Tuned Up Special: Matt Monta brings back the good ole days of Rock n Roll [interview]
By Chris McLafferty
We catch up with Matt Monta on the eve of his new release, Where You Find Love, to talk all things music.
Matt Monta could very well be the face of Columbus music. He seems to have always been and will always be. He is everywhere and knows everyone, even getting stopped grabbing his pre-interview coffee where the patron barter-trades her way to a copy of the new album. Going through his Facebook friends is a whose who of Columbus. It seems he is friends with every person to pick up an instrument in the city and any person ever to sing in the mic but it’s his extensions further that makes this intriguing. You’ll see a wide range of different local comedians as he’s often played shows with comics also on the bill, proof of his open mindedness to try anything and support everyone. You’ll also come across every writer, every booking agent and every fan in the music committee. This guy knows everyone and everyone knows him. Usually this leads to some sort of squabbling at some point as the Columbus scene has had its bouts of bickering in the past or clique like high school drama but Monta never seems to find himself in the mix. There’s not a person in the city who has anything bad to say, not a booking agent who wouldn’t love to book him and not a writer who doesn’t speak of his continued professionalism. Monta loves the Columbus scene and Columbus loves him.
Chris M – When did you start playing here in Columbus?
Matt Monta – Well, I started playing in college. I was doing cover gigs at B-Dubs on campus and that’s kind of how I got hooked into that, so that was probably 2005/2006. I would play there about a Friday a month, maybe a Wednesday. It was cool, all my friends would come out and I would do a bunch of 80’s covers, slip some of the stuff I was writing in when I could. (Laughs) People aren’t really there to listen to the music when you’re on a college campus at the B-Dubs. After I got out of college, I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands since I didn’t have a job out of college right away so I spent all of time playing guitar and writing a lot of songs. Actually because I didn’t have a job, I had the opportunity to drive myself down to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma that summer after I graduated. I learned a lot about songwriting, playing harmonica and all kinds of things from all these old school country bluegrass guys. One guy came from a train, he got off as I was getting ready to leave. They asked “Hey man where are you going?” and he was like “I don’t know I just got off this line” and they offered him the place to stay. So that was pretty wild. After that I began to do open mics here in Columbus and just kinda stuck with it. I went to the open mic at the Thirsty Ear which was run by Billy Zenn and I made it my goal, for about 2 years, that every time I came to the open mic, I would have a new song. Mostly I stuck to it, which was a new song every week, I wrote quite a few songs.
C – So you started playing here in Columbus around 2005/2006 but was music in the picture before you got to Columbus or was this a new thing that started here?
MM – Just to clarify , I would consider my actual (laughs) music career beginning in 2007 because that’s when I was playing more of my own stuff and really making a go at it instead of just sort of goofing around on a Friday night on campus. My father player guitar and piano and we would do Christmas songs, he would play the guitar and we would all sing. We would run out of like the 10 Christmas songs and he’d start doing some Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson and things like that. My older sisters both sang and played piano. I played piano lessons but never practiced, regretfully. Then I picked up the guitar when I was around middle school and just taught myself from there. I got such a kick out of it because I kinda had free reign to explore. When you do piano lessons they give you the book and say play it exactly like this. It’s important to set that standard for yourself but at the same time I always felt like I was forced to do something. Whereas when I picked up the guitar and started playing, that was liberating for me.
C – How was it breaking into the Columbus music scene? Was it difficult, were you well received?
MM – It’s kind of weird because as time goes on…it gets bigger and smaller at the same time. When I started I was very frustrated because I wasn’t very well received, maybe I had too many expectations or whatever. You know you play these open mics when you’re young and generally when you’re new and not very good people don’t listen. I had done it for a few weeks or month or so, going out every week, doing 2 or 3 open mics a night sometimes. I was just very frustrated and then the hosts of the open mic, guys like Billy or Joe Peppercorn who was running the Treebar open mic at the time, were very much encouraging and supportive. I began meeting other people through the open mics, playing with them. Then as I got more involved I began meeting more bands and meeting more people who played in different genres. It’s interesting because once you get a new perspective on things you have to adjust yourself to it and I think by and large I’ve had a positive experience working and playing music in Columbus. I think everyone generally is very supportive and I don’t run into anyone who has a real axe to grind with other people. I think that’s somewhat rare and specific circumstances, but by and large everyone is pretty supportive.
C – What goals did you have in mind when you first started? Did you even have any plans of where this would go when you first began?
MM – Well I think everybody wants to be a rockstar, right? (laughs) It’s a difficult thing to do, and I can’t say I always do but I try to keep my expectations low and be thankful and grateful that I even get the chance to get on stage and play. I try not look at things as if, if I’m not making enough money off of this I’m not being very successful. Or if I’m not performing these types of shows I’m not being successful. I think as an artist you’ll beat yourself up over those things at any given time. I think just being able to perform and being able to perform to people, to share the music that was something that was important to me. I felt like I had a lot of things to say. I feel like I still do. To be able to have a forum where you can share that with people and hopefully they’ll listen, I think that’s kind of the root of why I play music.
C – Where do you think Columbus fits in with that? Do you feel you can accomplish those things here with scene it has?
MM – Columbus kind of has a love/hate relationship with itself. It’s sort of like this small town feel but it’s becoming this metropolitan area. I think Columbus is a great place for music. I think it’s a great place for art. People dog it, say well ‘all these people do is watch football’…and that’s partly true but there’s also a very strong supportive music and art scene that I think we sometimes take for granted. I talk with other people and they say ‘I wish I was back in Columbus.’ So for me, having that kind of support and that type of city that Columbus is, I think that allows me to grow as an artist, grow as a musician. Because it’s such a good scene you have so many other great musicians here. All the guys who play on the new record I know from playing around, sharing gigs, and doing art shows. There’s a lot of resources, a lot of people here that you don’t expect because we have that small town mentality. Just because you’re from Columbus or live in Columbus doesn’t mean you can’t do bigger things. You have Lydia Loveless and Saintseneca. There’s Angela Perley getting out there. You have a ton of other bands from Columbus who are entering the national stage at this point and time.
C – I see you out there doing a show for the SBB, performing at Comfest or Independent’s as well as doing more unique shows with comedians on the bill and a wide variety of other interesting shows. You recently did a storyteller show with the Shaw Brothers. What is it about these things that makes you want to be involved in everything?
MM – It’s all entertainment, when you limit yourself to just your one thing it begins to become boring and I think it also prevents yourself from growing as an artist yourself. So I’ve worked doing a show with Justin Golak, he would tell jokes and I would back him up on guitar and then I’d play a little bit. I hosted Monday Night Live, which is a sketch comedy show. I’ve taken part of Dustin Meadow’s (pop culture comedy) program Struck A Nerve, it’s performance pieces and reading essays. (Both take place at Wild Goose). Then I do these other things where it’s the Songwriter’s Round or Songwriter’s Workshop. I think it’s important if you can be involved with other people and look at your craft through a different lens it helps you grow as an artist and as someone who wants to create. I learn as much from being in a sketch comedy show as I do as being in a Songwriter’s Round or putting together a show on my own.
C – Your album release is this Saturday April 11th at Spacebar with Daniel Myers and Tim Pritchard and the Boxcar Suite. Spacebar is still a relatively new venue, what made you feel comfortable hosting such an important event for you at this venue?
MM – It’s kind of interesting because I believe it’s in its 3rd incarnation since 2008? I remember when it became Kobo and became Spacebar within the last year. I’ve been there a few times for shows, I’ve played there once before and it’s a great venue. It’s a great room, the setup, production, sound equipment is great. Ben DeRolph, the owner of the place, has been very supportive. It’s a nice place, not only to perform, but just to hang out and listen to music. I think it’s a good fit for what we’re doing.
His presence commands the eyes and ears of everywhere he enters but almost on a subconscious level. He’s 6’4” but with his boots and intimidation he might as well be an Attack on Titan giant. He has a calming and quiet demeanor that lets him slide in and out though. The intimidation is misguided. Monta’s height and gruff beard makes him seem like more of the badass Clint Eastwood western heroes of past but it’s the softness shining through in his voice and face, general thoughtfulness and unforgiving politeness that defines Monta. It shows he’s more than then the bluesy country old school straight laced rock n roll caricature that you might you may envision as he sets up on stage. It’s important to know that because it’s the same situation when it comes to his music.
C – Previously you’ve been affiliated, or in, multiple bands around Columbus but opted to release your first album solo, 2013’s American Rhymin. For this go around, Where You Find Love, the band is Matt Monta and the Haymakers. What did you want to accomplish this go around that made a backing band necessary?
MM – The songs are bigger. I’ve played the songs out solo and they don’t hit the way I want them to hit when it’s just me out there playing the acoustic guitar. American Rhymin, had a lot of finger picking songs and like “5 AM” is just a long poem, there’s no chorus or anything, it’s just a long poem. We do that with the band, but it’s sort of stuff like that on the first record that I can get away with doing solo. I had this set of songs and they all had this kind of big choruses and I was just hearing guitar solos, harmonies and big drums on it. I wanted to be able to let those songs take a life that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to on a solo record. Being able to do an album with a band, I think, gives your work more creative depth to it.
C – Was the process of adding the Haymakers?
MM – As soon as I got American Rhymin done, (I released it in March of 2013) I was sketching out what I wanted to do for this record and all the other ideas I was sort of holding onto then became this record. I was like well I got these songs, who can do the things for these songs that I’m hearing in my head that need to be touched on? Jamie Molisee is a great, versatile, tasteful guitar player that also writes his own songs and sings harmonies. He plays with the Boondogglers and I thought well, Jamie would be a good fit for this direction. Matt Paetsch I knew from playing bass with Andy Shaw Band, I had never worked with him and I asked if he’d be interested because I knew he’s just an excellent bass player. His style is more jazz gigs, so you have a country rock Americana guy and then a jazz guy. Bryan Kossman I met through the Couchfire Collective and their Agora Arts event. Him and I sort of hooked up and I said hey man, are you interested in playing with us? He said yeah and we locked in there. He’s like an indie rock player. He plays with the band called Tethers. So you have like an indie rock guy, a jazz player, a country rock guy then Matt found this kid, David Butler, who is like 22 years old out of Capital University to play keys. He’s like an indie rock guy too but he does it all. He’s just such a great player. It was that mix of influences and musicianship that when I brought these songs forward, here’s what I’ve got, they were able to take it in directions I never imagined it would go.
C – Was it a little nerve racking letting go of some control on these songs you had?
MM – When I brought them on, I didn’t have any parts written or charted out but I had seen and heard them all play and I knew I could trust them to make the parts work. Now the first couple rehearsals I was like well let’s just see how it goes and there were some really really nice things that came out of that rehearsal that made me say ok. That made me feel even more comfortable. So I was comfortable trusting them at the outset but once we got into the room and began working together, it was like ok this is really cool. There were some things I sort of ceded to them, not grudgingly or anything but ideas they came up with how to change a song and I’m like…..this is great. There were other things that get brought up and I have to say well… I don’t like that. But I always ask for the feedback, I say well we made this change, what do you guys think and everyone often has good input. It’s a good collaborative experience and they’re guys I can trust their opinion. They’re very consistent and thoughtful about what they want to change and what they want to create.
C – Is there something you’re most proud of on this album?
MM – I think one of the things for me, is that I can pump my fist to it every now and again, you know? When I first got the final mixes back, I was listening to them really late at night in my kitchen and then started playing air guitar along with Jamie’s solos (laughs). It was a really cool thing for me to listen to this and be like these are songs that I wrote, these are musicians I play with, this is a band that worked with me. We all put this thing together. The sounds that came out of it, I’m very proud of the lyrical content too, I think that all turned out very well. Just the way it came together, nothing to me on the record seems like it was short changed, or short sighted or half-assed or anything.
C – The album seems to fit more in with music back a few decades, with a strong feel of Credence, Bruce, Petty, at least to me. It comes with some really transcendent harmonica work, there’s old time saloon pianos tiptoeing in “Take It All Back” and “Going Now”, slow burning guitar solos, things you don’t see too often nowadays, even the lyrics have a more pure feel than some of the songs today. Which I thank you for, it’s beautiful, uplifting, enjoyable, everything you need in the car really any day, but ideally on a sunny Friday 5pm drive. What inspires you to make this music?
MM – I like it! I like that sound, there’ something very cool about the way the instruments and the way it’s performed. You think back to late 70’s or something, I think I saw Dazed and Confused and it was very weird. They were all just sort of driving around, going to the bonfire, talking and that’s kind of what my high school was like. And I don’t want to get all (mocks an older parent voice) ‘kids these days,’ but there’s a lot more involvement with computers these days, so to me the 70s were sort of this romantic time where you just had the rock n roll music and if you heard something you couldn’t just Google it, you had to really immerse yourself in it. I think it’s really a sound that’s very distinctively American. You’re drawing from Blues, Country, and old rock n roll, Rockabilly, stuff like that. You put all that together and I think it just makes a sound that’s uniquely American and I think that resonates with a lot of people, even if they’re into a lot of synth stuff.
C – What are your thoughts on the saying “rock is dead?”
MM – Rock is different. I talk about this with friends. I say who is like equivalent of Bruce Springsteen these days, what’s that? Before him, like Bob Dylan, Bruce was the biggest American rock star in the late 70’s, early 80s. Still sells out auditoriums, just huge. He’s not on music videos or really playing him on the radio except for NPR. So I was like who is that? And I was like oh, it’s Jay-Z. It’s Jay-Z and Kanye West. Hip hop is the new rock n roll. That’s kind of how I see it taking form. I think rock n roll is very much alive. I don’t think it’ll go away. Rock n Roll is here to stay, it’ll never die. I think the cultural tides shift and if we come back to American rock, maybe that’ll happen, but I think hip hop and synth pop is so integrated now that even the rock songs incorporate all of that. So honest to goodness, just a band with real instruments just wailing away, will that become mainstream again? I don’t know but I don’t think that’ll ever lose its appeal.
C – The music industry as a whole seems to be at a bit of a crossroads. Newer sites/apps like Spotify and Jay-Z’s new Tidal allows consumers more access to more music than ever before, but many artists aren’t seeing the sales or income artists of their caliber have in the past. What are your thoughts moving forward on this and how did this affect the way you plan on releasing this album and albums in the future?
MM – Well…the thing I don’t think a lot of people understand is that on these sites, iTunes or whatever, for a $10m CD sale I get like $6 . So for every album I sell, Apple gets $4. I might as well just be selling my discs for $5. So for me, when I’m out and people are like ugh can I get it online, I say well um… yeah you can, you can listen to it. But part of what supports my efforts and the musicians that I play with, because we got the money somehow, it’s purchasing the record and purchasing a hard copy. I don’t think a lot of people understand that fact. I think they think when they buy something well that all just goes to the musician. Now with the level that I’m at, I’m not on a label, I don’t have a producer, or all these people who are managing me that need to get first so it’s a little different but I push my Bandcamp a little more. I intend to make hard CD sales a priority and making download codes available but not from iTunes or Amazon. Now granted those things will be there because you can’t not be on there. I think Spotify for me is a valuable tool, I use it to research music. I don’t use Itunes but I know a lot of people who do, that will just download, download, download. So I don’t drive people to that stuff but I’m not going to keep myself from it. I think I get 5/100th of a cent every spin I get on Spotify so just hit that repeat button for me.
Part of the reason it feels like Matt Monta is everywhere is because he literally is everywhere. For quite some time you couldn’t go to a show and not see Matt playing on stage in one of his many outfits. Whether it was him solo, one of his projects, Righteous Buck & the Skull Scorchers and the Smoking Gun,s or appearing as backing member for acts like The Devil Doves, Chris Laster or many more, Matt was everywhere. This could be part of the resonating feeling that he is the face of Columbus.[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztMW8q-2fjU[/youtube]
C – You’ve been in so many acts in the past, Righteous Buck, Smoking Guns, among many others. What did you learn from these previous other band experiences or even from your first solo album?
MM – It goes back a little further, there’s a couple other acts. I played in a band called OutLaw DeLuxe which was a loudass outlaw country band, I mean it’s pretty bombastic. Then I fronted the Hot Coal Band that I played with for a couple years. Playing as a solo artist, it’s easy you just show up with your guitar and harmonica, you plug in, you play and that’s it. Playing with these bands you learn a lot about working with other people, you learn a lot about how to make decisions, scheduling, a lot of management stuff. I think a lot of mistakes I made before in that regard, I’ve been able to take and become better as I’ve gotten older. Some of the things I always enjoy, especially when I’m not necessarily fronting a band, is that I learn to play things differently. When I was in Outlaw Deluxe, I really learned how to play harmonica because I had to compete against a heavy metal guitar player who could play a million notes a minute. He and I would always battle on stage so I’d have to learn how to play hard to play with this band. With Righteous Buck, that’s kind of where I learned to start playing electric. I played acoustic with them but it’s a loud band. This is what I mean by the music scene getting bigger. I knew Craig Davidson and then I had a dream that they backed me up on this one song. I was like I just want to try it and is that ok if I come over for one rehearsal? Then they asked ‘Hey do you want to join the band?’ I said cool. Then I kept showing up but then I learned these guys have been playing music in Columbus for 20 years, almost as long as I’ve been alive. I learned a lot about Columbus, a lot about the Columbus music scene. Learned to play electric, learned to back off and where to play with the harmonica, that’s an important thing. It’s a lot of learning technical things but also learning how to perform, share energy and work well with people especially when you might not get along.
C – What draws you specifically to a project?
MM – First, if I have the time. I have this band, I do my solo stuff, and still play with the Smoking Guns. If someone were to ask me to join their project full time, I would probably have to turn them down. But also what draws me to the project is if I like the music. And the people. If I can get behind the songs, if I can believe in the songs, and I think when people have played with me in the past I think that’s usually been a factor, for me to keep playing with them. There’s nothing worse than playing when someone just shows up and does their part and leaves. I think everyone that I’ve played with has all believed in the songs that I’m writing or in the songs they’ve already been playing and doing.
C – You seemed very busy there for a while, with performances almost every week with this or that project? How did you handle that with your day to day job and personal life?
MM – It’s hard. Then throw in a romantic relationship in there, a serious relationship and its gets very difficult. It’s something where you don’t sleep a lot. It’s something where you can drop the ball at any given time on any given thing. It’s fun, it keeps you busy and it keeps you sort of on edge. It gives you this sense of urgency when you’re like I got to run to this rehearsal, I got this gig, but I’ve got to go to this rehearsal. So there’s sort of an excitement to it but at the same time its draining and I had things, like this record, that I wanted to focus on. So I stopped hosting the Honky Tonk happy hour, I stopped hosting an open mic, I don’t pick up random things that end up being full-time obligations. If someone asks me to do a one-off…yeah, that’s one evening, fine I’ll do it for a comedy thing or whatever. I’ve learned after doing too much that I need to focus on doing the things I want to do instead of branching off from the path that I had in mind. I started here (points down at the table) to the end goal where I want to be a musician that people listen to. How do I get to that point? Is it by hosting open mics? Or hosting talk shows? Or is it doing comedy? There’s ways to get there and there’s ways to have those things and still meet that goal but for me, I felt like I was doing so much that it was pulling me to the side instead of pushing me forward.
C – Lately I’ve noticed a lot of bands breaking up or talks of breaking up as they start to reach a certain age. Can you talk about the tightrope walking of getting older with respect to the supposed “eternal clock” of settling down, getting married, having kids and what does that do to your initial dreams and overall vision of your music career?
MM – I think the idea of “getting too old for this shit” is a small reason of bands breaking up. I think there’s often a lot of other factors and sometimes they’re predicated by that. A little bit of drama and everyone is like I’m done, I don’t need to deal with this, I just want to play music. There is always that kind of stuff. In looking at sort of getting older, full disclosure, I’m getting married at the end of May. For me I’m fortunate that the woman I’m marrying is supportive of my musical ambitions. Is supportive of me playing in a bunch of different bands. Is supportive of me doing the things that help me achieve my goals and I don’t think she would ever say I don’t want you to play music anymore. That’s not on the books, it’s not part of the deal. I think it’s tougher though, once people start having kids, time goes towards that. Unless you’re making a huge living like if you’re touring or maybe signed to a label, when you have kids it’s like these little things that are maybe annoyances when you were 25 years old are suddenly a big deal. When you’re sitting in a rehearsal and two people are bickering over something and you’re like man I’m not with my kids right now… and I’d rather be doing that. I think that kind of takes hold…though its balance. I know other musicians that do have kids who still play and still put out records, Joe Peppercorn has like 3 kids now I think, Branden Barnett from Ghost Shirt has a couple kids. He lives in Florida and they’re still putting out records up here. Phillip Fox, he just had a son and he is touring all over the place. I mean it’s possible to do but I think that for some people they can get pulled in that other direction and let’s be honest, life does get in the way. We can’t all be on the road, all the time unless you have the luxury or someone to support you, it’s a real balancing act. I think eventually people just make choices on well what am I getting out of this when I have these other important things in my life that I feel I’ve been neglecting.
C – Obviously the release is this Saturday at Spacebar, but what’s next for Matt Monta? Both career and in life?
MM – I’m hoping to book some stuff out of town with the band, sort of go on the road with it. I’ll probably send it out and see what happens. Like I said I kind of keep my expectations low, I don’t have any wild dreams that someone is going to walk up to me with a record contract tomorrow but you know, we’ll see if there’s any light there in that tunnel. I’m getting married, I don’t have any plans of slowing down. I’m going to keep performing. The Smoking Guns, we’re putting out an album at the end of June that we’ve been working on for a while. Just keep writing and performing. I’ve got a handful of other tunes that I’ve been sitting on and also been writing that the Haymakers and I have started to work on. So I’m hoping that we can get a 2nd album going here fairly soon. …It’s sort of tough because anything can change, suppose American rock does become a huge thing and these labels see me and commercially viable but then suppose it doesn’t. Suppose rock dies, rock is dead, or nobody likes it or I have to leave the country for whatever reason. I mean there’s so many things that can happen but I just keep performing, keep writing, keep recording and just keep moving forward. Staying on the path that I want to stay on with keeping as much gratitude for everyone and everything that allows me to do that.
It’s this that makes me feel comfortable putting Monta up for face of the Columbus music scene. He’s exactly what you want out of it. He’s got the intimating presence and the timeless sexy look. The music is incredible, appeases the masses of all age ranges and cultural divides. But that’s not what makes him ideal for the job. It’s his dedication, his ability to try anything, his friendliness, his true professionalism, the thoughtfulness of your general wellbeing, the genuine care for his and all music of Columbus. It’s his want to support anyone out there trying. That’s why Matt Monta would make a great face not just for the music, but for the entire Columbus Arts Scene.