Published on 16th March 2014
Matt Stevens is about to release his latest solo album, Lucid, after last year’s highly regarded The Fierce And The Dead album, Spooky Action.
To tie in with our review of Lucid we took the opportunity to speak to Matt about his, influences, music and what it’s like for a working player in todays fragmented music scene…
Interview for The Progressive Aspect by Jez Rowden. Photos by Ashley Jones.
Hi Matt, thanks for taking the time to speak to The Progressive Aspect
Very glad to, thanks so much for your support.
TPA: When did you start to play guitar and what was the process that led you to what you do today?
MS: I took up the guitar when I was 14 because I wanted to be in Guns N Roses or Iron Maiden. I was a very nerdy kid so I suppose it was something to do with social acceptance. I met an amazing guitar teacher called Richard Beaumont who played me Mahavishnu and Holdsworth and Fripp. I practiced 8 hours a day when I was a kid. Eventually I ended up getting a loop pedal and did solo acoustic stuff, then did loads of gigs and ended up doing the solo stuff I am today.
TPA: Who were the biggest influences on you as your style developed?
MS: Bob Mould, Robert Fripp. John Mclaughlin for the chords. Holdsworth for the lead. Miles Davis for the phrasing. Slayer and The Melvins for some of the rhythm stuff. Kevin Shields. Bill Steer. Piggy from Voivod for the chord voicings. Adrian Belew. Nick Drake. Big Star and Jellyfish. I love Jason Falkner and Radiohead. Johnny Marr’s layered guitars. My friends and living in a place that wasn’t “cool” was important, we had eclectic taste from indie to prog to metal and jazz.
TPA: Looping isn’t a new phenomenon, although technology has made it more accessible and certainly more practical. Who or what led you to choose this path?
MS: Practicality really. I was in an indie/punk rock band with the odd “funny chord” moment and we split up. So I was left in London with no transport. I got a cheap acoustic guitar and a looper pedal and off I went. What I found was that I could compose music that wasn’t possible with a band, like 16 guitar parts and all that, so I stuck with it and tried to create my own sound.
TPA: With several well received solo albums under your belt, along with great reviews of the last The Fierce And The Dead album, life, musically speaking, is looking very rosy in the Matt Stevens camp. And all this accomplished without a singer. I’m sure having vocals in your music has crossed your mind but is it likely to happen and, if so, who might you like to collaborate with?
MS: I’ve been very fortunate to have a great supportive audience. With regards to singing, I think that will happen. That’s the next thing really. I’ve done 6 instrumental records since 2008, solo and with The Fierce And The Dead, and that’s not including the collaborative things like Yonks and working with Andy Tillison, Lorenzo Feliciati and all that. So that’s probably enough of that for a while. I think singing will feature on The Fierce And The Dead 3 and I’d like to collaborate with a few singers. I’ve spoken to Judy Dyble and Tim Bowness about doing some stuff. Ross from Haken maybe. I’d love to do something with my friend RM Hubbert or with Shineback, Cosmograph or various other people. I’m open to ideas and what will come.
TPA: Do you develop your solo tracks from experimentation or are they the result of a more planned approach?
MS: Normally everything starts with a chord progression or a melody or a rhythmic idea. There is a theme of tracks in 13/8 on Lucid, I wonder if people will notice. That time signature and derivatives of it like 17/8 are all over it. A lot of the rhythmic stuff comes from the Pixies extended bar trick plus the poly-rhythmic approach of the ’80s King Crimson and minimalist composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich and some of the ’70s Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. And trying to keep a garage/hardcore noise energy. But to be honest I don’t think like that when I’m coming up with the stuff, those are my influences and it all just pours out, nothing more clever or contrived than that. Normally I’m just playing guitar in front of the TV and the songs sort of arrive. I’m pretty lucky that the material keeps coming.
TPA: Listening through, Echo, Ghost and Relic there’s a natural musical progression. Relic I felt had a more band orientation to it and akin to some of the material from Spooky Action. Is this a fair assumption?
MS: Yeah, they’re all a progression on the previous one, because you learn more, take on more influences and refine your style. So Echo was all acoustic which leads on to the more electric/post rock feel of Ghost and the more epic/soundtrack early The Fierce And The Dead stuff, then Relic is noisier because of playing with the band. Some of the dual guitar ideas that came to fruition on Spooky Action started on Relic two years earlier, just working out how to do that stuff. The good thing about The Fierce And The Dead is that it isn’t all my thing, it’s the other guys in the band as well so I think whilst I may present a central idea what comes out the other end is a fair distance from where we started.
TPA: Having had chance to listen to Lucid this progression seems to have taken a huge step further forward.
MS: Lucid is defiantly a different thing, because of the collaborators really, although if you strip the chord progressions and melody away some of the stuff is quite similar to the early stuff. I think you have to progress, keep moving forward but not for the sake of it, you will always have your DNA as a composer. I’ve no idea how this one will be received to be be honest. Whatever, I like it. That’s all you can do really.
TPA: Was this based on your experiences of working in a band set up with TFATD?
MS: I love playing in the band with my friends and I really love the last Fierce And The Dead record, Spooky Action. I learnt a lot from that. I think the key for me to get where I want to musically is to try new stuff, so this one is quite different to Spooky but also it features some similar musical obsessions, although by the time I do the next thing it’ll be different again.
TPA: Lucid features an impressive cast of guest musicians, some you have collaborated with on past recordings. Can we ask how you decided on who might best contribute to which tracks.
MS: Sort of luck really. My friend Lorenzo (Feliciati – Naked Truth) said about playing bass on a track and I was so pleased to have him because he’s brilliant and he was playing with Pat Mastelotto so that’s how he ended up on there. Stuart (Marshall – The Fierce And The Dead) is one of my favourite drummers and a mate so he was an obvious choice and to have him play with Charlie (Cawood – Knifeworld), who’s a brilliant bass player in a very different style to Kev Feazey from The Fierce And The Dead, seemed like a good and interesting idea. Chrissie (Caulfield – Crippled Black Phoenix) is a wonderful violinist and a good friend. Emmet (Elvin) comes up with really interesting parts and I’m a big fan of his playing in Chrome Hoof, Guapo and Knifeworld. Jem (Godfrey – Frost*) came about because he’s a mate and we’re both big Mahavishnu Orchestra fans and I wanted to have a “Jan Hammer” lead, and he did it in his own brilliant way. Nick from Trojan Horse has a good speaking voice and Jon Hart is an amazing vibes player, a real musician. Kev Feazey produced the record and did the programming, we’ve been working together so long, he gets what I want and contributes some great ideas.
TPA: Track 3 (which is now called Unsettled) has a distinct KC vibe – is this one of the tracks Pat Mastelotto played on? Which are the others?
MS: Pat’s not on that one, it’s Stuart Marshall from The Fierce And The Dead on that track, he’s on a song called The Ascent. Pat’s an amazing drummer and I’m such a fan of the Thrak era of King Crimson and Pat’s drumming. It was very exciting to have him on that one, especially as it’s so odd rhythmically, he said the track was “gnarly”. I hope that’s a good thing!
TPA: Did you send him the basics of what you wanted? Which came first, the drums or the guitars?
MS: We had a programmed drum part Kevin Feazey the producer had put in, alongside some rough guitars. We sent it to him and basically said “do what you want, we think you’re great” and he sent back his part that he recorded at home. To be honest that’s what I do with all the players. I think the key is to get great people in, give them an outline of what you want and let them interpret it their way.
TPA: I see that some of your fellows from the Stabbing A Dead Horse shows appear on Lucid. You seem to have made some good friends from the experience but how beneficial were those shows for you and TFATD?
MS: They were magic and they sort of indirectly inspired the record. When I came back from that tour, after the high of playing busy gigs and all that, I became quite depressed and most of the music for Lucid came out of that and the period of recovery from that – I got happy! I actually discovered a lot about positive thinking so it was really useful. I’m usually a pretty happy and resilient person, it was just a blip really. But yeah that inspired a lot of the music.
TPA: Is it easier to work as a solo artists or as part of a band?
MS: It’s different. Solo I have the final say, with the band it’s a democracy, it’s not my project and everyone has an equal voice. It’s a different filter on ideas if they come out as band or solo tracks. I like both and in general I love the process of collaborating with other musicians, you learn so much.
TPA: You have been working with Kev Feazey and Stuart Marshall for some time now. How did you meet and what do you each bring to the music?
MS: From school. Since we were kids at secondary school. We all grew up in Rushden in virtual isolation from the world and we all listened to the same music whether it was Black Flag or Sabbath or Mahavishnu or The Smiths or King Crimson. So it’s easy for us to work together because we know each others reference points really well. I can just say “that has a Slayer half time feel” for example and they will get the reference, so that’s a really useful musical shorthand.
TPA: It really feels that TFATD have matured and defined their sound with the addition of Steve Cleaton. What is it like working with another guitarist?
MS: I love it. Steve is a fantastic player, very musical and accurate and consistent. Amazing ears and comes up with some cracking parts. He’s never played in a band before and he’s gone in at the deep end playing to some fairly big crowds and he’s coped with it really, really well. I much prefer having two guitars for that band.
TPA: When are we likely to get another TFATD album?
MS: Not for a while, I think we’ll focus on Spooky Action gigs for a while, I love playing the songs off the record. The next one needs to be a big step on from that really, I don’t want us to do the same stuff again and again. It really does need to progress and move forward. I think we’ll probably experiment with vocals as I said before. The interlocking guitar thing we’ve probably done enough of now. There might be an EP in the summer, we’ll see.
TPA: Will you be taking the solo material out on the road?
MS: Yeah, I’m touring all this year across the U.K. playing the songs as loop based compositions on an acoustic guitar and I’m currently trying to get gigs outside the U.K. which is really hard. I’m hoping that will become easier with this record. I’d love to play RoSfest or across Europe.
TPA: Will it be more difficult to reproduce the pieces from Lucid compared to works from previous albums?
MS: Yup! I’ll do them as acoustic tracks initially but I haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing a solo “band” as it were if there is enough interest in the new record. They do sound quite cool and different just on acoustic though.
TPA: How do you see the modern music scene?
MS: Confusing and confused. There is so much going on and so very little being heard. I think it’s wonderful that everyone can make their own record now but you do find it is harder to stand out in a crowded market. I was lucky to get in early with social media really because it’s much harder to build an audience now. I’m still optimistic. I think eventually you’ll have lots of musicians with cult followings of a few hundred or thousand people, which makes the economics of it harder. I think the days of the enormous new stadium filling band are gone but I might be wrong. There are so many outlets online it’s hard for a band to break “big” quickly now so it’s virtually impossible for even musicians who are perceived to be successful to earn a living from music. But I still think there is so much room for musical progression, we still haven’t really expanded the harmonic language of rock. I want to hear Joe Pass meets Black Flag! It’s all still there to play for in terms of innovation.
TPA: You have done a fantastic job promoting your music over the last few years via social media. Is this getting any easier or more difficult as other things (like family commitments) take up more of your time?
MS: Thank you. It’s getting a lot harder now as everyone has got to grips with the tools. My son is two now and I want to spend as much time with him as possible, so it’s a very tough doing all this and trying to make a living from this and other projects as well.
TPA: Do you consider yourself a ‘prog’ artist or are such conventions limiting?
MS: I don’t think many musicians think about stuff like that. I’m interested in marketing and all that but the music has to come first, that’s what I’m interested in, making interesting records with new sounds and chords. I’m fine with people calling it prog or anything else and I love King Crimson as much as the next person. My only concern is people come in with expectations and they don’t get them, for example expecting “widdle” type solos because there isn’t a lot of that on my records. Prog is a broad church and many of my favourite bands are considered prog from Crimson to Voivod to the Mahavisnu Orchestra, I don’t have a problem with it or find it limiting really. Sadly there are close minded people who get put off by the negative things but I think ambitious rock music has surely got to be a good thing, right?
TPA: Do you think that being associated with the Prog genre has been a help or a hinderance to you career to date?
MS: I think it’s helped really. I mean if you look at my music it does fit into many of the conventions of progressive rock – odd timings, long songs, unusual chords and all that – but also you could say the same about Steve Reich or John Barry or Mogwai or Bobby Conn or Sonic Youth. Genre lines are very blurry. I always thought King Crimson, Voivod, Cardiacs and Sonic Youth were the same sort of band, making interesting, brilliant progressive guitar music. I didn’t care that one was one genre and one was another. The chords and the attitude in the playing seemed the same.
TPA: Who are the bands that are, for you, pushing the boundaries at the moment?
MS: I don’t really hear that much new stuff apart from what my mates’ bands are doing and a lot of that is brilliant, from Knifeworld and Guapo to Shineback, Cosmograph, RM Hubbert, Andy Tillison’s stuff, Trojan Horse, Colin Edwin’s stuff, Sanguine Hum, Emmett Elvin’s new solo stuff. I’m not really the man to ask, I’m working my way through Miles Davis back catalogue of ’70s stuff at the moment and listening to Billly Connolly albums. I’m always looking for new stuff though.
TPA: I see that you’ve been recording with Andy Tillison of The Tangent. Can you tell us anything about that and is it likely to result in an album? Was it just you two involved?
MS: At that moment it’s just me and Andy. He’s a top fella to collaborate with, nice bloke and a shit hot musician. Very easy to work with. We’ve made some interesting space music, I can’t wait to play you it. I’ve really enjoyed working on that project actually.
TPA: Who might you like to collaborate with in the future?
MS: Loads of people – Mike Bearpark, Theo Travis or any of my friends really. I am hoping to do a lot of collaborations in the next year or so before things kick in for Fierce And The Dead album 3.
TPA: Where next for Matt Stevens? Are you going to carry on alternating your focus between the solo work and TFATD or are there any other ideas brewing?
MS: I’m working on some collaborative stuff but I can’t see me making another solo record for a while, it’s a huge job and I’ve put so much into this one. It really means a lot to me, it’s a heavy thing to do emotionally. I fancy doing some teaching, trying to get people to think differently about music, even if they reject all my ideas I’d like to see if I can inspire people to be more remarkable musicians in their own way. Fierce And The Dead are going to be busy next year so we’ll see. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of joining a band with a singer, I’ve had some amazing offers but nothing that is quite right as yet. We’ll see. I am still very excited by the possibilities of music, to open up our minds to new states. I’ve only just started really.
28th March 2014 – The Assembly, Leamington Spa, UK;
3rd April 2014 – Farncombe Music Club, Godalming, Surrey, UK;
4th May 2014 – London Guitar Night;
18th May 2014 – The Assembly, Leamington Spa, UK;
23rd May 2014 – The Musician, Leicester, UK;
14th June 2014 – Borderline, London, UK;
1st-3rd August – Resonance Festival;
8th-10th August – Cambridge Rock Festival
Fierce And The Dead dates:
19th April 2014- Strangeforms Festival, Leeds, UK;
31st May/1st June 2014 – Celebr8.3, Islington Assembly Hall, London, UK;
5th July 2014 – Eppyfest 3, Lansdown Hall, Stroud, UK;
1st-3rd August 2014 – Resonance Festival, UK;
9th August – Woodfest, UK;
4th-8th September 2014 – Malcfest.