Matthew Dear talks to Greg Scarth about aliases, his ‘nonchalant’ approach to making music, and why it’s OK for techno to be soulless.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Matthew Dear has spent years operating with a split personality. Under his own name, he creates electronic avant-pop for his own Ghostly International label. Meanwhile, a handful of aliases have allowed him to showcase other elements of his output: dancefloor-focused techno as Audion and distinct strands of minimal as Jabberjaw and False.
Currently operating in Audion mode following the release of this year’s excellent Alpha full length via !K7, Matthew is touring his live Audion show, with an appearance in London this weekend. I called him at home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to discuss how he uses his aliases to represent different aspects of his own personality.
Attack: Why did you first decide to split your output up into multiple aliases?
Matthew Dear: Back when I was first starting out, I was making so much music and I think some if it was a little too aggressive and hard, then other stuff was a little more vocal-based and melodic, so it became a clear split down the middle of things that would fall more toward the Audion alias and then the other stuff.
Why did you think that had to be separated? Was there a particular reason that you thought these disparate strands of your output couldn’t coexist under a single alias?
I think 10 or 15 years ago things were a bit more genre-focused. We still had record stores, and I think back then the labelling was very important. I worried that had I put out, say, a track like ‘Kisses’ – very aggressive synthesisers and sawtooths, aimed at the dancefloor – then followed it up with a track like ‘Deserter’, DJs might get very confused. If you put both out under the same alias, they might go to a record store on good faith and buy a track knowing that they like that artist’s sound, then they’d go to the club and realise that it’s an acoustic, 105bpm crooning song.
I quite like the idea of that, but I get what you mean.
There needed to be that divide just to sell the music and put it in the right place.
A lot of artists complain – quite rightly – about the obsession with genre classifications, but this is one of those cases where it actually has a value.
Absolutely. I still change greatly within each alias – it’s not like one has stuck to the same sound the whole time, so there isn’t much limitation by going in this route. I’m not telling myself that I have to make a certain style of music, it’s more an umbrella… The name is the umbrella and everything underneath it can sort of spread out and be what it needs to be.
Have the other aliases you’ve used over the years been sidelined? False and Jabberjaw?
Yeah, I think I’ve slowed my production so much that I can only focus on two aliases. There was a bit more energy 10 to 15 years ago for me, when I was recording so much stuff and trying to get it all out at once. But now Audion has changed so much that a track that might have been considered for a Jabberjaw or False release back in the day would fall into being a more mellow, deeper, weirder Audion song instead. So yeah, right now it’s just Audion and myself.
I like the way you refer to it as Audion and yourself, like a kind of split personality.
Well I don’t really wanna talk about ‘Matthew Dear’, because that’s weird! I don’t like talking about myself that way. I think I have to refer to it as the music and myself, so I’m not like: “You know when I make music as Matthew Dear?” [laughing]
Is the Matthew Dear music more personal, or is that a bad way of looking at it?
No, no, definitely. Any time you get vocals and you’re putting pen to paper and really trying to get some lyrics down and sing about something – whether it’s pretty abstract or if it’s connected to something deep inside – it’s definitely more of your soul being exposed, so for sure it’s more personal that way. Audion is more a lesson in form and function for me, but it’s just as important. Just because electronic or techno music can be a little more soulless and less connected to the person making it, it can still be just as important.
It’s interesting that you use the word ‘soulless’ in that context. I interviewed James Ruskin a few weeks ago and we were discussing the use of the word ‘functional’ to describe techno, and how that shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Maybe soulless is an interesting parallel to that; you can have music that’s soulless but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s machine music, robotic almost.
Totally, totally. I think it’s a tricky word, soulless. I mean obviously, there’s some beautiful, very very straight Jeff Mills-old-Detroit-style techno that you’ll hear and think: “There’s such a lot of soul in that music.” I’m not going to say it’s lacking feeling or depth, but maybe in the sense that with pure and true techno music, when you have your machines – a 303 or a 909 or even just an array of modern synthesisers – it’s fun to plug everything in, connect all your MIDI connections and your sequencing, and inject a bit of humanity into it just by selecting the notes and when they’ll be happening. There’s so much happening that comes from the soul of the machine itself, we’re almost trying to act more like a conductor at that point and letting the soul come from the choices we’ve made in terms of which instruments we use, because it’s the soul of the SH-101 or a Moog synthesiser that you’re really trying to let command the piece.
I’ve never been a classically trained musician... I rely heavily upon accidental magic.
Of course, there are multitudes of people that do it differently. I’ve never been a classically trained musician and I’m not a scale master who can bust out scales on guitar and stuff, so I rely heavily upon accidental magic. I like pushing random notes on the keyboard that I think are going to sound good but then all of a sudden you hit that perfect arpeggio and you keep it going. For me, when I’m making techno music it’s a little bit of me and a lot of the machines.
I like that idea. There’s an interesting parallel with visual arts and the idea of using different media. Choosing the particular machines to bring together for a track is like choosing your media when you’re making a painting, a sculpture, a collage, or whatever else it might be in the visual arts?
Yeah, it’s a bit like how you go through your blue period – it’s a colour palette. You get stuck in modes and you peak and valley in terms of mood. If you’re with your assortment of gear, you can say: “OK, this week I’ve been using these three pieces of kit, and they kind of feel like where I am at the moment.” You have to pick and choose based on what you’re feeling.
What’s the studio setup like for Audion? Is it similar to the live setup?
In the studio my Octatrack is kind of the brain, the master clock and the MIDI fountain. It’s always kind of a bitch to unplug it, put it in the case to take out live and then when I get back I have to plug it all back in – I’d love to have two of everything. For the live show, I have a smaller modular rack and then the big rack you see in the RA session. I kind of jump back and forth between the two depending on how long the tour is. It’s kind of hectic to travel with such a large case and my fear is that they’re going to make me stick it under the plane and everything falls apart, so I keep the modular stuff as carry-on only. It can be a little tricky trying to make nice eyes at the check-in lady. It’s like you’re trying to hypnotise them into letting you carry on way too much stuff. “Oh, you don’t wanna put this anywhere. You’re gonna be nice to me…”
I get too lazy to plug them back in when I get back home, so I just stare at the laptop for a little bit and try to work on more VST stuff, then I’ll realise that it’s not going anywhere so I’ll get the courage to open up the road case and plug everything back in. I guess I’m a very nonchalant producer when it comes to things like that. Whatever’s on and in front of me, I’ll start using it. Then if I get bored of it I’ll get off my butt and plug something else in.
I'm a very nonchalant producer... Whatever's on and in front of me, I'll start using it. Then if I get bored of it I'll get off my butt and plug something else in.
Obviously there’s a fundamental difference between Matthew Dear and Audion music in the fact that there’s a bit more of a human element, whether it’s your own singing or collaborating with other people in the Matthew Dear music, but I like this idea that there’s specific equipment you would reach to for an Audion track that you wouldn’t reach to for a Matthew Dear track, and vice versa.
Definitely. I incorporate more organic instrumentation when it comes to the stuff I’m doing on my [Matthew Dear] albums, like Black City incorporated bass guitar elements and there’s some acoustic guitar. A lot of it gets mangled and twisted through effects and sampling, of course. I don’t think I have a track where I play anything live over the whole of the track, because it’s still supposed to be very syncopated and sequenced and even the vocals you hear are processed quite a bit. Audion is always pretty specific. I’ve sampled some organic percussion instruments and things like that for Audion but you’ll never hear a guitar riff or a bassline from a guitar on an Audion track.
There’s no way you’d even use that stuff by resampling, or…?
I think I could if it sounded good, but I think the timbre and the sound of a bass guitar is a little too organic… But yeah, if I ran everything through filters then it could probably find its way into an Audion track and nobody would ever know it, but it’s just not something I’d ever reach for for that. When I make stuff under my own name, I have the guitars out, the pedals out, snare drums at the ready and the microphones in my face for whenever I need to sing something. But that stuff is in the closet right now, because I’m working on Audion tracks and remixes.
In general do you find it’s easier to separate the periods of working on one project and working on the other, or are you able to jump back and forth between the two of them?
It’s really based more on touring and album releases. I’m still in Audion mode, and that’s probably why the guitars are in the closet, because if they were out I’d start messing around with them more than I should and then I’d start getting pissed off that I’m still in Audion mode. So I’m preemptively limiting myself from jumping back into the other world just yet. I’ll start working on the next album probably in like a month, then I’ll spend the winter finishing that album and I’ll hop back into Matthew Dear mode next year.