So much music, so little time. It’s a good thing Matt Mahaffey got started when he was four years old. A vast expanse of formative years has fueled one of the most creative musical personalities out there. His desire and ability not to stick to any well-doctrined traditions or tired old rules of what is acceptable or good enough is what blasts him off into a universe of musical exploration all his own. His willingness to keep it exciting for himself is what keeps Self’s music ladders above the common rock stock. His use of sampling and technology in music takes innovation to a new level. And the years he’s spent studying the most excellent of production techniques throws the whole of those experiences into his own elevated mix.
All right, so far it sounds like Self is just a mountain of Mahaffey. And there is no reason to deny that, but a mountain with many individual peaks, indeed. Sampling and keyboard specialist Chris James keeps the whole brew from becoming one of those one-man-mix jobs, and brings a another new interpretation of sampling to add to Matt’s. Brother Mike Mahaffey boosts the guitar work with, as Matt puts it, “more guitar finesse than I have.” Bassist Mac Burrus and drummer Jason Rawlings reign and drive solidly through the rhythm sectional demands and rigors of their Self calling.
Now it’s time to take a hike up this ever-rising mountain range. It’s almost exhausting trying to pin down or hold down Self’s level of output. His 1996 release, Subliminal Plastic Motives, with its rock-solid, jumpy jazzy-funk crunch tracks, makes a most excellent trailhead. The Half-Baked Serenade independently delivers an even more technotronic experimental jaunt off the beaten path. Back to the ascending granite trail on Breakfast With Girls, with its power-packed set, overflowing with side projects. Rest assured, these and all subsequent releases bearing the Self title are all firmly anchored in the all-important world of melody, with Matt’s own engagingly gripping brand and style.
Too numerous to mention here are the valleys and ridges of scenery all around, comprised of Matt’s collaborative and production work with and for other artists. But our current base camp is named Gizmodgery, an album made entirely from and with only toy instruments.
Just because it’s comprised of only toy instruments is no indication that Gizmodgery is light in any way. The oomph and drive is somehow amped and pumped with the same songwriting caliber inclusive of any other Self project. The toys are a trademark, not the product. A trait, but not the identity. So was this new material written previous to the toy arrangements, or because of them?
“Everything was written on the toys,” Matt reveals. “We were recording most of the toy record while we were working on Breakfast With Girls, and we had extra studio time, so we just went ahead and put the toy record down.” BWG‘s track “Suzie Q Sailaway” was written on the toys but later transformed since Dreamworks liked it so much, and the infectious “Uno Song” got to retain its toy treatment, setting the tone for Gizmodgery. Sure, the toy sounds are noticeable, but it blends right in with all the other masterpiece melodies and wizardly arrangements from the BWG album.
Apparently, Matt has constant access to the endless universe of melody, at one point writing four songs in one day for those sessions. One of them turns out to be the favored single from Gizmodgery, “Trunk Fulla Amps,” which just so happens to contain more “f” words than even Trent Reznor could download on his hard drive. “That’s the irony, that the first time Spongebath Records has ever had an explicit lyrics sticker on anything, and it’s a toy album,” Matt laughs. “We knew that the lyric to that song could only be ‘I’ve got a trunk fulla amps motherfucker,‘ and after that the flood gate opened and the ‘f’ word flew freely.” Conveniently, the CD also contains an edited version for radio and moms worldwide.
Was there any specific influence that inspired an all toy instrument album? Where would one get such an idea? Well, pre-nataly, there was Pianosaurus. Matt elaborates, “Pianosaurus is a toy instrument band that did one record in 1986. They had a Schoenhut piano and a little acoustic guitar and bass, with a toy drum kit. I’ve wanted to do that for years, and I finally got around to it since there are so many cool toys out there for kids these days.”
A healthy chunk of the toy instrument mine was stripped to provide a wealth of great toy tools for Gizmodgery. “A friend of mine named Matt Eichen designs guitars, and made one that has real strings on it and a pickup, but it turns on with the volume knob and that’s the toy criteria. So we have a couple of those he had built for us to use at the shows. And another thing we use is the Mattel Star Guitar, which has one real string on it, and this awesome distortion. For a couple of the songs that were just bar chords, I would just track that over and over to build the chords that way. So that was pretty painful. But we didn’t want to cheat at all. We only used little crummy toy cymbals and kits.”
To be exact, everything was a toy – Mattel See n’ Say, Synsonic drums, Playschool guitars, talking animals, Little Tykes Xylophone, the list goes on, and is offered on the CD to prove it.
Unfortunately, a toy tour is not likely since Matt is anxious to get back to his more intense rock-solid framework, with at least 10 new songs nearly done for the next Dreamworks release.
For the dedicated downloader, there is also an Internet-only album, available from the Spongebathrec.com Web site. Seventeen tracks compiled as Feels Like Breakin’ Shit, which includes some parodies, such as “Titanic” (based on the Pixies “Gigantic”) and “Moronic,” a hilarious send up of Alanis and her “Ironic.” But there’s even more inventive rock complete with those sly constrictor melodies, and that classic sound-of-Self such as “Wide Awake At 7” and “Hey Deceiver,” plus meaty remakes of “Dizzy” and Suzanne Vega’s “Fat Man & Dancing Girl.” And that doesn’t include the BWG companion Brunch, three songs apparently too genius for their mother disc.
Self’s deal with Dreamworks is ideal for any prolific artist. Matt is allowed two independent, self-satisfying project releases between major albums. For now, he admits that just getting one of those out between the major albums is enough for him, but it’s a great option.
Matt has recently moved his comfy, humble Murfreesboro, Tennessee home studio out to Hollywood, in order to get even more work in production and track pitching — not to mention the next Self album. He’s already submitted some tracks for the next Vitamin C album. For her last album, Matt submitted some “beat tracks.” He explains, “They bought three, and then used one. That’s sort of how it works when you’re trying to get your material on a pop album. But that’s still cool, because she sold a million records, and she’s got her action figure now. I even saw her on a Hershey’s commercial the other day.”
Dreamworks has also suggested a project to Matt, collaborating with Ken Andrews (ex-Failure member) and Jordon Zadorozny (Blinker The Star). “That would be like a dream come true for me. Jordon is a fabulous songwriter — he just wrote a song for the new Tears For Fears record. I hope the three of us get to work together, but that would be in a year, when me and Jordon finish the albums we’re working on now. But it’s really cool that Dreamworks asked us if we’d like to do that instead of us going to them for it.”
And then there’s another recent collaboration, “Destined To Be Forgotten,” with Seth Timbs of Fluid Ounces, who just happens to be one of Matt’s old roommates, and certainly has rights to a claim of songwriter extraordinaire himself. “It’s one of his many songs that would have stayed in his closet for the rest of his life, so I said ‘let’s record it and you let me do whatever I want to on it,’ since he’s known for being very particular in the studio. So we finished it and he said it was one of the best songs he’s ever recorded.” It may appear on the next Fl. Oz. album, Foreign Legion.
Though he admits to getting a couple of Dalmatians, there is virtually no non-musical leisure activity for Matt. When not making music, he seems to be surrounding himself with it anyway. For instance, on Friday nights going to hang out at Cafe Largo, run by ex-Jellyfish/ex-Grays/Aimee Mann producer Jon Brion. Special drop-in guests like Don Was, Fiona Apple, more ex-Jellyfishers Jason Falkner (also ex-Grays) and Roger Manning (also Moog Cookbook and with Beck). Even Beck rolls in with a Mutations set, opening for Jon. Matt recalls, “Sometimes Jon just sits in the audience, drinking Guinness, and yells out ‘Fifties song!’ or ‘Buddy Holly!’ and they start jamming it. He runs up on stage and starts a beat loop, a bass line and some keys, processing them all through the samplers, and he’ll build the entire song right in front of you.”
At a young age, Matt started out programming break beats at forty bucks a track for local rappers, while their pregnant girlfriends were throwing up on his bed in the other room. A fistful of albums later, he has left very few groove-funk technosample pop-crunch-rock stones unturned. If you’re headed for Rock City, and you choose Matt as your driver, you will be intimately familiar with every town, highway, park, school, monument, mall, lane, and intersection on the map. How does he manage to squeeze it all in? “I attribute it to being a drummer and learning so many kinds of music on the drums. While in night school, I played bluegrass, I did reggae, piano pop with Seth, punk rock, just everything, it was all so appealing to me, I just covered the whole scene with all the people all the time. Lately, I’m kind of getting the pressure from Dreamworks to settle down on something, but I think that’s part of the beauty of it for me is that a lot of people are attracted to it because not every track sounds the same. They’re all just kind of snapshots of so many different things.”
Hmm. We didn’t hear classical mentioned. So in 10 years, will we be seeing symphonic interpretations of his own songs, an avenue that many others have gone down at that certain point in their career when they’ve tried just about everything? “I think that in 10 years I’d rather be writing stuff like that, rather than just remaking rock songs. I’d like to graduate to arranging and scoring instead.”
One small score for Self, one giant new beat for music-kind.