A Conversation with Naughty By Nature
Mike Ragogna: Treach!
Treach: What is up? Naughty's in the building! How are you?
MR: Chillin' with Naughty. You playing tonight?
T: No, we're playing tomorrow, but we're doing a sound check for everything. Stepping up for this album release that's coming out, the first album in a minute. Naughty is coming with Anthem Inc. It will be out this month, December 13, 2011. We've got some real great music on it. You've got thirteen new songs, and some throwbacks. So, it's like you're getting an album and an EP for the price of one album, you're getting a deal.
MR: We also have Kay Gee on the phone, right?
Kay Gee: Hey what's up? What's going on?
MR: How're you doing?
KG: I'm good man, I'm good. Just gearing up and getting ready for the release of this new album, how have you been?
MR: Good, good. So, you've got your new album Anthem Inc. and it's also your twentieth anniversary as Naughty By Nature. But before that, your group had another name.
KG: Yeah, New Style.
T: It's been about 25 or 30 years.
KG: One of the producers had posted our first single for New Style on Twitter last night. I said, "Okay, do me one better, find the album." He said, "I've got the cassette, but it ain't with me now. I will do one for you, I will post the album up," so I did.
MR: "Scuffin' Those Knees?"
KG: That's what he put up. He put up the single "Scuffin' Those Knees," and everybody was clownin' us. I was saying, "Hey man, we're proud of our history, we've been doing this for a long time. You have to know where you come from to know where you're going." That just shows we've been putting it down and putting a lot of work in, and that shows you that it doesn't happen over night. I said, "I'm going to do one better for ya'll, I'm going to put the album up and show you."
MR: Did "Scuffin' Those Knees" bring you to the attention of Queen Latifah or was it something else? How did you guys hook up with her?
T: We was just hot in the hood. We was tearing up every single talent show and everything. Everybody in the hood knew us. It was just about finding the best management and people to take us into the right buildings as far as labels were concerned, and take us out of the ghetto element. So, that's what that was.
MR: You're talking about East Orange.
T: Yeah, East Orange baby.
MR: Look at all of the guests you have on Anthem Inc., like on "Perfect Party" you have Joe.
T: Man, Joe sang at my wedding ten years ago. Everybody you see on Naughty's isn't a reach. We just thought it would be good for the album and we just called this person up. Everybody we called up, and everybody we put on there is within our cipher...they are in our family. It was easy to put our album together. Naughty never makes compilation albums for our albums. We don't want you to think that it sounds like a gang of everybody else and Naughty was on it. We make a Naughty album and we feature family on there.
MR: Speaking of Queen Latifah, on this album, she's on the song "God Is Us."
KG: Queen Latifah has always been there from Day One. When we were New Style, we felt like we had the talent but we needed the political icing on the cake. Getting with Queen Latifah was the icing on the cake. Once we hooked up, every album that we put out always has to have Queen Latifah on it because that's our family. That's what we do. We don't do collaborations, we do family. We keep our family on all of our records.
T: We always get ready to give her enough time to get ready and she calls us. "I heard you've got a show in LA, you know I'm going to be there." She's always going to show that support and that love. She's definitely family.
MR: What is the creative process like on a project like Anthem Inc.?
T: The writing is like they always say--if you don't ride a bike for a while, you still never forget. You jump on and that's how it just was with the reunion and coming into the studio. We got the track and the writing was no problem. The biggest problem wasn't even completing it, it was pick and choose. We recorded so many records in the course of a couple of weeks. We've got catalogs of stuff. We're going to release the album, mixtapes, and we're going to keep the fans busy for all of the years we haven't been out with an album. We're going to make it up for them real quick.
MR: When you guys get together to do a reunion and get together like this, is it like brothers getting together again or what?
T: All the families and relatives and all of that, even if the group isn't putting out new material, we are all still in the same neighborhood, and have the same family, and the same people that's always around. We hang out together, watch football, and go chill at different sports.
MR: "O.P.P." was a pretty big anthem.
T: Yeah it's crazy. It's in stadiums. I go into a party even before the DJ knows I'm in there...you'll hear the record and the response from the crowd is just amazing. It's a good feeling. That record is twenty years old, and when it's played, people are singing it like it's brand new.
KG: Even "Hip Hop Hooray." When you turn on football on Sunday or Monday night, you hear "Hip Hop Hooray" all of the time. Those records just wont go away.
MR: How does it feel all of these years later to have made contributions that big?
KG: It definitely feels great. As kids and us starting off and growing up, our dream was to always get into it and we didn't want to get into it to not make an impact. When you feel that twenty years later you've made an impact, it's a dream come true. You're sitting and you're proud of it, even through the ups and downs. No matter what, we beat the odds. There's definitely odds to get this done. There are so many talented people that are out there that are never going to even get an opportunity. They may be just as talented or may be more talented, but the reality is they are never going to get the opportunity. We were blessed enough and lucky enough to get an opportunity. To be here twenty years later even after getting that opportunity, we're just glad.
MR: Treach, what's your observation of this?
T: Let me tell you man, it's been such a crazy, fun ride. You know you've been having fun and handling business and you look back and think, "Twenty years? It seemed like five years that we've been doing it." Thank God we haven't been locked up for years doing the career. We've always been up in your face with production, whether it was with other groups, whether it was movies. Even if the albums weren't out, we toured worldwide. It stamped the brand and the twenty years looking back, and if I was gone at any point in time, I wouldn't be mad. I've seen things people wouldn't see in thirty lifetimes. It's a big world. Our Muslim brothers and Christians worldwide, we've been traveling to Muslim countries. I'm a straight Christian, I've got a cross on tattoos. They put out the red carpet and say, "Any problems, let us know." We've done USO runs with the Armed Forces. We've performed for soldiers. We go to markets where a regular rapper doesn't go and they call us the ambassadors of freedom. We're the ones that can go in different areas, and they don't look at us like Americans, they look at us like, "These are our boys that we grew up on, we want to see the show."
MR: This album is called Anthem Inc. Now, you guys are no strangers to anthemic records with big choruses. Are you making a statement overall with this album?
T: Yeah, not too many artists have come out in the span of twenty years and put out material that has matters. There has always been a stigma in hip-hop that when you hit thirty, you need to retire, like you're playing sports and your knees are bad. In hip-hop, you can make music no matter what. Every other genre has respect even if you're seventy years old. Paul McCartney is just going out on tour again, and he's like seventy something. Why do I have to retire because I'm in hip-hop? If the music is hot and you're feeling it, don't think about how long we've been doing it. Look at how good the music is. That's what we pride in ourselves. Everybody that hears what we're doing say it's that classic Naughty, but it's not dated. It doesn't sound like something we've done in the nineties, and it's perfect. So, we pride ourselves in that.
KG: Also with the title, it's not like we're putting pressure on ourselves with making anthems. It's been twenty years, the fans said, "You guys make anthems, and you guys are the anthem kings," and we just titled it Anthem Inc.
T: Check it out, it's traveling music. If you're on a train, in the car, on a bus...if you're hitting the backstreets, you're going to be bobbing your head the whole time. You're going to be doing something and moving. Anthem Inc. is not going to be a disappointment.
MR: One of my favorite tracks and one of my favorite titles is "Impeach The Planet."
T: Yeah that's one of my favorites too man.
MR: Also "Feel Me Flow" is another one of my favorites.
T: Wow, we shot half of the video in Vermont and half of the video in Miami.
MR: You guys have a new video for "Perfect Party," right?
T: Yeah, that's out, it's getting mad hits right now.
MR: You still love making your videos?
T: Yeah, we love making music. It's all a part of the creative process. You have to put it in to get everything you can out of it. We put our hearts in it and we try and make our songs sound like no other songs out there right now and our videos look like no other videos. That's a Naughty video and a classic Naughty song.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
T: Man, you've got to keep your day job until you get a deal. You've got to work hard. Don't think you can get rich and famous overnight. It's a job way more than a nine to five. Come in knowing that you have to put in work to get anything out of it. If you just come in like, "I'm an artist," and you say, "I'm not going to do press, or interviews, or be around, and I'm going to be a diva," it will come back on you. The same people you see coming up, you see them same people when you're falling down the ladder. Somebody might be seeing you fall down and say, "Man how is he falling, he's a good dude," and he'll help you back up. If not, then you aren't going to last long in this industry, it's a lot of people but it's a small industry.
KG: I would say definitely stay true to yourself and be original. Right now, like we always say, you go to record companies and you go to try and get a deal, they used to say, "He sounds a little bit too much like..." Nowadays, you go in to a record company and they say, "I want something like..." Just be original, be true to yourself, do "you," and make sure nobody else that's working for you or with you wants it more than you. Nobody should have to push you, you should be pushing your team or you should work with a team where everybody is on the same playing field. Make sure they're just as hungry as you. The record company should not be pushing you to do things because that's not how you make it in this game.
MR: What do you think about the kids that are watching TV and saying, "All I need to do is be on American Idol and I'll be set"?
KG: Like I said earlier, talent alone isn't necessarily going to make it. There are so many people that are out here that are super-talented and aren't even going to get an opportunity. It's the extra stuff that we're talking about now, it's the work ethic. There's a lot of stuff behind the scenes that make it work too. You've got to have the right teamwork. You can't do it in this business alone. You have to have a great support team. You can do American Idol and you can have the great talent and that's one thing. You have to have the right politics, you have to have the right team for it to fully work.
MR: It seems that if you go on American Idol, in general, there's not a lot of longevity for most of the contestants, as opposed to when you grow a loyal audience over the years.
KG: Yeah, because you're building it up. With that, it throws you on the pedestal too fast. It gets you the opportunity and you never want to knock the opportunity, but it kind of throws you on top too fast. That's what I was saying about what I was telling the guys on Twitter yesterday. "You guys can laugh at that old picture all you want, but that shows how much time we've put in and that's why we're here twenty years later." You might think "O.P.P" was American Idol-like, but it wasn't. It jumped out at the top, but we put in years before that record came in, and that's why we're still here.
T: Let me tell you something. You can't go on American Idol and be upset because you lose because you've won so many viewers. I've seen so many artists going on American Idol, not winning, getting record contracts, going platinum, and getting their whole career off the board. You want the exposure, but you have to get everything you want out of it. You have to put those calls in, you have to make those moves and have people working for you and you don't have to win. Jennifer Hudson and people like that didn't win. Use all of that exposure to your advantage.
MR: Maybe some of them don't want to go the pop star route, and they build a slow career the rest of their life using that.
T: Some of them might not even perform and some of them might just be writers. They don't have to do anything but walk to the mailbox and get checks the rest of their life, because they've written some of the best songs ever. A lot of the people behind the cameras get more money than the people in front of the cameras.
MR: What's the story behind "I Gotta Lotta," and when you guys go into the studio, what's your recording process?
T: It depends. Some of the songs, we go into it thinking we've got to make some anthems, we've got to make some conscious love anthems, we've got to make some love sexy tone anthems. When certain tracks come up like when Kay got "I Gotta Lotta," it's that type of sick em' and let them loose, take the chain off. It's a pit bull just getting unleashed and attacking, they just let me attack the track.
MR: And "Flags" is one of the album's singles.
T: Yeah. We've been throwing it out and letting everybody know it's coming.
MR: What's Naughty By Nature doing a year from now?
T: We're gonna be Naughty. You're going to be seeing a lot of different angles for what we do. We're always gonna get material, whether it's films, whether it's songs, you're always going to see the brand, other albums.
MR: You guys all still have your Grammys from Poverty's Paradise?
T: Yeah, the Grammys, the AMA's, the Hip-Hop Honors... We have different awards from all over.
MR: We're going to stop there but I really appreciate you guys spending time to talk.
Both: Thanks man.
1. Anthem Inc. Intro
2. Naughty Nation
3. Throw It Up CD - with Tah G Ali
4. I Gotta Lotta - with Sonny Black
5. Perfect Party feat. Joe
6. Flags - with Balewa Muhammad
7. Name Game (Remember) - with Kate Nauta
8. God is Us - with Queen Latifah
9. Gunz & Butta - with Du It All, Black, Dueja & B. Wells
10. I Know What It's Like
12. Impeach The Planet - with Du It All, Black & Fam
13. Doozit feat. Syleena Johnson
14. Uptown Anthem
15. Hip Hop Hooray
17. Feel Me Flow
18. Everything s Gonna Be Alright
Transcribed by Theo Shier
A Conversation with John Medeski
Mike Ragogna: How are you doing, John?
John Medeski: Doing great.
MR: First, can you walk us through how Medeski Martin & Wood got started?
JM: I met Chris Wood in Boston when we were both living there. I met him at a random gig at the Middle East Café in Boston, we ended up doing a tour with Bob Moses. We had worked with him as students and played with him around town and had a little tour together with him in Israel for three or four weeks, which was pretty amazing. Rakalam, which I think he goes by now, also did a lot with Billy (Martin) who was the percussionist in his band, and I'd seen Billy with Bob a few different times. Bob is one of those people that talks a lot and tells great stories about the people that he knows and loves. I remember going down to see Billy play with Bob in his Afrobeat dance band called Muzombo. Billy was on percussion and he was amazing. I moved to New York and Chris and I moved at the same time. We ended up going and playing with Billy at his apartment, just the two of us. That was the first thing we did together. In the meantime, Chris and I were doing duo gigs at The Village Gate in New York City, then eventually, we all got together. We played with a few different drummers when we extended the format to a trio and Billy just felt different. Here we are twenty years later.
MR: There are many who consider Medeski Martin & Wood a prototype for improv, and I kind of think it's freeform meets structured jazz. How would you describe your music?
JM: We call it homeless music. We've thought about it forever, trying to figure out what scene we're aligned with. We needed something, and it's definitely important for marketing or the business side. The music is the language that explains itself. We've tried over the years to try and figure out what we are and try to fit in, and we realize that we don't and we can't. So, we've decided to call it homeless music. What you said was pretty good, we have a lot of the spirit of jazz improvised music, a lot of spontaneous composition. Every song of ours has elements that are different every night, but we use a lot of other influences coming from contemporary dance music, coming from contemporary classical music, and all of the music we grew up listening to.
MR: Who were your influences?
JM: Everyone. Jimmy Smith was obviously one, Larry Young, Jimmy McGriff was huge for me; Groove Holmes, Billy Preston--it's pretty much everyone, and I would say Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on my organ playing.
MR: As far as your taste in music, how did that develop?
JM: I've always listened to and played everything I possibly could. Even as a kid growing up, I studied classical piano, and also when I discovered jazz, I started studying it. I would play for everything. I would play cocktail music, I would play for dancing at the country club, I played in an Afro-American dance ensemble that was improvisation based. I'm into music, I think music is good. I went through a period in college where I became what I like to call a jazzhole. I was very into how it had to be advanced. It was a part of my studying to develop these things. I came to realize that music is just good and it doesn't matter what style it is as long as it's coming from the heart.
MR: How did you guys first get together with John Scofield?
JM: He called us. This was back before cell phones when we were first starting. We had a 1-800 fan line, and the three of us spent many winters in Hawaii on the big island, where we actually recorded a record called Shack Man. He had heard that record and this was one of the winters where we were spending a month or two in Hawaii. We would come out of the jungle about once a week to get food and supplies, and we would check our hotline. There was a message that said, "Hey, this is John Scofield." I was sure this was one friend of ours messing with us, this guy that liked to do impersonations and all kinds of voices. We didn't believe it and never called him back but we called my friend and found out it wasn't him. So, a week later, we called him back. We made the first record we ever did with him which was called A Go Go, which was John's record. It was one of those things that felt so natural and easy. The year after that record came out was a tough year for us in terms of touring, we weren't able to do a whole lot. Billy was having his first kid, we weren't able to go out enough to support the record. We did a few gigs, and Chris Wood and I ended up playing with Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer from James Brown's band, and replacing Billy with Scofield for a tour because Billy couldn't make it. Over the years, we would play with Scofield here and there; he would sit in. When we play with someone else, it changes the chemistry and makes us do different things. Who we play with affects that, so having Scofield there gives us a chance to do a whole other thing than we do when it's just a trio. Even though we have a lot of the same influences and love a lot of the same music, we're coming from different generations and we're coming from slightly different places. So, where we meet is a whole new territory. We kept saying that we've got to do another record, so we ended up making a record called Out Louder, which is the first record that we put out when we started our own label, Indirecto Records. It was a blast and we had a great time making it. We did almost a whole year of touring on and off, it was really great. So, at the request of many fans and other people, we've put together a live compilation of some of that tour.
MR: Yes, In Case The World Changes Its Mind. What's really evident on this record is that because you guys played together so much, you anticipate or "feel" each other's moves so well. The improv element is so fluid.
JM: That's the benefit of having been together for twenty years. It actually is our twentieth anniversary this year. It's a long time for a band to be together and we have a certain language. Also, because the bulk of our music is improvised, we've created this subtle connection. Improvising requires being in the moment and really listening. You can't just tune out and play your part that you've played the same way every time for twenty years. That has its own benefits because you can get into energy, you can get into a lot of things. I'm not saying one is better than the other because there's a lot to playing something the same every night, you can transcend music in a different way that way. That's not what we do or what we've ever done. What we've done is create this language together of improvisation. It's very easy for us to get together and do that, and we very often don't do other projects on the side, which I think is one of the reasons we're still growing and playing together and still getting along. We have our own lives, and when we get together, we bring that in. It's really interesting because I play with other people, and I love playing and I get to play with a lot of great people, but I come back and there is a certain comfort level. We slip into a thing that's very deep, it's comfortable but it's not too comfortable.
MR: Is there a North Mississippi Allstars connection?
JM, No, the Allstars and myself had talked years ago about doing an instrumental Gospel record. What we ended up doing was picking a time to get together, and during that time, we met Robert Randolph too, and we started this band called The Word. It's the Allstars, myself, and Robert Randolph all together. It's interesting because we're talking about possibly doing another recording in the winter this year.
MR: So, your new live release by Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood was recorded in 2006 capturing the highlights of that year's tour. We're in 2011, John has a new record, and everybody's kind of moved on doing their own things. When you hear this project top to bottom, are you tempted to work on another project with him?
JM: Well, I think we sort of reached that point when we did that record and then that tour is about how we realized that we have a thing. The beauty is that we all have other things going on, and when we get together, it is really special. We just did a show earlier in August at the Whitney Museum, we were doing every Friday night as a part of our many twentieth anniversary celebration activities. One of the nights was with Scofield and we don't need to rehearse, we don't need to do anything, we just get up there and play. We have a great pile of material to play on, not to mention we could just improvise all night and make music. It was so strong and so fun, it makes us excited any time and any chance to do it. We're going to do it and we're going to love it. We did a year of touring, and we wanted to go on and do other things, but it's always exciting and great to come back. Because we did it after A Go Go and went through this whole process with Scofield, we've developed a more deeper language. The more you play with people, the more you develop that connection. It's great to have that with John and have it get deeper and deeper.
MR: Of course, it was all recorded, and that album will be out next year. (laughs)
JM: We could very well. The important thing I think with any of this is that we have new territory to explore together. If we were going to make another record, we would have to figure out how to take it to the next place. We did A Go Go, we did Out Louder, we have this live version of some material from both. The live experience from this band is very different--it reaches higher highs because it's live and we played longer. You really get to hear these tunes you hear on the studio record, but we really stretch them out. You hear what happens when we do them live and you hear how different they can be. Anything you capture, you're just capturing that one version that one time. That to me has always been so important in music and what I love. Recordings are important and they're great, but for me, it's about the live interaction, that real transference that happens in live music. It's about how each performance is different that gets into the perspective of the listener. There are so many things that influence the experience of live music from both sides, the performer and listener. It could be what you play at that night, it could be what mood you're in, but all of those things factor in. I could tell you there have been concerts that have blown my mind and been incredible, and when I hear the recording, it doesn't hit me the same way or vice-versa. There have been concerts that I didn't get when I saw them, but when I hear the recording, I'm blown away by what happened. So, you never really know.
MR: I want to ask you about the Red Hot Organization compilation album from a few years back.
JM: Yeah, the Duke Ellington one?
MR: Yeah, that was a beautiful thing, and I think it raised some money.
JM: I hope so, that's why we did it.
MR: It was for AIDS awareness and prevention.
JM: Yeah, exactly.
MR: Is there anything that captures your eye that you think needs attending to as far as in the news or something you're working with on a social level?
JM: There are so many, it changes from time to time. I can't help it but there are so many things out there to take care of that it's hard to focus on it, especially if you have an email address where you receive all of the bombardment of things that are out there. It's great because these organizations, through the internet, are enabling us to very quickly send messages to congress people and senators, which is fantastic to have that so available to us as citizens. We need to do that because that's what this country is about. It's also a lot when you get fifteen of them a day; there are all these things to try and help. For me personally, I live in New York State and the Fracking issue is huge. They want to Frack in New York. It's something that I'm against, having seen the devastation it causes in Pennsylvania. I've seen what it's done and I don't believe the lies, so that right now is a big issue. I'm on the frontline with that issue. Another thing is the awareness of indigenous cultures and the importance of indigenous people, their music, their language, their ways, and trying to promote awareness of that. I guess I first came into contact with that through music, when I first came into contact with jazz hearing that African music had an influence on jazz and going out and buying some African field recordings. From there, at this point, I take trips to places like South America and try to experience the life of these different tribes and different people and try to experience their ways and it's amazing what you can learn. The world is changing so fast and so many things are happening that a lot of these perspectives and a lot of the ways these people live...some of it is very primitive, but there's some beautiful aspects of how they look at things, how they work together, how they relate to each other. We can take from this and apply it in our lives and be better able to handle the challenges that are coming up.
MR: It's interesting, I've interviewed Buffy Sainte-Marie a couple of times, and she's a major force for standing up for Native American issues.
JM: That's another big one for me too, that was the next thing I was going to mention because that's also relevant in this country. I'm a newcomer to that world, but I'm into it and I've made some connections to different people. Even just Native American veterans of the wars--we have no idea how these people go and fight for this country, despite everything that's happened here. They all need help and it's a rough situation out there. They have ceremonies and rituals and ways of looking at things that can be so helpful right now if we were just open to helping them out. One of the things, if we really want to go there, is I really feel that all of the Americas should give these sacred sites that used to be their places of prayer, back to them. Take the mining out, get rid of the mines that have been in there, and just give it back to them. Anyway, don't get me started.
MR: I understand the passion, John. Looking back at the records that you've made, what's your experience when listening to your earlier albums these days?
JM: You're talking to the wrong person. I've always hated listening to myself play. When I go back and listen to the records, I can hear some good things about them, especially compared to some other stuff that's going on. Some of it sounds pretty good to me.
MR: Do you have any advice to new artists?
JM: Oh god, that's a hard one. I don't have any career advice because the music business is moving and shifting and I have no idea what it is. My advice is to be true to yourself and really find practices in your life, whether the music itself or other things, to bring yourself up, to open up your heart and make that connection between your voice and your soul. It's about making that connection, that deep connection where you're expressing yourself and being true to yourself. That's really the only thing you can do, and that's really the only way you can be happy. Everything else...we've seen it over and over, you just watch VH1 or any of those shows about famous bands or famous artists. Look at how miserable they are because of what they've focused on in their lives, even great artists, great musicians who have done great things.
MR: And we have American Idol and all of these other shows that take it from a whole other angle.
JM: Yeah, that's a whole other thing. There's music for entertaining, there's music for healing, there's music for everything in life. Every use of music is great. It's great to have music just for entertainment, it's also great to have a transformative journey through music. It's great to go dance your butt off to music, and it's great to sit there and not move and take it in silently. Music is all part of it and it's all important and I see the American Idol thing is the entertainment side of the music. What I find interesting is that for a long time, that was the record companies. The record companies were doing that. They were cherry-picking these people and turning them into superstars and everybody's making a lot of money. They aren't doing it anymore because of how the media has changed; CD sales have gone down and everything, but now it's the TV that's it. The thing that I like about it is bringing it back to the people. It's not some big corporation making the decisions. It's the illusion of everybody having a fair chance making a billion dollars making entertainment.
MR: Sure, but my big problem with American Idol is its message. There's a whole generation brought up on American Idol who are learning how to be an "artist" from the show.
JM: It started in the eighties with the record companies, people being brought up on terrible artists and bands that were the bubble gum thing at the moment, created by the record company like a commodity. It's not different, it's the same stuff that's been going on, it's just a different outlet for it. Anybody who's looking for that and that's what they want, that's what they deserve. I think what you also see because of that is the backlash--live music is as big as it's ever been, even with this economy. People can't pay as much and people can't go to as many shows, but people are going out to see shows. There are always going to be people sitting in front of the TV eating potato chips, sitting in front of whatever the device is. There are going to be people sitting in front of it getting superficial and sometimes maybe deep experiences from it. I don't even have a television and I haven't had one for a long time, but I remember getting some stuff out of watching things back in the day. I do hear what you're saying and I think it's scary, but I also think it's everywhere in the culture. People don't know where food comes from, let alone music. They go to the grocery store, and some people don't even know that vegetables are grown in the ground or that a slab of meat comes off the side of a cow. It really is just the way it is.
MR: What, no steak trees?
JM: (laughs) It makes some people want it more than the real thing, and it makes people go for it. It makes the real thing that much more special when it happens. I have fantasies of a different world where all music is one hundred percent spiritual, and even the dance and entertainment music is a part of some ritualistic, primitive, cultural experience. It's not the world we live in, so we just have to do what we can. All of those things are just forms, it's really just about the energy that's created and we just try to create that energy. That's what we've always tried to do since we first went out, to create this certain energy that's real and about trying to go deeper and explore.
MR: John, about every performance being different, there are these very dense collections, such as Miles Davis' various releases, that contain every outtake. I'm not sure how I feel about that approach, although yeah, each take is different.
JM: I hear what you're saying. I agree it's a different take, but it is also just trying to repackage this stuff and sell it again because they're not putting anything new out that's good. Oh I'm sorry, did I say that? (laughs) You know what I mean? But I agree with you, those guys didn't put out those alternate takes for a reason. They do it when people are dead and I'm personally glad as a scholar of music. I love to listen to it, but it's a little weird. In a way, it has to do with the kind of culture that has YouTube and everybody's documenting everything all of the time on their cell phones. You can see stuff happening anywhere because they shot it on their cell phone and now it's on YouTube. Also reality TV. People love the outtakes of live.
MR: By the way, what is your favorite keyboard these days.
JM: Oh, you know, what if there could only be one keyboard, it would be piano and Hammond B3. I love them all, but if I had one, it would be piano because you don't have to plug it in. But you do have to tune it, which is difficult, but I love them all. The piano and the Hammond, each of them are a universe and a lifetime of study and endless what you can do with them.
MR: Is there a new project you guys might be working on next year?
JM: We have a couple of things we're going to do. We might actually do a project with vocalists. We're talking about something where we work with a bunch of different ones, which is not really that new of an idea, but for us it is after twenty years of not doing that, except maybe once. We also have a whole other project evolving, this rhythmic concept that Billy Martin has really codified and has put into a book of his. We do a music camp every summer in August, and we use sort of this rhythmic notation that Billy created and this way of approaching rhythm. I think we would like to do a record that really explores just that.
MR: Fantastic. John, I love your work and I really appreciate your time.
JM: No problem, thank you.
1. A Go Go
3. What Now
4. Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing
6. In Case The World Changes Its Mind
7. Miles Behind
8. Little Walter Rides Again
10. Amazing Grace
11. Southern Pacific
Transcribed By Theo Shier
A Conversation with Emperor X (aka Chad Matheny)
Mike Ragogna: All hail Emperor X! Hi, Chad Matheny.
Chad Matheny: Hello, it's nice to talk to you.
MR: It's nice to talk to you too, especially with you're being the son of Pat Metheny.
CM: Probably more like seventh or eighth cousin would be my guess. We spell our names differently, and I don't have any past lineage with Pat Metheny.
MR: Don't you know what happens when you play the game "telephone"?
CM: Of course, my name spelling is even different from my grandfather's name spelling. The "Matheny" clan is pretty contentious. Something happened in Tennessee about three or four generations ago, they just shattered. All of the name's spelling changes happened around then.
MR: Dear God, Emperor, what happened?
CM: I don't know. I met another person in New York recently who had the same last name, but apparently, a couple of generations ago, we were all manic street creatures and got into a big fight and a bunch of the spellings changed. A lot of us are from rural Tennessee, like Cookeville, which is somewhere in-between Nashville and Knoxville. Something happened and nobody knows what.
MR: Where are you calling from right now?
CM: I'm coming from Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York. We've got two days off on our tour that is taking us in an ever shrinking spiral, basically, from California to Chicago.
MR: Okay, it's time to talk about the new album, Western Teleport. Western Teleport?
CM: Yeah, I think that's how a lot of people react to the titles that I come up for things. That's definitely the shortest title that I've ever had work. I don't know, it's hard to describe the way I pick titles. It just felt right. When I was living in California, I was obsessing over technological advances in transportation and economics and it just came out.
MR: As a former Californian, one of the songs that I related to was "Sig Alert." The concept, to me, is pretty smart, what with your using a Middle Eastern imagery, and you also have the song called "Allahu Akbar" that touches on it. Are you saying that because we have such a focus on and involvement with the Middle East, it's like it's a part of our Western Culture?
CM: I'm definitely not directly saying that, but I think you can't escape making that conclusion from listening to any number from cultural artifacts we've produced in the last ten to twenty years, this album being just one of hundreds of artifacts that would speak to that point. Definitely, I think it's huge it's in the American subconscious to think about insurrections and insurgencies. It's very difficult for me to say that any one song is about any one thing, that's not how I write. It's definitely nonlinear, and I'm not trying to escape narrative judgment, I definitely believe in the narrative. It's true that these songs are more word paintings than they are narratives. That said, I think some guy wrote in a blog recently that if you fused LA and Baghdad, that's what I was going for, just the idea of how our personal relationships would be different in a world like that.
MR: "Sig Alert" is all that, yeah.
CM: Well sig alerts would mean something completely different, if instead of a dog was running around in the middle of the 110, there was a column of tanks or somebody has just lobbed a dirty bomb mortar onto the on ramp, it would change drastically. Having lived out there for a little under two years, I've definitely been more of a pedestrian than the average citizen of Los Angeles. That place is crazy if you walk. It's very pleasant and button down and clean if you're a car operator, but if you don't have a car to mediate your interaction with the world, it's insanely filthy. It's very unhealthy, and it's like a war walking around that thing and getting from one place to the other. They have public transportation, buses and a pretty decent train, but if you go outside of anywhere they are expecting you to be, you're screwed. It does feel like a war. You find little homeless encampments under overpasses, you definitely have the feeling that you could be injured and no one would care. I have been fortunate enough to never have been mugged or been involved in any violence out there. I'm lucky than more than statistically average, it's a very dangerous place.
MR: I bet most people don't think of it like that, but yeah, of course it is. And California disseminates those ideas, in a way, since it is also on the cutting edge of what the next thing is as far as entertainment and fashion.
CM: That's so it, and that's why it's so exciting and that's why I was so happy to move out there and have that become a part of what I was doing. With my work, a lot of what it is, not every artist is this way. Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers, and he had a boring life. He woke up, read books, and he wrote about them and went to bed. Then there is the other model, the more American romantic model, of going out and getting wasted and staring up at the stars and writing hallucinogenic poetry. I think the more interesting your life is, the more interesting your work will be. Not that I'm someone that goes out and gets wasted everyday. I'm pretty clean in that respect. But my work is definitely more interesting when my life is more interesting. Western Teleport is kind of a dark record from my average kind of record. It's coming out of a pretty dark, exploratory, sweaty, breathless place in my life.
MR: Let's talk about these Western Teleport "nodes." As you've been traveling around the country, you've been planting them everywhere. Really?
CM: Well the combination--I've been doing some of them, and the record label Bar None and I have been mailing them to people who have been helping us out. So, the combination of the two...I've also had friends who have been traveling and burying them. That definitely ties into the concept of how I'm experiencing the world right now. Basically, just to catch everybody up, we've taken all of the b-sides of the record or abortive early versions of the songs, and we've put them on tape cassettes. We've buried them at GPS coordinates or hidden them, as the case may be, and we've got them all around the country and one in Mexico and a couple in Canada. First of all, the GPS coordinates are published at www.westernteleport.com. When somebody happens upon them or finds one that they're looking for, there's a URL and a code, and you head to that website and type in the code and then the MP3 of that tape is unlocked so everyone can hear it. So, we sort of created this game where anyone can hunt for the b-sides and any one that is found gets published. It's interesting and I didn't know how many were going to be opened or not, and at this point, close to half have been deployed.
MR: Some are going to be lost or impossibly hard to find, right?
CM: Well, a lot of them are going to be, because half of them are unlocked. I think what's happened is that security guards have found them or cleaning people or just random people. I think that happens in a lot of cases. We've actually had a lot of them unlocked, and a lot of people have discovered the music that way not looking for the GPS, but just walking along seeing this thing sitting there, this neon green, translucent purple cassette. The places we bury them in get people into that zone that I've been in for two years in LA, which is just walking around the often kind of desolate parts of town and experiencing it from the perspective of a pedestrian or a cyclist instead of walking the beaten path.
MR: I have to say that's one of the most creative things I've ever heard of. It's great to add an element of interacting that isn't just social networking.
CM: It does have the aspect too, because I've been posting the coordinates on Twitter as I've been slowly rolling them out. Some of them are never going to be deployed anyway because we've lost touch with the people who were going to help us bury them or various things like that. We use social networking too, but it's definitely more about interacting with the real world. The response to the notion of physical copies of albums, they are still around for people that care about that sort of thing. I think that in 100 or 200 years, the idea of selling plastic copies of a record is going to not be as useful at it is now. What will have utility will be having the original physical copy of the album. "What is this?" There's only going to be physical copies of these songs that exist, so if you want the original, that's where it is. That's the only thing that's ever going to be produced. I always reference people to Walter Benjamin's essay Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction. That sort of prefaces what this is about, when you can reproduce something mechanically in an infinite number for times or in our era digitally, than the original work doesn't have utility anymore, but it retains something. What is that something? Is what this Walter Benjamin essay is about. I've been obsessed with that essay since my mentor, an older friend of mine, Joel Sternfeld, showed me that essay ages ago. He's an amazing art photographer. Everyone should look it up.
MR: You also have a song called "Canada Day," Canada and Mexico are frequent spots on your tours, aren't they?
CM: Yeah, when I can, for sure. The whole North American sandwich is great. "Canada Day" is a very linear narrative song. It's probably the most understandable on the record, it's sort of a story song. It's a lot like writing fiction, where I'm definitely not looking at these things as symbols or saying I'm going to write this song about this as it comes out. That one sort of formed around what it's like to ride a Greyhound bus all over the country and be a reasonably intelligent person and start daydreaming out of the window where the other people you can communicate with are, because on the bus, it's pretty bleak. You meet a lot of "characters," but it's really close to being in high school, like a really bad high school. It's really just an intensely lonely song. The person that the first person narrator in that song meets, they don't wind up together either. It's also about the drainage of a lake I used to live near called Echo Park lake.
MR: I'm familiar with that lake. So, they drained that?
CM: You're not anymore. They've drained it. It's a giant pile of festering, stinking sludge right now. They're finding some interesting things in it, I will tell you that.
MR: They're finding skulls and everything?
CM: There are definitely rumors of things like that. A good friend of mine, who actually appears in the song, suggested to start a website called foundinechoparklake.blogspot.com, and just sift around in there and see what you could come up with. I'm sure there are wedding rings and revolvers with no serial numbers. Who knows what's in there.
MR: Like Jimmy Hoffa.
CM: Or at least his leg.
MR: "Compressor Repair" is a really interesting song. Can you go into what gave you the idea for that?
CM: What gave me the idea was often I write things as I'm recording them, and that was completely off the cuff. I did a couple of write-ups, but the way I write lyrics is sort of a freestyle rapper, I will just sort of come up with it. If it doesn't fit right then, I will roll over it again once or twice. That one came very quickly. It wasn't directly from something I experienced, but it was similar to some things I've experienced. It's pretty simple, it's some guy trying to fix his girlfriend's A/C unit and failing.
MR: Also let's get back to one of the more serious songs, "Allahu Akbar."
CM: That's a religious song really, it's a song of religious faith. It's also kind of a jab at the anit-Muslim current in America right now. That's the most obvious way to interpret it. I have another song called "Hallelujah" on an older release, I view "Allahu Akbar" and "Hallelujah" as two sides to the same coin. "Allahu Akbar" just means something along the lines of "God is great," or "God is the greatest" in Arabic. It's something that they use similarly to how we would use "hooray," and it's used a lot. It sort of strikes fear into the hearts of people because that's also what terrorists say when they are about to blow things up when they happen to be Muslim. That's because it's their version of hooray, not because it has something to do with that faith. Whenever I sing it live, my favorite part is at the end of the song, I chant, "God is great," a bunch, over and over. I think that really weirds people out because they aren't used to people talking about God when you're in the indie rock circuit. It's sort of atheistic or agnostic or we don't talk about that because it's kind of serious. I'm definitely not the only one talking about it, that's not what I mean at all, but it feels like I've definitely seen that song make people uncomfortable before. I'm not a Christian, but I was raised Christian and I do sympathize with some of the things I was raised with. I don't think people are used to somebody saying something as naked as "God is great."
MR: You believe in God?
CM: I do believe in some kind of creator entity.
MR: And probably some of the people listening to you sing that song probably believe in God in whatever way they picture a creator.
CM: Yeah, that's an interesting question, because I don't know what I mean when I say that. I don't mean I believe in something with a white beard or the traditional philosophical concept of a "God," just the suspicion there is some kind of agency going on here. It's an interesting open question and that song does brush up against the terrorist thing again. It's also another side of the coin to "Sig Alert," the second track on the album, which also has a lot of imagery related to insurgencies. But really, it's the closest thing I've done that's a letter to a potential creator.
MR: To me, the simplest song on the project is "Erica Western Teleport."
CM: That song is the most shallow song on the record. In that song, I'm just bummed out on a girl. That's what I sound like when I get bummed out about a girl, I start talking about things like that. I also had to have the Battlestar reference too.
MR: Battlestar Galactica?
CM: Yeah, that's the Cylon reference.
MR: You've got one of the worlds biggest Battlestar Galactica fans here.
CM: I'll challenge you on that, man. I'm a huge fan.
MR: What did you think of the series finale?
CM: Really controversial to me. It's funny that's coming up because I think cinematically, more than anything, that's what informed what I was thinking about when I was making this record. That whole series and the way it ended was, of course, disappointing in some ways. I thought it was cheap but it was also kind of profound, like where else are you going to go? The notion of survival, which is either a thousand or five thousand or fifty billion years from now, sentient life is going to have to think about survival. How are we going to continue to survive in a universe increasing constantly? That was the overarching burning, background, radioactive question in my mind when I was doing this stuff. Maybe it always is. I'm kind of obsessed with that, maybe to an unhealthy degree.
MR: By the way, you have some of my favorite titles for albums. The Blythe Archives..., for instance.
CM: That's an interesting story about how that got its name. I got marooned in Blythe, California, on two separate tours at exactly the same exit. I started to feel like Blythe, California, was the Bermuda Triangle of touring bands. If you're going to break down anywhere in-between LA and Phoenix, you're probably going to get towed to Blythe.
MR: Have we not spoken about the song that is your favorite or on that you have another good story about?
CM: No, not really. I can't emphasize enough the point, that nothing is directly from my life. I think a lot of great songwriters talk about things that happened to them directly.
MR: So, not even "Anti-Rage." How disappointing.
CM: No, especially that one. Completely word painting. That doesn't mean it doesn't mean something, it does. When someone says this is meaningless, I get very angry, but if somebody says, "What's the narrative," I get very frustrated because I can't necessarily say, which sounds like the kind of cop out a bad poet would give. If somebody wants to have that kind of discussion, then I'm interested in that, but I don't think that's what's going on here. I guess my point in bringing that up is that there is no story per se. A lot of people imbue these songs with their own meaning. I have a bunch of letters from people, who think these songs are about things. For "Erica Western Teleport," I've received several letters from people saying, "This is exactly what I'm going through right now," which is crazy to me. Number one, I had no idea what they were going through, number two, I guess I just wrote in a way where people can hang their own meaning on the words.
MR: They can relate.
CM: They can relate, but not to any particular story. It's just to the impression created by the incantation of words and concepts. It must be hitting something if people are responding that way.
MR: You get bored if you're not busy creating, don't you.
CM: Yeah, of course. I've had eras where I haven't been, but it's mainly been when I'm freaked out about money and generally, I end up getting into a bad place. Generally, if I'm not writing, I do consider it a bad place and I'm kind of depressed. It's the only reason I wouldn't write.
MR: What's the process when you write?
CM: I have a tape recorder, like a hand held Walkman. I have a recorder on my Android phone, and I have some kind of stringed instrument with me all of the time or most of the time. If not, I've been out to dinner with friends, and I will get up from the table and disappear for twenty minutes and come back, and what I've been doing is sitting in the bathroom and drumming on the toilet while singing on top of it. It flows pretty constantly. How many of those have I used? Maybe like ten percent or less, but that's a part of the process. I am definitely an irritating person to go out to dinner with for sure.
MR: I wonder if that could be a new project for you, gathering all of the snippets of ideas that never come to fruition from over the years.
CM: It's something I have, a giant file on my hard drive called "several hundred songs." It's something that I want to put out at some point. That's the thing I would upload to a hidden folder on my website now, and I don't want to do that. I want to wait and see if anyone's interested. I've definitely thought of that idea. It would be either really tedious or really interesting depending on what you're looking for in an album.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
CM: That's a really good question. I think, first of all, that that's what you want to do, here's a lot of really great music and other art stuff in the world and there's a lot more awful music and art in the world. As affluence increases, which will happen over time, the real problem is sifting through bad art to get to the good. Just make sure what you're doing is right. Don't do it for lifestyle choice reasons. That said, there's a great book called Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. He said it best. There are a couple of paragraphs in the first of a few letters he writes to this young struggling artist: "Do it if it's necessary, if you've tried everything else and really tried to forget it and it keeps popping up, and you keep screwing up your life because of the necessity of doing what you do, then you should do what you do." If you just sort of want to do it because it's a cute idea, find something that's necessary. Everyone's life has some kind of necessity to it, just make sure yours is the arts, because if it isn't, you're going to screw yourself up and be really poor and miserable. The practical thing is have something else to do, don't obsess on it all of the time. Make sure you have some other source of income that you can rely on to get you to the point where you can slide off of that source of income and rely on your art a bit more. Only recently have I've been able to do that, and that's pretty tenuous right now as it is. Have something that doesn't violate your principles that doesn't make you feel awful, some kind of trade. And keep in mind that Baruch Spinoza, the great Dutch, Jewish philosopher, was a lens grinder until his dying day and never made much of a penny off of his writing. Have faith and be in the value of your work, whether or not it's valued in your lifetime.
MR: One of the best answers I've ever heard to that question.
CM: If I can convince myself of it, then I'm in good shape.
MR: (laughs) What is one thing we should know about Chad Matheny?
CM: If you ever see me and you want to make me really happy, give me a bunch of kale. If you ever see me and I'm traveling and look hungry, show up with some kale and I will be very happy. I'm really into kale and almonds. They keep really well and are super high sources of good stuff that you don't get much when you travel as much as I do.
MR: Kale and almonds.
CM: And black beans and garlic. Here's I cool little known fact...I guess it's been known for years. When you're getting sick on tour, people are going to hate you that you're sharing the Volvo with. If you're feeling the tickling of the beginning of getting sick, go get some garlic, chop two or three balls up and swallow a bunch of them whole and gargle the rest of it and you will only be sick for maybe twelve hours. You will feel really strange and you will smell terrible, but you will not be sick.
MR: Though you absolutely will have people hating you in the car for other reasons.
CM: Oh yeah, they will hate you, but you won't be sneezing.
MR: Nice advice, especially the garlic part. Thank you very much for the chat, Chad. All the best with the new album.
CM: It's been a pleasure talking with you, Mike.
1. Erica Western Teleport
2. Sig Alert
3. Canada Day
4. A Violent Translation Of The Concordia Headscarp
5. The Magnetic Media Storage Practices Of Rural Pakistan
6. Defiance (For Elise Sunderhuse)
8. Allahu Akbar
9. Compressor Repair
10. Sincerely, H. C. Pregerson
11. Erica Western Teleport Geiger Counter
Transcribed By Theo Shier