An undeniable virtuoso, guitarist Matthew Stevens is in high demand as a sideman. Most recently he was an integral part of the sound of Esperanza Spalding’s new project, Emily’s D+Evolution, and that was after playing with Jamire Williams’ Erimaj and Christian Scott’s Stretch Music, to name just a few of the bands he’s worked with recently. On everything he plays on, his sound and feel add a depth and musicality that make it clear why the artists called him.
However, as was made obvious by his album Woodwork, Stevens has plenty to offer as a composer and bandleader in his own right. With high energy, interesting compositions that showcase his ability as a guitarist as they play to the unique strengths and sounds of the instrument, his last record was one of the most interesting to come out in 2015. His latest, Preverbal is set to have the same impact with a totally different tone, one that reflects the sounds he’s been exploring lately. Hailed by critic Nate Chinen as music that “advances the ideals of modern jazz even when, sonically speaking, it gestures in other directions,” Stevens’ latest is ear-catching in more ways than one. We spoke with him over the phone about the record and the new sounds and techniques he explored on it. Check out our conversation below.
Revive: On your last record, Woodwork, you explored a real jazz guitar kind of a sound.
Matthew Stevens: Yeah, it was sort of like an acoustic music record, you could put it that way. In terms of the guitar, it is a semi-hollow that was amplified with little to nothing between it and the amplifier. We leaned really heavily on the microphone in front of the guitar in terms of how we balanced and approached the overall guitar sound. When you hear, for instance, the first song on that record, you hear the guitar come in, it does sound almost acoustic, and that’s a result of miking the guitar itself, which you know, lots of people have done over the course of time, but we really favored it in the mix. It was a really good amount of that in the mix, it’s almost half and half at times.
R: Your new record, ‘Preverbal’, is almost a complete 180 in terms of the guitar sounds. There are lots of effects, including in-studio production. Was that your intention when you were conceiving of the tunes?
MS: My intention in the beginning was to keep my self interested and make a record that followed whatever direction I was inspired to follow without consciously tipping my hat toward something in particular or feeling like I had to do that. For me, I was just like, look, I’m going to make the record I want to make and I will trust in the fact that I’m the human being making it and hopefully that will be the connective tissue.
Thankfully, I think that you can’t separate, at least for me, the music that you’re making or whatever you’re doing as an artist from the time that you’re making it. For me, like with Woodwork, I had really been playing in a lot of situations that were really more electric. People were calling me to play more electric stuff. I didn’t feel like I was doing a lot of acoustic jazz music, or acoustic whatever music. Like Erimaj and Christian’s band, all that stuff is a lot different than Woodwork, and so I had a real need to make an album where the guitar was highlighted in that way where the focus was on the sound of just me and an acoustic sounding guitar. This is what I sound like, this is what my touch is. Also, not that I felt that that wasn’t represented in stuff I had done previously as a side man, but I think I really wanted to make an album where I was playing in a stripped down way and where the success of it really kind of lived or died based on how good the band was at playing together and improvising and stuff like that. With that record we had a fair bit of time to tour that music and we played a bunch and we just, like you do with a lot of recordings like that, you roll the dice and hope that the two days that you happen to record that there’s some magic there because at the end of it that’s what you’re left with, on a record like that.
That was that project, and with this one I felt like I wanted to challenge myself in a different way, and I also had just spent a year and a half touring that D+Evolution record, I was having so much fun playing an electric guitar and plugging into an AC30 and turning it up really loud and feeling what that is like. I was really moved and inspired by that. It felt familiar because I was born in the early 80’s and I grew up playing in rock bands. My favorite bands were Nirvana and Soundgarden. It’s not mysterious in that sense. I just wanted to go in that direction for this project. It was like, this is super fun, and also, I felt like, with Woodwork, I needed to represent this side of myself. I needed to show myself and whoever else, that I can make an acoustic music record that I feel like is personal, that I’m proud of. With this I really felt like, I don’t know what the fuck this is going to be, but I’m not going to take anything off the table. I’m just going to completely follow it through from start to finish and whatever pops up in terms of an idea or influence I’ll see it through.
R: I understand that when you were rehearsing the tunes for the record, you did it without any charts. How did that influence the music?
MS: I think it influenced it in a pretty profound way. I think that when you write something out- a lot of times people write things out before they’re even played by a band, right? At least for me, when I see something written on a page, I have a reaction to what it looks like and how many pages it is and what a chord progression looks like on paper. Are there a lot of notes, are there only a few notes? However consciously or subconsciously, I have a judgement around that, for better or worse. Maybe I go, oh this looks too simple on paper, it must be boring. I’m exaggerating. Or, oh look, this is a really dramatic and busy melody, it goes lots of crazy places, that’s got to be interesting. I didn’t want to deal with any of that for this. I wanted the music to only exist as music and to not be able to judge it, and I’m talking for myself, I didn’t want to have any judgement towards it other than how it sounded. That was the only way that I could experience it. It wasn’t going to be about anything else. I was fortunate in that I have a little studio in Brooklyn that I just demoed everything, so me and Eric Doob, who produced the record with me, basically –
Well, that’s the other thing, too. I am fortunate to have guys who were down to learn that way. It’s a huge time commitment and it’s a big deal in terms of how you’re going to develop something. You’re asking a lot for people to do that, so I’m really glad that that is available to me. But, we would just get together and we would work on these songs and I would teach him sections, and we’d go how about this or how about that, and we’d record everything. I had a pretty clear sense of how everything was sounding by the time we went to actually record it in Toronto last August. That felt pretty different than just sort of having some charts, being like, Cool! We did some gigs, right? Sounds pretty good. Great. Let’s go to the studio and hope we capture some magic. It was a totally different experience of making a record.
Also, for the first time I flew in an engineer named Kyle Hoffman, who is the house guy at NRG, who is a genius, and he felt like another band member. Instead of going up and doing like 12 songs in 2 days we did 8 in 5, you know. We spent the whole first day just getting basic guitar and drums sounds we were happy with. I was really pleased to be able to make an album like that and to have equally creative people collaborating on every aspect, whether it was some of the sampling and some of the sound-scaping kind of stuff that Eric was doing or the creative decisions that Kyle Hoffman was making as an engineer; it all came together to create the the final record that you hear. It felt very collaborative.
MS: Definitely. So, I knew that I wanted to make a brasher, rockier record that was less focused on anything idiomatic. I knew I wanted it to be a trio record with just guitar bass and drums, and I really wanted to add in some other elements but I didn’t want any keyboard and I didn’t want any horns and I wasn’t going to be be singing. On Woodwork, Paulo Stagnaro played percussion, which added a lot to the overall texture of that album for me. I knew going into it that I wanted there to be other voices that we’d be able to interact with and so, certain drum programming and sequencing sort of, in my mind, filled what Paulo was doing on Woodwork, and some of the sampling of the original guitars which we then manipulated and reintroduced into the song was, in my mind, going to be what filled up the space that maybe Gerald would have taken up on Woodwork, but this album is not based on that. It’s not totally centered around that vocabulary and needing lots of soloists anyways.
I listen to all kinds of music. I like a lot of electronic music, I like a lot of ambient music. Someone whose music I always really admired is the producer and musician Daniel Lanois, he’s another Canadian. There’s a rawness and a beauty to the way he uses electronics in a really analog and organic way in his music that doesn’t feel slapped on top of anything and feels like it’s as much a part of the music as any of the other instruments are. That was our goal with this. That’s what we did. We were really careful to not sort of just record the songs and then randomly put this thing or that thing on top of existing pieces, they were kind of integrated from the get go, that was sort of where we were coming from.
Also, I was really hungry and excited to make something that felt very 3D and that felt like stepping into a house or something. I didn’t want it to feel, as you were listening, you were sort of experiencing things in a line. I was getting really obsessed with depth and how we hear that. Something that Kyle and I talked and thought a lot about, we were really trying to create a record where it felt like stepping into a room, walking in the middle and closing the door behind you. There’s lots of different things going on with panning and where things show up in the stereo field. You know, I was kind of obsessing about it, frankly. Most of the guitar, it’s just a tele through a 1959 tweed twin. The first time I recorded with left, right amps that were wet, so there was no reverb or delay coming out of the guitar signal because I didn’t want to be stuck with the main guitar sound and the wet guitar sound not being able to be moved into different places within the mix. Things like that. I wanted to be able to keep the really present guitar dead center and have a delayed guitar way off in left field. Something like that. I wanted options. I wanted to be able to record it in a way that would leave me with options and that’s sort of what we did.
R: Do you have any closing thoughts?
MS: (Laughs) No. I’m not going to put a punctuation mark on any of this. I hope people listen to it with headphones on (laughs). Don’t listen to it on your computer speakers. Put some headphones on, turn it up and lay down on your couch. That was the way it was conceived.