Mat Riviere has a 7″ single coming out in early 2011 called ‘Gardens’. His debut album Follow Your Heart is out now – the opening track, FYH, is available to download for free below.
Matthew Gregory was born in Suffolk and studied creative writing at Norwich School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths, University of London. He has lived in Prague, St Petersburg and New York. His poems have appeared in the anthology Stop Sharpening Your Knives. He is currently living in Naples and working on his first collection.
MG: Hello there Mat, how are you doing, etc?
MR: Hi Matthew, I’m well thank you. Had a quiet day, reading and cooking mainly. I’ve also been watching Ricky Hatton getting knocked out on youtube…
MG: Very good. Reading and cooking vs Ricky Hatton. Soft vs Hard. I’ll look for any excuse to make tenuous connections, to make my interview look better. Listening to your album, F.Y.H., I hear things from two quite divergent places. One seems to come from a more slow-burning, defeated side, the other finds you screaming and hollering.
It’s a kind of dilemma, the melancholic bedroom singer with a sudden violence in him, a bookworm with a private gorilla. I think this is what makes the record instantly more engaging. It enlivens and diversifies it.
As the protagonist of the record – if I can call you that – I think it also makes you seem like a more nuanced human-being. There’s sadness, irony, fury and quiet joy, and not just the kind of stylised melancholia that’s standard for a lot of bedroom pop, or lo-fi music. It seems to escape that niche, but has a similar aesthetic. What were you listening to when you started out?
MR: Well certainly Casiotone for the Painfully Alone was a big influence when I first started playing shows on my own. Before that I had been recording songs at home which were quite extravagant by my current standards, I mean they were still incompetent in terms of technical ability and song-craft, but quite ambitious in terms of instrumentation and structure. Then listening to his songs, many of which consist of literally just a drum beat and two organ chords, helped me realise that songs don’t have to be these terribly worked-out, over -structured things, but just something that sounded good in the moment, as it was played live.
When I first started doing gigs I didn’t record anything I was playing live, whereas before the recording process basically was the writing process. I started writing songs purely by and for performance which is a limiting exercise (especially if you can’t really play any instruments except drums). That idea of limiting myself I definitely got from his music. What makes his music transcend the limitations he imposes on himself is his genuinely amazing story-telling ability, a lot of his songs are just beautiful little character studies. I am completely unable to do this, I think I just tried to make something simple but at least vaguely interesting. Sleeping States is another artist who has an inspiringly simplistic approach to song writing.
Perhaps some of the conflict in the album comes from the fact they’re a mixture of songs written in this more spontaneous live manner and ones written over longer periods of time as I was recording them? Other things that have influenced this record would include a lot of not so great hip hop, some really good hip hop, R Kelly, late nineties screamo bands like Small Brown Bike or Saetia, early Pinback, Propagandhi, Parenthetical Girls.
MR: sorry this is a kind of long and boring response maybe we just keep this going and edit it into something interesting at the end…?
MG: No, not boring at all. Your parts are good. I’m just finding it hard to respond with anything without sounding like a complete nob. Tonally… I slip into this voice I can’t bear… but yes, let’s keep it up. I will post another question soon.
MR: Yup that’s how I feel as well, I can’t help but write like I’m on a VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ documentary. I think it’s probably good not to think about it too much at this point. We can always make ourselves sound less pretentious later…
MG: I can really hear the R Kelly in there. It’s interesting that you mention hip-hop, though, as that tends towards a lyrical arc that is chronological or loosely narrative based, rather than fractured or impressionistic. With hip-hop, as in folk, the mental progression from one idea to the next is a little more concrete, because the songs are often anecdotal or vignettes. Yours, on the other hand, are in the latter category: disembodied, oblique, with mantra-like choruses. How do you write your lyrics?
MR: Quite often it is just what sounds right with the music, I wish I could write more narrative songs but I’m just awful at it. Like Casiotone again, a lot of his songs are narrative (or at least character) based, I think you have to have quite a particular talent to do that kind of thing well. I’ve never really written songs like that, there’s always been a large amount of grey area in terms of meaning. They’re still stories I guess, they kind of start off being about me but by the time they’re ‘finished’ they have often become about a larger imagined story. I don’t think that’s true of all of them, but maybe when things have worked out well I’ve come close on this. I like it when the meaning gets obscured or lost. But often it’s a just a turn of phrase which works on a purely musical level. So much of phrasing is just vowel sounds, and then if the sentiment kind of suits the mood of the music…
MR: alternative answer ‘in the shower’.
MG: ‘tossing off over anonymous Myspace girlhounds’
Joking! But I shall be on the case of this interview very soon. I’ve been encountering similar snow issues, first in London, then in Norfolk. It’s wonderful though. I imagine it’s a similar feeling, though without the doom, of being caught suddenly in the middle of a great war and having nothing to do, nor being able to doing anything, and feeling quite content with your lot. Merry Xmas, too.)
MG: One of your lyrics, forgive me for misquoting if I do, is: ‘‘the knife pattern in the butter-substitute spells out a sad truth/trying to meet people on trains’’. If Mat Riviere died tomorrow, that last line wouldn’t make such a bad epitaph. Not quite a ‘synopsis’ of the whole album – but something of the sort thematically. There’s this kind of deadpan, domestic pathos in a lot of it. There’s much more than just straight up ennui – as I said – but it’s there and I’m left with the enduring sense of a sometimes doleful, sometimes vengeful, sometimes wounded young man. The general impression, aside from a kind of fractured joy and hope, is a negative one. ‘‘Never vow to anything/never set a target again.’’
For a guy living in the arts-friendly, material luxury of a city like Norwich, what is there to be down about? I’m not saying there’s not, but what is it? Is it your general dispostion, your sense of humour, or is it something more extensive. Are you an idealist, Mat?
MR: I guess fairly standard worries, relationships, middle class existential angst etc. But yeah my situation is hardly depressing in itself. I kind of view sadness as a potentially positive thing though, in the sense that it is the thing that most often moves me. Sadness is a kind of blanket term here – I just don’t see much scope in ‘having fun’. Not that I don’t frequently enjoy myself or feel great affection for the people I know, more that I’ve never had the urge to write about a really great night out. Maybe this is because I’ve never had a really great night out, I don’t know. Almost by default any feeling I have which is truly joyous will be tinged with a sadness. Or I don’t see a huge difference between joy and sadness. I think if anyone is genuinely happy about something then that feeling has to encompass sadness as well. The sadness that whatever you’re enjoying will pass or the incapacity of language to really express the joy.
I wouldn’t say I was an idealist as such, maybe a kind of fascist romantic? I disappoint myself quite a lot and I guess in some ways I’m disappointed by my own lack of capacity to do things I want to do. At this juncture I should probably just shut up and quote Mecury Rev.
“I always dreamed of big crowds, plumes of smoke and high clouds”
There I did it.
MG: With Norwich in mind again, there seems to be a kind of tradition, where the elder musicians and bands lend a hand to the upstarts. In fact, there aren’t really ‘upstarts’ as such, because the elders offer little in the way of the frisson that leads to being an upstart. They’re too good. It’s something I especially like about the city. But it’s not the same everywhere: in a lot of places there’s a kind of dog-eat-dog capitulation, where anyone, say, over 30, is ‘out of it’. Perhaps it’s a remainder from the punk ethic, ‘the boring old farts’, but it seems jarringly irrelevant to me now, and more indicative of a consumerist ideal, with sexualisation and youth as it’s selling point. What I love about Norwich is its willingness to allow artists to mature, to continue to make interesting things as they get on a bit. It’s a kind of informal academy for the young too. It’s maybe similar to the way traditional musicianship is passed from one generation of folkies to another. Without being as homogenised as folk, though. What do you think it is about Norwich that keep this going on? Have you found anywhere similar?
MR: Yes Norwich is quite special in that sense, since I first became involved in doing music here there’s never really been a generational divide. Maybe this is less true now than seven years ago when I first moved to Norwich, but this would be for all sorts of different reasons. Partly I think that making ‘indie’ music has, in the the last decade, become a lot more fashionable. Also in this time self promotion on the internet has become the absolute norm for most bands. I remember in 2004 or whatever me and my brother both starting myspace accounts for our separate bands, we were kind on the cusp of what I see as a divide of some sort. There’s suspicion of the generation who grew up with the internet and also, to a degree, post-strokes homogenised indie culture. And on their side a dismissal of the older generation, or a confusion of some kind as to why anyone would stay in norwich playing in the same unsuccessful bands to the same people for years on end. Whereas what was exciting to me when I first encountered the music scene was just that. There was a lack of careerism which, I think, was what made it a special place to make and play music.
I don’t have a God, but recently I have been thinking that believing in God is more appropriate than believing in music.