An Interview with Matt Hutton of
The Red Telephone
Friends who like to make music together. Whether it is L7 or REM, Iron Maiden or U2, the magic that comes from a group of individuals who can create a resonance that is far greater than their sum contributions. Such is the case with The Red Telephone and their latest release, Cellar Songs. Released on their own Raise Giant Frogs label, the album captures the finer elements of British indie artists like Coldplay and Travis while retaining a thoroughly American sensibility. I recently had a chance to talk with Matt Hutton, the lead singer and lyricist of The Red Telephone, regarding their album and the practice of songwriting.
Let’s talk about the opening track, “Pennsylvania.” An interesting track to begin an album•
I think it was a thematic choice. It seems like if the songs were not put in that order, it wouldn’t have the same unity about it. It really does come from a certain period of time, and I was writing with certain things in mind. With “Pennsylvania,” the second half of the song was improvisational and we kept going and it just kept getting more and more out of control and those are those crazy sounds. We just thought it was a different way of starting the record.
There seems to be a theme of traveling throughout this record. Both on the opening track, “Pennsylvania,” and the later track, “On The Railroad.”
Definitely. I think I have a weakness for writing around themes. Our last EP, Aviation, really had that. It symbolized the fact that we had to steer the band ourselves. The Cellar Songs idea came from where we came from. We all grew up in suburbia, and we were all dying to get out of suburbia. I’d say the theme there is more like escape, the yearning to escape. The traveling is not towards any particular direction. It’s like I want to get out of here, and who knows where to. The feeling of wanting to escape this dull meaningless life you’re in.
The whole quest for experience•
I’d definitely felt while writing the lyrics I was trying to capture that. I never felt like I•d written songs so much about that. Not so much about what I am feeling right now, but back to how I was feeling at a certain time. The whole Cellar Songs thing is a condensed picture of all the experiences of myself and the rest of the band as we grew up playing music in the cellar and pretending we were rock stars. But there’s also the subtext of having seen the industry and seeing what that’s about. There is no other side, and it’s a myth. Writing these songs was like putting all these feelings to bed.
One of the things I liked about this record was the songwriting. It was well crafted without being clever for the sake of being clever.
The songs are definitely personal. I think you have to make a decision whether you want to be a personal or confessional songwriter or whether you want to be a clever and crowd-pleasing songwriter. It’s hard, because the climate in music the past few years has definitely been towards ironic or clever type stuff. It’s weird because if people are into stuff like that, they don’t necessarily want to hear stuff that’s sincere. I grew up on the whole pantheon of classical rock, and the music was always personal. It wasn’t just about having a good time.
Think about the lyrics for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” They’re intense. You couldn’t possibly put a Beck lyric on top of that. Beck does his thing, and he does it well, but what we do is more in the line of Big Star or The Replacements. Sometimes I’ll see• in a review of a band, I’ll read the word earnest, and I hate hearing that word, because it reminds me of Pearl Jam. Like these guys are trying to be deep or something, and I don’t want it to be like that. I want it to be sincere.
That•s funny, because “earnest” to me, as a reviewer, is the highest compliment for a band. It indicates they are sincere and not just going through the motions.
We’ve been playing music since we were very young, and I think bands that are more tongue in cheek or being in a band is a first priority. We make music because we love to make music and we are aiming at each individual person. Everybody hears this in their own way, and it is for that person, not a frat party.
On this release, there seems to be an overlap between say, British psychedelia on one hand and earthier American bands like Wilco or The Replacements that normally doesn’t exist. How do you do it?
The band has varied tastes, and always has. So, when I was growing up, I liked Bruce Springsteen, but in my teens, I was really into The Church and R.E.M. I never made any distinction between these bands. I was into anything that was melodic and original and that I could get into. I think everybody in the band is like that. I also think that we don’t try to emulate other bands. It’s more like, “Here’s a song and how can we make it great.” Anything that sounds good, we like to bring into the mix. My songwriting may have certain overtones with The Replacements, but also a melody from early British bands like The Psychedelic Furs. My guitar sound has a more jangly sound, and Sean [Toohey, the other guitarist]’s approach is more atmospheric.
One last question. On your Web site, it mentions you as being “freelance metaphysics” and Sean as “the existential yucks guy.” How does that coalesce?
[Laughs] It really is like that. We met at the University of Vermont in 1990, and we were in the same program. I’d say we each had our own take on things, and I always thought there might be some kind of objective truth to life. Sean became the arch rationalist with the view that there is no meaning to why we are here. It became a theme between us. It is like Don Quixote and Sancho Panchez. I’ll always come up with far-fetched ideas, and Sean’s like, “Yeah, but how are we going to do this?” And I am like• “uh… yeah, you’re right.” It definitely is sort of a dialogue, but neither of us holds fast to it.
In closing, while Matt was the one interviewed, this should not detract from the other members of the band, who substantially contribute to The Red Telephone’s sound. Sean Toohey on guitars, as Matt demonstrated, has a unique sound that helps define the identity of the band. Mark Britton (drums) and Pat MacDonald (bass) propel the rhythm section and keep the music tight without allowing the more extravagant flourishes such a potent mix may entail. Having read the interview, now go buy Cellar Songs, and maybe we can get The Red Telephone to come to this area on tour.