Matthew Stevens’ critically-acclaimed Woodwork has been lauded by numerous publications from NextbopLife + TimesIndieShuffle and was was featured as iTune’s Editor’s Choice. Perhaps what makes Stevens’ newest album so alluring was the guitarist’s dedication to letting things unfold naturally. “It’s a metaphor for how I see myself interacting with sound,” Stevens reveals. “Woodwork is an act of creation in collaboration with the natural world; it evokes a sense of being handmade or one of a kind.”

Life + Times: Guitarist Matthew Stevens Discusses Debut Record 'Woodwork'
We caught up with the guitarist, composer and bandleader to get his thoughts on the songs that make up his one of a kind album in this special edition of Track-by-Track Analysis. Scroll down to read what Stevens has to say about his compositions.

“Ashes 1” & “Ashes 2”

Revive: From the jump, Paulo Stagnaro’s percussion immediately sticks out as an added rhythmic color. Can you talk about your decision to add a percussionist on the album and what that does to the overall vibe of Woodwork? 

Matthew Stevens: I was experimenting with different instruments as a 5th voice in the band for a while and was uncertain as what it needed to be to best serve the music we were playing. I knew that I wanted to play my own melodies, which meant that a horn wouldn’t make much sense. I also wanted to keep the middle of the band uncluttered, meaning I didn’t want to add an organist or something like that as I had done in times past.

In my mind the thrust of this music is the rhythm and specifically the connection that Eric Doob and I have developed over 14 years of playing together. That being said, when I was sequencing demos of this music I was often adding multiple layers of drums and percussion. Paulo and Eric have played together a lot over the years particularly in Paquito D’Rivera‘s group and so I thought that rather than having Eric layer percussion when we recorded to try it out with Paulo.

We did our first gig as a quintet in December 2013 and it was immediately clear that Paulo was the right fit. Ultimately in my mind, having Eric and Paulo really adds to the immediacy of the overall sound of the music and provides an exciting context to improvise over.

“Star L.A.” 

R:  The trading between you and Gerald Clayton in this song is absolutely phenomenal.  You’ve played with Gerald for a while now, how important was it to have Gerald on the record, and how much did he contribute to the compositional/arranging process? 

MS: It was very important to have Gerald on the record. Even though he didn’t compose or arrange anything on the record, he played as though he wrote the whole thing! Musically speaking, he really has it all. He is an engaging soloist and a remarkably flexible, nuanced and supportive accompanist. He is one of those musicians that elevates each situation he’s in and makes everything everyone else plays sound like it was right thing to play in that moment – in other words, he’s a great musical architect.

“Woodwork”

R: You mentioned that Woodwork is a metaphor for how you interact with sound, could you explain to our readers what that means? 

MS: Of course – Woodwork is an act of creation in collaboration with the natural world; it evokes a sense of being handmade or one of a kind. These raw materials exist regardless of whether or not you do something with them, so I try to respect that and let the music unfold naturally.

“Sequel”

R: The energy that Paulo and Eric bring to the sound of the band really shines through on “Sequel.” How does having a wall of rhythmic colors emanating from two very talented percussionists change your overall approach to improvising? 

MS: I wouldn’t say that in changes my approach, it’s more that it informs it slightly differently and inspires a lot of back and forth. To my mind, great rhythm is the cornerstone of all the music that I love, and playing with Eric and Paulo provides the chance to delve deep into a rhythmic dialogue when improvising together. More specifically, it seems to make me play less and take more time between phrases, presumably because I’m eager to hear what they are going to say next.

“Blasted

R: I’m curious to find out if Vicente Archer played electric on “Blasted” or whether that’s a key-bass. Are those also synths in the background that can be heard on “Blasted” or is that coming from an effect pedal? 

MS: That’s Vicente playing electric bass. It’s a very cool sound he’s getting, I’m not certain how he got it… I’m guessing that it’s a combination of an octave pedal with something else I can’t quite put my finger on, maybe a boost? We’ll have to ask him I guess.

I don’t think most people think of Vicente as an electric bassist, but I love his electric playing. He brings all the same experience, taste and feel to it that he is known for on acoustic bass. The synth-ish sounds you hear on that track come from a reverb pedal with what’s called a shimmer effect. Essentially, it takes the signal and throws what you are playing up about 5 octaves. Like most effects, you can dial in how how much of it you want.

When I record, the guitar sound is often a combination of what’s coming out of the amplifier as well as the acoustic sound from a mic placed in front of the guitar. The blend you are hearing on “Blasted” favors the acoustic sound with the wet sound sitting well underneath.

 

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“Sunday”

R:Really dug this arrangement. Did you work on it yourself, or did you get any input from the other band members when you arranged it? 

MS: Thank you! I worked on it myself and really didn’t do that much to it at all. I had initially done the arrangement as possibility to record on the NEXT Collective album, Cover Art, but all together we ended up with way more music than we needed, so I filed it away and thought it could be something cool to do with my own band. I love David Bowie’s record Heathen, and perhaps the fact that we share a birthday (January 8th) has always made me partial towards his music. Coincidentally, I recently finished working on a new record with Esperanza Spalding which was co-produced by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time producer and collaborator. He worked on the original version of “Sunday” so it was a thrill for me to play him our rendition.

“Brothers”

R:By the time “Brothers” come, you’ve taken the listener through abroad sonic landscape and the acoustic guitar really, really helps cleanse the palette. Can you talk about what made/makes a Lowden guitar so special? Obviously it doesn’t hurt that the guitar was owned by Pete Seeger. 

MS: It’s a pretty amazing instrument, and very very broken in. I believe it was a gift to Paul who owns the Clubhouse Studio and it was on a guitar hook in the control room. Vicente and I were both picking it up and strumming it when either of us were on a break or after listening to some playback. So when it came time to record “Brothers” Vicente said “Hey, let’s just play this one trio and you should play that flat top you can’t seem to put down.” Because of that guitar and the fact that we ended up playing it as a trio, the song ended up coming out quite differently than I had initially intended. I had envision it being longer and more involved, but the way it was sounding demanded a simpler, more concise approach.

“Uptown Dance Party”

R: A lot of Revive’s readers will undoubtedly recognize Vicente Archer’s name from his work with Robert Glasper. Can you talk about Vicente as a bass player and what he meant to ‘Woodwork?’

MS: Vicente has been like big brother to me, and I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels that way about him. We first started playing together in Jamire Williams‘ band ERIMAJ. Shortly after that, we were both looking for a rehearsal studio and decided to find one together. Since then we’ve grown close and I’ve learned a lot from him. As a bassist, he has experience way beyond his years. A fun game to play with Vicente is to try and name someone that he hasn’t played with. With that experience comes a truly personal esthetic and an ability to really ground the music while also being very open and flexible. Along with everyone else in the band, he was incredibly generous with his time and energy when it came to getting this music together. We played all kinds of gigs, good and bad, and rehearsed and workshopped the music a ton. He was always willing play as well as to share his ideas and opinions. When it came to producing this record, at the the end of the day it really felt like a group effort.

“Grown Ups”

R:You mentioned that you felt a “rhytmic kinship” with Eric Doob, who also happens to be one of your oldest friends. What is it about Eric’s playing that makes you gravitate towards it? 

MS: Eric and I have developed as musicians so much together over so many years that there is a natural simpatico between us at this point. Being close friends also makes for good music making as you share ideas, work on stuff together, and really get a strong sense of one another’s musical priorities. As a drummer, it’s easy to gravitate towards Eric. He has an incredibly strong natural sense of time and a deep groove. He’s dynamic, he listens, he’s a great accompanist, he has a beautiful sound, and he plays the kit as one integrated instrument… to my mind, he embodies the things that make a drummer truly standout.

“Gently”

R:The album finishes with a beautiful guitar and piano duet. Was “Gently” a joint-composition collaboration between you Gerald?

MS: No, it’s an older piece that I composed on piano not knowing what instrumentation I would record it in. I wanted to have a piece that was a duet, and this seemed like the obvious choice. What I like about it is that it feels like you’re in the room and again, Gerald shapes the whole piece beautifully.

Purchase your copy of ‘Woodwork’ via iTunes

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