Matthew E White: how a dalliance with pop released this free-jazz man
Soul, faith, jazz and justice: Matthew E White’s conversation is as rich as his music
Matthew E White: ’Ironically, I think making Big Inner and recording with very specific structures in mind was freedom in a way for me from how I used to play with free jazz’
Back in the day, Matthew E White was a free jazz kind of guy. For 10 years or so, this was his musical religion. The freewheeling, unstructured, improvised noise called him, and he came running. During those years, it was all wild rattle and honk for White, as he and his accomplices pushed and pulled their audiences hither and tither.
But White, a big man out of Richmond in Virginia and from a family of former missionaries, didn’t amble into the limelight on the back of such jazz adventures. Instead, he’s enjoying attention because of what’s best described as a rather brilliant albeit accidental pop record.
Back in Richmond a while ago, White set up the Spacebomb studio, label and collective to create a sense of community and share resources with other musicians. “It’s a wonderful town,” says White of Richmond, “home to lots of musicians and a great music school which sets a high bar of excellence. It’s not an industry town so you don’t have that angle, but you have lots of resources which allow you to make your own work.”
Inner workings of a record
To test the Spacebomb waters and make sure everything worked before opening the doors to all, White decided to record a solo album. That record is Big Inner, a hugely beguiling sweep of swaggering and swinging rock, country and soul.
Full of beautiful textures, intricate hooks and sweet melodies, it’s a record you don’t meet every day of the week, unless Dr John, The Band and the Beach Boys happen to have recorded together at some stage and didn’t tell anyone.
For White, Big Inner gave him a sense of freedom. “Ironically, I think making Big Inner and recording with very specific structures in mind was freedom in a way for me from how I used to play with free jazz. It was a challenge to work with very specific arrangements, especially when you’ve been playing what is regarded as difficult, formless music for quite some time.”
That “difficult” music makes a lot of demands on its audience, White believes. “Free jazz has a strange relationship with its audience because it’s very difficult to listen to and very hard to sell. It’s not songs, it’s not words, it’s not rhythm or melodies or harmonies in the traditional sense. With Big Inner, there’s much more of a structure and more songs to make it more relatable to an audience, which is the total opposite to what I used to do.”
Not, though, that White believes sales are the be-all and end-all of the matter. “A lot of records that artists I admire like Dr John have made have sold poorly. But often when you look back, you see that they’re the records that were really ahead of everyone else. You have to do the best you can and hope to make great records, but time will tell if we’re actually doing that. I don’t think sales are a good barometer of anything.”
White is a keen student of the music industry game. “I like music history books. You might read a whole book and come across just one paragraph about how, say, David Axelrod ran his studio sessions and there’s that one piece you’re not going to get anywhere else.
“You can learn so much about making music from these books. You find out about the head space the musicians were in at certain times and the process at that time and the mistakes that were made.
Brian Wilson’s ‘a little hazy’
“Music isn’t about talking, which is why you can sometimes get these great third-party stories and insights from people who were around at the time which say so much. Brian Wilson has done many interviews about the great Beach Boys records, but he’s a little hazy about what went on and not particularly clear as we know, so reading about what happened from other people’s point of view helps you work out what went down.”
One of the themes on Big Inner that has received a lot of attention is White’s faith. White, the son of evangelical missionaries who worked in Japan and the Philippines, uses songs such as Brazos to tease out his relationship with Christianity.
He’s been pleasantly surprised by the reaction such songs have received. “Most people come to the table assuming because of those lyrics that I’m a very active Christian person, which is not particularly the case. I don’t know where I am on that journey and sometimes people put me in places where I wouldn’t be comfortable putting myself.
“What has been important and very cool, though, is that no one from what is considered to be the liberal, atheist or agnostic media has been condescending or difficult about my beliefs. I’ve had nothing but good conversations. It’s been great to talk about because it’s what I grew up with and it’s a big part of my life.
“Even in Brazos, where I’m also talking about race relations and cultural problems, I see those social-justice issues through the light of religion and that’s because of where I’ve come from. But I didn’t go out of the way to paint it as a religious record. I like the ambiguity because that’s part of any sort of faith.”
Matthew E White plays Róisín Dubh, Galway on July 17 and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, as support to Grizzly Bear, on July 18. Big Inner is out now on Domino Records