During “Steady Pace,” on his 2012 LP, Big Inner, Matthew E. White croons, “As long as we are moving at a steady pace, baby, we can take our time.” The song is about relationships, but it offers a suitable motto for his own steadily ascending career, too, wherein he blends soul, gospel and rock into slick and beautiful songs.
The excellent Big Inner gradually earned White international attention. His March follow-up, Fresh Blood, is a sharper, more confident elaboration on that beginning. He’s backed by his super-tight Spacebomb Records crew out of Richmond. As a collective, Spacebomb revives the house-band style of recording, so popular with soul and R&B labels in the ’50s and ’60s. Those sounds color White’s own records but have also lent intrigue to Natalie Prass’ pop, Howard Ivans’ R&B and Grandma Sparrow’s dizzy psychedelia.
From Switzerland, White checked in with the INDY about the concept and his own music before he hits Motorco in Durham tonight.
It’s a label, but it’s mainly a group of people that want to facilitate musical opportunities for each other. We started with my record but have grown from that. We just released Natalie’s record, and we’re beginning to see increasing interest and cool opportunities coming our way because of what we do. In music, at the end of the day, you’re betting on yourself. That’s the only way you can find out how far you can take something. Spacebomb was that for all of us. It was like, “Hey, we have a special group of people here/ We feel like we have something to say. Let’s just put our cards on the table and make the best things that we can make.” It’s worked out pretty good for the first season. But the music industry is a fickle, wild world, so no guarantees about what it looks like in the future.
The key thing to know is Spacebomb was meant to succeed. It was meant to do well, and it was meant to be a team effort. There’s nine people that own Spacebomb and help run it, and I’m one of those people. My responsibility with Spacebomb is significant, but it’s balanced out by a lot of other people doing a lot of different work. I’m able to do what I’m good at and what I want to be doing, and other people do the same. I’m not running it; I’m just a part of a team that’s running it.What I do out on the road is building relationships with people, building audiences, building interest in what I do. That is so tied in to what Spacebomb does. It’s not exactly just two separate jobs. All that’s to say, it’s not easy. I’m very busy, and I can get a little overwhelmed by it. But at the same time, it’s what I asked for. I like working hard, and I like making music. I like facilitating opportunities for my friends to make music. You try to garden and keep up those opportunities and continue to let them grow.
To me, gospel music is sort of the hidden genre that influenced so much. R&B and soul music is basically gospel music. Ray Charles flipped the switch on that. Gospel music is really the first music—it’s like jazz in this way, but jazz kind of went in a little bit of a different direction. There’s a lot of arrangement and a lot of organization. I always talk about gospel as being the perfect genre. It can be highly rhythmically developed. It can be really highly harmonically developed. It can be incredibly loose, but it can also be incredibly composed. There’s a lot of room for different versions of songs. There’s really really slow, dramatic, emotional songs. There’s really fast, upbeat, feel-good songs. It’s group-oriented. It’s solo-oriented. It’s got all the things that make American pop music, American pop music. The story of gospel music is a little bit lost. Not lost in the sense that you can’t go find it, but it’s not as romanticized or popularized as jazz music. Jazz music is kind of the great American tradition—it is, and it deserves all of that—but gospel music has all of that in it.
I grew up in a Christian family. I’m not a Christian now. I end up writing stories here and there that have to do with that because it’s where I come from. In some ways, in the big picture, I fought it. In Europe, especially, it’s like, “Oh, I’m a white Southerner.” That story—Southern guy, grew up in the Bible Belt, writing about God—is so fetishized. It drives me crazy. I don’t view my music as particularly spiritual. “Brazos” got interpreted in a lot of different ways. To me, that song’s about race relations or social justice issues related to race relations in the context of a spiritual story.
“Circle ‘Round the Sun” is a song about suicide, and “Holy Moly” is a song about sexual abuse. They all happen to be in the context of spiritual things, but I don’t view them as spiritual songs. I just view them as, “Hey, that’s the world I’m coming from, so I just kind of tell my stories from my experiences.” I try very hard not to be defensive about it. I just try to correct the facts of the stories when they are told incorrectly. As a songwriter, that can be frustrating. I always tell people, as an artist, you earn your right to tell a more detailed version of your story. When you release your first record, if it gets any attention at all, you’re telling an 8-bit version of your story. Then, if you release your second record, if you’re lucky, you end up telling a 16-bit version of your story.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
For me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was everything you could want to be in an artist. He was so good at his craft in so many different ways—in big-budget films, small-budget films, experimental theater—over a long period of time. He also wasn’t buzzy. In the music industry, so much of success is built on the zeitgeist of the buzz. Philip Seymour Hoffman was not that at all. He was just really good. He wasn’t a sex symbol. He didn’t have drama in that way. The biggest drama he had is when he killed himself. That’s partly why that jumped out at people. It was like Joe Blow down the street.
That’s what he felt like, except that he was so good at what he did. For me, there’s a huge challenge there to be really good at what you do and do it over a long period of time and have your success rise above the Twitter feed. I related to so many of his characters in a lot of ways. He’s dealing with humanity. And I think that has to do with the buzzy thing: He’s sticking to the basics. Humans are really complicated, and they have a lot of different problems and tragedy and comedy. He dealt with that over and over and over again.