In March 2000, a promoter in West Palm Beach, Fla., told me I had to come see a show he was putting on at his club. I knew nothing about Jonah’s Onelinedrawing: what kind of music it was or who Jonah Matranga was. I went solely on the recommendation of the promoter, who asked if I’d bring my DAT recorder to tape the show from the soundboard as well. And since he’s a friend, I said sure.
NATN: So was Visitor a home recording like your Eps?
Jonah Matranga: Yes, it was recorded on my laptop in my room but … the Sketchy EPs were actually recorded on a cassette-based multi track. The big difference is that none of that stuff was ever made with the intention of releasing it. They were just these home things. I did that when people wanted to hear what I was doing. The Always New EPs were very much making them every month as a diary. Not like a dark, intimate diary but more of a "Hey, here’s where I am." It wasn’t literal. They are very obtuse, strange songs.
This was a very different project and one that I went into much more seriously, trying to make what I consider a fully realized home record. Not with the excuse that it was made at home. I’ll totally stand by it. I can’t say I worked harder on it per se because it was still the same process, but I sort of challenged myself sonically and ideologically. And to just really kind of go for it.
NATN: This is by far the best sounding record you’ve done even with recording at home.
JM: There’s absolutely no question that was an intention of mine. Not to knock the other stuff. That was exactly it. I really wanted the voice, for instance, to be recorded well. And I wanted to challenge myself to try and make something interesting and expansive and cinematic in my room
NATN: Do you have anything set up for your vocals?
JM: I have a good microphone. Its like a $500 microphone, its not a Neumann or some expensive thing. And I had plans of recording vocals in bathrooms and hallways and stuff , and in the end my room worked out pretty well. And to tell the truth it was a lot easier to stand right by the computer while I was recording so then I could be my own engineer too. There was no vocal booth — there was no nothing. The environment was exactly the same as the other records. The difference is that I really wanted to get a vocal take that I was proud of and to really sing. And I didn’t want to strangle the idiosyncrasy out of it but when you do it in your house you’re not at a loss for idiosyncrasy. It was really just about going "What do I really want this song to sound like," and trying really hard to get there.
NATN: So you did everything on the record?
JM: There were other players on it because I don’t know how to play piano that well. The record was essentially done, with the exception of one drum recording, in one seven square foot space. That was the expanse of everything.
NATN: When Jade Tree says "We want you to do a Onelinedrawing album" don’t they say "we want you to go into a studio?"
JM: It’s funny. When I was talking to Jade Tree about it I assumed they’d want me to go to a studio. Not that they have big budgets or anything, but to actually to go to a studio. I was a little bit hesitant about that. Just because I was excited to keep making home-based music, I just think there’s something cool to that. And [Jade Tree head] Tim [Owen] was just like, "No, we just had Cub Country do a record where we just gave [Jets To Brazil principal] Jeremy [Chatelain] a couple thousand bucks and he bought some stuff and did it at his house basically." So I was like "Good. That’s exactly what I want to do!" I ended up taking the money anyway. I didn’t need to buy anything really, but I bought a few pieces of gear to help the recording.
NATN: This is a pretty somber record for you. Is there any reason for that?
JM: To be perfectly honest, part of it is that more than a few of these songs are songs that for a long time I didn’t sing much at shows. And I certainly didn’t put them on a record. Partly because they were more subtle songs, and for someone who doesn’t like them, more boring and slow. I love them though. And I love their mood. But they are different then the other stuff in general. And they’re a little more personal. They’re not just the break-up tunes. There’s one tune on there, "Softbelly," that is arguably the most autobiographical thing I’ve written. It’s not a super complex song lyrically, but for me it’s just really addressing head-on whether how much I do music, or whatever I do out of compulsion, how much is about passion. Because everyone talks about passion in art. And its sort of a little bit darker take on that.
I obviously opened myself up in a huge way, and I like doing that. Not in a compulsory Jenny Jones way, but I think its cool to be intimate in art. But these songs definitely pushed that boundary into songs I sort of wrote that just felt like they were for me. Then I decided "No, I want to have these songs be in the world." And also I’ve just been really committed lately to getting the stuff that’s written and that I think is worth anyone hearing to getting it out there whether it’s through New End or through Onelinedrawing. Because I had a massive backlog of songs, which is great, but I felt that I was sort of leaving some behind.
It was a very hard album to sequence. And I’m still pretty insecure about the content of the tunes emotionally. I’m not sure if they’ll mean as much to anyone else as they do to me. The lyrics seem pretty obtuse to me. I had a really hard time because in between these pretty mellow tunes there’s "Smile" and "Bitt Ein Kuss," which are arguably the most upbeat songs I’ve ever had on a record.
NATN: But even on "Bitt Ein Kuss" your voice still sounds sad.
JM: That’s what’s weird about that one. I’m really happy to hear you say that. The hard thing about that song is that lyrically and everything else it’s a very celebratory song. "Bitt Ein Kuss" means "Please A Kiss," and I had this German girlfriend, and she moved here and it was great. And so I wrote basically 60% of this really happy, sexy love song for us. Then the relationship fell apart. So I was left with this song that I loved. It wasn’t even a break up song where you can sing after a relationship ends, it was like a love song. A love song about a very particular point in a relationship when I feel things are really innocent and exciting and crazy. And a lot of lyrics kind of changed shape for me when I finally looked at the song again, but it seemed a little prophetic. I really have fun singing it and the more I sing it for people the more I can get it out of my own little personal schism and more into "hey, this is a pop song that I love."
My friend Josh taught me kind of a cool thing. He was telling me something once about this one U2 song "You’re So Cruel" from Achtung Baby. And he was saying me he put it on a couple of different mix tapes for two different women. I was like "Doesn’t that feel weird? To have a song go from one relationship to the next?"
NATN: Yeah, I can’t do that.
JM: Yeah, I have a hard time with that personally. But he was like, "You know what? This is my song." And that helped me a bit. Obviously her name is in it. It’s addressed to her. And I would never take that away from her. But at the same time maybe songs are just supposed to be heard. I still get really happy singing it. But I love a lot of the images in it. I figured the best way to disconnect from it was just to put it out. And maybe someone will be in love and will hear that and will get to have it for them.
But in the end it is a very somber record. There was a time when I wasn’t even going to put "Bit Ein Kuss" or "Smile" on the record. I was just going to try to figure out two softer songs and just go ahead and make a really mellow record.
NATN: But that’s not what Onelinedrawing is about, really.
JM: Exactly. The whole point of the name, and pretty much anything I do, I’m a real heart on the sleeve sonically and emotionally kind of guy. So to try to make things that are cohesive or streamlined is not me. And I realize especially with the title Visitor and with everything the album was about for me, I would be doing the songs and myself a disservice by trying to make it a certain thing
NATN: Did it ever enter your mind that more people would hear this record than anything you’ve done in the past?
JM: It definitely entered my mind. Just the fact that it’s on Jade Tree and the other ones are totally out of my house, and it’s a full length and a lot things. No, it really occurred to me. It’s not lost on me that this is less accessible then either of the EPs. I’m very self conscious about this record. And I don’t mean I’m really embarrassed by it. I’m very proud of it, but I’m very conscious of myself and people hearing it.
NATN: It must be very different being out there on your own after being in bands.
JM: I’d always done solo stuff. And I always liked the feeling. Its sort of this thing I call "the problem with democracy." Democracy is great for community and I’m all for it obviously. But there is a watering down of ideals that goes on and that’s healthy, because everyone has to learn to give a little to make the whole collective work. Which I’m great with. However, a lot of my favorite artists, whether its Miles Davis or Prince or David Bowie or Rickie Lee Jones, these are people who had a vision. The difference is I’m not that comfortable bossing people around. I don’t know what that personality might look like but I don’t think its mine.
NATN: Actually it’s all the people you just mentioned.
JM: It is. I know and that’s what they do exactly. I love the clarity of vision in their body of work. It’s incredible. So for me I’m getting a little more comfortable working with people. It’s a nice relationship when you can have someone that’s very proud of what they’re contributing and understand the value of what they’re contributing but doesn’t get that confused with being a leader. And that’s very tough water to walk on … or tough ground to walk on. That’s a funny slip. So I’m happier in some ways just doing it myself. Instead of thinking, "I don’t want to bug you with my ideas that you might or might not like." I like keeping things small. I very quickly get overwhelmed with too much money or too many people. To me a band is a band. You have to go in and be together in it. And that’s beautiful too. And this [Onelinedrawing] isn’t that.
NATN: So, how much did the departure of your rhythm section from New End Original contribute to this feeling? You really can’t control what happens to other people or what other people feel or think.
JM: I definitely felt that way before those guys left but it definitely validated or galvanized … I can’t even think of the perfect word for it. But no, it definitely reminded me of that. If I were coming out of a little shell being in New End, that definitely pushed me back in. Me and [guitarist] Norman [Arenas] are really excited about music. I’m sure enough with you at least to say we have found a new drummer, which I’m really excited about because I love rock and I love playing with other people. And you’re exactly right. People are going to do what they’re going to do. And you can be the guy that hires or fires. But I can’t be that guy. I’m not very good at it.
NATN: It sounds like New End Original will come back at a point where you’re happy with it.
JM: We’re definitely going to Europe this summer to do some festivals. The allegiance I feel most is to the record right now. I feel like we didn’t finish the record cycle. And not in a any business way. More in a way where we put this thing into the world and I want to go play these songs to people. And also it’s been one of those life dreams for us to play these festivals. So we’re going to go do that no matter what. Beyond that, playing in the U.S. more and recording new records and stuff that at this point I think I’m 70-80% likely to do that. But we’re both very clear we’re not going to force it. We’re both in agreement that’s the worst thing you can do to music.
NATN: "Hostage" has got to be one of my favorite New End songs, and when you played it with New End Original when you were touring with Hey Mercedes I was blown away by seeing it with a band.
JM: In the practice room when that song came together we knew that it was a special song. That’s one of those songs that I can honestly say whether I wrote it or not I could hear it on a comp or something and be like "shit, that’s a great song." And the hard part about that of course is that Charlie’s drumming on that is absolutely phenomenal. And of all the songs on the record I would say that’s the one he really lent himself to. So for instance playing with a new drummer, it hurts. In a different way its kind of like the "Bit Ein Kuss" thing. Again, I think the best cure for that kind of internalizing is making it external. I just want to go play it for people because they don’t have the personal attachment to that situation that I do. So we had to find a drummer who was not only technically good enough to play that part, but can really imbue it with his own sense of soul. Obviously we’re not like Rush, we’re not precision players. We’re feel players.
NATN: Taking on a more general subject area, how do you feel about the proliferation of solo indie artists out there now?
JM: This is totally a valid question and I have no shortage of thoughts on it, but it’s a really hard question to even start to talk about without sounding like an asshole. Because the inference of course is that, "yeah, there’s a lot of people kind of copying your thing," and its true. I’m not doing anything new running around with a guitar. There is a new thing that I think is great which is taking acoustic performance away from the archetypal folk thing. I don’t think I reinvented any wheels and I guess all I really care about is if someone likes what I’m doing, great. I could give you 10 pages of influences on me. But I feel really strongly that you should know your history and take from the source instead of taking from the fourth generation. And I don’t consider myself source material.
NATN: It was more a question of not others sounding like you, but that you could sell this type of music on an indie level and tour in front of small crowds where punk bands were playing. So now all those punk musicians playing at home on their acoustics have somewhere to go.
JM: That’s a good point, it’s not a sonic thing. But there is an ideology. I know that the guy from Mr. T Experience was doing it for awhile. I know that Kevin Seconds has been doing it for a long time. And he’s a friend, but he inspired me too. The first Oneline tape was on his label.
NATN: When I saw you in 2000 I was surprised about how quiet and respectful everyone was during the show.
JM: That comes back to a relationship with people. That was the first time I think that I had been in that neighborhood without Far. You couldn’t get much different than what I was doing than Far. And I felt like, and this is true of everywhere, but it was definitely showcased at that performance. People were ready to hear what I was doing. And I am super grateful for that. And I’m super proud of it too. Cause I think it kind of pays off if you really stick to your guns. It doesn’t mean you’ll be really famous but anyone who likes it will develop a relationship with it that goes beyond how hard or soft or slow or fast it is. And maybe I’m totally naive about it but it seems to be working out for me: where I can do this pretty different stuff, where they might not love it always but they’ll pay attention. And they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. And that’s all I ask for.