This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 34 (2013, sold out). I haven’t found a way to present the article online in a way that makes the article’s main text and its many (utterly essential) footnotes easy to read, side-by-side. So: following is the article’s main text, without footnotes. To read the article in full, with footnotes, download this free 31-page PDF. Hope this does it for ya. P.S. ESSENTIAL SIDEBAR: “More Smoke Than Folk: A few important MATT ‘MV’ VALENTINE listening experiences, assembled by Dan Ireton & Byron Coley and presented in chronological order” — Jay
For over two decades, musician/head MATT VALENTINE has navigated strange, inspiring trips across myriad underground psychedelic terrains, joined by a revolving cast of fellow free travelers. Byron Coley crosses the bridge to get MV’s side of the story.
Matt Valentine aka Matthew Dell aka LunarMV, etc., is one of the more righteous freaks of our age. As a writer, guitarist, vocalist, label head, whiskey fan, and whatever else he might happen to be, Matt is one of those rare guys who is always ready to go “all in.” He is neither shy about his many accomplishments, nor unwilling to speak about them, but he is so flat-out committed to his own sci-fi-damaged version of personal history the way he’d like it to be known that he can be a tough person to interview. He loves the elliptical, the mysterious, the vaguely legendary secrets that underpin all true history, and he seems more than happy to offer wild and theoretical answers to most dull and specific questions that come his way. For this reason, among others, there are few places you can turn for objective facts about the musical/historical trajectory of Matt Valentine.
And the man clearly deserves a thorough overview.
This isn’t exactly it, but it’s a first step. Matt and I have been friends for a couple of decades. We’ve done various projects together over the years—tapes, shows, albums, tours, books, etc.—and he well knows in what high esteem I hold all of his work. To my mind, much of the popularity of the acid-folk revival was instigated by Matt and his cohort—hardcore record collectors and fans who were capable of hearing things no one else had noticed, and were eager to translate their discoveries into post-punk tongues. Few people have been as tireless in their work expanding and documenting the boundaries of underground culture over the past years, and Matt has created a vast web of friends, recordings and memories documenting his aesthetic peregrinations as well as those of his fellow travelers.
Matt, among other things, has been a tireless documentarian of his passage through space and time. The number of recordings he has released is not easily discerned, but let’s just say they are legion. What continues to mystify listeners is the fact that Matt’s sonic trajectory is constantly evolving. Unlike the many artists who bogusly claim “my latest release is by far my favorite,” Matt’s new records generally incorporate a new form-innovation/renovation/reconsideration. The guy is acutely aware of where he has been and seems dedicated to Heraclitus’s dictum about not stepping in the same river twice. Because of this, Matt’s albums (the major ones, anyway) often represent a true progression in terms of technique, interpretation and vision. That said, the new LP, Fuzzweed (Three Lobed) is a monster of sweetly-stoned tongue-form. It boils many elements of the essential, ineffable MVEE whatsis into a kind of floating vocal/way-post-Dead instrumental-puddle that will absolutely sear your brain. The first batch of copies also come with a CD that culls the best moments of the new 7-CD Zebulon residency set COM just issued. It’s weird. There are only a handful of people whose recordings I choose to follow with something like fervor. Matt is one of them. Hopefully this talk will help you to understand why.
I had hoped that Erika Elder, Matt’s partner in all things, would attend the interview as well. But she played possum at work, leaving us to blab untended from the light of afternoon into the dark of night. Hopefully, this interview will give you some idea of the depth and width of Matt Valentine’s work. It’s a vast weird place. Hello.
B: Let’s start with some basics. Where did you grow up?
M: The Hudson Valley region. I was born in Mount Kisco, NY. Lived in several towns around there, including Yonkers for a bit when I was super young.
B: Did you play music when you were a kid?
M: Yeah, but I wasn’t really in a lot of bands or anything. I started a bit when I was in high school. I was kicked out of the school band. I played alto sax. But I got booted out pretty early because I think, without really knowing anything about it yet, that I wanted to play like Ayler. I would take the melody of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and transmogrify it.
B: Was it a marching band?
M: At first, yeah. Then it became more of a concert recital band, and you had to choose whether you wanted to be in the jazz band or one of the other standard school things. The school I went to was pretty interesting because it was fairly liberal. Like, there weren’t any walls in the school. So when you didn’t have a class there was a big open space called The Commons. It was grades 9-12, and the cafeteria and the smoking section and all that stuff was in the middle. When you didn’t have a class it was a regular thing to hang out in The Common with an acoustic guitar and just play and meet people. So that’s where I first started to get hip to the idea of social communication through music. I did weird recordings at home, then the first serious band I was in was a relatively professional band.
B: Who was that?
M: That was a band I played with right out of high school called the Werefrogs. I played with two guys who were older than me, from the same school. They had graduated the year before me and had played in bands for a while. One was a drummer, the other a guitarist. They were both from the same scene at the school and they wanted a bass player. So I said, “Oh, I’ll play bass.” I think they wanted me in the band because I could hang out and I was into kinda cool music.
B: What era was this?
M: Around late ’88. We did a couple of singles.
B: What kinda stuff was it?
M: Psychedelic rock.
B: What were your models?
M: We were probably most like dudes who wanted to play like Joni Mitchell or something. It was kinda weird chords like that, but these two guys were more advanced musically and into jazz voicings and things like that. It was a trio, so of course there were obvious things like Hendrix. I was listening to WNYU a lot then. They had a program called The New Afternoon Show. I would get off this mail room job I had, and the show was on from 4:00 to 7:30 in the afternoons in the tri-state area. I would listen to that driving home, and they’d play stuff like the Road Pizza 12” and all these crazy bands who made one single and then disappeared. It was the most crazoid music I’d ever heard. It made some of the college radio stuff of that era seem incredibly straight. I really dug the stuff I heard, so I’m sure some of that stuff was in the mix as well. This was around the time when Nirvana played on that tour with the Cows at the Pyramid. I’d be going into NY to see gigs like that. And Galaxie 500 was playing at CB’s Canteen a lot, so that was in there. Of course Sonic Youth, and to some degree things like Bern Nix. I’d go see him a lot when he’d play at Roulette and the old Knitting Factory. I was starting to get into that stuff when I was in high school. Then there were some weird record stores popping up, so I’d spend time in those and pick up stuff. So the influences were classic rock, along with a few underground things.
We did a few singles and then we got signed, really quickly by this English label. I think they thought we were gonna be a grunge group or something. But they were cool. They were an independent label and had some good bands like Levitation. It was called Ultimate Records, a weird label in Camden Town. We did three EPs with them and one LP. We did a couple of Peel Sessions. So I was kinda cutting my teeth early. We did big tours early on. We did gigs with Yo La Tengo and with Radiohead in the States. It seemed like it was a big noise pretty quickly, and I never turned back from that really. I met a lot of people through that, and then I started playing a lot more seriously after that band dissolved.
B: You were doing this before you went to SUNY Purchase?
M: Yeah. It was right at the same time, more or less a crossover period. Purchase is where I met PG Six and The Spanish Wolfman. He was the dude who was the main songwriter and guitar player in the Werefrogs. He’s a genius guitar player and we ended up being in a much cruder garage blues thing after the Werefrogs. I think it happened a little quick for all of us. We started in ’88, and went ‘til ‘92 or ’93. I think Wolfman kept on with it until ’94, which is when Memphis Luxure started. We did a couple of singles with that band, which was based in Port Chester, NY, close to Purchase. The town of Port Chester is pretty cool, almost like an extension of the Purchase campus and pretty liberal. Wolfman stayed on at SUNY and kept the practice space and ended up getting involved with the preservation and maintenance of the Harry Partch instruments. I think he may still have some ties there, but we’re working together on my next record as a leader, and he’s co-producing it. These are all people who I’m very much still in touch with, and they’re mostly all still doing music in one way or another. So that was all around Purchase, and I think maybe when I moved into the Tower Gallery was when a new chapter officially opened up in a certain way. That’s where the Tower Recordings formed, and where I met Erika after a while. But that’s when I was together with Helen Rush, and she moved into that space.
B: When did you start going to Purchase?
M: After UVM. I went to UVM for a little bit in ‘87/88. Then after that I took a year off, and started hanging out and doing music with those guys. Then went to Purchase, etc.
B: You were doing school and the Werefrogs simultaneously?
M: I took time off from school. The band, moved to England for a while. That’s where I met Helen. When we moved over there it was a wild time. That was a good time to be playing music there. Saw a lot of cool bands, met a lot of cool players. It was like living my fantasy of what Swinging London had been like in the ‘60s. There was a great and adventurous psychedelic scene going on. Then I went back to school at Purchase. I was studying James Joyce, some film, some music, some art. That’s when I did the Superlux label, which I set up with Helen and Pat. That sorta grew out of another label I’d had something to do with called Part Trance Records.
B: What did Part Trance put out?
M: We did two of the Werefrogs singles. We did a single by a band called the Pineapples. They were a great group from Purchase. We co-released a thing by a band called Stanley, and a single by a band called Low Sunday. That was more or an art project for this guy who was graduating in the graphic arts department. It was his final project. So we did the single with his art and all that. It was pretty elaborate. We also did a single with that band For Against. I think that was the last proper single.
B: They were sorta doomy as I recall. A bit of a Joy Division vibe.
M: Yeah. They were from Nebraska and sorta doomy, but maybe more in a Savage Republic way. But this was like ’87, so it was the sound of the times. (laughs) So Part Trance kinda decomposed. But we were smart enough to not do a lot too many copies of things. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we just did it ‘cause it was cool to make your own records. And it was cheap then. Not much has changed with us. (laughs) And we were learning a lot about the process while it was going. We worked with Kramer on one of our records. He mixed it. And Pussy Galore was loading out while we were loading in. I thought that was really cool. I remember going up to the loft where he was and we had to wait for them to finish. It was near where the old Roulette was in Tribeca. He was up in this stand-alone building. We were hanging out and they were playing Pearls Before Swine’s One Nation Underground. I had just heard the record a little before that, and I thought it was just amazing. We went into the studio to do the mix and I there was just a freestanding wall between us and the live room. We asked him how he could record bands without isolating himself from the room sound and he said, “It’s no problem at all.” (laughs) That was cool We got a taste of working at Noise NY, which was a big deal to us. We had sent him some demos, hoping he’d sign us to Shimmy Disc. He didn’t, but he did the mix for us.
B: When did you start collecting records?
M: High school. My parents were into records, so there were a lot of records around the house. It was typical ‘60s/post ‘60s material. Lots of west coast music, blues…your typical good ‘60s psychedelic music. And they had a lot of records. Not what you or I would think of as lot, but they were into going to the record store to pick new things up and that was always a lot of fun. But I started either in late grade school or early high school. I had a place I went that was a classic basement-of-a-hi-fi-shop record store. Every town around seemed to have one then. The guys all wore button down shirts and smoked weed clandestinely in the back, And when you were old enough to smoke weed with them it was kinda creepy. (laughs) I ended up becoming friends with this one dude who was a mainline for good records. I’d take the bus to White Plains and he’d turn me onto Can and stuff like that. Later I was old enough to go to the City by myself, so I’d take the train and hit Sounds and Bleecker Bob’s, Second Coming, Rebel Rebel…all those places. But this guy would turn me onto a lot of jazz and weird records, so I started learning things. And that show on NYU made me realize there were other records that no one outside the City carried.
But even a shop like Bleecker Bob’s would only have a single copy of them a lot of times. I had thought if I’d heard it on the radio, surely these shops would have them. I mean this was NEW YORK CITY – zippety doo dah. (laughs) So that was cool. But I knew a lot of good stuff from my parents. I never felt as if I had to get away from their music. I really liked to listen to that stuff. That’s more Erika’s scene. Her parents were a little older, and she’s like – I never want to have to listen to the Lettermen or the Kingston Trio. Although there is something to be learned from those records, in a way, if you’re David Crosby. (laughs) But it’s rough.
Anyway, I wasn’t trying to rebel against my parents’ music, but I was really getting turned on to a lot of new weird stuff I thought was great. So it took me a little longer to really get into stuff like the Dead. I had been a very casual listener of that stuff. Because where I grew up, that was the big thing. You were either into that or you were into New Wave stuff. The Cure would be the most experimental thing you’d listen to. And they’re a cool band, but I wanted to go way beyond that.
B: What was the first record store you worked in?
M: I worked at Rocks in Your Head, doing stuff for this guy who warehoused his stuff in Ira’s stock. But the first main one I had was at Vinyl Solution in Port Chester. I worked there for a long time.
B: This is when you lived at the Tower Gallery?
M: Yeah. The Tower Gallery was right by the train station, so I could get the train, walk out the door and not have to have a car or any of that. The record store was in downtown. There was a lot going on in Port Chester then. It’s really different now.
B: We carried Superlux stuff at our store. I wonder where the fuck we got it?
M: We weren’t very ambitious. We weren’t sending them around. But I think Matador carried them. Mainly I think it was because I was friends with Gerard. We used to go to hockey games together. I think he just kinda gave a blessing and that gave us a big hand up in the beginning. He’d put us on weird shows. It’s not like we were calling up Louise at CBGBs to get a gig or anything. (laughs)
B: Did Memphis Luxure play live?
M: Yeah, we did some shows. We mostly played in and around the Metropolitan Area. We went as far as Ohio. We played a show with Jim Shepard in Ohio. We opened for some national bands, and played the usual toilet circuit: CBGBs, Brownies….but we were pretty unbridled live. Our drummer played Beefheart style. That was the m.o. of the rhythm section. Then, it was either myself or Wolfman on guitar. PG Six had two keyboards set up — a Farfisa and a Compact Deluxe. He would do the primary line on the Farfisa, and it was pretty crazy. We were pretty blasted. You never really knew where the low end was coming from and the top end was proto-blues. We were trying to play like all the primitive electric blues guys, but with a knowledge of modern tunings and volume. We weren’t playing in your standard Fahey tunings, it was much more of a weird post-“Ostrich” thing. Trying to play blues using that sort of tuning — all tuned to the same string or tuned to quarter tones.
We jammed a lot. We never released the album, but we recorded it. We made it on these cassette machines, and sounds pretty good but still sits in the vaults. We rehearsed a lot, so it was kind of depressing, because we actually put a lot of time into it. We were planning to do the album, so we circulated a few cassettes, but I was starting to get more into acoustic sounds and I wanted to focus more on actual songwriting. Looking back, with that band there was probably more actual songwriting than I’ve done before or since. We rehearsed parts and worked on them methodically, even though it sounded crazy. We would jam then learn the parts. And to an extent nothing has changed with me in that way. But I was more interested in developing a project that could perform without so much volume. At that time there were so many bands playing with these monolithic Mascis-level set-ups. Every band had gear like that and would be playing really loud at the clubs. At a certain point, people were just getting desensitized to it. I was interesting in getting into playing finger-style type music more seriously. Which didn’t transfer very well to electric instruments. And lots of other things happened—relationships inside and outside the band were changing. Evolving differences in our individual realities were becoming more obvious. I was still interested in following a “psychedelic” lifestyle, and other people had very different ideas about that.
B: That’s fairly typical of any post-collegiate scene. What was the transition between Memphis Luxure and Tower Recordings?
M: There was overlap and a kinda parallel track across the leech fields. Our friend Steve Sovoka, he went by the name Steve Sofa in the Tower Recordings, had been in the Werefrogs. So he was around and is on the tapes. We had an anything-goes philosophy. We’d jam and record it. So nothing really changed that much. We’d record and catalog the tapes, then we’d go through the sketches, find something interesting and roll with it. There was a period with the Memphis thing where we would have an idea we were working on, but for me it sounded cooler to start playing them acoustic. These cassette recorders were cheap. And even when we went into the studio to record on a 16 track or 24 track, the tape was only $25 or $30 per reel. So you could do these things and actually keep the reels and not have to record over them.
There was a phase where everyone was cross-pollinating, then it became a somewhat Darwinian Singularity. Now I look at it as almost post-Singularity, although I guess that was really the dawn of it. Because computers was where that new Singularity was happening. But then it was like we were leaving the period where people wrote letters and recorded analogue. It wasn’t a coincidence that people atrophied from the project for reasons that were subconscious or forced by the music or my ideas. Helen had strong ideas for the band, too, as did Pat. It was a collision of the three of our ideas, and other people were more on the perimeter of that, because we were living together. So it was inevitable that more stuff was going to be communicated between us. And that kind of triangulated scene also has its problems. I just knew at some point I had to get out of there, so it really started to dissolve organically. I don’t want to say I cut the cord, but I was never into looking back very much. But we were in NY at that point, so I just kinda said, “Okay, I’ll see ya.” I took on a full time real gig, and didn’t really hang out with those guys anymore. I just started to make music with Erika There wasn’t any acrimony.
B: Was the Tower Gallery at all related to the Fusion Specialists space?
M: No. Wolfman got the lease at Fusion Specialists. That was in an equally bombed-out part of town, but a little more remote.
B: Was Fusion Specialists after the Tower Gallery?
M: It was after, but I think it had been going for a while. The Tower space was always held by this guy Rich Bolger. He established a gallery and was surreptitiously living there. We did some gigs in there when I was living there. It was a unique space because you had to walk up six flights and then there was a door and there were another four flights of stairs in the space. It was a tower. Rich lived at the way top. But it was weird because there was just a lot of floor space and landings. A darkroom was built in an elevator shaft. And I lived behind a fake wall. I cooked in an electric wok for years. It was far out. But that was Rich’s space. I don’t think there were many Purchase students that had a hold on it. Fusion Specialists was more of a cyclical bunch of Purchase students. There were a couple of places like that around Port Chester. There were a lot of creative people around the school in the ‘70s and ‘80s—a little bit of Hampshire vibe.
So Wolfman got the lease for Fusion Specialists. That was a really big space, but it was already cut up into bedrooms and stuff. There’d be six or eight people living in there. Like S. Freyer Esq. who played in Tower Recordings. We ended up recording some stuff there, like the Planet TR record. We used it as a studio/living/work space, but then the Wooden Wand guys moved in after us, a few tenants later. I think after that were some of the Woods guys.
B: Were they at Purchase as well?
M: I met Woods on the corner, so to speak. I reckon I met Jarvis first, when he was involved in Vanishing Voice. Jeremy and I came together through our camping and cassette interests. We played a bunch of gigs with Woods, cool Todd P shows, really good times. One of the best was on Election Night, after Obama won his first term. I dig their moods.
Erika and I did an obscure Heroine and it evolved into an MV & EE experimental raga cassette with Jeremy’s Fuck It Tapes imprint. A version of that got reissued on Three Lobed. That was recorded around 2007, and he started to come up to Vermont to hang with us a bit more after that. He always made time to drop in and go deep. I set up a gig with us, Woods and Religious Knives at the now sadly-defunct Tinderbox in Brattleboro. We also bugged you enough to set up that gig we did together at the New Grass Center for Underground Culture. Aside from the concerts, we started working with Jeremy in our home studio. He came up for some of the Barn Nova sessions. We did skeletal tracking work for a couple of songs at Maximum Arousal Farm, then he came up again from two days to do some dubs and live jamming when we did the sessions with J and the full Golden Road at Bank Row. It was a magic moment in time. Still is. We’ve been working on a duo project together called High Lodge, so there’s much more to come. I roll out to his home studio, Buttermilk Falls, in Warwick NY. I also went down to their Rear House Studios in Brooklyn to play a little on their At Echo Lake, and the newest, Bend Beyond. I kind of did the Al Wilson thing—a little harp, a little slide (laughs).
Jeremy is such a beautiful spirit. He gives so much to the music and vibe. Our voices and sense of harmony work really well together. He triangulates the perfect geometry when he sings with me and Erika. And he even dons a “Woodsist Delivery Service” hat and drive the albums out to Maximum Arousal when our sides on his label come out. The cat is aware of the corners. But I didn’t know those dudes at SUNY, unless we maybe loosely crossed paths at Vinyl Solution.
B: So those guys took over Fusion Specialists?
M: Yeah. And PG lived there for a while, too. It was just a weird magnet of a place. I can’t even count everyone who passed through. Some people would only live there for two months. You’d get weird people you didn’t even know were there. It was a pretty weird hippied-out vibe.
B: When did Toth get there?
M: I didn’t know him at Purchase. I don’t think I was there when he was going there. I was still holding on ‘til ’94 or ’95 or so. At times I wasn’t even paying for school, I was just auditing classes. I’d just show up and sit there.
B; That’s around the time I met you.
M: Yeah, I started doing record fairs around then. I started going to FMU when it was in the basement of the church.
B: I remember you buying stuff from me, but I had no idea you put out records until Paul Majors told me.
M: He was a fan of that early Tower album. It was cool he was into it. We even did some music together.
B: Did everyone else stay in the Hudson Region?
M: I was living with Helen on 4th Street. When I got into the Tower I had an apartment there and she came over from England. Then she went back, and eventually came back to the States and we lived in NY together. We were there for a while and Pat would come and stay with us on and off. But he’d go back up to Fusion Specialists and his mom had a place in the area as well. Wolfman was hanging around the Hudson Valley zone. So we just floated apart.
After I moved out of the Tower Gallery we moved into a space in NYC on 4th Street. I lived there for about ten years. We got a place that was handed down through a friend of the Wolfman. This guy ended up going to Purchase later. He’s a pedal steel player and he had played with Hasil Adkins. He plays a lot of New Music now, but it was his place. He kept it and grandfathered it to some other musicians, then we got it. It was really inexpensive. It was rent controlled. And it was right next door to Ikue’s. Joe Lee Wilson lived in the basement. It was pretty far out. I never met him until I’d already moved out, and my friend Barry, who builds and designs a lot of equipment for us, including the Bantar. He’s also a musician in his own right and plays with Marcia now. Anyway, he moved in after us. At the same time he was moving out, Joe Lee Wilson was moving out of the basement. Joe was like, “Hey man, you need a desk?” We asked if he was storing stuff. He said, “No man, I was living down there.” He lived down there for 35-40 years. He had never left 4th Street. It’s like Val Wilmer says in As Serious As Your Life —some of these guys never left the block. And I never saw him, even when I went down to the basement to store stuff. But that was a musical block. Mars used to rehearse across the street in that laundromat. Blonde Redhead lived there and the guy from God Is My Co-Pilot, Michael Evans. It’s not like we hung out, but lots of musicians lived on that street.
B: When did you do the Glorious Group Therapy tape for Toth?
M: That was in the later ‘90s. I was going to do that for Audible Hiss, because I’d been working on this acoustic stuff. I was investing a lot of time listening to Takoma Records and those kinds of things. Really dedicating a lot of time to that. I was lucky enough to have known and heard some of that stuff earlier, but I’d never studied it before, at least with the idea of making a record along those same lines. It just didn’t seem viable and it felt almost too personal. So I would just record that stuff and I remember taking it to Ned Hayden at Audible Hiss. But he didn’t really want to do a record like that. I showed him some acoustic fingerstyle demos, but even Fraternity of Moonwalkers was a stretch for him. “Acoustic? Wow.” (laughs) He had been into Fraternity because it had a little bit of an ESP vibe, which I think was a bit of an influence on his label. He heard some of that in Tower Recordings, but not in this solo acoustic thing. I wanted to make a record that was really a hollow skin, in the PK Dick sense. A record that really obfuscated everything. I don’t remember if Audible Hiss even said no to putting out that record, or whether it was self-editing. But that was near the end of Audible Hiss anyway. Those records were so good. It was amazing that they were around in cut-out bins.
B: Audible Hiss was backed by Caroline, right?
M: Yeah. And we actually got an advance and there was a contract and all that stuff. We were like—wow, Ned’s really doing it, doing the Robin Hood. And that was one of the greatest experiences of making a record. We knew about Caroline, and he wasn’t keeping it on the QT or anything. He’d say, “I’ve got this deal and here’s how it works.” He wasn’t trying to pretend it was a full indie or anything, but Caroline seemed pretty small anyway. That was cool.
But I had this acoustic stuff and was working on it with Tim Barnes. He had a cool space. That’s when we started working with Tim. He used to come to shows Tower did at the Cooler. And sometimes I’d do weird improv gigs, like opening for Rudolph Grey or Arthur Doyle. I’d play this crazy electric noise guitar, maybe with some processed acoustic in there, too. I’d seen Helios Creed when I was a teenager. He plugged into a Prophet synth. I was like, “Whoah!” So I’d try to do stuff like that, try to make the acoustic sound like an electric. Not the greatest idea. Why didn’t I just play electric? (laughs) I don’t know, but those things don’t amplify all that well. I was still learning. So Tim would come to those shows and he was digging free jazz and the scene at the Cooler. Then one time I said, “Why don’t you sit in?” So he did and we played together a lot. He had a job where he had access to really high end recording gear. He’d seen the set-up we had using Walkmen and four-tracks and said, “Dude, I can help you.” He was like the dude who could save us all. Talk about Singularity. Before long, people started going to him all the time. He became very busy and in demand. But we managed to keep in touch and have had a working relationship and a very deep friendship because we were there back in a time when he wasn’t in demand. And we recognized something in each other that seemed to work really well. He helped me with the beginning of the acoustic stuff and the Child of Microtones label, so we could take the tapes and restore them, making the music presentable so that other people could hear what we were hearing in it. When we did that tape for Toth it was one of the most hi-fi cassettes of the time. At the time cassettes were almost a joke Nobody was making decent sounding tapes unless they were pro-dubbed demos, so we took this hi-fi tape, made with a lot of care, to James and he put it out.
B: Why were there two different covers on it?
M: There aren’t.
B: Yes there are.
M: Well, this is the only cover I’ve ever seen. The other must be a bootleg. But it’s cool if someone bootlegged it. Makes me feel like I made it.
B: What’s the deal on that name—Matthew Dell?
M: That’s my mom’s maiden name. I think because it was a cassette and acoustic, I decided to use a soubriquet. It was in honor of my family heritage a little bit, and I wanted to keep the alchemical thing from my name a little quiet still, ‘cause I knew something bigger was coming. (laughs) And I was definitely thinking about Skip James when I was recording this. And the Vejtables. (laughs) Tim thought it would be a good thing to reissue. Then you and Thurston got in touch about doing it. And it was short, so we added a little bit to it. I think it was maybe my first thing as a leader, too. I haven’t listened to that in a while, but occasionally people still shout out requests for songs from it.
B: That project happened while Tower was active?
M: I may have even started recording it in the Memphis days. Some sketches or a couple of the less unbridled pieces.
B: Does Tower still exist in a theoretical way? Because I could never quite figure out when some of those albums were recorded.
M: Well, most of them came out when Tower was still fully active. I think there are only a couple of archival recordings. There’s always good stuff that doesn’t make it for one reason or another. And it’s still pretty amorphous and open as a concept. That band is almost like a nanobot. It’s also something of a con.
B: What do you mean?
M: Well, who was really there? For the amount of stuff the band made, trying to hold onto the vitality of that group. Maybe if you take your vitamins and save your blood, you’ll be able to have some sort of cryonic effect. But if we do something together again it will be new and different. We won’t be going backwards. At its best I’d love to have some exit velocity like that of the Velvet Underground. Probably any posthumous influence of that group will live better through the individuals’ own recordings, than it would through any Tower thing. But I also think that the group being more than the sum of its parts was magic, at least for me as a player. It was like we could get together and it was all the good things that happen when you play with other people.
B: How much did Tower tour?
M: We did a few on our own and got invited to do stuff sometimes. We did a tour of the whole seaboard down as far as Charleston, SC opening for Cat Power. That was great. Chan’d hop in the pick-up truck we were touring in. It had a cap on it and we’d put a van seat in the back. We’d load all the gear in and I was into sitting back there. We’d pass cigarettes or whatever through the little window. But you could get away with more stuff in the back, ‘cause no one knew you back there. But we mostly played around the Northeast. That was a big group, usually four or five strong minimum, so we never made it to Europe. A few shows were done just as a core trio with Pat, Helen and I. So we had a few smaller shows, but they usually happened just by circumstance. In North Carolina we did Chapel Hill. We played a festival in DC once. But our main thing was to go to Philadelphia. That was like our big VU fantasy thing. We’d bomb down there and Tom Lax would set up shows. We’d been going for a little while at that point, but when we got hooked up with him that was the beginning of us working with bands that were more our peers. After the Audible Hiss record, we did a little bit with Harry Pussy and bands like that, but it was more of a 14th Street/Cooler scene. Maybe now and again we’d play the Knitting Factory or something, but the Cooler was a unique scene. You’d have Cecil Taylor and Thurston Moore hanging out backstage at one of your shows. Looking back, that blows my mind. There was an energy around that place. It was a wild scene. Playing late. Actually going onstage at 3:00 in the morning. And we were like the house band. Mondays were free shows and we’d be the band playing for weeks at a time on Monday nights, after the other bands. We were like—“Yeah, we’ll come play.” It was only a cab ride, or a walk, across town. I think we were even leaving amps there at one point.
B: I always liked the fact you could watch the shows on TV in the bar.
M: Yeah, you couldn’t see from the floor if it was crowded. It had a really low stage, but cool sound. A good size room, too. All kinds of activities could happen in that place. It was really liberal. I miss it. I got asked to go back to that space to do a solo show, after new people had bought it. It was a mindfuck, totally a different scene and décor. It was all done up.
B: Well, look at that neighborhood now.
M: Yeah, completely.
B: Did the tape make you want to do more music as a leader?
M: Well, the leader thing I never think about that much. But I think it made me want to pursue acoustic material more. Because it really gave me the opportunity to give some validity to it. When I would go down to some of those record shops like Rocks in Your Head, I remember them stocking Rehearsals for Roseland, and I thought that was just the most far-out thing—to see that in a shop. So I think as a player it gave me the sense that the acoustic thing was no longer music-for-one. When I realized people were going to hear it, that brought new responsibility with it. The leader thing got in there a little bit, because there was now a vehicle over which I had more control. ‘Cause with Tower I didn’t have any control. People might think there was a subtely shifting leadership within that group, but no one was ever really the leader. Which is why I said it was a con. People would come to see Tower expecting a certain kind of thing, but the way we thought about it was that we were just making psychedelic folk music. And that being a leader is a drag. (laughs) But I also think that tape established the first record with Time-Lag, which was a COM reissue. Also when Yod did Glorious Group Therapy, it wasn’t a reissue so much as a re-boot. And it made me remember the pitfalls of running a label in the past, and how I should maybe take more leadership in that sense. Spend more energy releasing and monitoring the music. And that’s something we still hold pretty dear these days, even if it’s not so much like running a professional label. It’s just cool to have it on your own label first.
B: COM really started when you moved up here, didn’t it?
M: No. COM started in NYC. The first release was in 1999. We did about one a year until 2003, which is when we started to harvest a little more seasonally. They’ve mostly been CDRs, except for my novel and the film. We believe in the genre, still. (laughs)
B: What was the first one?
M: It’s a follow-up to the tape, really. But it’s under my real name: MV Fantasizes, Daydreams, Gets Massaged and Shacks Up with Cocola. It’s an elaborate piece of CD art with transparencies, different printing and stuff. It’s a record of acoustic and electric guitar soli, maybe with some chanting in there.
B: That was right when you got together with Erika?
M: Yeah. And that’s where the label name comes from—“Ericka Child of Microtones”. It’s that spoken word piece by the Art Ensemble on that BYG record. Then Joseph Jarman reprises it in his book, Black Case. So that’s where the name of the label came from. I remember PG Six helped with assemblage of those. After we did a double bill at Tonic. I remember another time going in there when Burkett opened for Fahey. It was an afternoon show, and we’d been seeing Fahey a bunch because he was playing around a lot. He was making the scene in NY and they were playing COM-1 on the P.A. It was another epiphany. I thought — I must be doing something right if they’re playing a CDR on the P.A. at this established nightclub. The second one was the transition to moving up here. We lived for the summer at Privacy Campground in Hancock, MA. We were the only ones there. We had a cabin and we recorded COM-2 there on a walkman. Then we decided to sublet our place in NY and just see if we could do it. ‘Cause we had been coming up, maybe doing the Stone For series. We’d been coming up here and we were ready to take the plunge. I remember riffing with you about whether you thought it was a smart move or not. (laughs) You said something like, “Depends on how far out you wanna go.” (laughs) That was 2000. Then the next year we did the One Night Only in Heaven, which was the one Nemo reissued. That was my first proper one with Erika, although she may have guested on the other ones, and was my muse for the label.
B: Were you doing many solo shows then?
M: I’d do ‘em when I was asked, sometimes with collaborators. I think we did the recording for Space Chanteys in 2000 or 2001 at Barry Weisblat’s place. That was in DUMBO, after we did a festival called Isle of DUMBO. We played as a trio with Corsano. So we’d do shows and try to get people to help out. We played a lot with Dan Brown from Hall of Fame, and with Tim, and a great sax player/composer named Andre Vida. Sometimes we’d do shows that were more on the jazz-tip. Around that time I was going through a lot of personal stuff, and it was a good time for me to really be blasting out music. So I’d do shows of that ilk – way more free. None of that stuff was ever released, but I’d go back and listen to the tapes. I wanted to play more acoustic, but it really helped me out to listen to them. When we came up here, we’d do it more like an actual harvest.
B: What led you up here?
M: I was up here in the ‘80s for that UVM thing. But I was into a lot of what was happening up here. For some reason Erika was into it too. She’s from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, so the terrain is similar but the climate’s different. She was ready to try out something different. But we went to Hancock to try it out. I took on a real job, she was working at Miramax Films. We just saved up so we could get up here. It just seemed like the Vermont style fit together and it’s been almost 12 years now.
B: Was Dan living here then?
M: Yeah. He was a big catalyst. Dredd Foole was a big reason for us to come here. I remember we went and visited him, and for us it was no big deal ‘cause we stayed with people all the time. But he apparently didn’t take visitors, so it was a big deal for him. I remember him telling us that. He was so sociable, I didn’t seem like he was an R. Crumb type or something. Then Dan and Pat and Corsano helped us move in.
B: Around the time of the move you were doing a lot of duo shows.
M: Yeah, we felt like people weren’t hearing it as much. We wanted to make it a little more obvious, which is also why we did more group stuff later. We love to do both. And we’re fortunate we have a lot of people who are flexible and aren’t expecting a lot. What we’re doing now is a lot more like what we were doing back in the Medicine Show days. Erika plays jug on Space Homestead and there’s a cross-pollination feel with us doing our post-electric free folk experimentation jams with the duo. Because it’s just the two of us. We have our own language and we can also navigate the shrapnel of what’s happening a little more easily.
B: But there was a long period where it was basically a duo.
M: Absolutely. That was the model with a revolving cast of auxiliary members. And I like it that way because I don’t really want to put that responsibility on other people. So when they do come and play they can just concentrate on playing. They don’t have to worry about anything else. And these aren’t just randomly selected people off the street. (laughs) There’s a hazing process and the people are carefully selected and everyone knows the songs. There are different ranges in dynamic spectrums. Like “Doc” Dunn is in a different geo-region and he can’t come here all the time. But when we see him he fits right in. We’d don’t have to show him any songs. He knows the language of the songs and the dialogue. We don’t have to show him the songs a hundred times. It took awhile to get that happening, but those are the people who are the auxiliary. They aren’t like session guys. I’d like to think of it as a big giant merry band, but that would be completely utopian, wouldn’t it? (laughs)
B: Besides the duo with auxiliary there have also been proper bands.
M: Yeah, the Bummer Road and the Golden Road and the Wolfpack and the Canada Goose. The Bummer Road was out first extended line-up. That came when we started playing with Mo’ Jiggs and we brought in some of our favorite folks to enforce that. That was an organic free unit, in a jazz sense. We weren’t really set up like a rock band, and people were coming at it from different instrumentations. There was weird instrumentation and ethnic instruments, but we were doing songs and extended jams.
B: It was almost like an AACM project.
M: Yeah, although we were coming at it like white people from the hills. But it was definitely more AACM than Arkestra. With the Arkestra I think of a few people being around Ra, but of them also being open to just getting people off the street. Bummer Road was definitely informed by the AACM medium. And it had to be, because you had Ehlers coming at it from Eremite, which brought in a lot of that whether or not is was spoken. He was a unique player in terms of both what he could do and what he aspired to do. It was a unique band, very similar in ways to Tower Recordings, but done in a way where we were actually going to try and harness that beast. And you can’t harness it. Which is probably why that band is no longer going, although there will probably be some groups like it. Because when Samara plays—even though she made it across the bridge to the Golden Road—I still look at her as one of the keys to the Bummer Road sound.
B: How long did that band exist?
M: Four years, Maybe 2005-2009 was Bummer Zone. Maybe even ’03 was the Dawn of the Bummer. So we were touring around that. Nemo and Rachel, his partner, who was Sparrow Wildchild. There were some COMs that reflect the Bummer Road. And a couple of things circulating on archive.com. But the main documentation would be Green Blues and Mother of Thousands. I think that’s really the gateway. It really summarized what was going on. It’s one of my favorite records we ever made. It was done all analogue and we mastered it to two-inch tape, which is unheard of. This guy in Poland did it on two-track two-inch. One inch of sound per channel. The things they used to do. (laughs)
B: How’d you meet Nemo?
M: Through the mail, I think. We’d send letters to each other and he was buying some stuff from me off of Ebay. One of the things I had to do to transition to coming up here was to sell off a thousand-plus records. Through that I met him. He was buying a lot of stuff, and then he came into a store I was working in in Manhattan, Rockit Scientist. I met him there. We kept in touch and eventually started doing records together. Hopefully we’ll do more.
B: It seems like there’s some overlap between Bummer Road and Golden Road.
M: Golden Road came along because we wanted to do something different, something that was a little more drum driven. Also, we’d actually gotten some bad vibes from the name. Weird things would happen that weren’t in tune with our sensibility. The Bummer vibe. Although I could get into vicariously. (laughs) The Golden Road thing seemed like a good move. It would make us less of a blues harmonica band. It was a good way to reposition, have a moniker more reflective of the influences at hand. But it was definitely tied to the sonic idea of having drums. I wanted to make a record that wasn’t so Spectra Sound wild, I wanted to make a record that it was more as if we were in the ‘50s. I felt like it was a change of things not being so mellow any more. It was getting to a point where we were putting a lot of work in that wasn’t being clearly reflected in the results. Maybe if we did the Golden Road thing and were able to do a snapshot of what was happening right then, it would be good. ‘Cause I think we felt that things were about to start to fragmenting. That’s the reason we wanted to make Gettin’ Gone be what it is. That record’s funny, ‘cause our set still involves a lot of material from that album, with stretched-out forms and different ways applied to the overall picture. But the coordination between the name “change” and the sound of that album, as it was happening, showed how the fulcrum was changing. That became the way in which we measured certain players.
B: How did Willie Lane enter the picture?
M: Willie started hanging around when he was working on his DIV 3 from Hampshire College. I don’t recall exactly what he was riffing about, but tangents about blues/raga/psychedelia somehow led him to our pad and my neurons. After college he moved to Brattleboro. We’d jam…Erika and I would host…we’d jam some more…he’d finger our collection…we’d play country blues tunes all night, then jam some more. Eventually I asked him if he’d be interested in doing a COM release. His Recliner Ragas became COM-8. Erika guests on it and Humito just reissued it on vinyl. All of that activity led him to doing various gigs and tours within our “MV/EE” duo exchange, as well as becoming one of the original members of The Bummer Road. We also did several trio tours that remain the stuff of which dreams are made.
B: What about the Wolfpack?
M: The Wolfpack thing is these two guys from Asheville, but they’re a very specific pod of the auxiliary. No one plays like them. They’re amazing guys. One of them’s Rafi, who does the Humito label. The other is Paul Grimes. We’re gonna reissue one of his tapes on COM. It’s a raga record done with oscillators—a really far-out sound. He and Rafi are Wolfpack and I think of those guys as my Santa Monica Flyers.
B: Do you do stuff with them apart from in Asheville?
M: Yeah. They come up here once a year. They’ve done tours with us. They’re on the Road Trips box. There’re a couple of COMs. There’s a lot of stuff, but I don’t want them to blow up too fast ‘cause I don’t want to lose them.
B: Are they both in Aswara?
M: Yeah and Death Chants before that. The same two dudes. They’re very connected. They have a Siamese thought process when I work with them, so they act with one mind. When I take them on tour with me and Erika it becomes this interesting geometry. They’re also multi-dimensional in terms of what they can play. They bring a lot to the table in terms of equipment and ears. And they really believe in the power of music and the sheer abandon of it. In a lot of ways they’re in this tradition that Yod started. But you don’t see too many disciples of that stuff anymore. They’re the next generation and they somehow found us and we started playing together.
As are the Canada Goose guys, who are sort of their equivalent up in Toronto. So that’s “Doc” and this guy, Muskox. (laughs) He’s a bass player and he’s a real monster of bass. There aren’t many guys I can say are really BASS PLAYERS, but he can really cut it. Like a giant redwood. We’ve toured with them and they have a similar thing to the Wolfpack, because they’ve known each other since grade school.
B: When you started doing the COM CDRs was anybody else doing it?
M: People have said we were one of the first, but I’m not sure.
B: In my memory, you guys and Sunburned were the first ones who really figured out how to crack the code of merch, which has become really important in allowing bands to tour and make enough money to keep going.
M: Well, there’s that aspect, but it’s also documentation. Financially it’s great, because it’s a reciprocal way for people to help you directly. And people want to do that. The last time we were overseas, for the first time, we had people touring around with the group. There were people we saw at nine or twelve shows in a row. I thought that was really far-out.
Our main outlet now is the Heroines. Those have supplanted the COMs for the most part, because while we believe in the CDR format, not everyone’s as pure. You know what those look like right—they’re done up like chapbooks. Anyway, these cats would show up and we’d have seven or more of them spread out on the table. They’re black and white, and they’re meant to depict something that we saw at each particular show and is a reminder of the day. These cats would leaf through them and say, “I need this one and this one and this one.” They really know them all. It’s great. There’s no rhyme or reason to our output, it’s not chronological. We just find something interesting, or play a show that hits us, and choose to do it. There’s a lot of work and love that’s put into it from our end. It’s a lot of listening, and as James Luther Dickinson can tell you, there’s a lot of emotion that goes into listening.
But that’s been psychedelic for me. It’s great to listen through the stuff and to transmute it into an object that makes our tours plausible. It really does have a nurturing effect. It’s what compost is supposed to be. I feel like once we played this stuff I don’t really want to be responsible for it any more. It’s left my hands for good. Someone else gets it. The Heroines are like what we doing with the COMs, but we don’t have as much time to make those kind of releases any more. Nor do we want those releases to be deified on CDR and lost. Sometimes the records we make really should come out on vinyl, ‘cause that’s a different kind of artifact.
In the days of the early duo we could go out and do a door gig in Chattanooga, TN or something and sell $200 worth of merch. That was cool. ‘Cause you knew the door would be weird. These days it’s not as easy, but thankfully because we really do care about these releases—there’s so much love put into that stuff. Sometimes people say, “What’s the big deal? You just take some live cassette and toss out a release.” But that’s not it at all. The amount of stuff in the vaults is so vast—and in some ways better than some of the stuff that’s released—I wish there was enough time in the day to release all of it. But it takes so much of our enthusiasm to make these things available. The CDRs were great, but I think the Heroines are even more successful, because the idea of putting out these chapbook live releases is parallel to the times.
I think back to when we were doing the more elaborate COMs more frequently. In those days people had more time and space. And it was before downloading. Now we realize an edition of one can be viral. The idea that we can sell these things for five bucks, which is less than a gallon of gas in some cities, gets people psyched. People come along, they saw the show. They liked it. It’s what they saw then and there. Erika and I master it to decide if it’s going to be released. It’s not like the original Europe ’72 or something. It’s the whole show.
On this recent European tour we had our own P.A.—our own wall of sound delusion. It was incredible. We played workingman’s clubs. We could show up anywhere. The power amps were the size of refrigerators and they weighed as much. Then there were the speaker cabinets, the subs, the horns…moving it nightly was rough, but man…the sound. Of course, we always travel with a lot of stuff here too. But I’m looking forward to the next era. We feel like we’ve given so much on the road lately, after this wave of stuff cascades, there’s a whole big project in the vaults we’re working on. We’re bringing an eight-track rig on the road now, to record all the shows. And the quality of home recording has gotten so much better, we’re trying to embrace the zeitgeist of that too. Making records when I was growing up, listening to headphones in the ‘70s. That’s kinda where Spectra Sound comes from. The first time you get high and listen to records on headphones, it blows your mind. Use big headphones. (laughs)The sound moves around. We’re more able to do that now. That’s where the tours are.
If people miss this tour I think they’ll have missed the end of this era. We spent a lot of this year and the year before out on the road, so it will be good to downshift a little. ‘Cause it does take priorities from other things. I’m on a big trip right now with this Suub Duub box. It’s like eight disks documenting that tour with a book. There were some amazing notes on this last tour. The shortest set was 76 minutes. And we felt like it was ten minutes on stage. I felt like it was a DMT set—wow, we’re done already? (laughs) I think we’re making our best music now. I’ve grown a lot since I made this cassette. I still like it. There’s still something of me in there. I’m astounded to notice, but I know it’s me in the phrasing and the whole thing. It’s just in my code. But the music we make now—I’ll always say the newest music is the best.
B: When did you turn onto Philip K Dick?
M: In high school. He was a big influence, obviously. Then an even bigger influence for me is Rucker. Massive.
B: You been keeping up with his print-on-demand books?
M: I’ve been reading them on PDFs. Totally. I’m wicked into them. And I’ve been listening to crazy interviews he’s lately been posting on the site. Amazing. His knowledge for me is invaluable, but even more important is the way he balances the sci-fi/drug-war/cyber/transreal thing with non-fiction. I think that’s something we try to do with the music and the label and everything. We want to have this thing where we can go to a total extreme, but it’s based on some kind of terran foundation, where you can go back and trace it to something. Although we’re in the free-folk thing, we actually play songs that are narratives in the colloquial sense. And I think Rucker was one of the biggest influences on this in a subtle way. The way his does that with his writing and music and painting covers a lot. He lives a very fulfilling life. And I think that’s the psychedelic thing. I can’t take psychedelic drugs every day anymore.
B: Yeah, I miss them. Hopefully soon I’ll have my head together enough to dive back in. I did so much acid over the course of 20 years it’s weird to think of.
M: Do you regret it?
B: No, not at all.
M: Me neither. I don’t regret any of it. I think it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. That’s why I’m into a psychedelic experience, in a sense, living up here. Because every trip growing up was—let’s go do drugs and go into the woods. It was always, “Let’s go to nature. Let’s go back to this thing.” And now I live it. So now I don’t need to go into the woods to take psychedelic drugs. I just do it and I’m in it and I take it for granted sometimes. But there’s a shamanic thing about not having to seek out wilderness. New England’s cool like that.
B: Have you run into any of the Liberation News Service people up here?
M: It’s funny you ask that. Erika looked up where Ellen Curley was. She‘s on the cover of Famous Long Ago. She lives right across the road and she’s a great fan. I’ll be in here jamming and recording and she’ll say, “I heard you the other day. Sounded really cool—good fuzz.” (laughs) So yeah, she’s up there. We’ve gone to potlucks there. She still does it. When we were first here her daughters brought us cookies. But they’re in college now. Dredd’s neighbor, Peter Gould, was involved in that too. And we went to a town meeting once, about them putting a big culvert in by this farm. There was a big dispute over the funding and Verandah Porsche was at that. But you see people come out for different photography exhibits and stuff. Have you read Mungo’s books about financial security and stuff?
B: I never took it quite that far. Anything else you wanna cover?
M: Erika just wanted to be clear that we play psychedelic music.