Soon after moving from Kingsville, Texas, to Detroit in the mid-‘90s, Matthew Dear immersed himself in the Motor City’s indigenous techno. Exercising a genuine love for the genre as a producer allowed Dear to fold his eclectic, disparate musical influences into that genre and its various branches, carving out a sonic niche that paid homage to Detroit’s black, queer, futurist electronic scene without co-opting it. As the founding artist on Samuel Valenti’s Ghostly International label, Dear has evolved and mutated his sounds as DJ, producer, composer and performer across four sonic aliases over the last 19 years. Those sounds include multiple singles released under his own name, and six full-length explorations of sultry, cerebral electronic pop, tethered together only by his Bowie-fied baritone and love of groove.
Dear performs a late show National Sawdust on Nov. 16 in support of his newest LP, Bunny, released in October on Ghostly. He checked in with National Sawdust Log between shows for a candid chat about embracing his inner oddball, staying up with the dance community after becoming a dad, and talking to strangers on airplanes.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: How’s the tour going? You’re on a break?
MATTHEW DEAR: Yeah, I’ve just decided to do it DJ-style, where you’re flying in, flying out. I’ve done about five shows so far, then I came home for the week, and I go out again tomorrow.
What’s new with this set-up? The last time I saw you was somewhere between Black City and Beams. You played with a band and a bunch of effects housed in a coffin case.
Yeah, I’m a scatterbrain, and I’ve got too much stuff. There’s always an idea of a better way to do it, but by having that idea you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because you never really get a rhythm going [laughs]. For the five shows I just did I had this one setup, which I think I’m gonna completely change by the time I get to National Sawdust? But it’s fine; that’s what keeps it fun. It’s just a matter of what my main hub is.
A few years ago you went back home to Texas and played “Tecumseh Valley” with your dad on guitar. As a fellow Townes Van Zandt fan, this got me thinking about narrative. It’s a story song, a self-contained arc. Is narrative something you believe in building albums around? Is there one narrative emerging on Bunny? Hindsight being 20/20, of course.
No, not really. I’m honest about the fact that most records are not outwardly narrative-driven. Like you said, after the fact you kind of have to come up with a storyline. It’s not necessarily always forced, it’s just, “Let me now look at everything and see where my head was at when I was putting this thing together.”
Black City was the most overtly obvious, just in terms of where I was living and the artwork. Black City wouldn’t be Black City without the dark cover and silhouette of my face. So much of that imagery crept into the actual sound. Everybody tells me it’s such a New York record, but it’s only a New York record because I told you that I wrote it while I was living in New York. Now people just assume that Black City was New York—it’s just so easily co-optable when you start putting words to the music, I guess, aside from the actual lyrics of the song.
With Beams, I told everybody it was a more overtly happy record, or at least me turning outward, out of the darkness of Black City. Then everyone would say, “Yeah, but it’s still a pretty fucked up record, dude. The lyrics aren’t that happy.” That’s me trying to paint a picture, and the picture’s wrong.
Searching for a connective tissue to your point—
I have no point! [Laughs]
Well, maybe Bunny splits the difference between worlds. There’s light and there’s dark and they’re talking to each other.
The honest truth is that Bunny is the most wholeheartedly “me” record that’s been out. It really reflects where I am now as a family man, but still a musician, and a weird musician at that. I think I’m the most OK with everything that I’ve said on this record, and there’s still some pretty weird stuff that I say on it. It’s no different in the sense that it’s still songs that I write about me trying to figure little things out with myself using more generalized contexts. But in the long run it just feels really good, really personal, really right, still weird and odd.
But there’s no “Bunny,” there’s no “Echo.” There were maybe little moments along the way when I thought, “This is about a girl named Bunny and a boy named Echo, and they’re having these issues in high school. He’s this bad kid” – “Echo” is kind of that storyline. Then someone said, “What about Echo & The Bunnymen?” I totally didn’t even think about that!
It’s good to get a little high off of your own fumes when you’re composing and creating. The trick becomes coming back out of it at the end and not buying your own bullshit too much.
Oh, yeah. And I’m no Broadway screenplay writer. It’s so hard to do a concept album right, you know? It starts that way, sometimes, and you talk yourself out of it slowly. Any time you’re very overt with the narrative and message it kind of falls flat on its face.
To that point, Kurt Vile was promoting his new album at Matador Records recently when he said, “Anyone who tells you they’re going into the studio to work on the record is green. You just write songs, and it comes together.”
Yeah, I respect guys like that. I’ve mentioned how much I would love to write a record like Parquet Courts or something. I’m sure they just show up with their shit and the tracks that they’ve written, then push record and it’s boom, boom, boom. Like a rock band, you know? Just show up and do it, that’s your thing. The concept is “the rock band from November to February, 2016.” That’s the feel, that’s the vibe. But when I make a record that lasts six years, I don’t have that ability to say, “that’s who I was.” It’s a longer stroke.
Electronic communities can become insular and underground for reasons of self-preservation—to protect the scene, the parties, keep them safe or from getting shut down. But the whole Ghostly story, by contrast, radiates outward. And the community support structure seems very instrumental in facilitating your ability to genre-bend, your ability to get weird and try new things. Why, when so many dance communities have needed to turned inward, did Ghostly keep its values and get big?
I guess we just never really worried too much about what people thought of us, but at the same time, we wanted to be as big as possible, as long as we stayed true to ourselves. We weren’t afraid of recognition, and we were never really worried that people would run with our story, co-opt it or pollute it. I think we always knew that we had control and the last word.
The whole freedom to do what I wanted thing, I owe so much of that to Sam Valenti, Ghostly’s brainchild who started the whole thing. Knowing that I have him… I’ve sent everything I ever did, still do. If I have some weird acoustic stuff, I’ll send it to Sam. Sam has all the old tapes we recorded before the label started, when he was just doing weird stuff. I’d show him this tape I made in high school – “this song’s about old tennis shoes” – he’s got that stuff. Sam knew me as this weird tape machine-tinkerer/guitar guy, way before I was a techno artist or DJ, so I think that was a good founding. I could show Sam anything and everything.
Sounds like he understood that tape machine/guitar life of yours is also instrumental to your talent as a producer, so he didn’t want you to throw that out.
You were away six years. You’re a dad now.
[Laughs] I love how it’s “away.” In my mind it’s like, “I’m still here, I’m doing stuff!” I see your point, you’re totally justified in saying that. I just love that’s how it is, because I’ve said that in interviews, “I was away,” but in my mind… I’m posting on Instagram! I’m still here.
Sure, but the commercial electronic music zeitgeist has shifted, and releasing an album in this climate is a different game. Six years since your last LP as Matthew Dear is an eternity at the rate that our culture consumes art. For a lot of artists, such a journey isn’t as sustainable. Yet you’re not someone who came from nepotism or inherited wealth. You got here by working hard, which is more than we can say for some parts of the electronic dance community.
Yeah. I met a guy on a flight once, maybe two years ago, who was still in high school. He was in first class, and his dad was sitting in the row in front of him. He lived in California and was dropping all these names once he found out I was a DJ. He was basically going to a studio in Canada to work with some big DJ, more on the EDM side. He had on new jeans, a nice shirt and haircut. It was almost like his dad was scouting him out to be an EDM DJ or something.
I was like, “holy shit”—it’s exactly what you’re talking about. There’s a whole other type of electronic music out there, where people see it more as, “My kid’s gonna be a model, he’s gonna be an actor! Let’s get him a pair of CDJs and he’ll be a famous, hands-in-the-air, steam-explosion-photograph DJ.” I’m not criticizing that at all; I’m just saying it’s a fact in this world.
That said, it must be all the more difficult to break through that noise, to not get lost in the thick of it. We’re in this competition for ears and attention spans, but all of them are shortening.
That’s another angle or arm of the pop. There’s still gonna be these weird dudes that come out of the Hague, there’s still real oddball techno and dance music, and those are the guys who get booked at the Bunker. That scene still exists, which makes me feel happy about it. At the same time, are they gonna be making the same money as those other people? No.
But there’s another thing I realized—when I first started doing this in 2002-2003, when I first started touring Europe, I was playing with the Perlon guys, going over to Germany and making €500 or $100 a show max, I was OK with that. I was happy. Granted, inflation, times change, but I think it got to a point where people were getting paid too much money, probably. Maybe it needs to scale back, because when we started doing this we weren’t doing it to be lavishly paid, huge DJs. We were doing this to play weird little parties in Berlin, play oddball, goofy techno music.
It was social.
Exactly, and it was weird. Everybody, as they get older, likely has a good “hmm, what are we doing here?” kind of thing, whatever your profession is. I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are kind of like, “What’s this all about as we get older? What are we supposed to do?” It’s crazy, because when I got into this, it wasn’t cool to be a techno DJ in the greater sense. It was cool to me, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, that’s why I wanted to do it! But if I told that to 85-95 percent of kids in my high school, they would’ve been like, “What? That’s gay music, that’s for gay people.”
It was very ostracized when Sam and I first started it. He met me in the basement of some party, and we were the odd kids in the basement playing some weird music. It was counterculture music. It was for the gay clubs and coming out of that world, the ‘90s.
Back in the day…
I’m not saying that, because I hate that argument! [Laughs] I’m just saying that it was cool to me and now, as a 39-year-old dad, I played some place in Miami during Art Basel a few years ago. I remember I had on some new shoes, didn’t know anybody that booked me, and was leaving when I found this puddle of beer and was like, “I don’t wanna step in that.” It was three in the morning, I passed this girl who was bartending and she was wearing lingerie while serving drinks. I just thought, nobody needs to be around this now. This has nothing to do with electronic music. It’s not why I got into this.
Last year, Jim Jarmusch told me about the importance of keeping your creative antennae up while walking around the city. Staying open to new stuff, and also seeking it out. Seeking out the strange. As someone who’s from Miami, that can be hard to do with all the competing noise.
By contrast, your creative antennae fold into so many different genres and sounds, but you also have this very stable scene that you’re a major figure in. Greg from Protomartyr is on Bunny, Tegan and Sara, too. So how do you do it, how do you keep those antennae up?
You always have to keep your creative antennae up—that’s just how I live. I’m always looking for the weird. My friends – some of my friends – have parts of them that are very odd and weird. But at the same time I’m a midwestern Texan, grounded, normal… in a weird way. [Laughs] The world “normal” is a bad word, I’ve realized.
I embrace parts of me that are very sedentary and happy with just sitting on a couch and relaxing, being home. At the same time, I think there are moments where I have to be surrounded with the odd stuff, rubbing shoulders with a life that isn’t necessarily normal.
Or sustainable, yeah! And I like that, too. As I’m getting older, I like talking to more people on airplanes. I’m just yearning for stories and connections, I guess—I talk to old ladies, old pilots, anyone who’s willing. It seems like there’s a lot of people wanting to talk right now. You keep those antennae up and you’re going to get a lot of good stuff back.
That said, when I talk about those lingerie parties in Miami, the last time I played Miami was a great party, totally different vibe, not like that. That’s a bad thing, but when I DJ Montreal in a tiny speakeasy… it’s so cool, just a little club with decent sound, and 50 people are there dancing while I play whatever I want. Just the feel. It felt like a party I played when I was 22.
Right then and there you remember: This is what I love. So I’m not somebody who’s burned out, I just need those little moments, like Jarmusch said. You keep your antennae up and you still have these little things that make you so excited. When I saw [producer] Ricardo Villalobos in Australia, he played this weird song that I had never heard before – the perfect combination of house and techno – and I was like, “That’s it. I still love this music. I’m going to have to go home and try and make that song.” There are still those moments.
It’s a challenge.
Yeah, and it’s nothing technical. It’s just that’s the groove, that’s the vibe. I’m always looking for vibe, I guess.
Challenge and vibe—it sounds like you’re doing that with your solo set-up now, too.
I’m trying. It’s just this weird combination of loops live-mixed with tracks from the album. I’m trying to keep it all. Doing this one-man show now and times have changed. I’m envious of the Four Tet or Jon Hopkins set-up where it’s just a guy and his machines. I made all the music – granted, it’s a bit more fleshed out, song-style music – but I’m doing the one-man show. I told myself, look, if I saw Thom Yorke with a laptop and a microphone and he did all his songs, I’d be happy.
You’re right, and that’s where the composer/producer line becomes blurry. Those producers you mentioned are artful at building an arc to their set with just a Tenori-on and Ableton or whatever.
What you said about balance is worth emphasizing, too. You’re a dad now, but you haven’t lost that cool mystique. How do you keep up the cool dad vibe?
Honestly, I think my kids have made me cooler. They really help me open up. I started painting because of them; now I’m into magnets. I’m going to have a re-experiencing of the childhood that I always wanted to have, and I’m getting a chance to buy a bunch of weird, stupid shit. I need to go to the art store and by $100 dollars worth of paint!
There are many people who have to not only balance a day job with a creative practice, but also fold families into that mix. It seems insurmountable, but maybe if you can include your kids in that multidisciplinary mindset it becomes easier.
Oh totally. I already have their DJ setup on Soundcloud.
I’m totally kidding. They will only DJ if they choose to [laughs]. I always tell my wife, “Just go out there. Just play some music. We’ll double the income!” She has way too much pride to do something like that.