“A lot of these songs were like lifelines to me. They were redeemers. When I wrote them and sang them they gave me a reason to keep going.”
With the official release of his forthcoming debut still three weeks away, we’re pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with Matt Townsend about his newest effort before the remainder of his year got inevitably far more busy.
Below, you can read our entire conversation as we discuss the impetus for his career in music, his impressive debut, and the talented friends and musicians that helped him realize his vision, Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World.
Before we get into talking about the band and new album, tell me about your history with music a bit. Were you raised around music at all?
I wouldn’t say I was raised around music, no. It was something I really came into on my own. I played trumpet for a few months in band in 4th grade, then the snare drum. The real moment–and it was a moment that is really vivid in my mind–happened when I was 13. I had become slightly interested in heavier music, whatever alternative stuff that was happening around 2000, and I asked for some CDs for my birthday. One album that I didn’t get was Nirvana’s Nevermind. Probably because of the suicide or something (which I didn’t really know about at the time). At any rate, my grandmother took me to the mall the next day so I could pick out a present, and she, being kind and sweet, and having no idea who Nirvana was, nor any of the stigma attached to it, happily bought the CD for me. I remember taking it home and laying in my bed. I put my headphones on and heard those first four chords, and I was transfixed. I was changed forever. I stayed up really late that night listening to that record again and again. It woke up something deep in me that I didn’t even know was there. I got really into Nirvana, got a guitar shortly thereafter, and then I got into all of the bands that influenced Nirvana and it just went from there.
Would you say that’s what originally influenced you to want to become a musician?
It was definitely that Nirvana experience, and Kurt Cobain, that made me want to become a musician. I just felt like if someone who felt like I did at the time–confused, misunderstood, too quiet, too weird, too whatever–could do it so beautifully, than maybe I could too. Maybe someday I will! But it really threw me headfirst into music. It became my whole existence. I led a pretty solitary life in high school, and so music was my own little world where I belonged, and nothing, and nobody could touch that.
I think there are probably some obvious influences that one could pick out of your sound, but are their any bands or artists in particular that have really helped shape your style and sound you think?
I really fell deep into Bob Dylan’s well of words at one point. See, I went through this thing…kind of a mental breakdown sorta thing, around when I was 20, and for whatever reason I couldn’t play music anymore. It was really heartbreaking and confusing. I couldn’t listen to any of the music I loved either–it just evoked this really intense psychosomatic thing in me that was really painful. It felt like a physical reaction and it didn’t make any sense. I was really freaked out. Eventually I sorta came out of it and for some reason, the only music I could listen to without the weirdness happening was Dylan, mostly the early acoustic stuff, which I had liked previously, but had never gotten deep into it. Shortly after, I started writing songs again at a very furious pace, like every night I wouldn’t really sleep much, I just wrote songs. It was very obviously informed by that Dylan stuff.
Neutral Milk Hotel are another one of my all time favorites. That band is really close to my heart. I guess I really love intense image-laden, acoustic-based songs. Those are the ones that speak to me. Other big ones for me are The Beatles, Modest Mouse, Wilco, Radiohead and so many more.
So is The Wonder Of The World simply part of the album’s title or is that in reference to the slew of other musicians that helped in creating the album?
It’s both. It was clear to me while making it, that this is not a solo record. All the musicians on this album provided so much, especially Jamie Bright, our producer who played like six different instruments and was very responsible for the way this record sounds. Also Tim Carmen our drummer, who really shaped the sound some of these tunes. Especially “Hollow City.” Every drummer I talk to says, “man I would never have thought of that beat for that song.”
But I also like how the name can kind of play on multiple angles. It functions as the title of the record and provides a bunch of different meanings from that angle, and also as the band name it provides a whole different set of meanings. It’s versatile.
What can you tell me about all the others that play on this record? Were these all musicians that you already knew?
So, Jamie Bright has a studio in Burlington and one of my friends, Ryan Fauber, was recording with him, and I went to one of the sessions and Jamie and I got to talking and we decided to do a record together. He played a lot of different instruments on the record himself; most of the bass, the piano, the organ and a bunch of other stuff. Tim Carmen, the drummer, is a friend from high school. Rachel Keyser and Johnnie Day Durand who played violin and musical saw respectively, were introduced to me by Jamie. Jeremy Hammond who did some acoustic bass and backing vocals is a really good friend of mine, as is Pete Bixby who also played bass. Casey Saulpaugh played pedal steel–he’s from Asheville. They’re all very good friends now. Everybody was incredibly generous in working on this record. It was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, but we still had a very small budget, and these beautiful people put so much work and love into making it what it is. All except Tim (who’s from Boston) and Casey (Asheville) are from Burlington, VT which is this strange beautiful bastion of creative people, musicians, painters, poets all kinds of artists in this pretty, lakeside, small town in Northern Vermont.
For having only 9 tracks, the album feels incredibly full. It has a massive sound and touches on a lot of subjects, most of which seem rather personal. What themes would you say are prominent throughout the record and where was a lot of the inspiration for these songs drawn from?
I don’t know, I guess they were sort of subconsciously drawn from this strange state of being I go into. A lot of these songs were like lifelines to me. They were redeemers. When I wrote them and sang them they gave me a reason to keep going. They felt like gifts from somewhere I can’t see. A lot of them were experiences in and of themselves, these visions I experienced as I wrote them. I have no idea where they came from, which troubles me time to time. But yeah, a lot of them were these sort of waking dreams, that ended up on a page and in my mind in a melodic form that moved me. Some of them are maybe more personal I guess, the more romantic ones, but those weren’t necessarily based on anyone or anything in particular. Just kind of feelings that manifested at different times. I guess they’re all sort of personal in some way, because the act of writing them was an experience I went through. I don’t really think of them as personal though, just because they happened to me.
I can see themes in them from retrospect; longing for freedom and love, redemption, dealing with loss–lots more, but they weren’t planned in any way. They just happened to me.
You’ve still got roughly a month till the album releases. Why did you decide to start streaming the album so far in advance?
I just want people to be able to hear it and share it. I don’t want money or anything like that to be prohibitive of somebody experiencing the album. It’s weird these days especially, because most people I know don’t have much money, and the money they have they aren’t spending on music because it’s available for free. Ultimately the music just wants to be heard, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.
I don’t know if the whole album will be streaming after it comes out. Maybe some of it will, but I gotta eat after all!
The album cover is pretty incredible. Whose idea was it for the design and who’s the artist?
The artist is Joshua Cleaver, a wildly talented graphic artist. I gave him some vague ideas and images/concepts and it was this really fun collaboration where he’d give me his interpretation and I’d respond to it, and it would go back and forth like that. Pretty early on he drew this amazing piece which was so far beyond what I had even considered, and I was just like spellbound. I think it’s really beautiful and every time I see it I’m still amazed.
The video for “Desire Like A Lion” has some really great imagery. Where was that shot at?
That was shot around Asheville, NC where I live now. It was shot by Tariq Zeidan who started his own production company recently called First At Bat Productions. Tariq was one of the first people I met in Asheville. It was really fun and casual and we kinda just made it up as we went along, with some very abstract ideas guiding us. It was mostly done on the spot though, which was fun because there’s always a certain kind of energy with making something spontaneously like that. I think it came out really nice.
It looks like you have a handful of shows coming up through the summer with a record release show included. Do you have any plans for a full tour of any type? Also, how do these songs translate live? Will you have all the musicians that played on it accompanying you for these shows?
We do! Our big album release show is on July 5 at the Mothlight in West Asheville, and we’ll be on tour up the East Coast in September/October. We’re planning a tour out west for the spring, and on the very early stages of planning a tour in Europe. We are playing with a three/four-piece right now, with bass and drums, and sometimes we play with a pedal steel player, or an organ or violin player. It’s a little different, I think, than the album. More stripped down certainly, but it’s fun too because the energy of a live performance makes up for having fewer instruments.
It’s also very hard to coordinate a tour with 6 or 7 musicians when you’re broke, but we’ll do what we can.
What have you been working on in the meantime since finishing the album? Are you already writing more material? Are you involved with any other projects in or outside of music currently?
I’m always writing more or less. We’ve got another two (maybe three) albums worth of material, and I hope to get into the studio again soon and try some different ideas.
One thing I learned about making and releasing this album is things always take longer than you think they will, but I’m ready to get in there again! Not much going on outside of music right now, it’s pretty all-encompassing.
Overall, what can we expect from you for the rest of the year? Mainly touring, eh?
Touring is the main focus right now. We’re going up the East Coast in the fall, and out west come winter/spring. I’m also looking into getting over to Europe to tour as well. I have a lot of family in Ireland so I definitely want to get over there an play. I’m an Irish citizen! Still very early stages of that. But yes, we’ll be coming to your city very soon. Come see us!
Interview written and conducted by Brian Lion — (Follow him on Twitter)
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