Tomorrow, after a decade-plus at the helm of the thought-rock ensemble/b(r)and Skeletons, Matt Mehlan will strike out on his own with the release of a solo record, The Mehlans. The record is alarmingly accessible and totally bizarre – like a fever-dream where you know all the players but have no idea where the floor is. This is mutant pop, delivered in tight, concise sonic bursts but with a strange ear toward melody instead of, as is more typical of Mehlan, texture or polyrhythms.
Popdose recently got the chance recently to quiz Mehlan on which end is up and which end is down, and touched on the nature of artistry in the Year of our Lord 2017. Below are his answers.
But, before you read away, think twice about visiting Shinkoyo’s Bandcamp page, where — in honor of the release of The Mehlans tomorrow — everything has been set to “Name Your Price!”
POPDOSE: The new record feels like a moment of unadulterated mutant pop, really pure but bizarre songs, really engaging and enveloping. Reminds me a bit of Cheer Accident’s The Why Album. What were some of the things you were listening to while writing and recording The Mehlans?
MATT MEHLAN: Jason from Skeletons hipped me to a record by Bill Withers a few winters back, called ‘Justments, which became my go-to for such a long time leading up to recording these songs. It had a lot to do with what I wanted this record to sound like, and pushing toward a kind of directness and calm.
POPDOSE: Talk to me about how this solo outing differs from the Skeletons b(r)and. I guess I’m asking more in terms of performance or recording than writing, touring and so on.
MATT MEHLAN: I’d be curious what makes it different from an outside perspective. Considering Skeletons’ existence as more of an idea, than actual operating entertainment unit, at various moments – I could’ve definitely called this a Skeletons record. How would it have changed for you?
For me it was a very natural and comfortable process to inhabit. This is the way I started making music, so it’s a bit second-nature. I tend to prefer working with other people because it’s more fun and more interesting creatively and socially, and more of a challenge.
It started to feel strange to continue to use the Skeletons name now that the Real Band I Always Wanted™ with my best friends – which really coalesced around Lucas / Money / People albums – has dispersed to different parts of the country and different endeavors.
POPDOSE: What was it like working on this kind of music in your childhood home? Did any degree of nostalgia color it? Guess you answered the question — Am I Home? — on the last Skeletons record, huh?
MATT MEHLAN: God, yes, there’s a lot of embarrassment, actually, in that. I had actually moved back to Chicago before Am I Home? was even released – but the idea was just some theoretical, non-reality based, twinkle in the eye. I didn’t expect there would be such a simple narrative attached to those songs – but it surely colored these.
POPDOSE: Talk to me about the sound of the new record. While it surely echoes Skeletons’ Money or Lucas in terms of the weapons you use, it doesn’t in terms of structure. Songs are shorter, tighter, with less a focus on texture and polyrhythms than concrete bridges and verses. Is this an accurate reading? Or am I wandering into Delusional Rock Critic territory?
MATT MEHLAN: I don’t think that’s delusional. It’s less interesting to improvise with yourself than other people, in my experience. Which is why maybe there are less exploratory sections of group playing.
POPDOSE: What’s coming next for you? I was thrilled with Am I Home? and would love some new music from Skeletons — nudge, nudge.
MATT MEHLAN: I’m working on a record of what I’m calling “Window Music” – electronic music in extended forms, aiming for this ideal I’ve had in my head for years and years of a kind of music that never changes but is always changing. Music that has a groove but you can’t groove to it.
I also made a record called Unlikelihoods of long songs – with an amazing group I call Facelessness (Jason McMahon, Max Jaffe, Jessica Pavone, Matt Nelson, Nathaniel Morgan, Sam Sowyrda, Rob Lundberg) in New York in January at Roulette, which is about 80% done.
Both should be out early next year!
POPDOSE: What’s it like working in Chicago for you versus working in NY or within the cocoon of college — Oberlin, right?
MATT MEHLAN: I had started feeling like making records and art and etc. in New York was a bit like – and I know this is a potentially TMI metaphor, but – trying to have sex really quickly. Like very exciting and with lots of energy and passion but not much time to really slow down and enjoy the process, think about how you want to be doing it, setting the vibe. I was never bored in New York, and sometimes I’m bored now. But boredom can be really useful. The media theorist Vilem Flusser, in an essay I really love, talks about how school comes from a Platonic ideal of idleness, idly banging your head against new ideas – and that the bourgeois revolution relegated idleness to holiday – a purposeful break in service of preparing for more work. I like thinking about this in terms of creativity. I think the purview of an artist is to try to find time to idly make something that has no economic or tool-based function – and in New York, with the economic pressures it demands, and the sort of hustler, biz, I don’t know, “rat race,” mentality it can be tricky to find that idle time. Every gig or project becomes the rung of a ladder towards the next. In Chicago I’ve had to re-evaluate that perspective a bit, and I think this record is one kind of outcome of that re-evaluation.
There’s a line in the rec, “as much as one might like to frame it as fight, sheer intent and might won’t make the thing sing.” And I’ve found, from a professional and creative perspective, what seemed to work for me in New York doesn’t work the same way here. But there are some incredible, and incredibly ambitious and focused musicians here, that’s true of both places. And I’ve been very lucky in both places to have people who are willing and able to play this music. I just put a new band together here that is just totally killing – two drummers (Phill Sudderberg + Ryan Packard) & two bass players (Ayanna Woods + Charlie Kirchen).
College – and the bubble that Oberlin inhabits – was a total ideal, in hindsight. Resources, community, and mentorship all in service of music. My beefs with school are and were about the refusal to be transparent in acknowledging the systems at work, once we took ourselves and our music into the world. As a teacher now, I try to bring those kinds of complications to the surface, which is really hard but worth it.
POPDOSE: What is your role now with Shinkoyo? Would love to get some insight into how those releases are discovered in the first place. Some quirky but engaging stuff.
MATT MEHLAN: Thanks for asking. Shinkoyo is an artist-run thing, collectively putting along, like a baton that’s passed along to the next runner. For a while now I’ve been running with the baton, especially since moving to the magical Midwest where space is plentiful (for shelves of tapes and records) and the Post Office is Heaven on Earth (by comparison to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Ave station that was my previous home base) it’s been something I can manage. I’m interested in helping people release their recordings and being a kind of production and administrative support system for that process. I’m not really interested in participating in the music industry according to music industry needs, and really the music industry that might’ve functioned previously in any sort of traditional & small-scale fashion, is completely gone. The making of records is a process of selective amnesia: it’s that the love of making records, and the symbolic importance of making, outweighs any supply/demand realities – so you just do it anyway. That said, I have quite a bit of experience that is useful to people when they are looking for ways to release their music commercially. So when things come my way I try to make myself available to be helpful. I like to be helpful, and I really like the music my friends make. I think that simple equation what drives a lot of people to run any kind of label or self-publishing entity.
POPDOSE: If you had to write a review of The Mehlans versus, say Money or People, on what would you focus? Bonus points if you mention your offspring or your rakish good looks!
MATT MEHLAN: I had a friend relay some advice he got as a new parent and artist, which was “Don’t make art about your kids, no one cares.” I don’t know how I feel about that. I kind of already operate from the premise that no one cares, about any of it. I’m just someone flailing around and then trying to share it with people. My work, or my struggle with the work, has been to figure out the way I feel most comfortable sharing it, or selling it, or marketing it. As Robert Ashley says in Perfect Lives, “…things that are not a part of industry / Are not possible to like.” Which I think is very true, especially in the US of A. The making, for me, of the music and the songs is already happening, it’s going to happen. If I’m working to censor certain parts of myself in the making, assertively, that seems a bit wrong. I do tend to like artists and records that don’t have that filter, that just go for what they see as important right in front of them, including family life and other things that are not particularly salacious or exciting. So I just keep trying to do me, better, even though it seems a bit precious and self-absorbed to make self-reflective art in 2017.
POPDOSE: And, finally, time for shutouts. What are you listening to, watching and reading these days? Plug away!
MATT MEHLAN: Twin Peaks. New Shinkoyo releases: Nestle, New Pope, Dave Scanlon. Frank Ocean. Kalbells. Bill Withers. V by Thomas Pynchon. Dividuum by Gerald Raunig. Mas Ysa. Shabazz Palaces. Pierre Kwenders. The Undercommons by Fred Moten & Stefano Harney. Drake. Sam Amidon. Beyonce. Greg Fox. Prefab Sprout. Laurel Halo. David Behrman. Mario Diaz De Leon. Doron Sadja. Vice Principals. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber. Peter Blasser’s Synthmall.com.