’t played together in a little bit, or like a tour or we are going into the studio. There is some kind of goal ahead of us. We have predetermined this material, any number of songs. If we are going on tour we’ll pick 35 songs, we’ve chosen the band that’s going to be on tour with us and we get together with those chosen people. We hire all kinds of players depending on what kind of show we want to put on or what kind of tour we want to have. Ideally I would like to run all the songs twice a day for a few days but usually it’s just once one evening or afternoon. We’ll run all the songs once and then go over any problem spots. Any new material we’ll do it to make sure we iron all the wrinkles out. It’s very much a rehearsal where already know their parts there is not a lot of jamming and figuring [this out]. We might have a new player who might be figuring the song out for themselves but that’s about as much “jamming” that would happen.
A jam session would be totally different where we would just throw things at each other and play unfinished songs together; we get goofy and play things we would never play on stage. That’s probably the biggest difference: is playing things we would never do in a public setting or aren’t ready to share.
Ashley: How often do you guys jam?
Matt: Less lately because Jesse’s living about three and a half or four hours away from us. I’ve been jamming with other people a lot so that’s helped with actually jamming and loose playing. When we’re together on the road, or together just before a tour for a show, it can happen. We are usually very intentional when booking that time because but sometimes it’s nice to just play.
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