Let’s have a happy hurrah for Byron Coley, this publication’s longest-term continuous contributor, and as of right now its first and only Senior Writer. Coley earned this title the hard way, not just knocking out hundreds of column inches’ worth of learned music-art-poetry-film-comics-whatsit reviewage over the last ten years with Bull Tongue partner Thurston Moore on deadline for no pay, but also pinch-hitting on other stuff when ye young editor had yet again foolishly over-extended himself. (Plus there was that Yoko Ono feature that shoulda been a cover, back in 2007…) No one has flown the freak flag higher or for longer at Arthur than Byron…or done a better job of explaining why exactly that old flag was still worth checking out.
From what I can tell, Byron has always been like this. I first knew him by his editor/writer byline first, as co-prime mover with Jimmy Johnson of Forced Exposure, an irregularly published magazine that somehow covered almost all that was great and interesting in the ‘80s/’90s in a style/format that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since: a sweet combo of smart riffs, ribald japery, ecstatic poetics, subcultural scholarship and two bits of the old hairy shockola. The breadth of coverage, the depth of thought-feel about the subjects at hand, the high quality of the radar in choosing what was worthy of ink, the guts to run ridiculously long pieces regardless of overt commercial appeal, the relentlessly inventive wordspiel that flowed across page after black-and-white page…it all made each issue of FE a necessary acquisition. It was a lotta words to the wise from wise guides.
These are very different times than the ‘80s/’90s. No single independent entity today—certainly not this humble rag—could hope to cover the same cultural terrain as FE did with the same authority or insight, given the overwhelming glut of artistic production unleashed upon us all by our misguided computer nerd lords. You can’t keep tabs on it all. But what the hell. For the advocate journalist-scholar, there’s still the Basic Practice: find good stuff, tell other people about it. And don’t waste effort—try to be of positive use in times that aren’t so great. I know I’m embarrassing him into a startling new shade of pink-purple when I write this, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more personally inspiring figure in America in this regard than Byron.
And there couldn’t be a much worthier, more overdue subject for an extended Arthur cover feature by Byron than Matt Valentine. In a way, I’m glad it’s taken ‘til 2013 to get round to covering MV, because now we get to view such a rich, extended life/art/career trajectory—that is, how his move from college to urban to rural locale has played out, and how a musician with such a singular vision, rooted in so many intriguing aesthetics, has found a way to persist, on his own terms, for so long, in such a trying period for working artists. In short: Matt’s cracked a lot of codes, and Byron has shared them with us with 202 footnotes that only he could write.
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.
A few important MATT “MV” VALENTINE listening experiences through 2012, assembled by Dan Ireton & Byron Coley and presented in chronological order. Links are to best current (2016) retail or wholesale source for the goods. This article originally published in Arthur No. 34 (2013) as a sidebar to Byron’s interview with Matt.
TOWER RECORDINGS Furniture Music for Evening Shuttles (Siltbreeze SB54 CD + LP, 1998)
Technically, the fourth Tower album, but the one where they really come together into a great stew of kosmische gushery. Someone told me if I liked German stuff I should listen to this. He was right.
TOWER RECORDINGS The Folk Scene (Shrat one-sided 12”, 2000; Communion CD, 2001)
You want the expanded CD reissue version, which is much longer. The vibe here mirrors the best work of those German and Scandinavian commune bands we all loved so much.
MATT VALENTINE Space Chanteys (Fringes LP, 2002)
This early solo side, released by an Italian jazz label, has always felt like MV’s version of Astral Weeks (not that you’d confuse his voice with Van Morrison’s). You can hear the door closing on Matt’s New York period. The lyrics are super-personal and the musical arrangements are loose and flowing.
MATT VALENTINE Ragantula (COM 4, 2002; reissued in the COM-Relics series)
My favorite version has a small piece of printed cloth inserted, but that’s extremely rare, so let’s not mention it. This one is thematically linked to Matt’s transition to country life.The lyrics related to the move, and the music has a very rural vibe (even though some was recorded in NYC).
DREDD FOOLE Kissing the Contemporary Bliss (COM 2CDR, 2004; Family Vineyard 2CD, 2008)
Although credited just to Dredd, this is equally Matt’s album. The pair push against the envelope of how free “free folk” could ever get. This also marks the beginning of the Spectra Sound experiments, and sounds a big as the whole outdoors.
MV & EE WITH THE BUMMER ROAD Green Blues (Ecstatic Peace CD, 2006)
Some people love the way this connects the vocals of Skip James with the guitar of Neil Young, others think it’s just TOO MUCH. Regardless, this one is the first real rock-qua-rock record.
MV & EE WITH THE GOLDEN ROAD April FlowerTour (COM 8-CDR set, 2011)
Great document of some live dates (mostly from April, 2011) representing their annual Spring Fling with UK guitarist Mick Flower. There’s a heavy ruralist rock vibe to most of the action with bursts of lightning purity. More smoke than folk.
MV & Country Stash (Three Lobed LP, 2011)
When this one came out, I just said, “Wow.” It was the first album that really seemed to properly reconcile all of the threads Matt has chased. A favorite.