Everywhere Matt Duke performs, jaws have to be scraped off the floor from the shock and awe. Such was my experience, which you can read about here in the feature we ran on him last month. (Go on – you can listen to some of his music there too.)
You may have pre-conceived ideas about cornflower blue-eyed boys with guitars, but if you ever get to see Matt Duke perform, prepare to have your expectations checked. Not for nothing, he is my current favorite musician/song-writer and I am thankful that on a December night, I found myself in a seat facing a stage where an unassuming boy picked up a guitar and began to wield magic.
Take a listen to the haunting song Love You Anymore, with Jay Nash and Tony Lucca (TFDI).
I am very grateful to Matt for taking the time to answer some questions for BWG and his answers just go to underscore why I love this guy, even after he sets the guitar down.
BWG: You grew up near Philly and don’t seem tempted to heed the siren calls of other music industry meccas. What is it about Philly that keeps you rooted there?
Matt: Family, friends, familiarity…I’ve made a decent niche here in Philadelphia and it never made sense for me to uproot and go elsewhere. This city is right in the middle of everything along the East Coast – it’s a short skip and a jump to NYC, DC isn’t too far South, Boston isn’t much of a haul, and any city and town in between has their own music communities to be proud of as well. I’d be lying, however, if I told you that the thought to move out to the West Coast never crossed my mind. I’m very fond of Los Angeles which is a place I would have sworn off before going there, but that’s just me, in my youth, being presumptuous. Now I’m only kinda presumptuous, so…there’s that.
BWG: When did you know you wanted to be a musician and what steps did you take to get to where you are now?
Matt: I’ve always wanted to be a musician so I suppose I’ve always managed to be one. Since I was a kid going into my teens, I realized that music was something I could not live without so I moved on from piano lessons and picked up a guitar. Whether I knew I would be playing to bigger audiences in the future didn’t deter me or inspire me anymore, really. I was just as content writing and jamming with friends, honing my craft, and figured that life would realize itself to me the way a lazy man sits on his couch in his mom’s basement waiting to win the lottery…or until he could get his hands on another Mountain Dew Code Red. Once I got to college, I learned very quickly what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life and I decided to take a chance on making it in the music industry, one way or another.
BWG: At Pat McGee’s Down the Hatch in OBX, we received information cards about all the artists. Yours was nearly 100% hilarious: “Secret Skill: Can hum in 6 different languages. 7 if you include ASL.” But I suspect one of your tidbits was sincere: “Album I wish I wrote: Grace by Jeff Buckley.” What other artists or albums have influenced you profoundly?
Matt: “…nearly 100% hilarious…”? Where did I go wrong?! You’ve also just accused me of being disingenuous! This interview is over! [Slams door upon exit; reenters 30 seconds later with a Popsicle] Alright, maybe I overreacted. What was your question? O’ right, influences and such…
In no particular order, I’d have to say Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Sunny Day Real Estate, Peter Gabriel, Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Bjork, Elvis Costello, The Band…and all for very different reasons, obviously. Pearl Jam’s work ethic, music, and attitude were the first things that got me going when I was younger. I was a huge Nirvana, Tool, Soundgarden guy and Pearl Jam lumped quite nicely into all of that music. You could throw the Dave Mathews Band into the equation as well and I’m not afraid to admit that fact! Their live shows growing up [and still today] are pretty incredible and his songs were ones that I looked forward to tabbing out so that I could get a better grasp at making the acoustic guitar really, really stand-out. Strumming and finger-picking are all good, but making a guitar a band unto itself is a really great skill. ENTER ANI DIFRANCO who would change the way I looked at alternate tunings and approaching the guitar even more like a percussive instrument. She and Tori Amos and Conor Oberst, I might add, have never been shy about penning lyrics that are against the grain and seething with angst – spiritually and politically – and done so in such a poetic, evocative way. And Peter Gabriel…well, he just fucking rocks my universe – enough said.
BWG: I have to ask you about your lyrics because I’m sure you are often given references to local psychotherapists by well-meaning audience members. How much of your lyrics are derived from personal experience? From what other sources do you draw your lyrics? Are you attracted more to some themes than others?
Matt: When someone asks if I’m seeking professional help, I take that as a compliment. So much of my writing is inspired by personal experiences, whether it’s something that has directly affected me or whether it’s an event that has found its ripple effect splashing at my tippy-toes. I’ll never reference friends or family directly, but the stories they’ve shared with me throughout my life have been so impactful and far more interesting than my own that I can’t help trying to explore those experiences and themes and then reexamine them through my own personal perspective. Themes like losing one’s innocence or falling from grace or death or anything considered even remotely macabre are more in my wheelhouse and, frankly, it’s because I don’t totally understand any of it. Within each of those themes, inherently, is love and that’s a beautiful thing…but that’s also what makes trying to make sense of it all so damn difficult. So until I reach “nirvana” and stop seeking answers to the questions that really have no answers, I’ll have plenty of stuff to write about.
BWG: One of my friends, Cindy, is particularly interested in MLT because it reflects the life of someone close to her. Can you tell us some of the personal experiences that led to the creation of this song?
Matt: This is one of those songs that, in lieu of giving specifics, I’ll just simply say that it’s about my hometown and all of the hometowns that share the same woes and high points, etc. The idea of the song is that as disillusioned as you become as you grow older, the injustices that you see around you aren’t unique – what IS unique is watching a community, friends and family, come together when things seem bleakest and pull themselves right back up again. It’s a song that, to me, sounds both hopeless and hopeful at the same time. C’est la vie.
BWG: You use many clever turns of expression and a hell of a lot of words, really interesting and evocative words. From this, I would imagine you are an avid reader. What are some authors or books that have affected you most? How have these influenced your song writing?
Matt: I do really enjoy reading though lately I’ve been moving at a snail’s pace through some of these books. Aside from the certain genres and topics I can’t seem to get enough of (horror, human sexuality, religion, natural sciences), the most inspiring have been true works of art. Jay Nash [fellow bandmate and brother of TFDI] turned me on to the book Stranger in a Strange Land after I had written the song, “Stranger in a Strange Place.” It quickly became one of my top 3 favorite books of all time. First on the list would be Lost Horizon which was written by James Hilton, author of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. When I was in grade school I had an English teacher who POUNDED correct grammar into our tiny, feeble little minds and she could really scare the living shit out you. But when she tapped in and tuned out during her recitations of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I began to appreciate not only her as a teacher far more than I had, but I also realized just how compelling and moving literature can be for people of all ages. Lost Horizon (an adventure/fantasy novel about the Far East, meditation, moderation, and Shangri-la) got me into “reading” again and books like Trinity by Leon Uris would go on to inspire “The Father, The Son, and the Harlot’s Ghost” while White Noise by Don Delillo would inspire little tidbits in the song “Sex and Reruns.” Milton’s Paradise Lost was the direct influence on the song “Kingdom Underground” and (I mean this quite seriously) the Bible is chock full of imagery, ideas, and quotes that I reference from time to time. Growing up Catholic, you really can’t shake what you’ve already read in the Bible and that’s fodder for years to come.
BWG: Cindy also asked: For someone relatively young, you are very wise. From where do you draw that?
Matt: That’s very kind of her to say! And though I certainly don’t feel the same way, I’ve learned a lot from family and friends. I’m very lucky to have been surrounded my entire life by wonderful, thoughtful, and intelligent people. At the same time, I’ve run into some very awful, thoughtless, stupid people that have shown me exactly the person I’d like to avoid becoming as I grow older. All of it is invaluable and there is still so much to learn, but throughout, music has been very therapeutic and the experiences it has brought me have been informative and life-changing to say the least.
BWG: You perform music with more passion than anyone I can recall ever seeing from anyone. It’s like you slip into another skin and let the song do with you what it will. Where does that intensity come from? Do you lose yourself in the song or are you able to tap into some method acting reserves?
Matt: It’s possible a thing or two might have rubbed off on me from my theater days in high school. I had a fantastic director/mentor who was very passionate about the idea and method of “being”; i.e. method acting. It went a long way in focusing whatever skills I had picked up from theater in my youth, but it especially helped me to break down that wall that we build up around our vulnerability and emotional core. From there, I never looked back and have been unwittingly tapping really deep into my “being” when I’m on stage performing. When artists claim that they go “somewhere else” while they’re strumming or singing or performing in whatever way, it’s true – it’s my therapy, it’s my essence more eloquently expressed, it’s everything about myself that I have a difficult time realizing throughout my everyday life. Music is my medium and I don’t take that for granted – I’ll exhaust myself, body and soul, before I ever quit exposing myself on stage (I don’t mean “exposing” literally, though look out for my highly anticipated all-male revue coming in 2013. Haven’t gotten any responses back yet from other male artists, but I think after we all sit down and watch “Magic Mike”, they’ll have a change of heart).
BWG: Another one of my friends, Joan, commented that you put so much into your performances, physically. She wanted to know if you are exhausted at the end of a show?
Matt: Yes. [See Previous Response]
BWG: The combination of your passion with your emotive lyrics and complex melodies has a powerful effect on audiences, the result of which is often a dead silent room filled with rapt listeners. Do you feel a connection with your audience when they are completely caught up in your performance or do you wonder if everyone’s gone to sleep?
Matt: It’s a person’s right to fall asleep during a show if they wish. However, if you paid the price of admission, you’d be doing yourself a serious disservice. That’s the unprecedented thing about the arts – there is nothing more provocative and captivating than watching another person open up for an audience, whether it’s through song, dance, literature, movies, etc. I feel that connection and it’s truly a blessing and one of the biggest reasons why I continue to do what I do. When I wrote about going “somewhere else” on stage, I’m not going there alone and the concert itself becomes a sort of spiritual experience, for me at least. But when I play a song like “Sex and Reruns”, I don’t need people to necessarily be transported from their own respective Kansas, so much as I want them to click their heels together in time with the song and have a great time.
BWG: In some settings and with certain songs, audiences do get involved, singing along loudly. How does that make you feel when a whole crowd is shouting out the “Uh oh!” in Needle and Thread or singing some other lyrics in unison?
Matt: I feel the same as when a crowd is captivated and silent – we have all locked into a certain vibe and the energy in the room is palpable. Truly amazing.
BWG: I really think you are one of the most talented musicians playing out there currently, but you – and a large number of talented musicians in your circle – seem to remain barely under the surface of the mainstream. Meanwhile, your friend, touring buddy and TFDI band mate, Tony Lucca, recently broke out through his appearance on The Voice. If you could direct fate, what would be your ideal career trajectory?
Matt: To continue writing music the same way I have for years and keep up a lifestyle that is sustainable and comfortable. That sounds vague, but as long as I’m happy and can pay my bills, I don’t have any regrets. I do, however, stumble into wishful thinking about playing arenas and cozying up to other artists and bands that have inspired me throughout my life. Do you think Peter Gabriel likes his drinks shaken or stirred? Or neither?! Did he read “50 Shades of Grey”? I really wanna know…
BWG: You arrived at OBX with a coterie of band members from your new project Seamus Browning and also performed a few acoustic versions of your songs New Dawn and Auckland. How did you hook up with these guys? What’s your goal as a band?
Matt: I just looked up the word “coterie”. I’ve been brought to school…and I like it. We’ve been friends for many, many years and had started the band back in 2004 before we took an indefinite hiatus to work on our own respective projects. There is more than just the acoustic side to my musical self and the alt-rock stylings of Seamus Browning are something that the three of us connect with on a very deep level. We also had the same background as far as schooling and religion so we share many of the same ideas and sentiments about the world and humanity, so the themes are something we can each relate to. Our goal is simple: to write some songs, record said songs, and see where we go from there. We’ve played a few shows and are looking forward to recording a demo at the end of the month for people to enjoy, so we’ll cross the next bridge once we get to it. And aside from Sean being a killer bassist/songwriter and Brendan being an intense and creative drumming machine, I get to play electric guitar also so that’s pretty, pretty, pretty awesome…
BWG: Your music with Seamus Browning is quite a departure from your solo work – much more face melting. Are you moving away from your earlier work or is this just another side of you that needed an outlet?
Matt: Just another side of myself that I only felt comfortable digging deeply into with those fine fellows. We plan on melting faces, one audience member at a time.
BWG: Can we look forward to Seamus Browning CDs, tours and merch?
Matt: Yes, yes and yes.
BWG: What other projects are you involved in?
Matt: As of late, I’ve dedicated most of my time to Seamus Browning and to getting together new material of my own for a full-length release. The full-length may not come out until sometime next year since the concept is still being developed and is my most ambitious to date. It’s been a blast focusing on those two projects, but that’s as much as I’m keeping up with so that I don’t spread myself too thin. During the days I still garden around the Philadelphia area (I need manual labor to keep my brain from going crazy) and I will be continuing my part-time education in hopes of getting an associates sometime by 2057. Ever see the movie, “Back to School”? Yea, me too.
BWG: What can we look forward to in the next year?
Matt: An EP release! A Seamus Browning demo release! THINGS ARE GETTING CRAZY UP IN HERE!
These are questions that we ask in all of our interviews:
BWG: 1. Pimp a musician. Tell us about a fellow up and coming artist you’d like everyone to get to know.
Matt: Two lady friends: 1) Gillian Grassie will be releasing “The Hintaur House” – a record that she recorded with acclaimed producer Todd Sickafoose [Ani Difranco]. I got an advanced copy and it’s going to blow your mind. Also, 2) Stephie Coplan and The Pedestrians. She and the boys remind me of some old school Ben Folds with just as much wit, musical prowess, and all the sarcasm anyone could ever hope for! Keep an eye out for both.
BWG: 2. In a word, what is the meaning of life?
BWG: 3. If someone made a bumper sticker about you, what would you want it to say?*
Matt: Have you seen this child? If so, call 1-888-JAY-NASH
BWG: 4. If I wanted to buy you a drink at a show, what should I order?
Matt: A Fancy Nancy. And after they give you a weird look, ask for a Tullamore Dew, neat.
BWG: 5. The 5th question in which you think up a question to ask yourself.
(then answer it)
Matt: Did you know that some penguins in captivity have been known to form same-sex pairs?
Matt: I didn’t! But I never asked so I guess that’s why nobody told me.
Thank you again, Matt. You’ve set the bar for all future interviewees. Next time, we’re doing video…
Oh! And here’s your bumper sticker!
*Thanks to our friend Laurel for this question.