Interview: Brett Mattox is The Northwest Man

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A discussion with Brett Mattox — Granny Smith, dreams, voice memos, and NASCAR.

W Brett Mattox is The Northwest Man. He was previously a member of The Whiskers and resides in Talladega, Alabama. This is where he makes music. You may not hear it in his singing voice, but he speaks with a southern accent. He most recently released The Past Is The Present on Rochester, New York’s Awkwardcore Records. We spoke to Brett using the internet on December 16th.

Mike with Take The L: Woke up, fell out of bed. What’s next for you, in a normal day?

Brett: I guess the first thing I do is get out of bed, get some water, browse the internet, and then get dressed and go to work. I live where I work, so the commute is not very far. Then I’m just at work all day. I don’t necessarily like my job, but it’s convenient.

M: What is it?

B: I work at a Christian Baptist conference center and it’s the only job I’ve ever had. I got hired when I was 17 and I’m now 29. I was on summer staff for three years and then dropped out of college and just kind of fell into a full time job here and haven’t left. I live here, which means I have extra money.

But, to go on the whole day in the life thing. After work. I’m on a weird diet right now where I’ve lost 85 pounds this year. It’s the Keto diet where you stay under like 20 carbs a day. I’m fixin’ to go off that diet, cause I told myself I’d be on it for a year. So now I’m only eating between like 4:30 PM and 8:30 PM. It’s like a daily fast and supposed to be good for you and keep your caloric intake down. That way I can keep the weight off by only eating at a certain time of day, even with increasing my carb count. So I’ve gotten used to that. Right after work the first thing I do is eat because I haven’t eaten in like, probably 20 hours or so.

M: How do you feel right now? [About 1:30 PM local time.]

B: Fine. Like any time I start getting hungry I just drink a bunch of water. All I drink is water. It’s easy for me cause I don’t have any, like I don’t think I’ve ever tasted alcohol, cause I’m afraid I’d like it too much and become dependent on it. I have a very addictive personality. So I’ve just avoided it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, like I think marijuana should be legal. But I’m not gonna touch it, just cause I think I’d like it too much, but I’ve been caffeine free for two years. I just don’t like being dependent on anything. Sucks how everyone’s dependent on money and I’m terrible with money.

So after I eat, I mean it depends. Like right now I’m watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But occasionally, it just depends. I feel like I go in music cycles. After work I’ll sometimes just write music. I just released this album so I’m kind of not writing much or having many ideas. Not trying to have many ideas I guess. Man I’m just rambling on, I have no idea what to talk about [laughs].

M: Are there any meals you cook that you really do like?

B: Not really anything right now because my diet’s pretty basic. Just meat, cheese, nuts, some vegetables. I haven’t had fruit in like a year.

M: No fruit?

B: Fruit has too much sugar in it. The Keto diet pretty much deprives you of carbs, so your body runs off fat so that it burns fat. That’s how I lost all that weight in a short amount of time. But my diet ends on Christmas because I started the day after Christmas.

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“First thing I’m eating is a Granny Smith.”

The first thing I’m eating is a Granny Smith apple cause I have not had an apple in almost a year. But basically I’m pretty simple when it comes to food. I can eat the same thing over and over again without getting tired of it. I’ll eat a hamburger patty with honey-dijon mustard on it with some string cheese and some almonds and I’m good. I’m pretty basic when it comes to food. So I don’t really have any recipes or anything. Maybe in the future when I eat [chuckles].

M: Where do you normally work on music and what’s your process like?

B: Hang on someone’s knockin’ on my door. I’ll be back in one second. [A few dozen seconds pass.] All right, I’m back. I had to run him off. He was actually coming to um, trade Pokemon with me [laughs].

M: Cards or in a game?

B: Game. He has Pokemon Sun and I have Moon and he doesn’t have internet. I mean we’re in Alabama so there are a lot of places that don’t have access to internet, unless you use satellite internet which is super slow. He works here and he was coming by to trade stuff. Anyway, I didn’t even start playing Pokemon until Black Two came out just a few years ago. I didn’t play Pokemon until my mid-twenties.

But with music, like what my process is? For the most part songs or melodies just pop into my head and I just use my phone and record a voice memo that I’ll save for later. Eventually I’ll go back and listen to them and try and figure some out on the keyboard. Sometimes I’ll also be like “I want to try to write something” so I’ll sit down at the keyboard. I feel like a lot of my songs that are really basic I probably wrote on my keyboard. Songs that are more strange and unique, with multiple time signatures, those I probably thought of in my head before I started writing.

Right now on my phone [pauses to check] I’m on voice memo 581. And that’s since, I think that’s just since the beginning of 2015. Voice memo is the greatest thing ever. More recently I’ve had some ideas come in dreams. There’s one song on the new album. I’m trying to remember… what stinks about my songs, since I rarely perform in public, is that once a song’s recorded and stuff, unless it’s something I can really play with just my keyboard and me, then I tend to forget that song even exists. I’ll forget what the song’s called and everything. Give me a sec. Let’s see. It’s probably not one you would think it would be. “Sometimes,” that’s it. It almost sounds like the “Reading Rainbow” theme at the beginning. But what’s weird about songs from dreams is that about once or twice a month I’ll have a dream that I’m listening to a song I’ve recorded, but I’ll notice that I’ve never heard the song before even though I made it. For the most part by the time I wake up I can’t remember the song. But with “Sometimes,” the whole beginning up until I say the word “sometimes” was all pretty much exactly how the dream was. And that’s exactly when the song and the dream ends. After I say “sometimes,” everything had to be made up from context clues from the beginning of the song. So that one, I don’t know. It’s just weird.

For me I feel like I don’t actually write songs, I just interpret them from what my brain comes up with. It’s not me, it’s subconscious. It’s hard for me to say “yeah I wrote that song” because I feel like I didn’t. I just feel like it came out of me like I’m a vessel for the song. I don’t know. I guess other people feel that way too.

M: But sometimes they’ll say it’s God talking through them.

B: Oh no [laughs] that makes no sense.

M: I often have trouble remembering dreams. How do you?

B: I’ll wake up at like three in the morning and I’ll have voice memos on my phone with my groggy voice saying “this is a dream song.” But in the dream you hear all the parts of everything, but in the voice memo it’s just me trying to mime stuff just from memory. Just imagine hearing a Frog Eyes [we are both fans of this band] song for the first time, and you only hear it once but then you try to do that song on your terms, trying to remember all the parts. It’s going to sound vastly different from what you heard to begin with.

M: When would you say you started the latest album?

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The Past Is The Present, released November 4, 2016.

B: I think it was February or March of 2016, but it’s not something I worked on constantly. It was just here and there. There are a lot of songs on that album that are based off of old ideas that I had. “Your Mother Is Dead, But It’s Alright” is based on a song I wrote like six years ago. I guess I would work on a song, and once it was kind of done and I was okay with it I’d leave it alone for a couple of months and then come back to it. For example, I’ll record a song and listen to it constantly, be like “this is what I need to change,” and then consciously not listen to that song for about a month, and then come back to it and see if it’s worth a crap, because sometimes you get so used to a song, like it’s not that you like it, it’s just that you get used to it. I guess the biggest test is when I let someone else listen to it and hear all the faults of it.

M: Is it tough to get people to be honestly critical?

B: Well I think I have a couple of people who tell me their honest opinion. But also if you don’t like it someone else might. And I guess, there are some songs that I’ve released that I do not like, and the only reason I put them out was the thought that “someone will like it” [chuckles].

M: Was there anything you were listening to that really inspired the album?

B: Can you tell if I have any influences?

M: Personally, I’m skewed because I’ve been listening to your music for years. I’m sure some people would hear the Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade influence?

B: I don’t think my stuff sounds anything like Frog Eyes or Wolf Parade. I will say this. The only time I ever thought a song sounded like Wolf Parade is the end of “Anyone That’s There,” that sounds like it could be a Wolf Parade song. But I don’t think I was listening to anything that really influenced me while making this album. Let me look real quick and see what I had playing.

M: Do you still use Last.fm?

B: No I don’t. But I guess I’ll check it every once in awhile and see if anyone’s listening to my new stuff. Anyway, I’m looking at what I’ve added to iTunes since I started the album and there’s nothing that would have really influenced it. But overall as an influence, I could see where people would hear, stylistically, Jason Lytle from Grandaddy. I think the new Grandaddy album comes out in March, can’t wait for that. I think he kind of understands it’s okay to be funny and sad because a lot of his songs are sad, but then he’ll also say something funny in a sad song. He has funny songs and he, he can do whatever.

My songs are all over the place. Like some songs are very out there, like a lot of the time I don’t know what a song’s about until after it’s recorded. I’ll listen to my lyrics and it’s not really spewing out of me randomly, like I do think about what I’m singing, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s about until after a song’s written. But sometimes I’ll have a clear idea that I want a song to be about this or that. And sometimes it’s about nothing and it’s just random garbage coming out. I will say, in “Face In The Shadows,” I mean I think my lyrics are not very good compared to a lot of other artists that I admire and look up to.

I think my problem is the music always comes to me first. The way I often write is I’ll record a whole song with a melody of what the lyrics would be and just a timbre of what I would say, but the music will be completely done and then I’ll write the lyrics based on the music, and I think that hurts my lyrics a lot. I know Thom [Stylinski, from The Whiskers and Ganache] told me that he’ll write lyrics before he writes the music. So we write songs the opposite way of each other. And he will edit lyrics based on the music, but the lyrics usually come first.

But “Face In The Shadows” is kind of influenced by 10 Cloverfield Lane cause I feel like that’s a very paranoid song. I wrote all the music before I saw the movie, and after I saw the movie I wrote the lyrics the next day. And the music for that song is actually me trying to learn FL Studio 12. But writing that song, and I want to do this more, I just got in the program and started playing around and that song came out. I had no ideas coming into that song and I think it’s the best song on the album, and it’s the first time I recorded for the album cause I was just trying to mess around. That kind of makes me sad, that the first thing I recorded I didn’t have to think about, it just sort of came out, just me messing around, and it ended up being the best one. So I feel like I’ve put a lot more thought in other songs that didn’t end up being as good.

But, I guess I’m influenced by pop culture a lot. “Pon Farr” is about Star Trek. But not everything’s about Star Trek. Okay, [laughing] to answer your question, no there wasn’t anything I listened to while making the album that really influenced me.

M: Out of ten voice memos, about how many of those tend to turn into songs that you release?

B: Less than one, I’d say. Out of 100 voice memos I might get five or six songs. There’ve been a few occasions when two separate voice memos become one song. But I guess a lot of this new album was me going back into my archives. I’ve got a playlist in my iTunes called “The Northwest Man” and there are 1,200 songs in it. I’ve got all the songs I’ve recorded in that same playlist. But 90 or 95 percent of that is just demos and ideas, in voice memos.

M: You’ve released over 100 songs, right?

B: I would say it’s gotta be close to 100. I guess I don’t even know how many albums I have out. And some EPs. And then a lot of unreleased stuff. On Bandcamp there’s [counting] 13 albums and EPs, and then there’s that whole Natural & Artificial Flavor (2007), that was the first one. I listened to that not too long ago and that is terrible. I can see how far I’ve come. I need to do like an a cappella song again.

The way I was doing those songs was with a program called Goldwave, I think, and I would basically record something in one window and drag it into another window. I’d record the bottom part, like the main part, in chords. And then I would actually paste something on top of it. If I pasted something, it was permanent. Then the next thing I added I couldn’t go back and change something I’d done before. So those songs were like, basically layers on layers on layers that I couldn’t go back and edit. That was on the first couple albums. I might have to go back and re-record some songs just to see what they could be, like basically cover myself. I’ve done that a couple of times. But I guess if I did that a lot, then all my albums would just turn into recycled songs, like I’m never 100 percent happy with what comes out.

M: Remember “Park”? I remember that song being awesome. [You can hear “Park” at the 2:10 mark here.]

B: What song? I don’t even remember that. [Listening to part of it, still nothing, then] Ohhh it’s on Artificial Flavor, I remember that. The Jurassic Park song. That song is so crazy. “She screams” I think was part of it, and “electricity scream and arm in the ice cream.”

M: I feel like you have the authority to redo “Great Display” as well.

B: Oh yeah. I start forgetting about all that stuff. I have to go back and listen to all that stuff or I’ll forget I even did it.

M: What’s next, musically?

B: I really want to do an album – but I don’t think I can – where, it’s a super concept album idea, it’s about going back in time. You’ll have two or three songs that lead up to it, and then you start those songs over again but one thing changes that changes the rest of the songs, but then you go back and try again and change something different. You’ll end up with sets of threes that start the same and get really different and lyrically different. That’s an idea I’ve had but it’s just gonna be so hard to do. But I feel like I’m an ideas guy.

Like I can come up with something, but I’m terrible at execution. None of my songs sound the way I want them to sound. By the time a song is done, it’s always like this is a different song than the one I originally started with. I can never equate the stuff in my head to come out and into the computer. And this last album I did completely in the computer. Previously I had recorded all the parts of me playing the keyboard, so that’s why stuff didn’t really time out exactly. I did get like a cheap and free drum machine for the album or two before this last one. But now I actually invested money into a program so I get free loops in FL Studio 12, so that’s what I used on this last album.

M: What’s your musical training like?

B: I was in marching band. I learned trumpet in 5th and 6th grade, and then in 7th I was at a junior high/high school that actually had a marching band where they marched 7th and 8th graders. So I played trumpet in 7th grade and then I learned the French horn and mellophone, and then through high school I played French horn and mellophone. The mellophone’s just a marching French horn. It’s like a trumpet on steroids in the key of F. What’s a trumpet in? B-flat I think.

M: Do you still have either of them?

B: I don’t have a french horn, but I do have a trumpet. And a mellophone that a friend of mine got from a friend of his, who stole it from the University of Alabama. It was like an old one that I don’t think they were even using anymore. It’s like gold and all beat up. But the mellophone’s like an instrument that the school usually provided. You never had to buy it yourself. I went to Troy University for like two semesters before I dropped out, but I was in the marching band at Troy for that first semester.

I never learned how to play piano, I just did that myself. I’m not very good at it. I would say I play rhythm piano where it’s very hard for me to make one hand do something different from the other. So my piano playing skills are very basic. And I still have to say “if this is C then let me count up and this key is F” so I guess I just don’t feel like learning. Sometimes I feel like ignorance can make you into a better musician. But I don’t know how true that is. If you’re not bound by any laws, I feel like you can do more. But I guess I’m still bound by my own laws, so I’m not as free as I need to be.

M: Almost all of your recorded music sounds like it originated on keyboard. Have you played horns on anything? Or was that really abandoned?

B: I think there’s a couple songs that I actually play trumpet and mellophone on. One of them, I think, is on Tumble Dry (2015). It’s about ghosts. A lot of my songs are about ghosts. It’s “We Don’t Know.” That has some trumpet and mellophone, but they’re out of tune and sound terrible. They’re in that one, and there’s one on an EP. Maybe Pathosaurus Rex (2012) – “Gravity” has that one part that I played, I think.

But everything else before this last album was played on the keyboard. The last one was all in the computer. It’s the same keyboard I’ve had – it’s not even a midi keyboard. It’s a Casio something. I do need to get a new keyboard. There are some of these pre-programmed drum loops that are in some of my earlier songs, which is ridiculous. So I would say percussion parts are my weakest link. Even lower than lyrics. I’m just terrible at making percussion.

M: What was the last live show you played?

B: It wasn’t even really a show. I played in Auburn, Alabama at the beginning of October, because one of my friends asked me to come play. They were doing a kind of house tour thing and I played near his apartment. I only played like four songs. Basically, when I play live, it’s only me and a keyboard, which I guess is cool because I pretty much played just new songs. But like, the barebones, so I played “It’s Already Happened,” which is like a pop song, just me and a piano and slowed down. I played “Pon Farr” the same way. I played “A Grieving Husband Grieves.” I think I did an older song too. I had to sit down and listen to those songs and relearn them to play them live. I played at the Saturn in Birmingham, like an open mic night. I do that occasionally, but I need to do that again. That was fun.

M: So you’re comfortable getting up on stage?

B: I’m comfortable once I start playing. But beforehand, I’m like “what am I doing?” But once I start, I’m not afraid to mess up, but when I do, I’m like “sorry” and keep going. Just cause I don’t play a lot live I feel like I screw up a lot. But I don’t care, which I guess is a good thing.

M: In the past few years have you been collaborating much?

B: I know Thom sang on the album before this past one. And then Joe Baughman and one of my friends, his name’s Andy Barksdale, he played guitar on almost every song. I felt like that was something I really didn’t have. I really can’t play guitar, but I guess I could learn, but I feel like I have really small hands – I have Trump hands – and it’s just, I’ve tried before and it’s hard for me to callous so it’s just hard for me to play guitar. I think I’d have to play a youth guitar [laughs]. But, Joe Baughman will contact me and ask me to write lyrics for a song, or like sing on it or something, and I’ll do that. I worked on a Christmas song with him this year. (“Good Old King W.” off of XchristmasX.) But other than that, not really. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually written a song with someone. I feel like they’ve written a song and I just add lyrics or vocals to it, or I’ve written it and they’ve added on. I’ve never sat down and written a song with someone else.

M: I guess “Ornithopters” [by The Whiskers] would be a prime example?

B: Yeah, I just wrote the lyrics for the middle part but I didn’t write the song. I think “Bad Magicians” [also The Whiskers] would be the closest thing to a collaboration. Just because it started out so different and then I changed it and we kind of co-wrote that one. But I let him write all the lyrics. Sometimes the way I write lyrics is I’ll ad-lib lyrics over the song and then I’ll base lyrics on what I ad-lib. I think with “Bad Magicians,” Thom took some of what I said and wrote stuff around that, and based on what he already knew the song would be about.

M: Back to a day in the life. A perfect weekend day for you? Within reason, for you?

B: I’m such a hermit. If I can be at home and not talk to anyone for a whole weekend and not set foot out of my house, then it’s been a good weekend. If I wanted to do something, a perfect weekend would be going to a race. Like a weekend of races. I go to all the Talladega races, I don’t know why. I feel like it’s so weird that I love NASCAR, but I love NASCAR.

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“I feel like it’s so weird that I love NASCAR, but I love NASCAR.”

I love auto racing in general, but there’s something about NASCAR, I guess it’s the southern coming out of me. Cause you would not, if you listened to my music, expect me to be a huge NASCAR fan. But a perfect weekend would probably be going to a Talladega race, and having my favorite driver win, which would be Brad Keselowski, which has happened. I’ve seen him win at Talladega four times. So I’ve had a couple of perfect weekends. I guess. [This just happened again in early March when Brett traveled to Atlanta Motor Speedway to see Brad win the race — another perfect weekend!]

M: Why’s he your favorite driver?

B: I guess cause he, I don’t know if we agree on stuff politically, but he always speaks his mind, and he never purposely wrecks someone. He’s very active on social media. I just for some reason really like him. But like, I don’t know, if I ever met him and tried to be his friend, I’m not sure if we could ever be friends [laughs]. But he’s my favorite driver.

M: A few final questions. A minor or D minor?

B: A minor for sure. I’ve got no idea why I’m so positive about that. I think I use it a lot in my songs. Plus, it’s a response to the question, “Who can’t vote?”

M: Okay, you’re stranded on a tropical island, and all you’ll ever eat are lots of oranges, apples, or bananas. What’s your choice?

B: Apples apples apples. Can be sweet or tart. No peeling required. So tasty. Granny Smiths are the best, as I’ve said, but I love Jazz and Pink Ladies, too.

M: Finally, you’re still stranded on an island, and you’re given the chance to have everything ever published by JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, JD Salinger, or Kurt Vonnegut. This includes anything that hasn’t been published yet that would be delivered by either a carrier pigeon or an owl. Who’s your pick?

B: Honestly, JK Rowling. The others’ works either have too much breading and not enough meat, or just completely goes over my head. JK can write down to my level. Plus, she’s still alive. So, if I have access to anything ever published by her, then I can read things she hasn’t even written yet.

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