“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” - a line coined by Neil Young and made infamous by Kurt Cobain - has come to stand as Generation X’s update on the careless abandon of “Live Fast, Die Young”, perpetuating the myth that longevity is to be feared, that it is too unbearable to see yourself become different to what you are now.
With the passing years, a different notion of what it is to burn out has emerged. To burn out now is not to disappear in a blaze of glory – an idea that was never that romantic anyway – it is to lose the ability to function, sheer physical and mental exhaustion. The kind of state that once reached is not easy to reverse.
The topic of creative sustainability seems to have preoccupied much of Kristian Matsson’s – better known by his stage name The Tallest Man On Earth – time over the last few years. We are, after all, in the era of the millennial burnout. With work taking up more and more of people’s lives and social media consuming what’s left, there is a startling destruction of downtime which in turn is catastrophic for creativity. It is a time of overwork and constant motion, the grind to keep up with keeping up.
Within this caustic environment there is more need than ever for breathing space, pauses in the madness to find shelter and insulate yourself. For artists whose lives are disrupted by touring this can be even harder, trying to pause so as to preserve some continuity, to stay relevant and retain their creativity. What has taken years to build can be destroyed so easily, but with nurture and mindfulness there comes longevity.
It’s still early in New York when I speak to Mattson. Although he is by his own admission a little sluggish, he is in high spirits, still buzzing from the adrenaline rush of coming off a run of 19 shows just a couple of days earlier. The musicians no newcomer to this life. It is now over a decade since the release of his debut album Shallow Grave. A record which, with its unique blend of understated, expansive folk soon saw him recognised far beyond his native Sweden.
Two further records and countless tours led to 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home, perhaps his most musically immersive album to date. A brooding melee documenting a recent divorce, it was a lustrous triumph. Matsson now returns with his latest record I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream. which is perhaps more daring still. Working within a smaller framework, it contains more breathing space within limitless sky exploring the nuances of connection and the vestiges of hope.
As we chat, Mattson is thoughtful but unguarded, with noticeable contentment when talking of how things are going. It’s evident that the four years since his last album have provided him the opportunity to figure a few things out. He is now at a stage where he is looking to the future, taking stock of what has come before to shape the way he wants things to continue.
As streaming platforms continue to erode an artist’s ability to make an income from sales, touring is more vital than ever. Luckily it is not just the financial necessity of touring that find’s Matsson’s hitting the road. “I feel playing live is my main job. It’s what I love to do and what I’m best at. I have a lot of fun with the crowd and there is a lot of happy, loving energy in the room. It feels like a bit of a trick because the lyrics of these songs are everyday questions like how to make a relationship work? Why does it feel so hard being in love? Why is it so hard living with someone?” he explains. “That is what most people go through but then you get in the room with a bunch of people and we share that energy. It’s a hard thing to describe but it becomes for me a very inspiring moment. To get that energy from a crowd and just be there look each other in the eye I get inspired to go and do good things. To go on and be a good loving person and hopefully the people in the crowd go out there and feel energised to do something positive.”
Punishing touring schedules are nothing new. In fact, cramming as many shows as possible in to as short a time as possible is still seen as a rite of passage by many, something that has to be done to pay your dues before being accepted. While it is true that clocking up the miles embarking on tours to gain a steady fan base is invaluable, pushing yourself to your limits at the expense of your mental and physical health is not the way to do it. His experiences on the road have put this in context for Matsson. When he puts so much in and gets so much out of his live shows, it’s not surprising that he was keen to take a step back to see how he could make touring work for him.
“I have been trying to get away from thinking about where I am the happiest. That puts a lot of unnecessary anxiety into my life which is stressful on relationships and then you come home and you want everything to be perfect."
“I’ve been doing this for a while now and I want to keep on doing it and tour for a long time. I have the luxury of trying to figure out a way to keep it sustainable,” he admits. This desire to claw back some control over his own schedule derives from the intense touring that followed the release of Dark Bird Is Home. “That tour with the band felt like we were playing the full two years and no matter how fun it is, it’s tough physically and mentally to do it all the time. I loved the guys in the band and playing with them but feel like now, coming back to playing solo again, I am even more in my element. I guess that’s what I had been doing for eight years before that.”
In an attempt to stave off the physical and mental toll that touring can take, tours for The Tallest Man On Earth are now short, yet intense bursts. “I try to keep it to a maximum of three and a half weeks then have some air in between to keep it sustainable. Now it’s just me on stage and we have a pretty great light rig behind me that we’re bringing around. I feel like I am doing my best and most energetic shows ever now because I feel I can just dive into every show head first and feel powerful.”
It’s not easy to take a step back from your life and be objective in assessing what’s working and what isn’t. Whether that be at work or at home. It’s even harder to then change those behaviours. But that is exactly what Matsson has done. Matsson may describe being more in control of his own schedule as a luxury but touring doesn’t come without the same inherent dilemmas, regardless of how much is within your control. When I ask Matsson about whether he prefers to be at home or on the road he is honest.
“I have been trying to get away from thinking about where I am the happiest. I used to be out on tours romanticising about being home and living a normal life. Then if I was at home too long, I felt like now I want to go travel again,” he says. “That put a lot of unnecessary anxiety into my life which is stressful on relationships and then you come home and you want everything to be perfect. I guess now I am trying to be happy where I am at the moment and be at peace and that has worked really well. But I can be smart and try to build a good platform for that.”
Building that platform has involved Matsson re-evaluating where he can assimilate most easily into a somewhat normal life. Even thinking of how to cope on tour is a stretch for most. The tedium of travel mixing with the euphoria of shows is a snowstorm of emotions that is not easy to switch off from when it’s over. Like a diver in a decompression chamber, New York is his cure for the bends.
“I still have my place in Sweden but I spend most of my time in New York. No matter how lovely the tour is, it’s like zooming or speeding in a tour bus across America. Then all of a sudden it just stops in New Jersey and I fly out of the front window and I keep on rolling and tumbling for a while. I found that it's easier for me to do that in a city like this. There are a lot of things going on and I can go out and walk in the streets and be in that kind of energy. He continues: “It used to be me sitting in my kitchen in Sweden. It’s beautiful and amazing and the river is there and the woods, but going from tour straight to that is kind of hard so I’m kind of happy with this little system. By trying to minimize the hard bit, I feel like I am having a lot of fun on tour. When meeting people, I’m not as tired and I had a lot of fun making this record. I’m more able to be grateful for getting to do this.”
By tempering his touring schedule, finding what works for him and practicing some self-preservation, Matsson has also unlocked some creativity and inspiration. Four years is the longest spell he has ever had between albums. The time away was not a void, but a re-calibration, an opportunity to learn, grow, and once again pause for reflection on how to move forward.
“It was kind of a funny way that I got to this album. I came off tour at the end of 2016 and felt I needed a break from being on the road. I was done with my record deal and I felt I could do whatever I wanted,” he takes a pause. “I love being a beginner and to nerd out and learn about new things. So I started to do these videos on YouTube where I filmed myself playing demos. I put a lot of time into how to film them and how to make them look great. I had been interested in photography for a long time but I had never dealt with video editing and colour grading and all that. I had time to be creative and it felt amazing. So I was up at night looking at tutorials and reading online how to do this and that and experimenting and failing a lot, which is great. I did a little video series then I did another little series but then I also recorded the songs and made a little digital EP out of that.”
"By trying to minimize the hard bit, I feel like I am having a lot of fun on tour. I’m more able to be grateful for getting to do this.”
Matsson then went on a small tour of this EP. The time away from touring, being creative, also led to some realisations when he was back on the road that filtered through to the creation of his new record. “When I saw people on the road I was like ‘Wow I still have fans out there and these shows are so fun…I don’t have to be a big star to get to do this, I am at a good level where I am enjoying playing you know pretty simple songs’.”
Matsson explains that on some subconscious level in the past, he has put pressure on himself to get bigger or achieve greater exposure on the release of each new record. A thought process compounded and reinforced by the music industry as a whole. Releasing himself from this pressure he has been able to make the record he wanted to make in his own way.
“I wanted to record it in my apartment in a pretty short amount of time. So in between touring early this year, I recorded the whole thing in my apartment by myself. I sent my friend C.J. (C.J. Camerieri) -who is one of the best horn players in the world - some tracks. He was really busy in the middle of touring himself and we didn’t see each other for the whole process. I sent him a track on a day he was home and he recorded and sent them back. Then all of a sudden it was done.”
Sometimes despite your head telling you otherwise, it can be hard to shake old thoughts and damaging practices. The perceived weight of expectation can still burden even the clearest minds. “I felt very mindful and at peace going into the project but, for the first couple of days, all the little ghosts and doubts came back. So the first-day recording I was like ‘Oh, this sounds great’ and I could hear my old mind going ‘It’s great ‘cause it sounds like that song and this song is good because it had really impressive guitar playing’. And when I hear that voice everything just dies, I’m like you can’t do that.”
One way to push through these doubts was to work quickly. “A lot of the songs that made the album were the ones towards the end of the process where I wrote them pretty fast. I recorded most of them playing guitar and singing at the same time so I couldn’t do a gazillion takes on vocals. I just had to play it through and a lot of it was on the first take. Then you have the basic song in there. I felt at peace with letting those flaws and imperfections be in there, and I realised that is what I love. It should be in there and it reminded me of the joy of finding something unique that happens on that take. I used to record on these very unreliable tape recorders and you were just kind of lucky if the tape didn’t drop out or warble on the important words. I know I’m starting to sound a little nostalgic. I found a new simple joy in making records again.”
The Tallest Man On Earth records have always been relatively singular projects when it comes to recording, with Matsson primarily taking the helm in terms of instrumentation and production. I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream, however, saw him embark on a whole new level of solitude to record. Shutting out the chaos of the outside world in an attempt to focus on the hope that bleeds out of the record.
“Although I love people and I love hanging out with people and creating together with people, that is something I feel I can do now on a lot of projects. But a part of me…I need that solitude. During the process, I didn’t even see that many friends or family or talk to many people which is weird. It gets dark and hard but there’s an importance for me to break through those moments” he admits. “There’s always going to be a little self-deprecating monster. The actual success is being able to hang out with yourself and not chasing after someone else to fulfill my life which makes me a more fun person to hang out with. I feel like I can give more back to the world in that sense. So I came out of the whole project a pretty happy dude.”
When I ask if recording alone results in having to be more inventive and in turn create something unexpected, he explains it goes beyond that; recording in private makes him more fearless.
“If you are in the studio setting, there are a lot of people there and there’s a feeling of wanting to please others and be one of the cool kids.”
“If you are in the studio setting, there are a lot of people there and there’s a feeling of wanting to please others and impress them and to be one of the cool kids.” And as if to provide the perfect example: “It’s not that cool to play the harmonica,” he jokes. “Here by myself, I live in an apartment that’s a duplex and I can record the harmonica on the lower floors where not a lot of people hear me. I can go nuts on a harmonica and experiment.” And experiment he does, with the harmonica playing on I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream being some of his finest to date, ranging from beautiful lyricism to a comforting drone.
Recording alone also resulted in some scenarios that would just not have occurred otherwise. “On “Running Styles of New York” it was really fun and weird to record that song. I had been on a break for five days from recording because I had to go to Chile. After being out in nature I came home and I got a crazy fever. It was like a cold but I could still sing and I felt like I didn’t have time to be sick”, he recalls. “I am not sick very often so I get kind of frustrated with my body when is not responding. So I was sweating so much recording this. I plugged my analogue synthesizer through my guitar amp and through all the pedals. I didn’t even put the synthesizer on a stand so I was sweating on my knees on the floor just playing this distorted synth part and that had an element of delirium and madness to it. That was the moment I felt wow it would have been hard to do together with someone. You get to be a sick mad scientist you know and can sometimes create some pretty thing.”
Listening to I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream, one of the most striking aspects is the grains of hope threaded through the lyrics. The line “There’s so much kindness in the world” from “What I’ve Been Kicking Around” in particular stands out as a defiant clarion call, deftly at odds with how many people feel at this time. It’s as if the installation of hope within today’s thunderous socio-political climate was an aim setting out.
“Trump was elected and people back home in Sweden were like ‘Move home’. I was like ‘Yeah, America is crazy but in Sweden, we had 17.5% vote in the last election for a party that has sprung from the neo-nazi movement who have just put on suits’. We are doing that all over Europe and all over the world…it’s everyone’s problem. The fever dream in the album’s title is what I felt like I was waking up in every day. Seeing what is going on in the world and there are like cartoon villains in charge all of a sudden and we’re rolling back on women’s rights and there’s this whirlwind of racism that is ok all of a sudden. It’s really easy to get dark.”
As in all aspects of life when faced with difficulties, it often boils down to two simple scenarios: action or inaction. “In art and music, I feel there is no room or use for being a cynic or being cool. You start to try and figure out how to make this better and take care of each other. Starting with myself I try to act more out of love. Not to be religious or spiritual or anything but my opinion is that its simple math,” he states matter-of-factly. We are here together and this is not sustainable. It is like a slip and slide to death but we don’t need that. The loudest things are horrible but I am hopeful. I do feel we can inspire each other with hope to do good things. So the “I love you” in the title is to everyone, to strangers but also includes to myself. I have to be hopeful.”
There is perhaps no better summation of this belief than in the final refrain of the records closing title track when Matsson leaves the following ringing in our ears, “and I keep the hope I carry / little things so I can love / wherever I go now.”
“Music is my primary way of asking really loud questions. I don’t really know if I’m communicating things about my life or trying to tell a story or having an answer for anything. Most of my songs are big life questions, how to live and function in this world.” The lasting impression that Matsson makes is that of someone who is content yet always mindful of the possibilities of change. There is a refreshing grace and poise in his approach to his art and life and genuine gratitude for where he finds himself. He is instigating a working model that works for him and those around him while ensuring to give back to those who support him.
This approach is already having a positive effect. “This time the album was finished and mastered and it felt like, in no time at all, I was out there on the stage playing the songs. I put extra work on those people around me like management and things like that because it’s not following the tradition of releasing an album and then just go and tour for two years. I messed up the album cycle on purpose but when I’ve been doing the long chunks of touring it has been hard to be creative.”
“Music is my primary way of asking really loud questions. Most of my songs are big life questions, how to live and function in this world".
In making these changes, the songwriter has given himself the time for experiences to draw upon in his work. “It is possible to keep the creativity burning so, even now three days after a tour, I’m at home playing the guitar and having a lot of fun with photography and developing film in my apartment. This feels healthy and I can be fruitful with what I am doing.”
But for Matsson, it’s all about working with that ebb and flow of creativity to find sustainability as an artist. “I have to be reasonable because there are lead times to get people interested and let people know that there’s something coming out. But my little ideal picture - which might be naive - is to keep on touring with air built into it but not having to take years off. Then being creative in between and releasing songs and albums on a constant flow. That’s the ideal.”