Someone else's song: Billy Matheny Q&A 2011


Ages and entire lifetimes have seemingly gone by since I got to meet Billy Matheny at the Empty Glass in Charleston. I guess it was like four years…? Even before that fateful night, where Matheny quite unwittingly became the first (and last) musician to fall for my devious “treat me to a PBR because I’ve covered your band favorably” scheme, (for the record: he offered, and it would be impolite to refuse) I’d already procured Born of Frustration and the swooning fanboy status only grew fiercer after seeing him open with “Christless Streets,” just absolutely slaying the end of the song.

I was out of my chair and on my feet, fists in the air, and as Matheny (along with the Frustrations) channeled everything great I’d ever felt about rock and roll, I thought he may have spiked that PBR, maybe that ‘twas me that was the target of a vast far-reaching rock and roll conspiracy with Matheny quite literally pulling the strings.

Well, I say all that because ever since hearing Born of Frustration and seeing him live, I’ve just been a huge fan of the uber-talented Matheny. While there’s been an absolute dearth of Frustrations releases since then, much to my dismay, Matheny is still busy being a rock star, just in other people’s bands. He’s been in the Athens, Ohio-based folk rock outfit Southeast Engine for a few years now; has been rocking out steady in Mark Poole’s band The Phantom Six (formerly Moon) and he just sat in with Prison Book Club on their sophomore release. This, in addition to other projects you’ll read and hear about, and of course, his Frustrations play Gene’s Friday night up in Morgantown with ‘85 Flood.

There’s so much going on with Matheny, we thought we’d throw some (hopefully) fun and (maybe) informative questions at him. Being such a gentleman, Matheny obliged with maybe the best Q&A of 2011…

WVRockscene: How busy/fun has 2011 been for ye, whether touring with Southeast Engine, or any other highlights?

Billy Matheny: 2011 was my favorite and busiest year since 2010. It’s been great. Southeast Engine was able to tour twice, once by ourselves and once with our good friends, These United States. Got to play some fun shows and hang out with some old and new friends in various places. I think my 2011 highlight was learning to make restaurant quality tikka masala. It was a real feather in my cap.

WVRockscene: Southeast Engine just played Mountain Stage, how cool was that, especially playing with your friend Todd Burge?

Matheny: Mountain Stage was very nice. Obviously, Todd and I go back a long ways and I have a bunch of other friends on staff there. The whole crew does a great job of making you feel really comfortable and welcome. It makes it easy to do your best. Taping the show in Athens was particularly cool since Southeast Engine was formed there and we had a definite hometown contingent in the audience. For me personally, it was thrilling to play with The Jayhawks. They’ve made some of my favorite albums ever and have really influenced my playing and songwriting. I first heard them when I was a freshman in high school and it was a total “come to Jesus” moment where I immediately discovered the kind of music I wanted to produce myself. On top of all that, they were very nice and patiently listened to all of my fan-boy gibberish.

WVRockscene: SEE did tour a lot, and “Canary” was quite warmly and critically received it seems, how good a year was it to be a part of Southeast Engine in particular?

Matheny: 2011 was a great year to be a part of Southeast Engine as opposed to 2010 and 2009 which sucked (kidding!). But seriously, I love the music and Adam, Jesse and Leo are some of my very best friends. Being in SEE is always a pleasure even if I’m sleep deprived and it’s raining at 7AM in DeKalb, IL.

As far as critical reception is concerned, it was very vindicating to see “Canary” get such good press. To some degree large or small, I think all artists are concerned with people liking what they’re putting out there. Some people just so happen to write for newspapers or have music blogs or something. I try to remember that every review is just one person’s opinion, but some people’s opinions are read by lots of people.

I probably shouldn’t say this out loud, but I’m among friends, so what the hell. Every time I release something (whether it’s one of my own albums or a band that I play in) and the reviews are positive, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. It’s like I’m just waiting for people to call me out on all those blatant Velvet Underground plagiarisms.

WVRockscene: The Frustrations just had another song, “It’s Up to You,” on this most recent Blind Pigeon Records comp, I know that the band has kind of been on the backburner with all your other projects, but what’s up with new recordings? Are you sitting on some treasure trove of Frustrations songs?

Matheny: The BPR folks asked us to contribute something for their comp CD, so we recorded “It’s Up To You.” It was nice to record a single song without having to worry about how a track will fit in contextually with a whole album.

I have a new album’s worth of material written for a new Frustrations record, so it’s finished except for recording, mixing, mastering and artwork. I wish I could give good reasons why it’s been six years since I’ve released an album of my own. It would be a better story for me to say that I did 18 months in rehab or that I’ve been recording piano in the middle of a sandbox.

The fact of the matter is that Haley [Slagle], Adrian [Larry], Walt [Sarkees], Woody [O’Hara] and I are all involved in a multitude of different projects and it’s just difficult for us to make the time to record another album. I used to say that our new album would be out before “Chinese Democracy” but then GNR actually released “Chinese Democracy.” At this point, all I can promise is that a new album will come out eventually. I swear that I’m not going to be a one album wonder like The La’s!

WVRockscene: What would Facebook not let you post about some obscene hat you saw recently? Can you mention it here? Of course you can…

Matheny: I don’t know if you can actually print this, but here goes: It was a day like any other when I saw a guy at the bank wearing a hat that read “SMILE if your not wearing panties.” Both offensive and grammatically incorrect!

WVRockscene: You contributed to Prison Book Club’s sophomore release, how good of a friendship have you developed with those dudes and how cool was it recording with the band?

Matheny: I’m so close to the members of Prison Book Club that I actually let them borrow my van. I’d like to think that I’m a generous soul, but I wouldn’t do that for everyone. I’m honored they asked me to play on their record. John Miller has a very captivating voice and they’re really evolving very quickly as a band. In fact, I’ve seen them since “Prison Book Club” was released and they have a whole new set of songs that are even better than the record if you can believe that!

The recording was a trip. I live in an apartment, so I can’t really turn things up much before I become a bad neighbor. For that reason, my keyboard parts were recorded in my parents’ basement in Mannington. It definitely brought me back to when I was a teenager and my bands would practice there. In fact, Prison Book Club’s album holds the rare honor of being the first thing recorded in my parents’ basement since a Limp-Bizkit influence rap-core band called Sadism came over to record on my four-track when I was 15 or 16. I’d like to clarify that I was not a member of Sadism, I was just facilitating their demo tape.

WVRockscene: The Phantom Six played 123 Friday, how much do you look forward to jamming with Poole and Co., and how stoked were you to see “Plastic Rain” get released last month, after what looks like a lot of time going into the band (obviously) and the songs in particular?

Matheny: “Plastic Rain” has been at least three or four years in the making. Mark and I joke that we both work glacially when it comes to putting out albums. At least in his case, you can never argue with the results, every album he releases is start-to-finish fantastic.

The Phantom Six is very much Mark’s vision, or in the words of Spike Lee, The Phantom Six is a Mark Poole joint. I’m just happy to be involved. We practice every Monday, so our rehearsals are kind of like my poker night. The rest of the band is so seasoned and so talented that it makes everything very easy. I just play some bass and sing a little bit.

WVRockscene: You had that cool quote for the H-D article, about there literally being hundreds of dollars to be made in the world of indie bands. How much do you love playing in all of these bands? Because it sounds like you’re not in it for the money right?

Matheny: Well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I don’t have expensive tastes! I’m blanking on the actual quote here, but Flannery O’Connor once described her life’s work as sitting at a typewriter, grinning ear to ear and amusing herself to no end, having a great time and miraculously getting paid for it. I feel similarly. I love everything about being in bands and playing music. I love writing, rehearsing, recording, doing shows. It even affords me a chance for travel, which under other circumstances, I probably wouldn’t get.

WVRockscene: All the bands you’re in, or sit in on with, is it so much time and focus that sometimes you feel spread too thin?

Matheny: As long as I love the music I’m playing, it never feels like work. It probably doesn’t look like it, but I don’t just take any gig that comes down the road. I have to enjoy it. The bottom line is that playing music should be fun. If playing music feels like a cross to bear, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WVRockscene: You’re in all these bands, and you’ve been staying busy in 2011, what’s up for 2012 that you might be looking forward to?

Matheny: Southeast Engine is going back to SXSW in March. That’s a great time, if a little on the over-stimulating side. It’s kind of like indie-rock spring break.

In February, I’m recording an album with The Love Me Knots with the great Adam L. Meisterhans in the producers chair. The Love Me Knots lead singer, Brian Porterfield, is the best songwriter I know and I think I know some good ones. The Knots are kind of a band that are under most people’s radar, which I think is kind of shame. But anyway, it’s been like 12 years since Brian has released something, so we’re going to record about 40 songs “Zen Arcade” style over the course of three days. After that, we’re going to release it as a big album in the “69 Love Songs” tradition, spread out over a couple of discs, with a booklet and a bunch of photos.

WVRockscene: The Frustrations play the Very Townie Christmas show with ‘85 Flood 12.23, seems like you’ve made that into some kind of tradition, right? Fun times? Lookin’ for Santa to bring you anything in particular this year?

Matheny: This is the 5th annual VTC! It’s definitely become a tradition for us. Each band does a full set and then it sort of evolves (or maybe devolves) into a big open jam thing with all kinds of people chipping in.

It’s sort of like the Morgantown musicians office Christmas party. The Frustrations set is kind of special simply because we’re doing some special Christmas material. As far as Santa is concerned, I can’t decide if I want inner peace or some video games. Probably the video games.

--- Billy Matheny and the Frustrations join ‘85 Flood for “A Very Townie Xmas” this Friday night at Gene’s Beer Garden in Morgantown...

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